Numbers and Letters

Since 2013, the MLC and Writing Centre have been doing a game called Letters and Numbers at Orientation Weeks and Open Days to create interaction with people. I tweeted a photo of one of our sessions during Open Day yesterday and it has attracted a lot of attention, so I thought I might record some details of the game for people to read if they’re interested.

The inspiration

In the early 20-teens, we had a show on Australian TV called “Letters and Numbers”. In it, contestants played two games: one where they got a random collection of letters and had to create the longest word they can, and one where they got a random collection of numbers and a random target and had to create a calculation that produced the target. They did this in a 30 second timeframe, counted down by a giant clock on the wall. The Australian show was based on a show which in the UK is called “Countdown” in reference to the clock, which in turn is inspired by a French show called “Des chiffres et des lettres”.

I was thinking of a way to have a combined MLC and Writing Centre activity to engage new students with us so we could talk to them about our services, and of course this TV show popped into my head — it was the perfect combination of low-stakes maths and language. All I needed was a way to do it live in a public place.

The setup

In the TV show games, the letters and numbers used are chosen randomly, and I needed a way to do this in a public place.  I could possibly have done a computer thing or had a pre-written list, but I really did want them to be random, and I liked the idea of the participants choosing the numbers/letters themselves, so I wanted to choose them from a bag or bucket. The letters use the same distribution as the tiles in a Scrabble set, so I could have just used a Scrabble set for those. But the numbers I would need to make myself somehow. I decided to use pop sticks with the numbers/letters drawn on them, which could be drawn randomly from buckets.

Here are the distributions of letters and numbers I put on the pop sticks:

Vowels 4A, 6E, 4I, 4O, 2U (half the vowels in a Scrabbble set)
Consonants 2B, 2C, 4D, 2F, 3G, 2H, 1J, 1K, 4L, 2M, 6N, 2P, 1Q, 6R, 4S, 6T, 2V, 2W, 1X, 2Y, 1Z (all the consonants in a Scabble set)
Target Three of each digit from 1 to 9, and two 0’s.
Small numbers Two of each number from 1 to 10
Big numbers One each of: 25, 40, 50, 60, 75, 100, 120, 125 (I added some extra on top of what is in the TV show)


The basic setup is to have a whiteboard with the instructions on it, a space marked out for the letters and numbers puzzles and plenty of space to write solutions.

Getting started

For the letters game, randomly choose four vowels from the vowels bucket, and five consonants from the consonant bucket and write them on the board.

For the numbers game, choose three digits from the target bucket, one after the other without replacement. Together these are the three digit target number, which you write on the board. (If the first digit is a 0, then you can treat the rest as a two-digit number if you like, or just rearrange so it doesn’t start with 0.)

Also for the numbers game, choose four small numbers and two big numbers and write them on the board too.

The rules

The rules of the Letters game that I put on the whiteboard are as follows:

Help to make as many and as long words as we can from these randomly chosen four vowels and five consonants. (Letters may only be used as many times as they are in the list.)

The rules of the Numbers game that I put on the whiteboard are as follows:

Help to make a calculation to produce the target, using some or all of these two big and four small numbers, and any combination of +, -, ×, ÷, and brackets. (Numbers can only be used as many times as they are in the list.)

It’s worth noting that in the original TV show, contestants can choose how many vowels and consonants they want, or how many big or small numbers they want. I dictated a specific number of everything so that we could quickly play the game with anyone who came up, or they could play by themselves if we were momentarily distracted!

Unwritten rules

There are some unwritten rules about how we go about doing the Numbers and Letters games that it’s worth making explicit.

For the letters game, small words and proper names are ok. Most word puzzles don’t allow those, but this game is designed specially for public interaction. If someone notices that they can spell Bernita or Spain, who am I to diminish their glory? Plus finding a host of small words like “to”, “of”, “for”, etc is a great start to get some words on the board, and you can often modify them to get them a bit longer words too.

For the numbers game, partial answers are ok. People do stare at the board trying to come up with the answer all in one go, and they need to realise that it’s ok to scribble some working, or have something that is close in order to maybe get closer upon modifying it. In fact, I have written about this before.

It’s also worth pointing out that the numbers game isn’t always solvable. Sometimes when it’s really tricky, what we usually do is try to get as close as we can. On the fly, it’s hard to prove it’s actually impossible, so at some point you need to call it close enough and do a new one.

On the other hand, sometimes the Numbers game is solved in the first few seconds. In that case, we usually try to find many different solutions, encouraging people to try to use different operations or more of the numbers.

Final notes

While it would probably work fine to choose the letters and numbers with a computer or app, the buckets have a sort of playful and tactile element that I really like. They also allow us to engage people passing, by going up to them with a bucket and asking them to pull out some popsticks for us. Yesterday every person I asked to choose some sticks for us came over to have a closer look at what we were doing.

I have written about my thoughts to do with the Numbers game three times in the past. I wrote about how the fact it is a game can help people participate when they otherwise wouldn’t, about how I encourage people to put partial solutions, and how I alleviated the fear caused by the numbers themselves and did something else instead.

These games have been part of the MLC and Writing Centre’s identity for five years. We do it at Open Day and also at Orientation every semester and I really look forward to it each time. For new students this sets up a  continuity between when students were just visiting university and when they arrive. For existing students, they’ll often seek us out at these times to tell us how they’re doing and engage in something that is a pivotal memory of their early time at university. Also it has become something that all the other service areas expect we do, and they come to join in as well during these events. I’m so glad people of Twitter have become interested, because it really is a fun thing to do.

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5 Responses

  1. Mike Ollerton says:

    Thank you for writing your description of this game – I absolutely love it.

  2. Amy Zimmer says:

    Thank you so much for writing this up. Can’t wait to try it!

  3. John Golden says:

    Fascinating! (Numbers at 14 min.)

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