Zen Blocks

Originally planned to be part of the Game Systems series, this is a July 2005 interview by Ron Hale-Evans with game designer Jim Deacove of Family Pastimes (http://www.familypastimes.com), in which we talk about

I wrote a series of articles for The Games Journal about game systems, or sets of components that can be used to play multiple games, such as a standard deck of cards. The fourth article in the series briefly mentioned a cooperative rock-paper-scissors game designed by Jim Deacove of Family Pastimes, the subject of this interview.

The fifth article was about polyform game systems, including dominoes and polyominoes. In July 2005, I had a few questions for Jim about his game Zen Blocks. This turned into a long interview, but unfortunately, The Games Journal folded before I could finish my article, so I set the material aside for a long while. Nearly five years later, in May 2010, I was lying awake one night, when it occurred to me that I had an interesting interview about game systems that no one had ever seen.

Jim has designed many games, game systems, and books, most of them cooperative, and I have a number of them, including Galaxy, the Co-op Games Manual, and Co-op Parlor Games. However, my enduring favorite is probably the contemplative Zen Blocks.

Here is my July 2005 interview with Jim.

RON HALE-EVANS: Jim, I've really come to enjoy and appreciate Zen Blocks. I had been eyeing them online for some time, and when I saw an old set in a used bookstore, I snapped them up. I find that I can finish Level 2 (matching tops and bottoms) when playing with a 10-year-old girl I know, but that two grownups -- my wife and I -- can't finish Level 2 alone or together. Hmm...

I read a review of Zen Blocks on BoardGameGeek today that mentioned there are two different editions. One is made entirely of cubes; the other has only one cube, with the rest of the blocks shaped like two cubes glued together, like 3D dominoes. That's the one I have. Why did you make two different editions?

JIM DEACOVE: The all-cube edition came later. I wanted to add complexity to the game. While the original contained the 3D domino form, I felt that it was limited to being too much like a puzzle, even having more than one way to form the overall cube. With 28 cubes dealt out to the players, there is a more gamelike feel to it. Also, there are far more ways for the final overall cube to be formed.

Q: Interesting. How do you distinguish between games -- especially cooperative games -- and puzzles? I have my own answer to this question, but I am interested to hear your answer, because you have made a career out of designing cooperative games.

JIM DEACOVE: I ask myself the same question about all the games I play, competitive or cooperative. Card solitaires? Games or puzzles? Board games such as Clue, 221B Baker Street, and so on? Games or puzzles?

I also design what I call puzzles and they feel very different than my games. My simple rule of thumb is that puzzles have one solution and when you figure that out, the puzzle is solved.

A game may have only one objective, but there are many paths to get there. A game may also have several objectives with many paths to get there. Finally, there is the replay value to consider. Games can be played many times and all its possibilities not exhausted, while a puzzle once solved is a done deal. At least for the person who solved it.

Q: Do you prefer one edition to the other? Which is the current edition?

JIM DEACOVE: The current edition has the 28 cubes. I prefer it, although because of the easy way the first edition came to me in a dream I still retain much affection for it.

Q: Within each edition, are all copies of Zen Blocks manufactured with the same set of blocks?

JIM DEACOVE: Yes, there is a very specific set of printing formulas for each edition. The current edition drove the silkscreening companies crazy that we jobbed out the work to (after the game became popular and we couldn't handle the volume). Of course, 28 blocks, 6 sides each, results in a lot more work. They really messed up the job, so we do it ourselves again, to make sure it gets done precisely the way I want it.

Q: Recent copies of the game have much nicer boxes. Have the rules also been improved since 1972? Are there any new games, especially ones with different core mechanics?

JIM DEACOVE: The basic idea of forming a cube remains the same. Although, when I have been demonstrating the game at schools, I have created a new game that abandons the cube concept and is linear, more like the dominoes which inspired the original 13 block game. I haven't fully tested the linear version, so I haven't added it to the rules yet. [May 2010: Jim tells me that all new copies of Zen Blocks now include the "linear domino game", called Domino Zen. If you email him at info@familypastimes.com, he will send you a PDF of the rules for the new game.]

Q: If I understand you correctly, there are only two published rulesets for Zen Blocks: the 1972 rules for the first edition, and the 1996 rules for the second edition. Is that right?

JIM DEACOVE: Yes. Just two generations of the game... so far.

Q: The new game sounds like fun. I think a totally new game would make Zen Blocks a full game system, so I am very interested in the linear domino game. Have people sent you any new games that can be played with Zen Blocks that you haven't published for some reason?

JIM DEACOVE: No, people have just responded by saying that the highest level of play with the 28-cube version is not possible and that we must have printed the blocks incorrectly. This is the most common response, even though there are more possible solutions with 28 cubes.

Q: How do the rules differ between the two editions?

JIM DEACOVE: Both rules have the same basic matching requirements and the same object of forming a large cube. We no longer print the version you have - a collector's item! We also no longer use furniture oil and instead use water based lacquers to finish the blocks. The oil, like Rembrandt paintings, darkens over the years and can make the symbols disappear.

Q: True, but the patina adds to the atmosphere of the game. I will certainly hold onto my first edition. Its patina gives it a little wabi-sabi.

Would you mind describing your initial inspiration from a dream in more detail? This kind of thing has happened to me on a few occasions, and it always fascinates me to hear stories about it from other people.

JIM DEACOVE: I always keep a notebook with me, when sleeping, when relaxing in a bathtub or a sauna, when walking around, when having tea at my favorite tea room. Those moments are gifts and I want to be ready to receive them.

If I remember correctly, various circumstances contributed to this particular dream.

First, I was working in our woodshop helping to make the large co-operative table games we used to make (and now only sell blueprints to make your own). I loved handling wood, sanding the pieces, fitting them together, and I recall holding a few of the little offcuts at a certain angle so that the sunlight was reflecting on one plane of the piece. I was quite mesmerized and began playing with the pile of offcuts, quite mindlessly. Then back to the work at hand.

Secondly, I was very absorbed with reading various works by Alan Watts at the time and quite fascinated with the Japanese kanji, their forms and meanings. The whole yin/yang concept obviously made an impression on me, because a few nights later, I kept waking up with these pictures of cubes with Japanese symbols in my mind. I started copying them down on my bedside notebook. I would wake up, write down stuff, go back to sleep, wake up again and add more diagrams until the process seemed to end.

Next day, I took the diagrams to the woodshop and with a felt tip marker made a set of blocks. This set was closer to the 28 cube version than the original version. I decided to reduce the number of blocks and make the double blocks with two symbols already together on the sides. The version you have.This was simpler for us to make (and if we can't make it, we don't do it. As a result many a very elaborate game idea thus remains in my idea box!).

I wanted to verify what all the symbols meant, since only some of them were in Watts's books. So, I visited the Japanese embassy in our nearby capital, Ottawa, with my diagrams and asked a very professorial gentlemen there for some clarification of meanings. He gave me very elaborate, complicated answers. I left confused and disappointed. I saw no future in the game. I try to appeal to mainstream game players and not to a rarefied audience.

While driving out of the city, I saw a Japanese grocery store, and guided by a hunch, I stopped, went in, and spoke to a very gentle older lady, showing her my diagrams. She gave me short, one or two word translations for each symbol, which I copied down. I also asked her to write in her own hand, how she would make the symbols. She did those for me, very neatly and precisely. I have used her renderings ever since for our silkscreens.

Q: The origin of Zen Blocks is quite a story. Thank you for sharing that with me. By the way, I take a notebook with me everywhere as well. It's a good practice for creative people.

Why did you choose these six symbols in particular (Heaven/Earth, Sun/Rain, and Lion/Lamb)?

JIM DEACOVE: The dream provided them, the lady defined them, and they seemed to fit the overall concept. For example, she said Sun meant Good Fortune, Rain meant Bad Luck. Lamb meant gentle. Lion meant the opposite. The metaphoric potential of the symbols was made clear by this kind lady and I still love her for her contribution.

Q: What do you think of other designers' cooperative games, such as Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings game, or the recent game Shadows Over Camelot?

JIM DEACOVE: I have played Lord of the Rings, but not Shadows Over Camelot. I just acquired a copy of the latter and look forward to trying it out at our next game club session.

I think that Lord of the Rings is a very strong game, and I do call it a game, even though there was some debate in Counter magazine and elsewhere that it is not a true game. I enjoyed the chap who scolded the naysayers who claim in one instance that they play games not for blood but for the social experience but in the second instance are critical of Lord of the Rings because it is nothing but a social experience.

It is also interesting how gamers are so intent on finding the way to break the game, thereby proving that the game has no replay value. The one criticism I have is that at the end of the rules, either Knizia or else his publisher has added a competitive way to play the game. The suggestion seems to be that the co-operative way to play may not be challenging enough so here's a better way to play it.

I understand from the box description of Shadows, there is a competitive twist provided to make the game more thrilling as well. It seems that publishers are very wary of offering a purely cooperative game. Possibly, they want to attract competitive gamers to the genre and not limit their market.

Q: Yes, I think that's true. I also think Shadows may be influenced by the Lord of the Rings Sauron Expansion. I gather from the fact that you didn't mention it that you may not be familiar with this item. Knizia designed an expansion to the basic game that adds another player, who takes on the role of Sauron. Any time the die would be rolled in the original game, Sauron steps in to make the situation as bad as he can for the hobbits. So there's a strongly competitive element in Lord of the Rings as many groups play it: the hobbits versus Sauron. In Shadows Over Camelot, one of the characters is optionally a traitor and works secretly against the other players, while pretending to work with them. Thus, there's a one-against-many mechanic again.

JIM DEACOVE: Yes, I have heard about the expansion, but have not played it.

Q: I got to play the new edition of Arkham Horror over the weekend. Are you familiar with it? It's based on the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. It is purely cooperative and reminded me of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game, which is not surprising, as that game was probably influenced by the old edition of Arkham Horror. How do you feel about "dark" themes in cooperative games?

JIM DEACOVE: The theme of a game is very important for me. I once played a Dracula game and found that the theme interfered with my appreciation of the game as well as any mechanisms that I generally enjoy studying. This giving priority to theme content also tends to cloud my appreciation of most war games. At some point in such games I ask myself, What is all this effort and strategizing about? The neat mechanisms are not enough to sustain my interest.

Q: Do you personally play competitive games in your game group, or are you philosophically against them?

JIM DEACOVE: Yes, our group does play quite a variety of games and I must say that European games were a major factor in not only reviving, but also expanding the activities of our game group.

I am not so much philosophically against competitive games as incompetent at them. I tend to see how another player could make a very good move and if I don't watch my tongue, I tell them. Everyone gets irritated at me and house rules are now, ironically, that helping is a form of cheating.

I play competitive games for the social interaction (yes, I am one of those kind of gamers) and mostly to learn what other designers are doing. Also, since we manufacture my games, I like examining other companies' games to see how they glue their boards, diecut their pieces, make their boxes and try to learn something from the true professionals.

I still consider myself an amateur and our company a little fish in very big ocean. After all these years, there is still a magic and thrill about opening up a new game, fondling the pieces and then seeing how the whole thing works.

Q: If you have any other cooperative games that can be classed as game systems, I'd like to learn about those too; it might be interesting to do an article on cooperative game systems sometime.

JIM DEACOVE: Most likely you will find only my Strategy games would fit - possibly Warp 'n Woof, Yin Yang, maybe even the 40 game collection with the Galaxy cards. The only other thing to consider would be my multi-age level games such as Oasis, more recently Ogres & Elves in which I have the same equipment used by different age groups to play a slightly different game. But I have a feeling that this is not quite what you mean by "game systems".


Q: You're right -- I checked out all of the games you mentioned and only Galaxy seems to be a true game system, as I define it. In order for something to be a game system, it must have rulesets for more than one game. I consider two rulesets to be separate games only if they have fewer rules in common than not; otherwise, they are variants of each other.

I bought the second edition of Zen Blocks at a local teacher's supply store today, and the first thing I did was analyze the cubes. It's a pretty interesting set of permutations -- 16 "plain" cubes with all six symbols on opposing sides, the 8 cubes with the double symbols (including two extra cubes for Heaven and Earth doubles), the cube with 6 wilds, and then the three cubes with two wilds and various combinations of other symbols, including a Heaven double and an Earth double again.

JIM DEACOVE: A Math teacher friend visiting our farm was helping us in the shop when we were doing a run of the Zen Blocks game and he set about analyzing it from his math perspective. He told me that it is a mathematical system that works well at various levels and he went about computerizing it . I take his word for it. I only dream these things up. I leave the analysts and theorists to do their thing.

Q: I'd love to see your friend's analysis of Zen Blocks.

JIM DEACOVE: My mathematician friend, Jerry, has moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba and heads up a computer science department now. He took his notes with him. He recently returned from travels abroad, and said in email that he went through all his old papers and can't find the analysis of Zen Blocks. He does remember that it was an "open system that given the random starting factors would produce several integrated possible solutions." Whatever the hell that means.

Q: How did you come to design this particular set of permutations? Did it make building the big cube easier or harder in some way?

JIM DEACOVE: The second edition was actually the first edition because the dream diagrams contained 21 cubes with the symbols in place. I just didn't understand what it all meant and simplified to the 13-block size. It was only many years later when I wanted to add some complexity to the game that I went back to my old notebooks and realized that I had enough material to add to what was already there. If only I had slept in a little longer to receive the other 7 cubes, the second edition would have fallen into place more easily.

Q: Wow. Thanks for doing this interview, Jim. I hope I haven't been too much of a pest!

JIM DEACOVE: Thanks for the opportunity to dialogue.