The hall in a Zen monastery in which monks meditate, eat, and sleep.

Each monk is allocated the space of one tatami (1m x 2m) in which to conduct their daily devotions.

Zendo is an Icehouse game invented by Kory Heath, being the Icehouse equivalent of such logical deduction games as Mastermind and Eleusis. It is deeply inspired by Bongard Problems, those tricky deductive association puzzles made famous by Douglas Hofstadter, which are proving to be a provoking microdomain in cognitive science.

That aside, Zendo casts the players as a Master and eir Students. The play involves scrutiny of small, self-contained arrangements of Icehouse Pieces, termed Koans.

The Master, as an overseeing referee, invents a simple rule about the placement of Icehouse pieces within a Koan. Koans which comply to this rule are deemed to have the Buddha Nature. Some examples might be:

  • A Koan has the Buddha Nature iff it contains at least one small red piece.
  • A Koan has the Buddha Nature iff it contains a small piece stacked on a large piece.
  • A Koan has the Buddha Nature unless it contains standing pieces
  • A Koan has the Buddha Nature if the pip count of standing pieces is greater than 4.

-- but anything goes. Once the Master has decided upon a rule, e creates one Koan with the Buddha Nature and one without, marking them with a white and a black stone respectively. Once done, the bulk of the game begins. Players take turns to create probatory Koans, and get them marked. The goal is not to create Koans with the Buddha Nature, but rather to deduce the Master's Rule by examining its boundaries. Once a Student has formulated a wording of the rule the Master cannot disprove via the formation of a Koan, that student has acheived Satori (and, incidentally, wins the game.)

All in all, a fun addition to the Icehouse canon, and, as with most great games, a seemingly inevitable invention after the event. Recommended.

Zendo is, as noted above, a board game of logic and deduction. However, things have changed a bit. In 1996, Kristin and Andrew Looney shut down Icehouse Games (the pyramids were becoming too expensive to make), and started Looney Labs, with the intent of creating a card game. They succeed with the popular Fluxx game(s), and eventually started making games with the Icehouse Pyramids again in 2006. Zendo was re-released in 2017.

The core game is the same as the original, but there were changes. First, the game is stripped of all references to students, masters, and koans. We now have players, a moderator, and rules. There are still three pieces, but instead of small, medium, and large, we have pyramid, wedge, and block. Instead of five colors, we have just three (red, blue, and yellow). And there are no pips on any pieces. This does not hurt game-play at all.

Zendo has an additional rule that was not noted above, but it has not changed between editions; when a player makes a construction, they may choose to have all players guess if it will be declared correct or incorrect by the moderator. All players who guess correctly get a small green cube (originally called a 'guessing stone'); and a player must spend one of these cubes in order to make a guess at the rule. This is an okay mechanic, and keeps people from getting bogged down on making random guesses early on in the game; however, when playing with experienced players this mechanic is often dropped with no ill effects.

The new release also contains a deck of cards that have rules on them leveled by difficulty. This is a very useful brake on the moderator's inventiveness, and I recommend them for new players.


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