The calculus exam of video games

Math Blaster was a godsend. It was an “edutainment” game that fell just far enough East of its portmanteau to syphon the mid-afternoon doldrums that only a fifth grader can appreciate. Thanks to that game, the Westside Elementary computer lab wasn’t just a crawlspace in the back of the library – it was my Rock of Gibraltar.

Calculords likely isn’t educational enough to make the cut in Mrs. Antonopoulos’ keyboard class, but it does hit on a lesson I’ve managed to learn in the years since: Math is kind of fun.

Now, I don’t mean mapping geometric proofs, but there is something about manipulating basic patterns – finding the hidden meaning in numbers – that’s challenging and interesting. It’s why people enjoy Sudoku; it’s why we play puzzle games.

Did you catch that? I just called Tetris “math.”

Calculords

Calculords is less coquettish. Its relationship with addition, subtraction and multiplication is literally spelled out for you. The game itself is a dead simple card battler, but every card you play must match a corresponding number. Numbers themselves are a sort of card you draw each turn (between six and nine, depending on your level). They will, however, rarely match your units and spells’ corresponding digits, and so mathematics comes into play.

You can add, subtract or multiply any number in your pool to make another number. Strangely, there’s no option for division. I imagine this was done to avoid fractions but it’s still quite frustrating when it gets in the way of reaching the perfect integer. If you can expend each number through the three available methods in a single turn you’re given a fresh set of numbers to play with (i.e. you take a second turn).

There’s an incongruous sense of freedom as you go about your rigid sums. The equations can be as simple or convoluted as you want them to be, and the latter is often best. Getting a second turn is huge and you’ll likely need to do it more than once to summit the perpendicular difficulty spike. Because of this, you feel totally in control – the master of multiplication, the sultan of subtraction, the, erm, Aaron Sorkin of addition.

Calculords

The sense of freedom and control comes at a cost, however. Games move at a glacial pace as you figure out your next move. You’ll make liberal use of the clear button as you fit the numbers together again and again, trying to find the perfect sequence. If you, like so many others, play your mobile games in short bursts, getting through a single turn will take you a while, much less a whole match.

The pace isn’t aided by that extreme difficulty curve I mentioned.

The first “boss” of the game is called Fancybot. His strength level is “polite.” He’s a pathologically friendly opponent that barely understands why you want to fight him, much less how to retaliate. Fancybot espouses the more charming, chuckle-worthy aspects of Calculords‘ goofy aesthetic. His betters, however, know not the meaning of “friendly.”

After a few bouts with Fancybot you’ll be leveled up and ready to face Corporal Krak. This guy is a monster, playing more cards than it feels should fit in his hand and doubling his forces every turn. The enemies fluctuate from there, but you’ll likely return to the cold, kind embrace of your dapper pal to farm for cards a few times.

Calculords

Unfortunately, that’s where Calculords breaks down. With both your standard cards and number cards to consider, along with factoring the probability of matching-numbers deck building in this game made me nearly hysterical. It’s as frustrating as a calculus exam and the game doesn’t provide an in-depth explanation of how best to exploit it. It’s as if the developers realized the core mishmash of mechanics was fun, but realized how difficult deck building would be and ignored it.

Now, you might think this is where I tell you how the game’s challenge is stacked to goad you into microtransactions. While Calculords is free-to-play and supported with in-app purchases, I’m happy to report its model is incredibly lean.

For $1.99 you can earn a permanent upgrade to the number of cards that drop after a match, which also removes the single ads that appear at the same time. For the same price, you can buy predetermined booster packs that work more like expansions. Buying them will also unlock the cards as drops in the game. To get absolutely everything, you’ll spend just under $12.

Calculords

It’s a model I can really appreciate – paying money for actual content and permanent upgrades, not just boosters and consumables. It doesn’t change the fact that to get maximum use of those upgrades you need to actually beat the overpowered enemies, but it’s respectful to the end user.

Calculords certainly isn’t on par with my nostalgia for Math Blaster. As a fun, charming, respectable little card game, however, it’s equal to or greater than the money you can put into it.