Games That Stand the Test of Time

Serious Play-Part 1

Even before I had my own classroom, game play as a learning tool fascinated me. From the moment my favorite professor introduced me to the idea of using games to motivate students, I was hooked. And fortunately for my students, game-play became a serious part of my instructional repertoire.

You know that a classroom game is successful when students want to play it over and over again. A game with longevity is a game that students return to all year long, and sometimes over multiple years. One way to achieve longevity is to introduce games with multiple variations.

One of my favorite classroom games that has proven its longevity is the classic card game, War. This game, often played with very young children to reinforce the notion of “greater than” and “less than” for one-digit numbers, has utility well beyond the early years. Here are the basic rules and a few variations.

Instructions for Playing Basic War

Materials: one deck of card for two players, face cards removed; Ace = 1


  1. Shuffle the cards well and distribute them evenly into two piles, one for each player.
  2. Each player flips over the top card in his/her pile.
  3. The player with the greater number wins both cards.
  4. When the numbers are the same, players repeat steps 2-3. The winner keeps all four cards.
  5. Play continues until all cards are used. The player with more cards wins the game.

Variation 1 – Less Than War: The player with the lesser number wins both cards.

Variation 2 – Addition War: Each player flips over the top two cards of his/her pile and adds the numbers. The player with the greater (or lesser) sum wins all four cards.

Variation 3 – Difference War: Each player flips over the top two cards on his/her pile and finds the difference between the two numbers. The player with the greater (or lesser) difference wins all four cards.

Variation 4 – Multiplication War: Each player flips over the top two cards on his/her pile and multiplies the two numbers. The player with the greater (or lesser) product wins all four cards.

Variation 5 – Integer War: Each player flips over the top two cards on his/her pile. Red numbers are positive, and black numbers are negative. Each player adds (or multiplies) the integers together. The player with the greater (or lesser) total wins all four cards.

As you can see, these variations provide a variety of differentiation opportunities within a classroom as well as options for playing across grade levels. In my experience, this game is revisited over and over, not just in kindergarten, but all the way up the grades as the rules change to incorporate new operations.

In the coming weeks, we will explore additional features that make game-play a valuable asset in the classroom. I’ve listed some of those characteristics below, adding some thoughts about how they apply to the game of War.  

  • Academic discourse development – students make a comparison statement prior to claiming the cards.
  • Behavioral self-monitoring – students learn to be gracious winners and losers.
  • Concrete – Pictorial – Abstract options – on occasion, I ask students to represent and/or record their solutions.
  • Disciplined and positive social interactions – students learn how to interact in a social situation.
  • Engagement with multiple math concepts – the variations, listed above, say it all!
  • Fun-factors that keep students coming back War has an element of chance that makes the game more accessible and unpredictable. It’s not necessarily the most-skilled student who wins each hand.
  • Guided Math options – games such as War make for a great independent center during guided math group time.

Stay tuned for more on each of these Serious Play topics…and be watching for some exciting freebies from KP Mathematics in the coming weeks.

For now, stay cool and find some time to rejuvenate!!!

Question: What math games do your students play that have enough fun-factor and variation to stand the test of time? Please let us know by leaving your thoughts in the comments box, below.

Kimberly Rimbey, Ph.D., works with teachers and leaders to develop system-wide change in mathematics teaching and learning.

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