Playing Zendo

Last night, R and I went over to the house of friends who have a regular game night. Other than a general interest in playing games with people, we went over in order to learn to play Zendo. Zendo is a game played with the Icehouse pyramids available from Looney Labs. These are hollow, translucent colored pyramids that are stackable and come in three sizes (small, medium, and large), fitting within each other.


With Zendo, one player takes on the role of “Master” for the game. Everyone else is a player. The Master determines a rule for the game and then constructs two “koans” from Icehouse pyramids. One koan exhibits the rule and one koan does not exhibit the rule and they are marked with a white and black stone, respectively, to represent this. A koan that represents the rule is said to have the Buddha-nature, while one that does not meet the rule’s criteria, does not have a Buddha-nature. The players are not told what the rule actually is though. (It can be simple or complex, such as “A koan has the Buddha-nature if it has at least one green pyramid and exactly one upright pyramid.”)

Here is the example of the beginning of a game we played with the initial two koans from the Master set up and marked:

Beginning of a Game
It looks simple...

The players each take turns in order. In a player’s turn, he or she builds a koan from the unused pyramids, arranging them in any manner. The player then calls out “Master” or “Mondo.” If the player calls “Master”, the Master examines the koan and then marks it with a white stone if it has the Buddha-nature and a black stone if it does not. If the player calls “Mondo”, then all players at the table, using a black or white stone hidden in their hand, make a guess as to whether they think that the koan in question has the Buddha-nature. Those that guess correctly, are giving a green “guessing stone.” At the end of any player’s turn, that player can spend a guessing stone, and give the master their guess of what the rule for the game is. If they guess correctly, they win the game. Otherwise, their guessing stone is spent and the game continues to the next player.

A game in progress...

The job of the Master is to create a good game and to select koans that will be fun for the skill level of the players. In this regard, the Master is more like the game master in role-playing games and is not an opponent.

Our first few games went fairly quickly. R and I had never played before and we had two other players who had only played a few times. One of the fellows one two games in a row and I managed to win one. We then switched masters and the rule created by her turned out to be very hard for our table. After about 40 minutes of play, we were nearly out of available pyramids and everyone was still clueless as to the rule. That game wound up being a draw. The Master pointed out that it wasn’t even that hard of a rule (which is true in retrospect when we found out what it was) but we all went in the wrong direction with it.

We definitely had a good time and I like the game. Unfortunately, since you need at least three people to play (and five or six seems to be optimal), we won’t get to play it very often.