Design by H. Jean Vanaise|
Published by Mayfair Games
2 – 4 Players, 45 minutes – 1 hour
Review by Greg J. Schloesser


Japanese gardens are known for their symmetry and peaceful atmosphere they evoke.  The ones I have visited are always very pleasant and have the effect of cleansing the mind.  The game Zen Garden can be a quite a bit more stressful as players are challenged to construct a garden by forming specific patterns of various types of terrain and garden features.

The game has two versions or ways to play—Zen Garden and Rock Garden—with the latter game being a bit more advanced and, in my opinion, more interesting to play.  The base design is credited to H. Jean Vanaise, with Rock Garden being designed by Coleman Charlton.  Both versions involve the same essential mechanisms of laying tiles and attempting to form specified patterns.  I am going to concentrate on Rock Garden as it is the version that will undoubtedly be of greater interest to seasoned gamers and offers the most interesting choices and decisions.  The Zen Garden version will be described at the end.

zen-garden-tiles-frontAt the heart of both versions are the double-sided tiles.  One side shows a landscape—water, trees, rock, grass or lantern—while the reverse shows a pattern and type symbol.  Each side also indicates the color that is on the reverse of the tile.  The game begins with one lantern tile on the table as the starting tile in the garden and three set to the side as a “drafting” row.  Each player begins with five tiles (one lantern and four more drawn randomly) and twelve markers of her color.

Each turn the active player will play a landscape tile to the garden, placing it adjacent to a previously played tile.  Alternatively, he can replace a previously placed lantern tile with a landscape tile of a type that is already adjacent to that lantern tile.  The removed lantern tile is then placed into the garden as described above.  

Once a tile is placed, the player may take two actions:

Play another landscape tile.

Play a pattern tile to place a token.  The goal of the game is to form patterns that you can claim as points.  However, in order to claim a pattern, one step is to have one of your markers on one or more of the tiles that form the pattern.  To place a marker, the player must identify the tile upon which he desires to place a marker.  That tile must be in a group—adjacent tiles all of the same landscape type—consisting of less than five tiles.  Further, the tile cannot be a lantern tile and cannot have any other markers on it.

zen-garden-tiles-backThe player must then play a pattern tile (the reverse side of a landscape tile) whose type symbol matches the landscape tile upon which he desires to place a marker.  Additionally, the number on the pattern tile (which ranges from 3 – 5) must match the size of the group into which the player will place the marker.  If these two criteria are met, the player may place a marker. This is trickier than it sounds.

This process is initially confusing, but becomes easier as the game progresses.  I have played with one player who never fully grasped this procedure, but for most it was no issue.

Score a Pattern tile.  Scoring patterns is the ultimate goal.  To do this, the player must play a pattern tile (color doesn’t matter) and show that the existing pattern is formed by identical landscape tiles in the garden.  The matched pattern must consist of 4 – 6 tiles of the same landscape type (no more than two lantern tiles may be included) and at least one of those tiles must contain the player’s marker.   

If all of these criteria are met, the player scores up to 3 points, with fewer points being scored if lantern tiles were included in the pattern.  Any markers the player had on the pattern are retrieved, and the player sets aside a number of markers equal to the points he scored.  These set-aside markers form the player’s score pool.  As the player scores more patterns, his overall score will grow, but he will also have fewer markers to place onto the board.

Once a player completes their actions, she draws 1 – 3 tiles, depending upon the number of actions she took.  The more actions taken, the fewer tiles one can draw.

The game ends if the draw stack of tiles expires, or if all of a player’s markers are scored or are in the garden and she has at least six markers in her scoring pool.  In my experience, this usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour.

Zen Garden: Rock Garden is an interesting game that involves spatial recognition and tiles that have multiple uses.  Tiles can either be used as landscapes, to place markers or to complete patterns.  Use a tile for one of these and it is now unavailable for another function.  That decision alone can often be tough.  I tend not to do well with games using multi-functional cards or tiles as I often get confused and use a tile for one function, only to realize…too late…that I had planned on using it for something else.

While the tiles themselves are uncluttered, it still takes a few turns to get accustomed to the symbols denoting the tile’s type and how they relate to the placing of markers and fulfilling of patterns.  It can also be a bit tedious continuously flipping the tiles back and forth to study each side.

I find the game challenging.  One wants to form patterns and get markers placed so scoring can be possible.  Multiple players can take advantage of a large (but not too large – six tiles is the limit) terrain type, which can be scored several times.  Properly placing one’s markers may also allow a single player to score a terrain type several times.  Clumping one’s markers together, however, can cause many or all of them to be removed if they are all included in a pattern scoring.  It is better to include as few markers as possible in a scoring so that the other markers can remain on the board for future scoring opportunities.

While my knowledge of the design and layout of Zen gardens is admittedly miniscule, I do understand that they are designed to evoke an atmosphere of peace and serenity.   The tile artwork in the game, although basic, is pleasing, uncluttered and calm.  The game, however, can be angst-inducing and rather cerebral.  While there is some luck involved, one’s choices and decisions have a far greater impact.  I enjoy the game, but have encountered others who found it somewhat confusing and not fun to play.  My suggestion would that you pay this garden a visit or two before purchasing a season pass.


I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly describe the game’s title version: Zen Garden.  This is certainly a game for beginners, both to this game and to the hobby in general.  The tiles are used, but there are no markers needed.  Players each receive a secret pattern tile and attempt to lay tiles into the garden in a fashion to match this tile.

A player’s turn is quite simple:  place a tile to the garden following the same rules as in the Rock Garden version.  Alternatively, the player may replace a lantern tile with a terrain tile following the rules described above.  The player draws a new tile and the game continues.

At the end of a player’s turn if there are two different formations in the garden with different landscape types that match her pattern tile, she may reveal it and score points.  The first player to achieve this scores five points, while each subsequent player scores four points minus one for each turn that passes before they reveal their pattern.  There are bonuses to be earned for matching the terrain type on your pattern tile to the landscape tiles, using no lanterns, etc.

The advantage of the Zen Garden version is that it is easy to teach and learn, and it plays quickly without much if any confusion.  As such, it is suitable for folks new to the hobby.  The disadvantages, however, are that there really aren’t many meaningful decisions to be made and one can inadvertently be helping one’s opponents when placing tiles.  The game is simple and, for most gamers, rather bland and unexciting.


4 (Love it):
3 (Like it): Greg S.
2 (Neutral):
1 (Not for me):

About gschloesser

Greg Schloesser is the founder of the Westbank Gamers and co-founder of the East Tennessee Gamers. He is also a prolific reviewer of games and a regular contributor to numerous gaming publications and websites, including Counter, Knucklebones, Boardgame News, Boardgame Geek, Gamers Alliance and many others. Greg has been a gaming enthusiast his entire life, growing up in our hobby mainly on the war game side. His foray onto the internet exposed him to the wonderful world of German and European games and now nearly all of his gaming time is devoted to this area of our hobby. He travels to several gaming conventions each year and is the co-founder of Gulf Games, a regional gaming get-together held in the Southern USA. Greg was born in 1961 and lived his entire life in New Orleans before moving to East Tennessee in 2005. He is married and has one daughter (now married.)
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