All photos courtesy of David Rakower
While the original creator of the smoking game Zonk remains a mystery, here’s what we do know: fans report playing it as early as the 1970s, official rules were passed around in 1983, and college kids loved it. The objective was to get 10,000 points through dice rolls, and players would take a hit of marijuana each time they’d accrue 1000 points. Though many of us used to play the stoner sport, once we earned our diplomas and left life on campus, Zonk became a hazy, distant memory. Though iconic to many of a certain generation, Zonk is likely unfamiliar to the majority of millennials… until recently.
“I couldn’t believe that in a billion dollar legal cannabis space, most people had not heard of Zonk. It was mind-boggling to say the least,” says long-time Zonk enthusiast David Rakower, who decided to bring the underground game to the mainstream. Disbelief was the only motivation he needed to legitimize the game by packaging everything you need (sans cannabis) into a sophisticated set complete with rules, scoresheets, dice, a playing surface, and a glass pipe. His goal is to pay homage to the original game and culture while legitimizing it for 21st-century smokers.
Rakower’s been busy spreading the good word about the cult-classic to the masses, including a major marketing campaign aimed at dispensaries and smoke shops with the promise of maximizing revenue from flower purchases and smoking accoutrements, so long as they sell Zonk, too. When the industrious game developer is not converting new players at events like Jam Cruise and Fool’s Paradise, he’s delivering Zonk to notable musicians and comedians like Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson, 311’s Nick Hexum, Snoop Dogg, SOJA, Doug Benson, Derek Trucks, Lettuce, The Motet and Nikki Gillespie, to name a few.
Nostalgic for our college days when we’d get high with a side of dice, MERRY JANE caught up with David Rakower to reacquaint ourselves with the rules of Zonk and get a peek inside the process of bringing the once-popular tabletop game back into the limelight.
MERRY JANE: Tell us about Zonk.
David Rakower: Zonk, to the best of our knowledge, is a 35-year-old dice rolling cannabis game that was especially popular throughout the mid-90s, mainly in a pocket of northeast schools. Through our research, we’ve discovered that Zonk was developed by college students in the late ‘70s, and has progressed with many different variations throughout the years. Similar to many college-based drinking games, Zonk rules vary from college to college, but the basic gameplay remains the same.
How do you play the game?
Gameplay is very similar to that of Farkle or 10,000. A bong or bowl hit of cannabis is given out as each person progresses past every 1000 point threshold. Various different bonuses throughout the game exist. For example, if you land directly on the number, you get awarded a hit. There’s a 2100 point (Space Odyssey) bonus, as well. Let's assume you are at 1800 points at the start of your turn, and you roll 300 points. In a game to 10,000 points, you may try to accumulate more points in a turn. But, in this case, you may want to stay at 300 points, as it will land you directly on 2100. Assuming you stay with 300 points, you’ll be awarded two hits (one for crossing over 2000 and one for landing on the Space Odyssey bonus). As always, once a hit is obtained, the next person may not touch the dice until you say "Yes," "Yep," "Done," or "You can go.” If they touch the dice too soon, they lose their turn and the same rule applies to the next player in line. Of course, if the awarded player coughs while taking their hit, all rules are void and the next person may go.
What's your favorite aspect of the game?
The culture. It's a game of class and composure, with calculated risks throughout. Zonk, while competitive in nature, has a full-on underground cult following. Many enthusiasts have been playing for over 20 years. Once someone commits to a game of Zonk, they understand what the hype is all about. The game lasts from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on how many are playing, and it requires the player’s full concentration and involvement throughout. It demands physical coordination and mental stability, which becomes challenging as the hits of weed keep coming and the game increases in difficulty.
Snoop Dogg with The Game of Zonk and David Rakower
What does it take to get a newbie hooked?
New players become fascinated with the game once they get one or two under their belt. Nothing is more inspiring than hosting a game and watching it all start to click. Usually, it takes around 20 minutes into playing for someone to embrace the spirit of it. The biggest thrill is to win the scoresheet. There’s nothing more fulfilling than when players around the world send us their winning Zonk scoresheets at all hours of the night. These acts of encouragement inspire us to keep promoting the game and culture. We want everyone to understand the joy and entertainment that comes with playing The Game of Zonk!
How important was it to keep the integrity of the original game while creating this?
Coordinating different versions of the rules in order to streamline them into one set of standard rules proved to be most difficult. Ultimately, we want to pay respect to the culture and the game. Zonk is known as a "Gentlemen's Game,” which typically ends with a bunch of handshakes, hugs, and signatures on the official Zonk scoresheet, so it was necessary to pay homage to all of these components. Back in our day, we used to play the game on an old novel. If you rolled the dice off the board, it was considered a “Spaz,” and you lost your turn, as well as any points accumulated throughout that turn. That’s why the box mimics the look and feel of an old novel. I’ve even hidden The Game of Zonk in Millar Library at Portland State University. I enlisted one of my oldest friends, who taught me how to play the game 20 years ago, to help with the design. We collaborated to develop the game with a classic, sophisticated look, so that we would not disappoint the old school players. At the same time, we wanted to be sure to capture the attention of people new to the game and culture.
What made you decide to include a custom glass pipe in each box?
After much travel and many discussions with several glass blowers, we were able to create a pipe that is proprietary to the game based on different regions, specifically states with recreational cannabis. If you buy Zonk in Colorado, it will have a different pipe than a Zonk game that’s purchased in Oregon. We love the idea of supporting local markets and artists. While it costs us more to produce, we feel this adds great value to the game.
Zonk has always had a strong tie to music...
Our ties to the live music community run deep. As a musician myself, it was a no-brainer to fuse music and events with our mission. While we cannot disclose, for obvious reasons, the stories of artists who have actually played the game with us, I can share that Robert Mercurio of Galactic used to play in college. His Zonk name was "Spidey.” The Main Squeeze confirmed that Zonk saved their life. Karl Denson, while not partaking in the smoking portion of the game, has a copy of Zonk in his living room. Also, you’ll notice that the scoresheets leave space to log all of the music that plays during each game.
And people insert their own fun variations into the game...
We have a big following here in the Tampa-St. Petersburg region of Florida, especially in the music festival circuit. A lot of the local musicians play Zonk, along with touring bands traveling through the area. Since we’re so involved in the scene, everyone approaches us to tell us new variations of the game that they've created. A lot of the bands do not have time to play a full game during the festivals, so they play a lot of 5,000 point games to make it quicker. They also develop new bonuses all the time like the 2,700 "EarPhunk" bonus and the 1950 "Stevie Wonder" bonus (1950 was the year Wonder was born). The more you play, the more you develop different components to the game to keep things fresh and fun. As the game progresses, the dialogue becomes hysterical. We always get caught up, messing up our turns...even after 20 years of playing Zonk.
For more information on Zonk, visit the website here.