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Building Resistance to Chaos in Two Rooms on a Train to Numenera with Zendo: A GenCon wrap up Part 2 – Pyramid Scheme

zendo“Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic” – Lewis Carroll

Hello to my three readers. It’s been a while…I’ll say it, too long, since my last update. I’d say that life got in the way, and it wouldn’t be false, but I need to make more time to do this, which is what I’m going to try to do starting here.

I played a lot of pretty awesome games those crazy nights of GenCon. One of those nights, my friend Curt drug me out to go play some new games, one I had heard of but never played, and one I’d never heard of. This post will discuss the latter, a gem called Zendo.

Zendo is a game of INductive reasoning, which is not to be confused with DEductive reasoning. I guess it’s important to explain the difference before we go on.

Deductive reasoning is the process of concluding that something must be true because it adheres to a principle that is known to be true. For example, the sum of the angles in any triangle is always 180 degrees. Whatever triangle you think of obeys this rule, it will always be true. Deductive reasoning is logically valid.

Inductive reasoning , while related, is not the same thing. Inductive reasoning is where you conclude that a principle is true because the cases you’ve been exposed to are true. If the only fish you have ever seen are goldfish, inductive reasoning would suggest that all fish are goldfish.

With deductive reasoning, the law proves the case. With inductive reasoning, the case makes the law. In this they are opposites.

See? Pretty pretty pretty.
See? Pretty pretty pretty.

Still with me? Good. Onto the game. You need at least 3 players for Zendo, and the pieces. Zendo is not available anymore by itself, but there are a number of different options for what pieces you use. I was taught the game using pyramids from Looney Labs, and purchased Ice Dice for myself, though I imagine you could substitute Legos for these. Worst case scenario, apparently there are bunches of games that you can play with the same pieces.

You’ll also need 3 different colored tokens. We used glass beads, which is what I will continue to use, but anything should suffice, even pocket change.

There are two roles in the game, One Master and all remaining players are Students. The Master thinks up a rule and uses the pyramids to build two structures, one that obeys the rule, and one that does not. S/he marks the one that obeys the rule by placing a white token in front of it, and the one that does not by placing a black token in front of it. Now the game is on.

The Students are trying to be the first to discover the Master’s rule. On a student’s turn, they will build a structure using that they feel obeys the Master’s rule, then announces either “Master” or “Mondo”

If a Student declares “Master,” they are asking if their structure follows the rule. If it does, the Master will place a white token in front of the structure, if it does not, the Master will place a black token in the same place. Play then proceeds clockwise, with all Students benefitting from the knowledge ascertained on other players turns.

If a Student declares “Mondo,” before the Master marks the structure, all Students get to guess if they think that it will follow the rule. We did this by palming a white stone if we thought that it did and a black stone if it did not, with all players revealing simultaneously. Students who guessed correctly gain a green Guessing stone.

On your turn, you may spend a Guessing stone to tell the Master what the rule is. If you’re correct, congratulations! You’ve won the round and become the new Master. If you are incorrect, the burden of proof falls to the Master who then must build a structure that both obeys the rule and disproves the incorrect guess.

That’s really the game in a nutshell. Simple, but like a handful of other great games, there is an exceptional depth and elegance in its simplicity. Let’s talk a little about this depth.

What makes a rule? There are a number of variables that rules can be created by that include:
– Number of pyramids used
– Color(s) of pyramids used
– Size(s) of pyramids used (there are 3 different sizes)
– Elevation/Grounding (what pyramids are touching the table versus what pyramids are stacked on top of one another)

The Master can mix and match these however s/he pleases. For example, the rule can be “must have blue,” or “must have a large piece,” or “must have a large blue piece.” Obviously there are more variables than the common ones I’ve listed, and the combination of them is limited only by the imagination (and cruelty) of the Master.

Can you figure out the rule?
Can you figure out the rule?

Simple rules may be quickly figured out, while more complex rules may take a while. This is where the game can get tricky. Being a good Master is an act of finesse. It’s very easy to make a rule that’s too difficult to find and really easy to underestimate the difficulty of your rule. It’s important to remember that the Students start with very little information, and you control a hefty share of the information they gain over the course of the game. Even with a relatively simple rule, there are a lot of variables for the Students to have to think about whether or not they are relative to the rule. Your rule may be “Contains one medium piece” but your Students have to wonder if color, number of pyramids, elevation, etc. are relevant when formulating their guesses.

The Master wants their rule to be challenging, but it’s a fine line to walk between challenging and obscenely difficult. If you make a rule that’s too hard, it takes a long time to figure out, which runs a high likelihood of frustrating the Students and creating a bad experience all around. In other words, if your rule is “Must contain a prime number of elevated pyramids of different sizes, at least one of which must be red” you are an asshole and Zendo is not for you. Coincidentally, neither are friends. That’s a Zendon’t. Don’t be that guy.

If your rule is too simple, at worst, the round is over quickly, a new round begins and you get a better feel for the capabilities of the players at the table. If your rule is too hard, no one wins.

It’s also up to the Master to control the flow and tempo of the game. For example, when someone uses a Guess token and they are incorrect, you can build a structure very similar to the failing one, which limits the information gained from the guess, or you can build a vastly different one than what has been shown, giving a lot more information to the Students and speeding up the game.

Zendo is probably my choice of Best in Show for GenCon 2013. Which is amusing as the game is quite old. It’s not the one I played the most, by far, but it’s the one I thought the most about afterwards. I like a lot of things about this game, namely…

It’s simple. Not a lot of moving parts or complicated rules to intimidate non-gamers.

It’s an excellent game to pull non-gamers in with. I explained this game to a non-gamer recently and she said she was excited to play it.

Visual appeal. The game itself is pretty and is good even for people not playing. I could easily see getting a fair amount of enjoyment just watching a game play out and trying to figure out the rule, and most likely being wrong.

It provides an interesting blend of cooperative and competitive play. Everyone wants to guess the rule and become the new Master, but only one will, and the Students have to work together to make it happen.

It scales well with multiple people. You are only limited by your amount of playing pieces, although I think that of you had more than six players, it might be difficult to keep up with all of the information and become unwieldy.

It works the brain in a good way, and can be a profoundly educational game. This review says it exponentially better than I do. I bought this not only for me, but more for my daughter.

It’s a very relaxed and quiet game. Barring light table talk and guesses, this game is almost completely silent. There is a competitive element, but it never manifests in a negative way.

Most importantly, it’s fun and addictive. You have a great game when you stop physically playing but your brain keeps on going.

I’m not historically the biggest fan of logic games, and I thoroughly enjoyed Zendo, enough to think about it a lot, enough to buy pieces for it, and enough to write about it for my dedicated pair of readers. If you enjoy abstracts and/or logic at all, you should check this game out. You won’t be sorry.

What’s a game that has been rocking your world lately?

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6 thoughts on “Building Resistance to Chaos in Two Rooms on a Train to Numenera with Zendo: A GenCon wrap up Part 2 – Pyramid Scheme

    1. I bought 2 Ice Dice sets, which if I’m not mistaken, gave me 50 or so pyramids, which should be plenty. People generally won’t try to make Rules that the pieces can’t support. The game is a lot of fun though, and not a harsh buy-in.

      1. well I almost bought a set last time I was in my FLGS.. I might bite next time. I played Binary Homeworlds once and it was delicious even though I lost stupidly. This might be a great starter game to get people used to the pieces.

  1. BABBIT! I started reading this article, and you said “My friend Curt” and “zendo at gencon” so I scrolled down, and was shocked to see it was you! You may remember me as one of Curt’s friends, specifically the one with all the apple juice and grape juice. Anyway. I shall now read your article.

      1. Of course I would remember you! To be fair I found this article on reddit. Curt thinks so highly of you,which is probably the Canadian in him. but it still counts! Anyway this was a great article, and we should try to get a game of Zendo in online sometime. Also you should join us in #boardgames on freenode some time ( http://webchat.freenode.net/?channels=%23boardgames ), Curt is even known to hang out there.

        Anyway, back on subject, I thought this was a really great article, and really well written. I too have been thinking about Zendo a lot since we played, and I just actually ordered my own pyramids a couple of days ago. I am now looking forward to reading more of your stuff, and will probably be the rest of my work day!

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