The Columbo of abstracts

I’m kind of a big fan of Looney Pyramids. Wrote a piece about Looney’s self-proclaimed magnum opus Pyramid Arcade a while back and I’m inclined to agree with the man’s opinion. Pyramids are a wonderful set of bits that allow for so many different types of play – strategic chesslike abstract games, sneaky deduction, dudes on a map dicechuckers, real-time dexterity – you name it, there’s probably a solid pyramid game for it. But at the end of that piece I specifically mentioned an omission from the box: Zendo, a game from the long-long-ago: the early 00’s. Today I explain why this game deserved mention despite not being in the box I was covering. Today we loop back.

Zendo is a nigh-legendary box. Moreso than many pyramid games it obfuscates its nature to outsiders, looking like something that would be played on the set of a sci-fi movie. Details about it are contradictory: some claim it’s a raucous convention game best played under the influence of various substances, others say it’s a top tier classroom game – peak edutainment. As someone who played it years ago as well as just the other day on the new edition, let me clarify: yes. Both. Both of these are true.

I’ll elaborate. Zendo is an induction game. That is not a typo; it’s a game about learning the rules of the game. One player takes the role of a moderator and, with or without the aid of the provided cards, sets the secret rule. They then build two examples, one that follows the rule and one that doesn’t. Then the race is on.

The win condition is to guess the rule before anyone else. The problem is that every single piece of information is made available to everyone, meaning everyone’s working from the same collaborative font of knowledge. It’s the scientific method in action, all the way down to elbowing each other in attempts to get recognized for the group’s work before anyone else. Life imitates art once again.

Players take turns building structures then declaring either “tell” or “quiz”. Tell is simple – the moderator marks their work with a yes/no token and no further elaboration. This gives everyone a bit more info to work with, pushing everyone just a little closer to solving the puzzle. Quiz is a bit more involved. Every player secretly palms a yes or a no token depending on which they think is true, then simultaneously reveals as the moderator confirms the answer. Everyone who nailed it receives a guess token, the sacred green cube, the single most precious piece in a box chock full of odd bits.

This might be Zendo’s single most game-y element but I adore it. After building something a player can take a stab at guessing the rule, but only if they turn in a guess token. If they botch their guess it falls to the moderator to build a counter-example that incorporates the guesser’s whiff. This is tough to visualize but for example: if the rule was “must include a blue pyramid” and someone guessed “pieces must touch”, the moderator would disprove the guess by building a structure that includes a blue pyramid that isn’t touching other pieces. Eventually someone will spend a token, make a declaration, and nail it for the win. And it is one of the most satisfying kinds of victory a tabletop game can provide. You legitimately win by outsmarting your friends – like, with your actual physical meat brain!

Two things are constantly true in Zendo – everything provides information, and everyone’s head will collectively hurt until someone finally nails it. A lot is written about games with “brain burn”, but often these are just games that offload a lot of rules and admin onto their players. I’ve already taught you Zendo! You could play it right now! It’s smooth as a plastic pyramid and genuinely elegant in its structure, yet more challenging than just about any other game I could name. You aren’t just competing with the other players, you -need- them to function. Or at least I do. I’m very bad at Zendo.

LL’s new edition in particular only improves what’s on offer here. Back when I last played this eons ago it was nothing but pyramids, stones, and a pasted-on Buddhism aesthetic. The new version is far better. Going abstract with the presentation suits the bizarre nature and appearance of the thing. The provided rule cards really help get the game off the ground for newbies and do an excellent job sorting rules into difficulty categories, eventually ramping up to the point of nigh-impossibility. Multiple block shapes open up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities – could the rule be shape-based? What about all the different kinds of stacking? Some other wonky non-Euclidean configuration? Who knows! Figure it out! That’s the game!

If you care about tabletop games as a medium you should play Zendo. If you want a game that appeals to non-gamers and heavy hobbyists alike you should break out Zendo. If you would like to see a game that might legitimately make you smarter without asking a single trivia question, Zendo is the answer. There simply isn’t anything else from the last 20 years that even approach its ideas or what it achieves. Zendo is an important game, a classic game, a game that warrants study and play by literally anyone. I only wish more reprints did their originals as much justice as this.

Review copy provided by publisher.