Matt Carlson: Review of Zendo


Zendo reminds of a great twist on the game of Mastermind, where a player would guess a solution by getting minimal feedback on successive guesses. Zendo uses plastic pieces arranged according to a secret rule, and then multiple players build structures in an attempt to figure out that overarching rule. The result is a great little deduction game that I even use to teach my students inductive reasoning in class.

  • Designers: Kory Heath, Andrew Looney
  • Publisher: Looney Labs
  • Players: 3-5
  • Ages: 8+
  • Time: 60 minutes
    (review copy provided by publisher)


In Zendo, players are provided sets of small plastic pyramids, blocks, and wedges that come in red, blue, and yellow. One player is the moderator for the game. He or she chooses a rule card from the deck supplied and then builds two little structures with some of the blocks. One structure follows the rule, while a second structure does not follow the rule. Examples of “the rule” might be: the structure must contain one block of a specific color, the structure needs to use only two pieces, or something more complicated like one blue piece must be touching a red piece. Players then take turns building structures and the moderator indicates whether they satisfy “the rule.” Alternatively, a player can build something and call for a Quiz. If so, all players vote on whether the new structure satisfies the rule. If a player guesses correctly (guess if it satisfies the rule or not), they earn a guessing token.

If a player has at least one guessing token, they can give up their turn to guess the rule instead. The active player turns in one of their tokens and states their version of the rule. The moderator then must build a structure that disproves the guessed rule. They can build something that fits “the rule” but not the active player’s guess or something that matches the active player’s guess but does not satisfy “the rule.” If the moderator is unable to disprove the guessed rule, the active player wins. If the guess is disproved, the active player can guess again, until they run out of guess tokens at which time the turn moves to the next player.

The previous version of the game was played with pyramids of three sizes and players were often encouraged to create their own “rules.” It also had a thinly layered theme of eastern philosophy. While I miss my Zendo set with extra colors and pieces, and I liked the theme, the new version is far more approachable. Having entirely different shapes helps to quickly identify a structure, and the theme always did make the game seem more complex than it actually is. The previous edition had a deck of cards with suggestions for “the rule”, but the new edition has players only use the enclosed cards. Cards contain a main rule with one or more modifiers (ex.“only one” and then spots for each color) players use provided clips to mark their rule card to remind them what modifiers they chose. (For the former rule, I would mark “red” on my card to remind me that it is “only one RED piece.”) Cards come in several difficulties. There are easy ones like “must contain exactly one blue piece” all the way up to difficult ones like “must contain more blue pieces than blocks.” I found in the previous version that rules tend to be harder to guess than one might think, so providing a good set of cards with labeled difficulties is a great way to play new or new-ish players. The current version also contains two different rulebooks. The game rules are explained in the first book, while the second book goes a bit deeper by giving advice to players, helping define the possible attributes to use in making rules, and two player options.

As I mentioned, I use Zendo in my classes to show students how inductive reasoning works and provide it in the context of the scientific method. It is a great way to show them how information can be gained even if one performs an experiment with a negative outcome. I’m glad to see the game back in print and this version is definitely more approachable for beginners. There’s nothing to prevent players from going off the tracks and making their own rules, but I agree with the designer that this should only be done in groups composed entirely of experienced players. Whether played competitively or simply for fun, Zendo is a great logic puzzle game. Some players may be better at guessing rules than others, but everyone can still have fun trying to predict which way a quiz structure may go. I’m typically lukewarm on abstract games, but I do enjoy Zendo played in a friendly, laid back manner.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y: I haven’t played the new version, but I’m a big fan of the old version. In fact, I have a “super” set which was made up of a whole bunch of Icehouse pieces that I got in an auction, so I have a bunch of different colors in there – and this variety led to a multitude of rules that could be created. Conceptually, I like the idea of tiered cards to use – and having a way for the Master to remember what he chose for the rule is nice. I suppose that players could still end up just making up their own rules once they exhaust the cards; but this setup will likely make initial games a bit smoother.

Dan Blum: It sounds as if this improves on the old version, but I’ll play curmudgeon here and wonder – as I did when this originally came out – if this is really so much better than Robert Abbott’s Eleusis that it’s worth paying for it. (Eleusis can be played with a few decks of standard playing cards.)

Jonathan F: This is one of my favorite games in the universe. That said, Dan is largely correct that a few decks of cards, a pile of coins, or even rocks & twigs on a camping trip are all you need to play, so my feelings are really about induction games in general. I like the tactile nature of my Zendo pyramids (old version), but would be happy to play with the new one any time. It might be the most fun to mix the new and old bits to create even more rule possibilities while remembering that the simple, elegant, and hard to guess rules are the best ones. For more on Robert Abbott, including links to interviews, see

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it! Matt Carlson, Dale Y, Jonathan F
I like it.
Not for me…

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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1 Response to Matt Carlson: Review of Zendo

  1. Valerie Matthews says:

    I still use zendo to teach hypothesis testing in my classes as well. It’s hard to believe, but I think it was almost 15 years ago when we first talked about this, Matt! I’m glad I xan tell my students it’s in print!

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