Calculords will make the numbers part of your brain hurt. It’s a collectible card game, similar in design to Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, but rather than requiring “mana” points to play cards, it demands arithmetic—adding, subtracting and multiplying single-digit numbers. While such a mechanic may sound like third-grade material, its actual implementation makes Calculords one of the most cerebral free-to-play games in the App Store. Seanbaby, Calculords’s designer and humor writer for Cracked.com, has entertainingly programmed the game to laugh at players as they navigate its steady learning curve, but the rewards of pushing onward are well worth the commitment. My only real complaint is that the game misses a golden opportunity by omitting any sort of multiplayer option.
As with most collectible card games (CCG), Calculords revolves around fantasy deck-building. In-game events take place in a futuristic space setting, but the game’s aesthetic itself is ripped straight from the 1980s. You, the player, take on the role of the galaxy’s last Star Nerd, and it’s your job to stop Hate Bit, Earth destroyer, by optimizing your deck and defeating his minions one by one. Players begin the game with 30 cards and 3 customizable deck slots. Additional cards can either be won individually by winning matches or purchased in pre-constructed packs for $1.99 each. While paying for these card packs would certainly give players an edge in battle, it is by no means required.
At the start of each round, players draw cards to fill their hands. Each card lists its attack points (bottom left), hit points (bottom right) and cost (top left). This latter attribute, a card’s cost, is Calculords’s most unique feature. In order to play a card with a cost of 20, players need to spend a “20” number card. Most of the time, however, you won’t have exactly what you need. To fix this, you can make what you need by combining number cards using the add, subtract or multiply operators. For example, you could multiply one “4” card and one “5” card to create a “20” card. That “20” card can then be spent to pay for a unit with a cost of 20.
This mechanic is creative, strategic and engaging. Instead of having to wait until later game rounds to play powerful cards, you can use math to play any card in your hand. Of course, your opponent can also play any card in their hand, so it’s critical to stay on top of your game. With advanced strategies like deck synchronization, lane placement and mastering the “Calculords bonus,” there are several hours of entertainment to be had here.
Experienced CCG players will immediately recognize elements of Calculords’s rulebook—traits (flying, haste), card type (human, machine) and attack/defense points. The only things keeping Calculords from being a full-fledged CCG brand is its relatively low card count of 200-plus and a lack of defined player classes. After growing tired of my starter human commando deck, I would love to try out a different class, but that doesn’t really exist in this game. There are humans, mutants and vehicles, but those are more card types than classes.
Most of the Calculords experience is completely free, but players can opt to pay a one-time $1.99 to remove ads and improve their loot haul. That’s not an unreasonable price to pay for a quirky, humorously written, surprisingly deep virtual card game. One thing to be aware of is that, as of now, Calculords is an exclusively single-player experience. Constantly trying to wrap your head around limitless mathematical possibilities can be a stressful experience, and it would be nice to share the burden with another human rather than the game’s AI (read: calculator.) Even still, Calculords is a game crafted lovingly for Star Nerds, and it shouldn’t be missed.
Matt Akers is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He writes about geek culture and works for a youth literacy project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow him on Twitter @ScholarlyLad.