You want a good math board game, and you want it to be FUN–but also not too hard, and not too easy.
Oh, and it would be great if it doesn’t have a bunch of rules that takes forever to explain…or a bunch of tiny pieces that get lost. And please don’t be one of those games that your kid plays once, then never touches again. 🙄
When you find The One, a great math board game is incredible. Your kid learns without even trying! All you have to do is explain the rules that once, then they’re off to the races…and actually getting excited about math!
How To Spot The Perfect Math Board Game
In every grade there seems to be one or two games kids ask for over and over again. Other games sit on the shelf untouched and collecting dust, while those favored few have torn cards and bent boards, lovingly abused from being played with over and over again.
But finding your kid’s favorite game is only half of it. The other half is the actual math teaching: does it teach, or does it only review what kids already know? Will the fastest kids always win, or is it fair and fun for mixed levels?
As a teacher working with many kids who are already anxious or confused about math, I’m super picky about my games. Here is my personal list of what makes a good math board game:
1. All can win, regardless of math level
So many math games are super competitive, with speed as the goal. The advanced kids always win, while younger players or those who go more slowly are left feeling frustrated and bad at math.
I look for cooperative games (an awesome new trend!) or games with an element of chance so all players have equal chance at winning.
EXAMPLE: The first player to reach the finish line wins.
2. Playing the game helps kids learn/improve
Too many games are math tests in disguise–rewarding kids for what they already know. That’s fine if that’s your goal, but even better are games that help kids learn as they play, and give lots of practice with that skill.
EXAMPLE: Players take a different amount of money from the bank on every turn.
3. Kids LOVE it!
Let’s face it, some math games are as dull as dry toast. Kids learn more when they’re having fun, plus they’ll play over and over again. Get a game that’s addictive, that they’ll tell all their friends about.
EXAMPLE: Your kid cracking up because she just “stole” your biggest pile of money cards.
The following games for each grade tick all the boxes for a fabulous math game, and are likely to be well-loved for years!
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Best Kindergarten Game: Snakes and Ladders
Remember this one from when you were a kid?
Roll a die and move up the numbered board. If you land an a ladder, take a shortcut up–but if you land on a snake, you come sliding quickly back down again.
WHY IT’S GREAT FOR KINDERS: They get lots of practice counting, especially 1:1 correspondence (the skill of counting one object for each number). Reading the number on the die, moving that many spaces, saying the number they landed on…it’s all terrific practice for your little one.
Best 1st Grade Game: Double Shutter
There is something about this game that draws in kids of every age (and adults, too). Something about the satisfying sound and feel of the domino-like numbers as you flip them one by one… The dice, the numbers, the super simple game play. It just feels good.
Double Shutter is addictive with a capital A. It’s like Zen math.
The original game is called “Shut the Box”. It has tiles along the side with numbers 1-9. You roll two dice to make a number (ex: 8). Then flip tiles that make 8:
- the number 8
- 5 and 3
- 1, 2, and 5
- …and so on
The goal is to flip all the tiles over.
Double Shutter is a variation that has two rows of tiles 1-9. You can only play the back row once the tile in front of it is down. I really like this twist, and it doesn’t add complexity to the math–just more interesting ways to win.
This can be played as a solo game or in pairs. I’ve played it cooperatively where players work together to flip all the tiles, or in competition trying to be the last one to flip a tile.
WHY IT’S GREAT FOR 1st GRADERS: Lots of practice with counting, addition, and decomposing numbers (ex: knowing a 7 can be 2+5, 3+4, and so on). Plus, many first graders really struggle with losing, and the cooperative version of this game works well for those kids.
Game ends when neither player can go. Count how many tiles are still up (lower is better). Keep playing to try to beat your score and ideally have zero tiles still standing.
Best 2nd Grade Game: Sum Swamp
Sometimes a game succeeds because it is at the exact challenge point of where your child is at right now. This game is fun for kids because sometimes they add and sometimes they subtract…they won’t know until they roll the special die with + and – on it. Either way, they move ahead.
There are also see critters, logs, and bridges for shortcuts, and that’s always a good thing. And the pictures are super cute.
SKILL: Addition and Subtraction
WHY IT’S GREAT FOR 2nd GRADERS: It helps kids get better at both addition and subtraction. Each roll is actually an equation to solve. Roll two number dice and one special die with + and -, then make and solve the equation.
Best 3rd Grade Math Game: Money Bags
Ah, Money Bags, the game that spans all the grades and has kids lining up to play! Kids of all ages love this game, but math-wise it’s perfect for third graders.
Each space on the game board has an amount of money, like 13 cents, that they get to take from the bank. But (and here’s what makes it brilliant) they first must spin a spinner that tells them what coins NOT to take (ex: can’t take dimes to make 13 cents).
That small tweak makes each game a little different, so it never gets old. (NOTE: As of this writing, Money Bags is only available in U.S. dollars.)
SKILL: Counting Money, Addition
WHY IT’S GREAT FOR 3rd GRADERS: Counting money is a very attractive skill for kids, very self motivating. Kids aren’t exposed to cash transactions very often these days, so they need other ways to become good at counting money. Money Bags gives lots of focused practice, and encourages flexible thinking in how to add coins.
Best 4rd Grade Math Game: Clumsy Thief
You know those days when your kid has tons of energy, and you think to yourself, “If only she’d use some of that energy to learn MATH”??
That’s when you pull out the game to top all games: Clumsy Thief.
Clumsy Thief is crazy. Mischievous. Chaotic. Surprising. Just the right amount of challenging. (Also, the cartoon thief is super fun.)
Each player is holding cards with money amounts: $50, $25, $80 and so on. Make pairs that add to $100 and put these piles in front of you.
Everyone draws at once and makes more pairs if they can. But this is where things get interesting: you can also make $100 by playing your card on another player’s pile–then you can take their pile!
So basically what you have is a flurry of hands taking everyone’s cards, which move from this person to that one then back again; everyone making 100 and the piles getting fatter and fatter…
…then throw into the mix some Thief cards (who can take any pile), and Jail cards (which you slap on a pile so no one can take it ever again) and it’s just delightful, hilarious learning at its best!
SKILL: Adding to 100
WHY IT’S GREAT FOR 4th GRADERS: Kids’ addition skills start to slip as they focus on multiplication and division. Adding to 100 is just the right challenge for them, and they learn the 100 pairs very quickly with this game. It’s great for mental math!
HOT TIP: Make a cheat sheet with the 100 pairs. After a few games, they won’t need it any more.
Best 5th Grade Math Game: Skyjo
WHYYYY is this game so addictive? Who knows, but all I can say is that everyone wants to play this one over and over again. Myself included.
(At my Discovery Math Camp, we had 8 or more all wanting to play at once! I had to buy a second deck and mix them all together.)
You have a grid of 12 cards, all face down to start. Your goal is to get the total points of all your cards as LOW as possible, and you do this by drawing from a deck and swapping cards. Some of the cards have numbers 0, -1, and -2…and that’s where things get exciting. The player with the lowest score at the end wins.
SKILL: Adding integers (positive and negative numbers)
WHY IT’S GREAT FOR 5th GRADERS: Two of the cards have negative numbers: -1 and -2. These are the BEST cards to get, so players may have several of these in their grid at the end. When they count their points, they need to count a mix of positive and negative numbers. They get REALLY good at adding integers in this game!
What’s interesting about this game is that 95% of the game does NOT use those skills–just the final few minutes of each round adding your score. But just those few minutes are so effective at helping kids learn that skill, it’s incredible.
Well there you have it, my all-time favorite math board game for each grade. May they bring your kids many, many years of fun!
Have a favorite math game of your own you’d like to recommend? Share it in the comments below!