Demonstrating Zendo

Summary: running a demo of Zendo at a game store or convention should be fun and easy. The game has very few rules to learn before getting started, and it tends to draw people in. Here we discuss some of the things we have learned doing such demonstrations.

Game Stores: Your local hobby shop is owned and run by game fanatics, and they want to see people playing and buying games. Many stores have game tables set up for showing and playing games, and many have regular customers who come in to see the latest products. Game stores often call up Looney Labs to ask that someone come and demo their games, and it seems quite likely that most game stores would jump at the offer if you suggest coming and showing Zendo to them.

Equipment: Although many of us have been playing Zendo for years with a few stashes and glass beads we found independently, the Zendo box really makes demoing and even playing easier. The box keeps all the components together and easy to pass from player to player during the game. We find that you can demo Zendo with just one set if you expect to only have four or five people at one time. If you have two sets, you can be showing four or five people how to play while four or five others that you have finished teaching play with the other set. In the unlikely case that you will teach more than five people at the same time, I recommend a completely different approach than the one discussed below (write to me about that if necessary).

Setup: The pyramids themselves are quite appealing, and when I am wanting players I just set up two koans, one with a white stone and one with a black. I always use the same starting rule: a koan has the buddha nature if it has a red piece. In fact, I will sometimes even pull out the Zendo card with exactly that rule on it. When someone comes to look at my table, I ask them if they’d like to play, telling them that it will only take five minutes to learn the game.

Teaching: We worked over the text in the Zendo book quite a bit, and intentionally left lots of rules in the back. Many of them don’t come up in player’s first games, such as recycling pieces, what Master’s rules are illegal, or even terminology. When I teach the game, I just discuss the core rules and mention the other rules as they come up. There are at least two good approaches to teaching the game.

When I teach the game, I explain that I’m the Master and the rest of the players are students who are trying to figure out the rule. I indicate that the two sets of pieces are both called koans, and that I’ve already marked one as following my rule and the other as not. I start throwing out more koans, marking them all, and asking the players to just blurt out the rule if any of them guesses it. Someone usually will quite quickly, and then I talk about how turns work in the game. I demonstrate how on a player’s turn, he will create a new koan and can call `master’, and I’ll mark it. Then I demonstrate how he can create a koan and can instead call `mondo’, and I describe how everyone guesses the right marking for that koan. I then talk about how green stones are awarded for right guesses, and that they can be spent at the end of a player’s turn to make a guess. I also tell them that a wrong guess will be rewarded with a new koan to disprove the guess. Throughout the demo, I am happy to be interrupted with questions. Then I ask if people would like to play a game, sweep the koans away, and start with the rule that “the koans have the buddha nature if they are all flat,” which I pick from the Zendo cards. After that, I pick other Zendo cards for subsequent games, making their difficulty match the player’s abilities. Along the way, I point out that each koan has lots of information, with color, size, orientation, pointing, and touching, and that it is likely that only one or two factors are important.

When Kristin Looney teaches the game, she also sets up two koans and uses the same starting rule. When someone comes to her table, she tells them that this is a riddle to figure out, and asks the player to make a new koan, which she’ll mark for them. After a koan or two, she’ll ask them to guess how she will be marking the koan that a player just built. Next, she’ll talk about Mondo, giving players answering stones to use, and rewarding players with green stones. She introduces new concepts only as fast as she expects the players want to hear them, and concentrates the activity on solving the riddle. She’ll have the Zendo cards handy for people to look at, so they can see what some of the possible rules are, but will keep the rule that she is playing set aside, saying that the players are working on getting that rule. Eventually, the players get the rule, and they also learn how to play the game along the way.

Kristin’s method follows the time honored tradition of getting the players into the game as fast as possible. My method relies on the fact that the game has so few rules that it does not take long to learn them all before starting. Both are quite reasonable and effective, and you should use whatever works best for you.

Observers: Most of the time, you will be in the middle of a game when someone wanders over to see what is happening. One of the great things about demonstrating Zendo is that you, the Master, have lots of time to talk to observers while the game is proceeding. I always ask them, “do you want me to tell you what is going on here?” If the observer says yes, I give an overview, talking about who the master is and who the students are, about the stones marking koans, and how they are trying to figure out the rule. I usually then wait for questions about the game, and usually get them. If the observer says, “no, I’m just watching” then I reply, “you’ll probably be able to figure it out. Let me know if you have any questions.” After all, the game is about figuring something out, so it makes sense to let observers figure out what is going on.

After a game finishes, and since I always use easy rules for demonstrations they finish pretty quickly, I offer to let the observers join the game. For a demo, I don’t mind as many as five or even six students in a game.

Beginner Masters: There is a strong desire by new players to be master, and I try to let them do so. You have several choices when this happens.

I’m a very good player, so I let the new master play any rule he wants, although I remind him that rules always seem easier to the master than to the students, so he should always go for an easier variant of his rule. As a good player, I can get really hard rules, so I can make sure that a game ends in a reasonable amount of time. Meanwhile, I hold off on getting the rule if it seems too easy for me.

If you have too many players already, it may be better to sit out of the game and have the master secretly tell you the rule he wants to use. You can then confirm that it is reasonable, or give guidance.

Another option is to require that new masters pick a rule they want to use from the deck of Zendo cards. That is the safest way to ensure a reasonable game, but it does cut down on the creativity of new masters.

Lastly, if a new master’s rule is solved too quickly, I let that player be master again, if they wish. I don’t want players to feel like they lost out on their only chance to be master by following my advice to make an easy rule.

Slow Players: Most people have a hard time knowing what to do when making their first koans. I tell those people that they are indeed operating blind, and that they should feel free to make simple koans and see how the game develops. Nobody likes to feel foolish when they first get started. As we play, I pay close attention to how people are doing, and I’ll offer advice about koans to try when the players seem frustrated. Most importantly, I keep the rules I play at a level that will be interesting to the players.

Naturals: Often someone will walk over and observe a game, and after watching for a while or getting an overview from me, she will get a look that I’ve seen many times before. Her focus narrows onto the game, she’ll starting counting out koans that work and don’t, and she’ll see the pattern quickly. When she gets into the next game, she’ll get the rules so fast that I’ll have to give her a handicap or, if I’m lucky enough to have help, move her to another Zendo table with some more experienced players. I say “she” not to be politically correct, but because the naturals tend to be women. Zendo is a game of intuition and inductive logic, something that women are generally better at than men.

I’ve also noticed that there is no correlation between being good at other games and being good at Zendo. Many gamers are great at learning and exploiting game rules, or are great at resource management, or at negotiation, or many other game skills. Zendo is a completely different game, and none of those skills apply. I’ve taught couples how to play Zendo, and the man will say, “Hey honey, we found a game you can beat me at.” Damn right she can.