Zensu Review, A perfect example of “Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master”

My wife and I love two player abstract strategy games and we are currently hooked on Zensū.

Zensu is a perfect information, chess-like, board game, where there are only two types of pieces on each side, with each piece showing you exactly how they move. The goal is to get any one of your pieces to the opponent’s side of the board.

It sounds simple, and the rules are, but the actual game play is quite challenging.

Disclosure: Thanks to Outset Media for providing us with a review copy of Zensū. Links below may be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

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What is Zensū the game?

The Zensu box.

Zensū was designed by Raymond Haysman and was originally published overseas by Cheatwell Games. Here in North America, it’s published by Canadian distributor Outset Media.

This is a two player, chess like, abstract strategy game that features perfect information and super simple rules.

Zensū is played on a six by nine board. Each player starts on opposite sides of the board with two rows of pieces in the rows closest to them. Each row of pieces has its own movement pattern and the goal is to get one of those pieces to the back row on the opponent’s side of the board. Capturing is done by jumping over or landing on the opponent’s piece. 

Get a good look at this abstract strategy board game in my Zensu Unboxing Video on YouTube.

What you will see there, besides me thinking the board is only seven by six due to the art at each end of the board, is the nice small board, that is perfect for a coffee shop table. The game also comes with twenty-four wooden playing pieces and a very small but clear rulebook.

What you get in the box with Zensu from Cheatwell games

The box insert is nothing special but it works.

The quality of the wooden pieces is very nice. They feel good in your hand and have a lacquered finish that should prevent any information from getting scratched or rubbed off.

The board is functional but would have been much cooler (and more portable and spill-resistant) if it had instead been a neoprene mat.  Personally, I’m very tempted to use a print on demand service to create my own playmat for Zensū.

How to play Zensu

A game of Zensu set up and ready to go.

Zensū claims it’s easy to learn, and I’m about to prove it:

To start a game of Zensū, grab one tile of each colour, mix them up and hold them out, one in each hand, and have your opponent choose a hand. The tile they chose sets their player colour, you get the other colour.

Each player takes the tiles in their colour and sets up their side of the board with a row of six tiles with a 2 at the top in the back row and a row of six tiles with a 1 at the top in the row in front of that. The green player then gets the first move. 

Each turn the active player will choose one piece to move. Pieces move in an orthogonal direction (up, down, left, or right) exactly the number of spaces shown on the tile for that direction. This movement must end in an open space or on a space occupied by an opponent. If you can’t move the exact number shown on the tile, you cannot move that tile.

A game of Zensu in progress.

Players can jump over their own tiles. Any tiles landed on and any opponent’s tiles jumped over are captured and removed from the board. The first player to land a piece on the opponent’s back row wins the game.

That’s it. That’s all there is to Zensū. You now know everything there is to know to be able to play.

The fun of Zenzu comes from the way the two different tiles in the game move and how they interact. Each tile moves one, two, three, or four spaces with each number assigned to a different direction.

Your front row tiles have the one facing your opponent with the other numbers going clockwise around the tile, so two is left, three is back and four is right. Your back row tiles are similar but forward is two, which means left is three, back is four, and right is one. And since this is printed right on every tile, you don’t even have to remember that.

Zensū is a hidden gem abstract strategy game that more people should be playing and talking about.

Deanna learning Zenso at the Outset Media Games booth at Origins

As you can see from what you just read, the rules and mechanics in Zensū are dead simple. It’s figuring out what to do with those rules that is the fun part of this game.

For experienced abstract strategy game players, especially those used to chess and draughts or checkers, you are going to have to channel your inner Jedi and unlearn what you have learned in order to play this game well.

This is a game about focus. There is a lot going on and it’s easy to miss something. It’s also easy to mistake one piece for another or forget that pieces can move backwards.

The biggest thing I struggle with, even after quite a few plays, is remembering that you capture both by landing on a tile and by jumping over it.

Playing Zensu at the Banded Goose Brewery

Years of playing Chess has the first part, capturing pieces by landing on them, firmly stuck in my brain. I’m constantly watching where all of the pieces on the board can land and making sure my own pieces are guarded, but I often forget that pieces that are jumped over are also captured.

I forget my opponent can do this to me and I also forget that I can make capturing jumps myself. A perfect Jump in Zensū can capture four of the opponent’s pieces, and while I’ve not been hit by that myself (or pulled it off) I have had three of my pieces go down in one move.

Zensū is the perfect size for playing at a coffee shop, bar, pub or brewery. This small footprint is something my wife and I are always looking for in a game. We’ve played Zensu at a few different cafes, at a bar, at a brewery and even once at a restaurant while waiting for our food.

My daughter playing Zenso at one of our Barbershop Bar game nights

I’ve also had a good response to the game at our public play game nights. The elegant look and clear iconography catch people’s attention and once they start playing people are usually in for a few games in a row.

There really isn’t much more to say about Zensū. It’s a perfect information abstract strategy game that is all about outthinking, outplanning and outmanoeuvring your opponent. I think it’s brilliantly designed. It gives me that thinky chess like feel in a nice short game length. So far I’ve never sat down and just played one game of Zensū, it’s always been at least a best two out of three if not more. 

The thing that baffles me the most about Zensū is the total lack of hype. This game was published over two years ago, but only has eighteen ratings on Board Game Geek. The North American publisher wasn’t even listed on the BGG page until I added them myself, and I’ve yet to hear another content creator mention the game.

Sean and Deanna playing Zensu at Chapter Two brewery

Zensū is a really solid abstract strategy game and it seems to have been completely buried by bigger flashier games, and that’s a shame. 

If you enjoy abstract strategy games at all, you should pick up a copy of Zensū. This game gives me everything I want in a quick playing abstract game and perfectly embodies the concept of easy to learn difficult to master. 

If you own a pub, cafe, or restaurant that has games on hand for people to play, I suggest you get a copy of Zensū for your venue. It’s a great game for people to play over some drinks and snacks. It’s also a great game for couples, as I called out in our recent 24 More of the Best Two Player Board Games for Date Night article.

If you don’t like abstract strategy games, skip over Zensū. Unlike some modern abstract games, like boop, there’s no cute theme here to draw you in. Zensū is a pure, perfect information, abstract game and it’s in your face about it. I can’t see it converting anyone new to the abstract strategy genre.

Short and simple, just like the game, that’s all I have to say about Zensū, a game that seems to have somehow dodged everyone’s attention. Hopefully, this review has helped to change that.

If you’ve played Zensū and agree with what I said here, help spread the word about this great abstract strategy game. Share a link with your gaming buddies, post it on a Facebook group, or tell your local cafe about it!

  • FUN AND ADDICTIVE: Zensu is a fun blend of stealth, strategy and skill.
  • GAME PLAY: The aim is to cross your opponent’s border before they can cross into yours but, with pieces moving in four directions you have to keep your wits about you!
  • FOR KIDS AND ADULTS: Simple yet challenging, Zensu is the ultimate test of tactical play for ages 8 and up.
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