Explore the Mathematical Game of Hex at Tūranga – Saturday 18 February 2023

When most people think of mathematics, they might think of arithmetic, geometry, calculus or perhaps a gruelling session working out their taxes. So what does maths have to do with games?

Quite a lot, it turns out; there’s even a whole branch of mathematics called game theory. As Ben Orlin points out in his book Math Games with Bad Drawings, “almost every board game consists of a thematic skin over a mathematical skeleton.” Maths is the study of pattern and rules, and about making abstract connections between things, which makes it perfect for taking a fresh look at games.

Coming up on Saturday 18 February, Tūranga will be hosting a whole day dedicated to one little-known but very fun strategy game: the game of Hex. It is a turn-based two player game not unlike Chess or Go, and easy to learn for all ages. Played on a hexagonal grid (hence the name Hex!) players take turns placing counters in order to connect their two sides of the board in an unbroken line. Sounds simple? Come drop in to Auaha Hīhī / Spark Place anytime between 10:30am and 4pm on Hex day to try it out and discover its challenges!

Hex was first invented in 1942 by Danish poet and designer Piet Hein, and it abruptly took Denmark by storm. He called the game Polygon, and likened it to “a game of warring labyrinths.” The idea of connecting two sides of a grid came first, but Hein quickly realised that in a square grid, both players could mutually block each other. Just like in noughts and crosses, two good players can easily end such a game in a stalemate. For the game to be decisive, a triangular / hexagonal grid is needed, usually laid out on a rhombus-shaped board (as in the image above).

The game was also independently discovered in the late 1940s by John Nash, a mathematician made famous in the book/film A Beautiful Mind. Apparently he came up with the idea while looking at the hexagonal floor tiling in a toilet cubicle! At Princeton University where he worked, the game became resoundingly popular for some years and was often played on a modified Go board until Parker Bros began selling it as a board game in 1952.

As part of the Hex day event at the Tūranga, at 2pm on Saturday 18 February there will be an entertaining talk for beginners by invited speaker Dr Ross Atkins, covering the history and strategy and some interesting variations of the game. Dr Atkins completed his PhD in Mathematics at Oxford University, and is a trainer for the New Zealand Mathematical Olympiad Team. His interests include mathematics, puzzles and juggling. He describes himself as someone who “ran away from the circus to become a mathematician,” and can be found solving Rubik’s cubes on a unicycle in his free time. Dr Atkins has also developed a series of Hex challenges (similar to Chess problems) you can play online against an A.I. 

Following Ross’s talk there will be a round-robin tournament to put your newly-found Hex skills to the test. Auahatanga | Creative Spaces has specially made Hex boards in many different sizes using some of the amazing tech we have in the library system. Our in-house laser cutter has cut some cardboard Hex boards and acryllic counters for keen players to take home, while our direct-to-garment printer and sewing machines have made some very cool mini fabric boards / counter bags for our tournament champions! The 3D printers have made an appearance too, producing another puzzle by Piet Hein called the Soma Cube, for a lucky Hex day winner.

Explore the Mathematical Game of Hex is in collaboration with Mathateca – New Zealand’s Public Space for Mathematics. Mathateca is a movement based in Christchurch, New Zealand, which aims to create a public space dedicated to mathematics so that everyone has the opportunity to engage with maths recreationally.

Finally, if all this talk about Hex has got you excited, explore our collection and check out this list of books featuring mathematical games!

Mathematical Games

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Library Assistant
Auahatanga | Creativity, Level 4, Tūranga