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[Review] Zendo

2 replies [Last post]
Joined: 03/23/2011

Mastermind was always a favorite of mine, until it became too easy - just as Super Mastermind and Grand Mastermind. These games were supposedly multiplayer, but they were in reality solitary puzzles that one person played at a time, while the others watched in zoned out boredom. I read about Zendo (Looney Labs, 2003 - Kory Heath) on the internet, and it sounded like what I was looking for - a multiplayer logic game. The Icehouse piece pack, made up of several sizes and colors of pyramids, has always interested me, but I never really was so interested as to pick up a game. Yet according to what I read, Zendo utilized the Icehouse pieces, so that I could play those games (myriads of them) with this set also. Well, that sounded like an excellent deal, so I picked Zendo up, eager to pit my logic skills against others.

Zendo plays exactly like I thought it would, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Peel off the “Buddha-nature” theme that is so prevalent in the rules, and the game is straight logic. People who do not logic problems would probably dislike the game, and in my plays, found that a few people were not quite enamored with the game. However, those who love logic, and even those who like it just a little, really enjoy the game - as the pieces look fantastic on the board, and it is a highly interactive game (rare for logic games). The game can be scaled from “easy” to “hard”, and should even accommodate the most “casual” gamer. Being able to play other Icehouse games (several rule sets are included in the box) makes this purchase worth one’s while.

A pile of pyramid pieces is placed in the middle of the table, of four different colors (red, green, yellow, and blue), and three different sizes (small, medium, and large). One player is chosen to be the “Master”, and all other players (“Students”) are given a black and white stone. The remainder of these stones, including a pile of green stones, are placed somewhere for easy retainance. The Master chooses a rule, and the game begins.

The rule the Master makes must be in regards to “koans”, an arrangement of pyramids on the table. The rule can be anything the Master wants, but a stack of cards is provided with example rules that the Master can utilize. Rules have some guidelines when being chosen.
- The rule cannot reference time.
- The rule cannot reference the playing surface.
- The rule is restricted to the koan itself, meaning that it cannot reference other koans, or anything outside the koan, including the stones.
The rules can range from simple (“A Koan must have one red pyramid in it”, “All pyramids must be grounded (touching the table”, “The Koan’s total pip (markings on the sides of the pyramids) count must equal four”, etc.) to medium (“One yellow pyramid must point towards a small pyramid”, “A Koan contains only one grounded piece.”, etc.) to hard (“It contains an even number of pieces being pointed at, and at least one piece not being pointed at”, “The total pip count is a prime number”, “No pieces are touching another of the same size or color”, etc.). The harder a rule is, the more lengthy the game can become (and frustrating to the players). Once the Master decides upon his rule, he builds two separate koans - one that follows the rule (marked by a white stone), and one that doesn’t (marked by a black stone). The Master chooses someone to go first, after which play proceeds clockwise around the table.

On a Student’s turn, they build a koan, using as many pyramids as they want. They then have a choice of saying “Master” or “Mondo”. If they say “Master”, the Master marks the koan with a white stone if it matches the rule, or a black stone otherwise. The Student may then guess the rule, or play passes to the next player. If, however, a player says “Mondo”, every player - including the current one - puts a black or white stone into their hand secretly, and reveals them simultaneously. The Master then marks the koan with the correct stone, giving one green stone to each player who guessed correctly.

After making this choice, the Student has the opportunity to guess the rule, but only if they have a guessing (green) stone. They give the stone to the Master and guess the rule, and if correct, they’ve won the game! Otherwise, the Master tells them that they are wrong, and builds a koan that disproves their guess. The Student may guess again (if they have any green stones left, otherwise play passes to the next player. The game will end when one Student finally guesses the rule (or when everyone leaves the table in frustration).

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: If one is thinking about buying the Icehouse game, then Zendo is the perfect idea, because the box is superior to the regular Icehouse packaging. All the stones fit in one side of the cardboard insert, while the pyramids in the other. I do wish that more pyramids had been added, because we often run out, and then must break down koans to get the pieces we need. I may buy some more Icehouse sets to supplement my Zendo game, maybe even of other colors, to increase the combinations. The pyramids themselves are made of translucent colors, and really look striking on the table. The stones are glass stones, and are of the highest quality - I bagged them, but it really isn’t necessary. You won’t get much more here than you would with a typical Icehouse set, but the box is much better, and the stones are a nice addition.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is fairly extensive, even though it sometimes delves a little farther into the “Zen” nature of the theme, and I just want it to state the obvious for me. But there are pretty much rules for everything, and the rulebook takes the few simple rules for the game and expounds on them quite a bit. The twelve-page rulebook also has a section on Strategy, with some fairly detailed tips, and a long section on how to make rules. Two summary cards are also included with the game, which really help remember play sequence.

3.) “Rules”: When making rules in the game, it seems like a rule may be too easy, but we found that even what we thought were the most simple of rules could sometimes prove tricky for the students to follow, while the “hard” rules proved nigh impossible, especially for casual play. The cards included with the game are a good basis to start, and help ease everybody into the game. Once players get more comfortable, they can start making their own rules, as long as they aren’t too ambiguous or difficult.

4.) Internet: There is quite a bit of support for Zendo online, with many web pages providing sample rules that can be used with the game, rated and ranked according to difficulty. There are variants that can be used, strategies and tips - just enter “Zendo” into a search engine, and they’ll pop right up.

5.) Other Games: Even if you hate Zendo, seven cards are included in the box with rules to other games. And online, at, there are at least 100 rule sets to other games that can be played with these pieces. Now, not many of these, from what I hear, are great games, but several of them are quite good, and certainly justify the price of Zendo, even if one isn’t thrilled with the game.

6.) Logic and Fun Factor: People who have a hard time with logic may or may not like the game. It’s fun to stack the little pieces, regardless of whether you know what you are doing, and players can guess the answer, and perhaps get lucky - which is enough for some people. I had a lot of fun trying to figure out the logic, and so did the others I played the game with. It is NOT, however, a rip-roaring fun fest, with everybody laughing and having a hilarious time, but for some more staid fun, in an elegant manner, Zendo can hit the spot.

Being a logical person, I quite liked Zendo. Others who played the game also liked it, although not everyone was quite as fond as I was. Still, it will hit the table again, because everyone once in a while we need a “brain-burner”, and this fits the bill. And even if we get tired of the game, there are so many other games that can be played with the pieces, that Zendo is worth it alone! I don’t think that this game will be pushed to the back of my shelf anytime soon, and it’s one I’ll often gladly play. (Of course, the fact that I do well at it has NO bearing on that decision whatsoever. :) )

Tom Vasel

IngredientX's picture
Joined: 07/26/2008
[Review] Zendo

Hi Tom...

An interesting note about Zendo: I'm never quite sure who will enjoy it. I was a GM at a recent convention, and a problem had cropped up at the (don't laugh) Battleship tournament. There was no GM, and only one copy of the game, but about 6 people had signed up.

It turns out all those people where high school-age teenagers, whose parents were running a vendor exhibition in another area of the con. I was thinking of setting up another game for the rest of them to play while two played the only copy of Battleship, but I didn't want a game that ran longer, or one that had complicated rules. They were unfamiliar with most of the games we played (hence their signing up for Battleship), so I'm sure they would have been reluctant to try a complicated game.

So I pulled out Zendo. Four of them played it with me as the Master, while two others played Battleship. Both took about as long to play, so when a game of Battleship finished, we would rotate around.

At first, the kids felt a little trepidation. When I was going over the rules, one said, "This isn't like math, is it?" She and another girl seemed to convince themeselves that they weren't going to enjoy the game.

But a few rounds in, they were hooked! The Battleship tournament was abandoned, and a couple of them took turns as a Master. They showed again at my Zendo event a few hours later. THAT was interesting; we had ten people show up, of ages ranging between sixteen and fifty. And they all loved the game! (The game is really meant for about six players tops, Master included... but we managed to get all ten people involved anyway.)

I haven't seen a game that attracts as wide a variety of people as Zendo. It's easy to pick up, quick to play, and is not your typical deterministic "filler" game.

P.S. I really enjoy your reviews, Tom!

Joined: 03/23/2011

Well now you have me curious - I never even really thought about trying it with my youth game club. I'll guess I'll take it in to our next meeting (although right now Cosmic Encounter is all the rage) and try it then.

Tom Vasel

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