PuzzleNation Product Review: Zendo

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

Experienced puzzlers are familiar with deduction as a puzzle-solving method. They may know it from solving logic puzzles, determining who brought what to Thanksgiving dinner. They may know it from asking questions in Clue in order to eliminate possibilities and figure out who killed Mr. Boddy, where, and how. They may know it from brain teasers, riddles, puzzles, or card games.

But they’ve probably never tried their hand at a deduction puzzle game quite like Zendo.

In Zendo, the players pull pieces from a communal pile in order to build different structures, using pyramids, wedges, and blocks. One player, the moderator, chooses a secret rule for the players to uncover, and builds two structures. One of these structures follows the secret rule, and one does not, and both are marked as such.

Secret rules can be as simple as “must contain all three shapes” or “must contain exactly four pieces.” They can be as complex as “must contain more blue pieces than blocks” or “must contain at least one yellow piece pointing at a blue piece.” Some rules involve how pieces touch, or how they’re stacked, while others demand no touching or stacking whatsoever. The field is wide open at the start of the game.

Players then try to deduce the secret rule by building structures themselves, arranging pieces from the communal pile into various patterns and asking the moderator for more information.

[Can you tell what the rule is by looking at these two structures?]

They can do so in one of two ways. The first is by saying “Tell,” wherein the moderator marks the player’s structure with either a white token or black token, depending on whether the structure fits the secret rule.

The second is by saying “Quiz,” wherein every player guesses whether the given player’s structure fits the rule. Every player who guesses right gets a guessing token.

Guessing tokens, as you might suspect, are spent to guess the secret rule. But the moderator doesn’t answer with a simple yes or no. The moderator instead must build a new structure, which will either fit the secret rule (but not the player’s guess, and get marked with a white token) or fits the player’s guess (but not the secret rule, and gets marked with a black token).

This back-and-forth between players can be frustrating or informative, depending on how specifically you frame your guesses. It also tests the creative mettle of your moderator, which adds a curious wrinkle to the game. Not only are you competing with your fellow players to figure out the secret rule, but you have to deal with the often crafty skills of the moderator.

[Does this second sculpture give you any hints?]

It’s an ever-evolving puzzle that can change in an instant with a new bit of information. You might confirm you’re on the right track, or realize you’ve been looking at the structures incorrectly all along, and you’re back to square one (or, you know, pyramid one or wedge one).

But thankfully, Zendo is easily scalable for solvers of any age or solving skill level. You can keep the secret rule simple or make it complex, depending on who is playing. And if you’re the moderator, you have a free hand in determining how much information your structures reveal.

Like Fluxx and other games under the Looney Labs umbrella, Zendo has tons of replay value, and it’s a puzzle-game that ages well, since solvers with more experience are not only better players, but more devious moderators as well. This is some seriously puzzly fun.

Zendo is available from the crafty crew at Looney Labs, and it’s also featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!


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