As was mentioned previously, I know quite a few game designers that seek to enrich and over-analyze the gaming lives of those around them. One of these game designers has managed to create and successfully market one of the best games I’ve ever played, that game is Zendo.
A little slice of history: There is a wonderful game company that many of us know very much about, called Looney Labs, which produces a spectacular line of games using their own pieces in the shapes of small plastic pyramids, these are called Icehouse pieces, and they come in 3 sizes and various colors. A wide variety of games have been created, mostly through Looney Labs, using these pieces and often based on classic games such as Chess or Go. Unfortunately, I believe there is no Icehouse Hungry-Hungry Hippos.
Zendo is a very simple gaming, using these pieces, where one player gets to be the ‘Master’ and creates a rule which governs the course of the game. This concept in itself is wonderful, especially outside of common college drinking games, as it gives a person the feeling of control that is rarely felt in games. The master begins the game by displaying two setups of Icehouse pieces (called a Koan), one which conforms to the rule which the master has created, and one which does not conform to it, or breaks the rule. These Koans are marked appropriately so that the players are all aware of which one justifies the rule, also called the ‘Buddha Nature’, and which one is breaking the rule.
This is where the wonderful part happens. The players go around, taking turns, creating their own Koans one at a time, each of which they feel either has or does not have the Buddha Nature. With the two original setups created by the Master as their only clues as to what the Buddha Nature may be, they must ask the Master about their own Koans to see whether or not they conform to the rule. The specifics of the game are clearly explained on the site, but eventually players are granted ‘Guessing Stones’ which they can turn in to the Master in an attempt to guess the Buddha Nature.
Buddha Natures are greatly varied and range from simplistics like, “A koan has the Buddha nature if it contains one red piece” to complicated rules such as, “A koan has the Buddha nature only if it contains a prime number of pieces not touching other pieces.” While the extent of Buddha Natures is limited by some rules, they are only limited to eliminate tedious Buddha Natures that would be impossible to guess through the simple observation of pieces on the table. North, East, South, and West do not matter to a koan, while color, size, proximity, and direct relationships all matter.
The genius behind this game is amazing, as players take turns attempting to backwards deduce the logic behind two simple setups of pieces placed by the master, numerous new and original examples are placed on the table by the players which adds to the evidence while often contributing a headache’s worth of clutter to sift through in an effort to find the common relation between them all. While there is limited interaction between the guessing players, as they are all competing to guess the Buddha Nature first, there is wonderful interaction between the Master and each Student individually, and it is very likely that the students will inadvertently help one another through guessing and creation of their own koans.
Although the game has been out for quite a while, and it is most likely rather difficult to come by in any common game store, I feel that it is a great puzzle and thinking game that everyone should play and hopefully enjoy. The creation of koans is fun and inventive, giving every player a chance to develop their own personal problem solving skills, and each player’s turn as the master gives them a chance to stump the students, or better yet give them a good run for their money that ultimately ends with a successful guess by a very satisfied, and most often head-throbbing, student. I will not provide Zendo with a game score or any rating, as it is not a new release, though it would be a fairly high score, but I will give it a very strong recommendation for everyone to play.