Math is not inherently fun. My first and second graders say they enjoy it, but given the choice between their math homework and a game on the tablet, they’d pick the latter every time. “If only there was a way they could do both,” I said, knowing that I’m going to thank Little Worlds Interactive for doing just that with The Counting Kingdom, a delightful blend of tower defense, basic math concepts and cute graphics that should be a hit with any young gamer.

Technically, even though there are towers to defend, the gameplay more closely resembles lane defense a la Plants vs. Zombies. Waves of monsters attack your fortress in four rows, and the only way to stop them is to cast the correct magic spell. Which spell is the right one? That’s where the math comes in.

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All monsters are conveniently marked with numbers, something you don’t often see in real life. At any given time, you’ve got three spells at your disposal, and if you can find a monster that matches one of the numbers on your spell, you can cast away and make it disappear. More often, you’ve got to add adjacent monsters together. For example, if you’ve got an 11 spell and there is a “3” monster who’s in front of a “5” and beside another “3,” you can tap to select them all and cast the spell to vanquish them.

countingkingdomAs the game’s intended demographic is six-to-eight-year olds, this kind of math should be right up their alley. Concepts are also introduced gradually: early on, your options are limited to combining two spells by adding their values together or replacing one spell with another from your book, but you’ll eventually gain access to potions that allow monsters to be moved around on the board, whole lines of monsters to be frozen to buy you time to eliminate others, and more.

Since the monsters advance one spot after each action, there’s some strategic thinking required as well as math reasoning, and the combination of the two is really well done. The difficulty is also expertly ramped up as you advance through the game’s 30 or so levels, with three stars to earn in each one in the finest mobile game tradition. I didn’t spot the practice mode at first — it’s accessed through the target symbol in the upper-right corner of the map — but it has 10 different difficulty settings in case your young gamer just wants to send some random monsters packing.

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I’d be remiss not to mention the art style, which also suits the game perfectly. The monsters appear threatening enough to your castle that you want to stop them but aren’t menacing enough to be scary, and all of the visuals have a light, cartoony feel. The music might wear on adults after a while, as there isn’t a ton of variety to it, but that didn’t seem to bother my kids as they were playing.

It can’t be easy making mobile games with an educational bent, as they have to compete with more mindless fare for both mind share and precious space on people’s mobile devices. The best way to win that battle is to be fun enough for kids to want to play them and smart enough for parents to want them around, and The Counting Kingdom succeeds on both fronts. It’s also devoid of in-app purchases, so if you’ve got elementary school students in your house bugging you for tablet time, spend the money and put this in front of them. You’ll be glad you did.