Just Yell It: Zogen!
Zogen, from the oft-hilarious Oink Games, is a reflex game. Not your usual reflex game, which is about slapping hands with your high school crush on the back bench of the band bus, then spending the rest of the trip icing your bruised fingers. But rather, the sort of reflex game that hurts your brain. Like, hurts it. And it’s only about reading four little symbols.
Here’s the thing about Zogen. Like many of the best small-form games, its central problem is so straightforward that it’s almost moronic. You mean there’s a human being who can’t do this? This? This easy, simple, rote task that a child could accomplish after a sugar crash? After a bad day of getting lost at the zoo? After being misplaced in the grocery store by a negligent father, raised by the wolves who prowl the dumpsters out back, and then escaping into the wilderness? This is the quandary meant to confound a feral child, let alone a functioning adult?
But like many of the best small-form games, including one recent small-form game in particular, the answer is a defiant gulp. Yep. Because, yes, Zogen is this simple, this moronic, this rote. And that’s precisely why it’s such a laugh.
You aren’t going to believe how dumb it is. Everyone wants to get rid of their hand of cards. Someone tosses down an opening salvo, then everybody flips their cards face-up and begins hunting for a match. Or, well, not exactly a match. A match-ish. A match with one extra or one fewer symbol, but entirely matching other than the symbol that has been added or subtracted. You’ll shout out the difference, and then play continues, with everyone slapping down cards and hollering out symbols until your hand has been sufficiently thinned to claim victory.
Sounds goofy, right? Well, now take that, but imagine that the symbols are small enough, similar enough, and vague enough that you’re liable to find yourself struggling to mentally arrange them. See for yourself:
It’s a maddening process, and gives rise to two details that explain both why Zogen is so appealing and so frustrating.
The first is the inevitable zone-out, that moment when you stare at your hand while everybody else is slapping cards onto the table and yelping out symbols. Cloud! Mountain! Mountain! Moon! Cloud! Sun! You pause, thinking you’ve finally discovered a workable match, when three more cards are snapped onto the table. Moon! Sun! Moon!
Moments like these have the potential to either be humorous or galling, and the difference is often as fragile as how fatigued you were when you sat at the table. We don’t often talk about mental bandwidth, but it’s a resource that’s present in every game, working behind the curtains to ensure you don’t burn out prematurely. Some games like to tax that bandwidth, or strain it, or maybe just flex it.
In Zogen, your mental bandwidth isn’t merely taxed or strained or flexed; it’s weaponized. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the fact that you’re totally allowed to cheat. The rules don’t dare say it outright. Designers Christoph Cantzler and Anja Wrede phrase it as “being wrong” rather than “being a cheaty-pants who cheats,” but we’re all adults here. While you’re hitting the table with cards, there’s nothing stopping you from saying the wrong symbol. Maybe it’s an honest mistake; more likely, it’s because you wanted to dump a three-symbol card but didn’t want to spend the time thumbing through your deck.
Usually, everybody’s bandwidth is too occupied to notice. They’re scrambling through their decks, examining the new symbols on the table, and entering zone-out periods of their own. But if somebody does? That’s when they’re allowed to belt out “Zogen!” to pause the game. At that point, if the most recent card doesn’t align (ish) with the card underneath it, then the cheater has all their cards returned to her, while everybody else’s cards are removed. A suitable punishment for a cheaty-pants who cheats.
That’s the beauty of Zogen’s circle of play. Its puzzle is confounding, even numbing, which makes cheating an attractive prospect. And that same obtuseness also makes it hard to catch a cheater, because all those little blobs are tricky for our humans brains to arrange. But the penalty for cheating is so deliciously punitive that it’s absolutely worth catching somebody in a lie. So you’ll try. And sometimes you’ll succeed, but most of the time you won’t. Meanwhile, you’ll ditch some cards of your own. At every turn, there’s one more way to spend your fraying mental energy.
In short, it’s exactly the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from Oink Games. Just as Deep Sea Adventure and A Fake Artist Goes to New York were perfect distillations of conceits that are generally writ much larger, Zogen captures the stress and hilarity of a game many times its size.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Then, to achieve catharsis, howl “ZOGEN!” at the top of your lungs).