The first words out of my mouth when I opened The Counting Kingdom were, “Oh no, it’s so cute.”
The Counting Kingdom is a math-and-magic game from Little Worlds Interactive. In it, a group of (adorable) monsters are invading a magical kingdom and trying to destroy the castle. A wizard boy must stop them by adding and subtracting to cast spells that will destroy the monsters.
The game is currently on Steam Early Access, and will be released in early August for PC and Mac, with an app coming in the fall.
I might be one of the better-equipped adults to review The Counting Kingdom, because I’m terrified of math.
When I am asked to add numbers, my first reaction is to freeze. It might just be a second before I get a hold of myself, but sometimes it takes longer than that. I ask friends to give me math problems to cure my hiccups (it’s the easiest way to scare me), and once I added instead of subtracted health in DnD.
The most important thing that The Counting Kingdom does, in my opinion, is make math less scary.
Young kids who are still building relationships with math won’t approach these monsters with the trepidation that I did. To them, it will be a fun puzzle game that instills an understanding of numbers.
Let’s get this out of the way.
This game is so cute. So cute. There are tons of different monster designs—some are rock-like, some have tentacles, some have spikes and fangs. All of them are cute.
This cuteness is great, not just because it makes math intentionally less scary, but also because it’s a unisex kind of cuteness. I don’t think anyone will feel excluded by the visuals, and that’s especially important for a math game.
Simple But Complex Gameplay
The fundamental mechanics of The Counting Kingdom are easy to grasp. Your castle walls are on the left of the screen, and the monsters advance from the right across a field of squares. You have three spells available, each with a sum you can find. The monsters each have their own numbers. As they advance across the screen you click to add the correct adjacent monsters and then cast the sum spell that will destroy them.
This started off simple and ramped up in complexity. In the tutorial, the game taught me that not only could I add monsters, but I could add my spells together as well to get bigger numbers. This was great because it meant I could take out more monsters at once—but I had to make sure that I could match that number exactly, or I would be wasting my time and spells.
I loved the way this complexity crept into the game. Every turn has the player doing multiple math problems and calculating which option will be the most successful. You’re not just adding two plus two to get four.
But the beauty of the game is that even if 2+2 is the level you’re at, that’s okay. I got through a good portion of the game without thinking about combining spells, just doing the most obvious problems I could find. The game works for players regardless of the math ability they bring to the table—and it instills confidence even for those who have none (I’m talking about me here).
The player also gets access to potions further into the game. These tend to be simple—adding or subtracting one or two to the existing monster number, with freezing and blasting potions being added later in the game.
These potions add another level of complexity. If you’re keeping score (ha!) at home, the player juggles adding monsters, adding spells, and keeping tally of the adding and subtracting potions that could modify those numbers. All the options for advanced play are there up front, if you’re ready for them.
Punishing players for bad choices is one of the most delicate parts of game design. The Counting Kingdom errs on the side of caution, a good choice in an educational game.
Every time you cast a spell (or trade one out), the monsters move one square forward. Eventually they will reach your castle walls, and if that happens a section of the wall will be destroyed and you’ll lose points. If all the walls are destroyed, you’ll lose the level and have to try again.
This punishment doesn’t generally come from failing to add correctly, but from choosing less strategic monster combos to add. In the three hours I played the game I never outright lost a level, though I did lose more than a few castle walls along the way.
But what about adding incorrectly? It’s impossible to cast a spell with the wrong number of monsters. If you try, a bar will appear at the top of the screen indicating the sum of the monsters you’ve chosen, and a warning will flash across the screen: “Monster sum too big!” “Monster sum too small!”
If you are incorrect too many times in a row, brackets will appear around the correct spell for the monsters you’ve selected.
Adding incorrectly will become a problem only if you add two spells together without being able to match that exact number with monsters. This happened to me a few times, and every time it was because I got careless and tried to go too fast. Then you have to swap the spell out, which causes the monsters to move forward.
If there’s one lesson here it’s that you can—must, even—take your time with math. And since the monsters move turn by turn, there’s no punishment for taking your time and getting the problem right, rather than trying to rush through like I did. (You can thank the timed math tests of my youth for that.)
Even if you do manage to muck up adding spells and need to throw one away, it will be immediately replaced. If you lose one castle wall, you can still beat the level—and come back again later to get a higher star rating.
This is an educational game where getting a math problem wrong carries virtually no negative consequences—and thus, no negative associations to carry into the classroom. I can’t stress enough how important this is.
It also felt very fair. When I had only one monster left on the board, the correct answer would always be available to me. I never lost a castle wall just because I was waiting for the right number to come up.
A Step in the Right Direction for Math Games
The Counting Kingdom isn’t a substitute for a math class. But it’s not meant to be.
I’ve often likened the ability to do math to being a wizard—you know, like in Harry Potter. Some people are born wizards, with an innate ability to do magic. And then there are people like me. The Muggles, the magicless.
In The Counting Kingdom, math is magic, but it’s a magic that’s available to all. Without time limits, without punishment, and with a focus on fun and strategy—and yes, cuteness.
Maybe the most important thing about The Counting Kingdom, is that I keep hearing stories about kids who love it. The way we talk about math tends to portray it as punishment. The Counting Kingdom is a wonderful chance for kids to enjoy math—and even math-averse adults can get in on the fun.