Zendo Revisited: A Simple Methods Game for Large Classes

Zendo is a methods game that is the subject of the very first post I wrote for ALPS back in 2011. Since then, I have used it regularly on the first day of my research methods course.  Among its many advantages is that it helps reduce the anxiety students face on their first day of methods (a well-documented issue; at least six articles in recent years reference this concern) by having their first activity being a game.  The game itself allows students to engage in hypothesis generation and testing and begin to understand issues of generalizability and scholarly collaboration. It is a great introductory activity, but its utility has been limited due to the necessity of purchasing the physical pieces required for play.  Until now, that is! We now have a way of playing Zendo that requires no pieces and works for large classroom settings as well as small.

A major drawback of Zendo is that the game is out of print, and acquiring the pyramid-shaped plastic pieces necessary for play is an expense.  In the game, students create small arrangements of these pieces to try to determine a hidden, instructor-created rule that governs how pieces must be arranged.

Zendo starts with two arrangements of pieces: one that follows the rule, marked with a white stone, and the other which violates the rule and is marked with a black stone.

Even for a class of twenty-five, this can be difficult to manage, as students need to be able to see all the arrangements built by their peers to get enough information to guess the hidden rule, and you may run out of pieces before you run out of students.  In larger classes, you would need to use the parallel worlds model, with students working in groups, each operating its own version of the game and trying to find its own rule.  But since a set of pieces for a small class will run about $20 or so, this can get expensive fast–particularly if you have large classes or if the pieces must be shipped outside the United States. In addition, you need a large table that students can gather around so they can see and work with the pieces–a challenge for many classroom settings. Combined, the expense and physical space requirements have kept many people from trying Zendo in their classes.

Luckily for us all, a colossal mistake on my part has led to the discovery of a solution to these problems.  Two weeks ago I presented a paper, ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Methods? Methodological Games and Projects” at the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Portland (see reflections on the conference here, here, and here.  We did our first Team ALPS podcast there as well).  As part of my presentation, I planned to run a game of Zendo for the attendees–but forgot my set at home.  I took to the web to see if there were any ideas on how to play the game without the pieces, and luckily came across this piece, which not only recasts the game into a scientific theme (as opposed to the Buddhist theme of the original game), but explains how to play without the physical game.  Instead of small, medium, and large pieces of varying colors, you propose arrangements of numbers comprised solely of 0s and 1s. Just as in the original game, students then have to guess the hidden rule that governs how the numbers are arranged.

For example, perhaps you propose the following:

00111 (Follows the hidden rule)

01 (Does not follow the hidden rule)

Students can then propose their own arrangements of 0s and 1s, and the instructor categorizes them by whether or not they follow the rule.  At varying intervals you can allow students to hypothesize about the conditions of the hidden rule.

In this case, there are many possible rules that could be in play.  Perhaps the rule is that there must be an odd number of digits, that there cannot be an equal number of 1s and 0s, that the arrangement must have three or more digits, or perhaps that there must be more 1s than 0s.  We need more information to increase our confidence in any given possibility.

While this version of Zendo doesn’t have the flair or interactivity of the physical game, where students build structures using plastic pieces, it has the advantages of costing nothing and being more accessible to larger classes.  You can put your starting numbers in a powerpoint slide on a projector so an entire auditorium can see, and then sort proposed number arrangements into columns based on whether or not they follow the rule.  A slide after the game can contain the hidden rule itself–important, as sometimes students may suspect that you are changing the rule as gameplay continues. Alternatively, this post suggests a way to play asynchronously, which would allow a fairly easily used online adaptation of the game.

My presentation using this version of Zendo had only about ten minutes of preparation, mostly to decide on a rule, figure out the starting arrangements, and then set up the powerpoint slide.  It took about fifteen minutes to play, including time to explain the rules and debrief, and worked really well. My initial fear–that the group of professors facing me would guess the rule immediately–did not come to fruition.  They were very distracted by the number of digits (in the example above, focusing on 5 digit numbers) and only after they determined that this could not be the rule were some folks able to refocus on other ideas.

My hope is that now that the game does not require purchasing anything or physical set up, that more people will try it out.  Given pushes to include methodological concepts in more substantive courses, it may work as a nice refresher or introduction to the concept of hypothesis generation and testing for students outside of the methods course.

Zendo Rules


Learning objectives:

  1. Reduce anxiety in students about learning methodological concepts.
  2. Learn names in a fun activity
  3. Introduce students to fundamental methodological concepts such as hypothesis generation, data analysis, scholarly collaboration, and generalizability.


  • Materials Required: any projector system or white board.
  • Time Required in Class: 5 minutes to explain the rules, then 5-10 minutes per game, plus another 5-10 minutes for debriefing.  Total: 15-25 minutes.
  • Create a rule governing an arrangement of 1s and 0s.  Write the rule down but do not share it with students until the end of the game.  Sample rules might be:
    • There must be more 1s than 0s
    • There must be an odd number of digits
    • The digits must add up to three
    • Numbers must alternate; no 1s or 0s can touch
    • There must be at least one of each number in the arrangement.
  • Choose two starting arrangements, one that follows the rule and one that does not.  Clearly mark each one.  Be careful–choose arrangements that allow for a number of possible rules.
  • Write these arrangements down using equipment that makes it easy for each student to see.  You can use a regular projector, overhead projector, or a black/white board.  Put the starting number in a column marked ‘Follows’ and the other in one marked ‘Does Not Follow’.  For those with regular projectors,t his is perhaps most easily down with a two-column slide in PowerPoint but a simple table in Word or Excel or similar program works just as well.

Game Play:

There are lots of possibilities here, but the simplest way is to allow a student to volunteer a number arrangement of 1s and 0s.  Clearly write this down for everyone to see.  You can either invite students to guess whether it follows the rule or does not follow the rule, and then put it in the appropriate column. Continue play with a new student proposing a new arrangement of numbers. You may want to restrict students so they can only propose one set of numbers until everyone has had a chance. When any student volunteers in the game, ask them to introduce themselves so you can start learning names.

At varying intervals, you can invite students to try to generate a hypothesis about the rule.  You can do this after every new arrangement, or after a few new arrangements have been categorized.  You may want to limit students to only one guess per game so they have to think carefully about their hypothesis and judge when they have enough information to make a good attempt.  They can do this out loud, or if you want to allow for multiple winners, you can have them write down their guess and turn it in.  Continue play until someone correctly guesses the hidden rule. Offering extra credit to anyone with a correct guess can be a nice incentive, but not really necessary to motivate play.

Usually students are not allowed to consult with each other, but if they are having trouble guessing the rule, consider letting them work as a team.  This usually leads to a quick conclusion of the game.


First, reveal the hidden rule and then have them review all the proposed arrangements so the students can see how they are consistent with that rule.  This is the first ‘aha’ moment where they connect the data to the hypothesis.

Questions should ask them first about their experience, in terms of how they went about trying to guess the rule and their emotions and reactions during play.  Then start to build connections to the concepts under play.  Some concepts that the game touches on include:

  1. Generalizability and Biased Samples–note that we start with only two data points and extrapolating form that information can be dangerous and lead us astray.  As we add data, a biased perspective can lead to confirmation bias problems, rather than a genuine test of our hypotheses.
  2. The research process–conducting research is frequently about trying to unravel a puzzle about which you have limited information, just as in the game.  We may have to revise our hypotheses multiple times before we can be confident in them.
  3. Collaboration is key–in the game, students cannot communicate with each other.  Their inability to share ideas makes the game harder.  If they collaborate and work together, they will be able to more quickly find the rule–just as collaborating in research is necessary, whether because we co-author studies or simply due to consulting the literature that predates our work and building off those findings.
  4. General ideas of generating and testing hypotheses.


  1. In the original game, players have to earn a chance to guess by correcting determining whether a new arrangement does or does not follow the hidden rule.  Once a new arrangement is proposed, ask the student to guess whether it follows the rule or not; if they guess correctly, they earn a ‘guess’ (you can give them a stone or a piece of paper, or just put their name on the board). Only students who earn guesses can try to guess the rule later.  This encourages students to volunteer to propose arrangements, although it does mean that those who do not volunteer may feel disengaged from the activity.  In a small class setting, you can let everyone guess whether an arrangement follows the rule, and everyone who guesses correctly earns a guessing stone.
  2. You can play one game through with no collaboration, and then a second game with collaboration so students can see the difference.  They will usually find the rule quicker when they can collaborate–but that also allows the more dominant personalities to overwhelm the game, and other students may become passive as their classmates think through the issues for them.
  3. Allow a student to generate a rule and run the game.  This is particularly fun if you play the game later in the semester.


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