Zen Blocks

photo of zen blocks game Zen Blocks, made by Family Pastimes, is a three-dimensional edge-matching puzzle in the form of a cooperative game. The twenty-seven wooden cubes have the Chinese characters for sun, rain, heaven, earth, lion, and lamb, as well as a yin/yang symbol for a wild card, printed on their faces in different combinations. There are three sets of rules, of varying levels of difficulty; the easiest, supposedly for ages six and up, requires only that the tops of the blocks must be the same as the bottoms of the blocks that are on top of them, and a block that is beside another one must having the same symbols on both top and bottom, with the goal being to construct a 3x3x3 cube. Even this relatively easy puzzle seems to me likely to be beyond the capabilities and/or enthusiasm of most six-year-olds. My eight-year-old son's grandmother expressed a great deal of frustration the first time they tried to play this game.

Family Pastimes is known for their cooperative games, which saved me many hours of suffering when I had to play game after game with my son before he was old enough to be able to bear losing any game at all. It was much more pleasant to play Max the Cat or Snowstorm than to endure the weeping that followed the inevitable losses at the game of Sorry, when he was very young. The way in which they have turned this puzzle into a cooperative game is simply to have all of the pieces dealt out evenly among the players, after which the players take turns adding one piece to the puzzle, with as much discussion as seems helpful; everyone wins if the cube is successfully constructed. These same rules could be applied as well to most of the puzzles we own.

I don't know if there is any interesting cultural significance to the fact that both of the first two games reviewed in this weblog were named after Zen Buddhism.

The Chinese characters used to distinguish the seven types of faces are pretty, and the puzzle is nicely challenging - especially with the most advanced rule, requiring that all faces match the faces that they touch - but I'd find the game a lot more appealing if the different sides were marked by different colors, instead, so as to make it easier to determine which is which at a glance, or when only a portion of a face is visible. I also find it a bit disturbing to match these characters, which are meaningful only when turned right-side up, when they are tumbled all around in every orientation, even though I am the sort of person who finds it nearly as easy to read text that is upside down as that which is right side up. Perhaps this is just because of the unfamiliarity of the symbols, to someone who does not read Chinese.

Posted: Tue - August 3, 2004 at 07:44 PM