There’s something magical about a well-composed educational video game. I think back on playing games like Super Solvers’ Gizmos and Gadgets, Number Munchers, and The Secret Island of Dr. Brain and getting so wrapped up in the gameplay experience that the only reason I knew I was “learning” something was because I played them in school. But still, those games didn’t feel like the ones I’d play on my SNES or other consoles; the strategy, action, and story I found in my console games didn’t quite translate to my pixelated frog randomly devouring multiples of 7. In the modern era though, successful educational titles fuse sharp gameplay with learning; Little Worlds Interactive’s Counting Kingdom pulls off just such a feat.
In case you couldn’t tell from the title alone, Counting Kingdom isn’t targeting the same demographics as Call of Duty or Halo. Designed for players ages 6-8, you’ll control a wizard who protects castles from number monsters who threaten to overrun the kingdom. It’s turn-based tower defense, really; each turn, you’ll use spell pages with various sums on them to vanquish groups of numbered villains by linking the baddies together. If you don’t have the perfect spell page, you can use special potions to modify their numbers, combine your spell pages to make higher sums, and more. If the gameplay sounds simple, that’s because it is on the surface: kids just getting comfortable with addition can create small groups of monster with smaller sums and still complete levels. But the big points (and big explosions) come from making larger sums with larger groups of monsters, so veteran adders can find challenge in trying to maximize their scores by combining all of the game’s techniques. Even at 27 I found myself pouring over scenarios to try and find the perfect way to clear the board and net bonus points.
One of Counting Kingdom’s best features is its clear focus on quality gameplay. Like any traditional video game, Counting Kingdom introduces to basic gameplay, then adds a layer of complexity every few levels. 2x multiplication tiles appear on the board, offering a huge opportunity for bonus points, but planning the combination of spell pages and potions to destroy the monster may take some extra work. Still, that work doesn’t feel like “math,” it feels like puzzle-solving, it feels like gaming. That’s why, even with its repetitive soundtrack, and colorful, age-appropriate explosions, Counting Kingdom was still fun for me to play and review even multiple years removed from school and without any kids of my own.
Working a kids’ market is difficult for multiple reasons: not only do you need to create content that’s fun, appealing, and appropriate for kids, but for it to really catch fire, adults need to gain something from the experience, too. Though The Counting Kingdom is heavily inspired by real-time defense titles like Plants vs. Zombies, the game’s turn-based gameplay mechanic gives children time to think about unfamiliar addition at the same time it gives parents time to think about unfamiliar gameplay, creating a space both groups can feel comfortable learning in. My hope is that plenty of adults out there will share Counting Kingdom experiences with their children like they would a book or a Disney movie; they’ll both grow from the experience.