Zendo, originally released back in 2001, is an abstract puzzle game that has just had a new edition released from designers Kory Heath and Andrew Looney. Published by Looney Labs the game is for 3 – 5 players, though via a variant works with 2, with rounds lasting anywhere between 5-20 minutes. The aim of the game is intriguingly to guess the rules of the round. Each round colourful structures will be built, made up of pyramids, wedges and blocks, in red, yellow and blue. However, is this a puzzle which players will want to solve? Let’s find out!
At the start of a round of Zendo one player much be chosen as the Moderator, whom gets to draw a rules card, with the rest becoming guessers. The bags of colourful shapes are poured into the middle of the table with green guess cubes, white correct tokens and black incorrect tokens put in reach of the moderator. Utilising the rules card the moderator must now construct two structures, one following the rule and one breaking the rule, marked by a white and black token respectively. The game is now setup and play starts with the player left of the moderator.
On a turn a guesser tries to get new information by building a new structure. Once built they say to the moderator Tell or Quiz. If Tell is chosen the moderator simply places a correct or incorrect token in front of the structure: naturally, depending on if the structure built follows the rule or not. If Quiz was chosen all guessers must secretly decide whether they believe this new structure follows the rule. As with Tell the moderator then reveals if the structure is right or wrong: however, everyone that guessed the right answer then gains a green guess cube.
After building a structure, and doing either Tell or Quiz, if the player has any guess cubes they can have that number of guesses, though they can pass saving the guess cubes for future turns. If the rule is correctly guessed they win, otherwise the moderator must construct a structure to disprove it and play moves onto the next player. As a result, incorrectly guessing or calling for a Quiz can be rather beneficial to other players, so the best bet is to do them sparingly.
Zendo is very much an abstract puzzle game, something done on purpose leading to the design of the components and lack of any theme. This works for the puzzle side of things, keeping the structures clear to see no matter how far around the table you are. Alas, the absence of theme also makes it hard for board gamers to get excited about playing. Rarely will Zendo be picked off the shelf to be played without players wanting to play a puzzle or knowing what the game is. The colours used and robustness of the components are a welcome touch but at the end of the day they don’t grab anyone or scream out as special.
The biggest issue with Zendo is also one of its greatest strengths for those that the game clicks with: there are almost endless options and rule combinations. Without players studying the listed options in the multiple rulebooks the chance of some rules being intuitively thought of are slim. As an experiment of this I attempted to try one of the easy cards without someone knowing the options and after 10 minutes they were let uninterested, just wanting the answer and for the round to be over. The answer in question, remember on an easy card, was that the wedge had to be in the “Cheesecake” orientation.
The game would work much better with new players if there were cheat sheet style guides or ways to check off guessed rules, whittling down the potentials in a Cluedo style assumption game. There is also a rather steep change in difficulty even within the easy cards, that has put players off Zendo. If these are considered easy, stumping the likes of analysts and logic puzzle pros, then Super-Easy or Beginner cards need to be included. Solving this issue means slightly going rogue, especially as the rulebook suggests only deviating from the rule cards after a few games. This being said, making your own rules enables the rules to be as easy or as complicated as the player group around the table permits.
Zendo has the potential to be a game that entertains players of all ages, from children to grandparents. Instead, Looney Labs has crafted a game that looks like it should be playable by all that instead will only confuse and, in turn, alienate most. The difficulty as with any puzzle does have one huge benefit, that is Zendo’s saving grace. The majority of the time the sense of accomplishment of guessing the rule outweighs the sense of relief that the round is over. It is the looks of astonishment from others convinced they are onto the rule, only to find out they were running off on a weird colour or shape tangent, that builds this awe when the rule is finally revealed.
A warning light should have flashed up when reading the rules with a section entitled “When the game goes on too long” being included. I initially dismissed it thinking it wouldn’t be an issue for my group. After struggling through the first game I instantly returned to the rulebook to see what was suggested. Of the suggestions the one that rings out is Team-Style, where Zendo started to flow and the cooperation between players enabled fun to be had. Working as a team, bouncing ideas back and forth, turned this solo brain-racking puzzle into an achievable communal goal. It also helped to speed the game up as players we able to bust hypothesises faster. This team variant did slightly break the Tell/Quiz aspect of the game so some house rulings was needed but it made everyone enjoy the experience.
Zendo is truly a puzzle not a game. There may a winner, if playing individually or in the 2-player variant, but Zendo lacks scoring. A simple way around this is to give the guesser the rules card once they guess the rule correctly. Other than winning there is little to link one round to the next, an issue compounded by the fact the moderator gets nothing when the answer is finally reached. All it would take is for the moderator to get a point for each round the rest are unable to guess the rule or points when the rule is guessed to give a scoring system, link rounds together and have an actual game based around the puzzle.
Including a moderator role makes the game have a two-sided feel, almost a one against the rest. The moderator sits there with all the power in their hands, all the knowledge of the rule and gives out only the tiniest of hints as each structure is built. Which side is it more fun to play is down to the individual. Some thrive on the guessing side, others feel the pressure of the moderator role and a few will enjoy testing people. A bit of advice for moderators: initial structures should be extremely easy to ease players in, so you may have to cherry-pick the rule cards somewhat.
Combining your own easy rules and the team variant do work, to some extent, to make Zendo the game I hoped it was going to be. Nevertheless, it should be this from the beginning, inviting players in before cranking up the difficulty. While the abstract theme keeps things visually clear it does little to warm players to the puzzle. Reactions to the game have been chalk and cheese, some have loved the thinky nature, while others will be put off after a single round. Zendo is unfortunately not for me but undoubtedly others will find almost unlimited entertainment in the box.
[Editor’s Note: Zendo was provided to us by Esdevium Games for review purposes. The game is currently available on 365 Games for £39.99. It is also available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]