For a game with Zen in the title, this one sure is a challenge. A puzzler that isn’t for the faint of heart and a two-games-in-one bonus for two to four brainy, patient players.
|Zen Garden||Mayfair Games||Tile-Laying Game|
In The Box
Most people’s immediate association with zen is relaxing imagery like flower arrangements and manicured sand. Breaking open the Zen Garden game box you’ll be rewarded with tiles representing elements you would expect to find in a Japanese garden. Beautifully illustrated images feature water, trees, rock, grass, and stone lanterns you could imagine in a perfectly composed landscape scene. Turns out it’s up to you to create that scene…
A set of 96 tiles makes up the bulk of the game, along with a cloth bag to store them and to draw from during the game. Each of four players will also have up to 12 small wooden tokens for use during the game, depending on which of the two game variations you choose to play. Reading through the instructions included helps explain why the tiles are designed as they are, double-sided to show relevant information whichever way they are played during the game.
All materials are nicely produced, but the bag ends up being too small to thoroughly mix all the tiles during the game, so you’ll want to toss them in a box or shuffle prior to loading them all in at the beginning of the game.
How It Plays
Getting the awkward bit out of the way first, the instructions are almost as much of a puzzle as the game. The answers are in there, but without nearly enough illustrated examples of what goes on in a typical round. Thank goodness for the video demos included faithfully on Mayfair’s product pages, or we might still be scratching our heads over a few nuances of Zen Garden. Our bottom line is that there’s a good, fun game in here (two, actually) once you decipher the initial setup and flow of play.
The two-in-one packaging includes the titular Zen Garden and a variation called Rock Garden, a step-up in complexity for players who have gone through at least one full game of Zen Garden. In both games you’ll be laying tiles according to those illustrated landscape types, not because you have to make matches but because grouping landscape tiles into patterns will score you points. Problem is, your opponents are also combining landscape tiles to create their own patterns.
In Zen Garden each player has one target pattern, and the game is a race to see who can reveal first, followed by a burn-down among the remaining players for points. Rock Garden lets you gather and score multiple patterns based on several factors, including the element (rock, grass, water, etc.) and the number of grouped tiles. The wooden tokens come into play as part of the endgame in Zen Garden but feel more integrated into the flow of Rock Garden. Both games are highly strategic and reward players who like to carefully weigh each move. There’s very little luck other than which tiles are drawn from the bag, and the lantern tiles that stand in for other elements make it possible to reshape the board in service to your target pattern.
Zen Garden seems a bit misclassified as part of Mayfair’s Fun Fair line of accessible family games, as I think it’s one you’ll need to warm up to with younger players. It shares more DNA with a classic “hard” game like Chess and Go than with the average family board game, including others in the Fun Fair line.
The tile designs are awesome. It’s not action packed, but I do like strategy games. I liked Rock Garden better because there were more ways to score, and it felt like you had more options on each turn.