Full disclosure: A review copy of Zenteeko was provided by, uh, Zenteeko.
Another week, another game. This is one of the rare ones that I haven’t scheduled yet so, I’m kind of excited to see where it ends up in the publishing order.
Zenteeko hearkens back to a bygone day of abstracts in the vein of checkers, Reversi, and a game called Windmill, apparently, is what I’ve been told. Unlike those other games, though, it does come in a roll-up tube, so that’s exciting. Put your pieces down and try to line them up before your opponent can do the same. Who will end up making that final connection?
No setup. Just unroll the board:
Set out the pieces:
Bless them, they included extras. Give each player 4 in the color of their choice, and you’re ready to begin!
Pretty straightforward concept, honestly. To begin the game, players may place their pieces, in turn order, anywhere on the board. Once you’ve gotten your pieces onto the board, the game begins. Your goal is to get your four pieces in some configuration:
- Orthogonal line
- Diagonal line
If you can do that at any point (even during setup!) you win immediately. Same goes for your opponent(s).
Once all your pieces are placed, you may move any of your pieces to an adjacent (empty) space via one of the lines emanating from the space you’re currently on. Take turns until one player wins!
For the advanced mode, the only thing that changes are the first four turns. Instead of playing your own pieces, play your opponent’s pieces to the board in turn order. I usually just pass my stack to the left. Once that’s happened, you resume playing as normal.
Player Count Differences
There’s not much of one, honestly, other than the board is a bit tighter and you have to deal with more player pieces around. One nice thing is that you can force players to block each other since there’s an extra player around, but that may backfire on you if your opponent decides not to block the other opponent or misses that they’ll win if they’re not blocked. Or, naturally, if they decide to make you do the work of blocking, that’s not fun either. Personally, my impression of the game is that it’s a two-player game through and through with a bonus three-player variant, kind of like Santorini, but with the same inherited flaw; at three, the board is more crowded (and more interesting), but some inadvertent kingmaking can happen, which is never particularly fun to see. It’s really your call if that’s something that bothers you, but generally I’ll probably stick with this at two players unless I need something quick for three.
- Uh, don’t lose during setup. It’s possible! Don’t let your opponent play a line (orthogonal or diagonal) or a square. It’s one of those things that you totally forget about until it’s a bit too late, and then you’ve clowned yourself out of a game. It’s pretty funny when it does happen, though.
- Form walls to block players. You can create a wall to make it very difficult for a player to move their piece, which is a great way to slow them down if you’re worried that they’re gonna push closer to a win than you feel comfortable allowing. Naturally, they can do the same to you, so watch out for the walls during gameplay unless you enjoy being stymied.
- Don’t forget that you can win with a square. This is something a lot of players forget, and I assume that Connect Four is to blame. This game isn’t quite that, since it lacks the gravity; it’s much closer to OK GO (now Cinco Linko), and that’s going to be worth keeping in mind. The thing that makes Zenteeko its own game is definitely that square victory configuration, so, use that! Players generally don’t expect it, which is fun.
- Keep control of the most-connected spaces. The nine spaces in the middle are each connected to eight other spaces; the more of those you control, the better your odds of success are (since it’s easier to move flexibly around in those spaces. That said, it’s also easier for your opponents to move in and block you, since they have more avenues of attack. Your mileage may vary on this particular piece of strategic advice.
- If you’re playing the variant, start placing your opponent’s pieces far away from each other. It gives you some time to plan ahead and preemptively block their movements, if you can, which is always fun, in my opinion. Just note that they’ll probably do the same to you.
- In a three-player game, you can force some characters to do the work for you. As I mentioned elsewhere, if you see that another player is about to win, and you or the player after you can block them, you can always make it that player’s problem. Just make sure that you are sure that they’ll notice that they need to act, otherwise your mild crappiness will have just lost you the game. Deservedly so, to be fair.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This was a really good exercise for me to study how I learned how to play games. I basically lost the first four games of this immediately, something clicked, and then I won the next two. It was kind of funny to see that from a metagaming perspective. I apparently just clown my way through a game until I have enough context to piece everything together, which is actually really nice? I appreciate that the game is basic enough to let me see that.
- Very easy to learn. There was some debate over what constituted a “square” for a hot second, but we agreed that it had to be orthogonally adjacent, otherwise it’s just a rhombus. Beyond that it’s a bit like Connect Four, so it’s easy to map from the game you already know to this one.
- Good quality components. The mat is nice (though it’ll smell like new mousepad for a while) and the pieces have a decent weight to them, which I appreciate. The whole presentation is solid.
- You know what? I like that it rolls up. I thought it was a bit silly at first, and it’s kind of annoying that it doesn’t quite lay flat (that might be a heat thing; we’ll see), but it’s vaguely endearing. It’s also nice that it comes with its own pouch for the tokens. Naturally, it fits nowhere on my shelf, but I’ll happily stuff it with all my extra playmats. … I should start using all my playmats more often. I really rarely do; it’s a shame.
- I think I generally prefer themed abstracts to themeless ones. A good example of this is like, Santorini; it’s an abstract game, sure, but it’s got an incredible theme and the powers do a lot to cement it, so it’s one of my all-time favorite games. Othello is a lot of fun, but without the extra bits of theme, I tend to eventually lose interest in favor of more themed games.
- Some AP, but not much. You’ll see people try to think ahead, but there aren’t that many possible moves. If you have some people who are really subject to this kinda nonsense, just … hurry them along.
- You can pretty easily lose in setup if you’re not paying enough attention. That’s a terrible feeling, and I’ve almost done it at least once. Definitely makes you feel like a bit of a clown, so be careful about that.
- The board is a bit plain. I get that it’s supposed to be an abstract, but a bit more art would have made the game pop, I think. Then again, I’m a reviewer, not a graphic designer, so it’s not like I really have a lot of useful insight in this specific discipline.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, Zenteeko is a cute little quick game! At two, it’s very easy to play a game in 2 – 3 minutes, if you’re anything like me and you consistently clown yourself into a loss. At three, you’re likely to see a thinkier game as players need to figure out how to block another person without ceding enough territory that they lose the game. It’s a delicate balance, but isn’t annoying like many three player games are where once the balance shifts at all, the game is lost. I think you can recover ground (unless you lose, as you might guess) in subsequent turns, and I appreciate and respect that in the game. Plus, it’s very portable, comes with its own storage, and is reminiscent of the classic games of old, which I definitely appreciate. I think the best audience for this game is going to be those sorts of folks; it’s a great size for a school’s game cafe or a lobby or some place where space is coming at a premium, for sure, and the game’s simple enough that you could see it pretty easily being played by curious players without much trouble. If that sounds like the kind of thing you’re looking for, then I’d recommend checking out Zenteeko! I’ve found it to be pretty fun.