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Tabletop Tuesdays: Puzzle Making Trainer

System Requirements:
Tabletop and Literacy
Kory Heath

Zendo is an inductive reasoning game by Kory Heath. Heath reworked Eluesis, a game designed to play with a standard 52-card deck by Robert Abott. Eluesis was first published in Scientific American, June 1959, but has been published several times since in card game rulebooks. Heath created a complete boxed set with colorful transparent pyramids, guessing tokens, sample puzzles, rules and a new Buddhist theme rather than the original Judeo-Christian theme. Zendo is more colorful and tactile because it uses 3D pyramids rather than standard cards.

It's an inductive reasoning game because you are given specifics and must work thorough to find the general rule that produces the specifics. In inductive reasoning, you follow a course from observation > hypothesis > theory, while deductive reasoning flows in the opposite direction: theory > hypothesis > observation.

Before play, a Master (puzzle maker) is chosen and all other players become Students. The Master creates and secretly writes down the rule or chooses one from a sample rule deck. The Master than creates two Koans (experiments) that are true and false to the secret rule. A Koan is a specific arrangement of pyramids that either follow (true) or break (false) the secret rule.

A black stone is put on the Koan that breaks the rule and a white stone is put on Koan that follows the rule. The Students then take turns. A Student first builds a Koan. The student then declares Master or Mondo. When Master is declared, the Master will mark the new Student's Koan with a black or white stone. Declaring Mondo will make all Students guess simultaneously by holding out a black or white stone. A correct guess is rewarded with a green guessing stone.

Finally the Student has the option of guessing the rule, by paying one green stone. If the rule that the Student offers is wrong, then the Master creates a new Koan that follows the Master's rule but disproves the Student's guess. If however, the Student guesses correctly, then the Student wins the game.

The pyramids come in four different colors and three sizes, are hollow, and have pips on them. You can get creative and use any aforementioned features, orientation, placement of the pyramids, to create rules. A simple rule might be, "... have a piece point to another piece." A nearly impossible rule to figure out that Board Game Geek user Ron Laufer mentions is "...if and only if the sum of the pips is a prime number."

What may be interesting for game designers is that playing Zendo teaches the art of creating the golden median of puzzles -- not too easy and yet not impossible. The reason that a deck of sample rules is included in the box is because most beginners make unrealistically hard puzzles. Beginners wrongly think that what is obvious for them must be easy for others.

Zendo is out of print, but as Kory Heath outlines on his game page, you can get all the components of the game separately to build your own set. Variants of Zendo are played on forums like on Board Game Geek, using text, icons or images rather than physical pieces. You can also practice with Zendo-San, a fanware AI by William Shlaer, that plays a more restrictive variant because the app lacks real 3D modeling.


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The core game may be out of print, but Looney Labs is still making and selling the pyramids, which are their invention actually. They are called Icehouse pyramids and can be used for write a few games, and currently sell under the name "Treehouse."

EDIT: apparently they are now called Looney Pyramids, and they sell them in several varieties of packages.

While I'm a fan of Icehouse

While I'm a fan of Icehouse pyramids as a game system (they can be used for a LOT of games - the original game, Icehouse, is actually a very interesting realtime strategy/dexterity hybrid), I actually like New Eleusis better as a game because of its scoring system.

In Zendo, the game is simply played until one of the students is able to correctly state the hidden rule; the master is essentially DM/GM, trying to provide a fun challenge to the rest of the players but not really playing "with" or "against" them.

By contrast, New Eleusis (rules and other stuff at http://matuszek.org/eleusis0.html ) scores "students" based on, generally, how close they were to figuring out the clue - when you guess correctly your hand size goes down, when incorrect your hand size goes up, so smaller hand size means you made fewer mistakes. "Students" score points equal to the difference between cards in their hand and cards in worst player's hand (so the player with the largest hand always scores 0). The "master" scores the best score among the players - incentivizing the master to make a rule that is hard enough to totally stump some players while making it easy enough that at least one player will figure it out. While it adds a bit of complexity, once you understand the scoring system you realize that it really pushes players to get better at both deducing rules as students, and making "good" rules as masters.

New Eleusis on Forums?

Zendo variant using icons is played on Board Game Geek forums. Could New Eleusis be played on a forum?