Phiddlywinks - a Tribute to John Conway

Age 7 to 18
Article by the NRICH team

Published 2021

Phiddlywinks is a game which challenges players of all ages to think strategically. It is inspired by John Conway, one of our greatest modern-day mathematicians. In this short article we will learn more about the man who inspired our game and the way we have adapted it to enable a wider audience to enjoy playing it too.

Who was the inspiration behind Phiddlywinks?

John Conway was a prize-winning mathematician who loved creating new games for all ages. He is best known to many for creating the Game of Life. He developed a game called Philosopher's Football (also known as Phutball) which challenged players to manoeuvre a ball across a large grid towards their opponent's goal-line. Not surprisingly, the game soon became popular with his university students. We have taken it as the inspiration for our Phiddlywinks.

Phiddlywinks is almost identical to Philosopher's Football except that the white ball has become a white counter and the players have become black counters. The rules are the same but Phiddlywinks is played on a much smaller board. The way the counters move reminded us more of Tiddlywinks than football, hence the alternative name.

Why play Phiddlywinks?

Once players have mastered the basic rules, they can enjoy exploring the effectiveness of different strategies by playing against friends, or against the computer, using the Phiddlywinks interactivity. This will require players to anticipate what their opponent might do and to think a few moves ahead. 

Once players are confident that they have some winning strategies, they could challenge themselves by changing the size of the board and adapting their strategies accordingly.

Strategy games such as Phiddlywinks offer us a great opportunity to develop our logical thinking skills in an engaging environment. Here on the NRICH site we have a range of Primary and Secondary strategy games, including some that can be played against the computer.

You may also like to take a look at Sprouts, another game developed by John Conway.

We would like to acknowledge the support of NACE and its members who kindly trialled our initial version of the game, giving us feedback which informed the development of Phiddlywinks.