Fast Math: A Look at Lovelace & Babbage
Despite being terrible at theoretical math, one of my favorite classtime activities was to take a large number — probably something like 55378008, since I was a hormone-addled thirteen-year-old — and divide it mentally into the smallest possible quantity. Dividing by two or five was easy; three was tougher, but there were tricks. Sevens or other primes usually left me stumped.
Lovelace & Babbage, on Kickstarter right this very minute, is all about the joys of simple arithmetic — with the caveat that it must be done fast.
Lovelace & Babbage is a game of sums and differences, products and quotients. But as the would-be inventor of a difference engine, it isn’t enough to merely calculate them. It’s also necessary to calculate them first, inputting commands and spitting out numbers that will seduce patrons, complete subroutines, and probably earn you lots of prestige and wealth and easy sex, because surely those were the logical outcomes of being good at arithmetic in the 1800s.
At first the list of possible commands is straightforward. You have a programming pad — because pads of paper are somehow new again — and everybody shares the same set of commands. Picture lots of pluses and minuses, the occasional multiplication or division command, and the even rarer “swap digits” doohickey.
And then, with everybody leaning forward, you reveal that round’s patrons. Each of these well-to-dos provides two fields of scientific inquiry, ranging from magnification and atomic theory to botany and electrocuting elephants. Patrons also have a target number; strike that number first with your mechanical sums and you’ll be rewarded with an investment in either of that patron’s preferred fields. Reaching them second awards whatever field remains. Last place returns a pathetic “failed experiment,” worthy of a pity point and nothing more.
Even more thrilling, the first player — nay, arithmetist! — to complete their entire column gets to flip over a sand timer, signaling that everybody else has only one minute to complete their program.
The whole thing is therefore pitched as a mathlete’s sprint. Finishing first means not only that you can force your rivals to hustle — and potentially stumble — but also that you’ll complete each of your operations earlier than those who completed their program after you. Missing the science-pip you were after because somebody hit your desired target number right before you is galling; earning a failed experiment because you came in last place is even worse.
And that’s just the first round. With each successive revolution of the difference engine, new operations trickle onto the board. Complicated sums, longer division, and the ability to tinker with your digits soon become the norm, all of them awarding bonus points when used rather than the default simple options. Over time, subroutines — special cards that can be earned like patrons — toss new abilities into the mix. By the end of the game, you’re programming from a wide set of options, while also messing with the parameters of your program. Maybe even your rivals’ programs, too.
For the most part, this is a surprisingly pleasant undertaking. Your program’s number can never drop below zero nor soar above ninety-nine, keeping the sums limited to two columns and the complexity from reaching the level of, say, something like Leaving Earth. It even lets you get creative. If you want to hit your subroutine at 87, plus John Stuart Mill at 80, Rosa Bonheur at 98, and Mary Shelly at 92, can that be accomplished in a measly five operations? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it’s often surprising how much you can accomplish with the clever application of a few operators.
If anything, Lovelace & Babbage may be a touch too simple. Alongside everything else is a flavor of operator that jumps you straight to a target number — for instance, moving your program directly from any number to 66. These act as mid-program resets, airlifting you away from potential desert islands beyond the reach of any patrons. In practice, however, they offer far too much certainty, letting players bounce between numbers without having to do much actual arithmetic. Why bother with that divide-by-four operation when you can slam your program to 22 for a fraction of the mental bandwidth? It’s an odd inclusion for a game that otherwise revels in the low-grade strain of mathematical tumbling. Difference engine? More like set it to whatever the hell you want engine.
The other significant problem is more mechanical, in that the game’s abundance of symbols and numbers can prove confusing when not viewed upright. Not to me, of course; I’m an upside-down-reading genius. Also, every game usually faces me because I’m the jerk taking pictures. But the members of our group seated on the opposite end of the table routinely required a few additional seconds to parse the jumble of numbers and symbols. While some sluggishness isn’t usually a big deal, in Lovelace & Babbage it can be the difference between hanging out with Florence Nightingale and trying to hang out with Florence Nightingale. Did you ever read about anybody who wanted to hang with Florence and didn’t? Me neither.
Oh, and don’t expect to come away from this one with a deepened appreciation for any of the game’s characters. This is a name-dropping affair only. Unless you’re willing to jaunt over to the internet, Augustus De Morgan will always remain “The Dude with the High Collar.”
Other than those reservations, however, Lovelace & Babbage is both a pleasant surprise and a perfect mid-evening filler. Like many of the best on-the-clock games, its simplicity is confounded by its unyielding sense of hurry, forcing everybody to math like mad and pray they assembled something workable. Babbage help me, I love performing arithmetic on the go.
Lovelace & Babbage is on Kickstarter until October 23rd.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. According to a recent Pew survey, we’re the last site on the internet that does unpaid previews, which likely means we’re the only site that isn’t LYING TO YOU FOR MONEY. Don’t check my math on that, though.)