I 'Played' the Mass-Market Version of an Underground Stoner Game

What does it mean that elements of subversive cannabis culture have progressed to the point that we need slick board games like 'Zonk' to be social with our weed?
October 13, 2016, 1:30pm
Zonk game set (bud sold separately). Photo: Game of Zonk

I begin fearing the worst as soon as I zonk on my first roll. It's Saturday night in Denver, and I'm playing my first-ever game of Zonk, a new mass-market version of an underground cannabis dice game of the same name. The match is being hosted by Jake Browne, marijuana critic for the Denver Post's Cannabist site and a general fan of games of all types, including the unofficial version of Zonk. Basically, Browne and most of his colleagues who showed up to play tonight are far more experienced in both consuming cannabis and playing Zonk than I am. As soon as we begin, it shows.

The goal of Zonk is to be the first person to reach 10,000 points by using five die to roll point-scoring combinations: rolling a "5" on any die equals 100 points, getting three 3s equals 300 points, rolling a straight nets you 1,500 points, and so on. But if at any point all the die you roll end up being non-scoring, you "zonk" and your turn is over. Which is what happens on my first roll.

Although maybe I should be glad I'm not racking up points too quickly. Every time a Zonk player nets another thousand points or hits certain point combinations, he or she has to take a hit from a fully loaded bong. In other words, to win the game, you have to take at least ten bong hits. While Zonk's official tag line is "Everybody wins at Zonk," if I end up having to do that, I'm not sure I'd call the results "winning."

Read more: This Is Your Brain While Video Gaming Stoned

When I'd heard about Zonk several weeks earlier, I'd been intrigued. How do marijuana games like it play into the science and history of drinking games? Was Zonk really some "legendary underground game," as claimed by the game's official website? If so, what does it mean that elements of subversive cannabis culture have progressed to the point that we need slick board games to be social with our weed? And does Zonk or any other game have what it takes to become the stoner version of beer pong?

To figure it out, I realized, I was going to have to get zonked.

*

Zonk's historical origins are the real deal, says David Rakower, the new game's Tampa, Florida-based developer, when I give him a call. As far as he or anyone else knows, the game originated at an upstate New York university in the late 1970s, a cousin to other counterculture dice games like Cosmic Wimpout. Rakower started playing while attending Marist College in Poughkeepsie in the 1990s and never really stopped, even as he pursued more respectable ventures for his day job, like running a debt settlement company and then a BP oil spill claims processing firm.

But then, looking for a new venture while attending a Las Vegas cannabis industry conference last fall, the idea hit him: Bring Zonk to the masses.

"I was exploring all these different options, but it was right there the whole time," Rakower said. "There is nothing really in the cannabis industry like this game, with 35 years of history behind it, besides cannabis itself."

Zonk isn't the first game to capitalize on cannabis' current moment in the spotlight. Folks can now pick up games like Weed-Opoly, the Settlers of Cataan facsimile Lords of Cannabis, and even a marijuana-themed chess set. The market is hot for such ventures, according to Kristin Looney, who along with her husband Andrew runs the Looney Labs game company, responsible for the popular Fluxx series of card games. In 2003, the Looneys, staunch legalization advocates, launched the marijuana-themed Stoner Fluxx, with some of the proceeds going to fight cannabis prohibition. The game sold moderately—until Colorado and Washington State legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

"It started selling at levels we'd never seen before, and stores started running out," said Kristin. "People were more willing to pick it up."

In many of these cannabis-themed games, toking is optional. In Stoner Fluxx, for example, the rules note, "Doing what this card says is illegal. Set it aside until after marijuana prohibition ends." But in Zonk, getting high isn't just a side feature of the game, it's the focus. The first thing you see when you open the box is a glass marijuana pipe.

"I feel like we're playing Monopoly."

Such pastimes tie into humanity's longtime interest into turning inebriation into a contest. Drinking games date back at least to wine dregs-tossing game Kottabos in ancient Greece and various dice and riddle competitions in ancient China. But the popularity of such games has apparently grown in the past few decades, especially on college campuses, according to Thomas Vander Ven, a sociology professor at Ohio University who spent nine years observing drinking culture on college campuses, bars, festivals, and house parties in the Midwest. Drinking games promote bonding and teamwork, according to Vander Ven, plus allow players to demonstrate their alcoholic prowess: "If someone drinks a ton of beers and keeps going, or pukes and rallies, it is heroic," Vander Ven told me. "It promotes status."

But maybe most importantly, drinking games offer a fast and efficient way for folks to get really drunk. That's not an unintended consequence of such activities; it's the point.

"I believe middle class college students lead relatively unproblematic, unchallenging lives," said Vander Ven. "Drinking leads to all sorts of crises, like getting sick, getting into fights, getting arrested and arguing with partners. Collective intoxication makes all these things happen, and they know it. It requires these students to work together to address these problems. That problem solving promotes group cohesion and results in war stories that last a lifetime."

The negative consequences of drinking games likely far outweigh such group cohesion and war stories, added Vander Ven. Study after study has associated drinking games with alcohol problems.

But while cannabis games also encourage teamwork and allow people to show off their heroic smoking skills, there's a key difference between them and drinking games: Marijuana games aren't necessarily about getting everybody to crisis-level states of inebriation. "Weed is a much more precious commodity," said Andrew Looney of Looney Labs. "You need rules that limit how much you smoke. You need to parse out your weed."

Put another way, the rise of marijuana games isn't likely to trigger a whole new version of the booze-fueled shit shows all too common on college campuses. But some folks still have reservations about the commodification of these formerly counterculture pastimes.

"I think the more games the better, so people can consume and talk about these issues out in the open. It's going to help normalize cannabis use," said Marty Otañez, a University of Colorado— Denver anthropology professor who's teaching courses on and studying the marijuana industry. "But what's lost is the subterranean or sub-cultural elements that made playing these games really fun."

Rakower isn't shy about admitting he wants to turn his former hobby into a money-making plan. Since the game launched this past summer, he's been unrolling a major marketing push that includes sales reps promoting the game at dispensaries and smoke shops in recreational marijuana states, collaborations with celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Doug Benson, and training certified "Zonk ambassadors" to host tournaments around the country.

He's also promoting the game to marijuana shops as a way to get customers to smoke a lot more product. As he notes in a return-on-investment promotional video, according to his calculations from studying 30 years of Zonk score sheets, the typical Zonk game results in 11.5 hits per player per game. The way Rakower sees it, that means each $40 game of Zonk sold will result in roughly $2,800 in marijuana purchases each year.

"As far as we are concerned," he said, "there isn't a marketing campaign out there for these shops that generates that much revenue."

*

Of course, that all depends on whether the official version of Zonk is a hit—and judging from my foray with the game, that remains to be seen. It turns out I don't need to worry about getting too stoned, since the game features so many quirky rules and penalties to figure out, things like "bloody zonks" and "dare rules" and "sex odyssey bonuses," it takes seemingly forever for anyone to reach 1,000 points and take a hit from the bong.

"You bloadsed!" yelled Browne, who, as host, has thoroughly scrutinized the rule sheet, after a fellow player, Kristi Kelly, rolls five non-scoring dice.

"Bloads sounds like a condition I need to ask my doctor about," grumbled Kelly.

"I'd like to note we haven't smoked any weed yet," added Zac Maas, another player.

Score sheet. Photo: Zonk the Game/Facebook

Maybe, as newbies, it's our fault play is progressing so slowly. But also the way the game is designed, in which players are constantly trying to trip each other up for making mistakes, seems counter to the casual, feel-good vibe of most smoke sessions.

"I feel like we're playing Monopoly," said Kelly at one point. "That is not a compliment."

About a third of the way through the game, everyone wanders off to do other things, like dig into a bag of cheesy popcorn in the kitchen or sing off-key karaoke in the backyard. No one ever wanders back.

It looks like game night is a bust, until Maas suggests an alternative: "10,000," the old-school dice game Zonk is based on. "We're playing grandma and grandpa rules," he added as folks return to the gaming table, since he used to play all the time with his grandparents.

Soon play is progressing quickly, with folks happily racking up points without worrying about convoluted directions.

"So when do you smoke?" I asked Maas.

"You take a hit whenever you want," he said. "The bong's right there. Smoke some weed."

That's the sort of rule I can get behind.

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