For more than an hour I had sat listening to the story of a pile of wooden bricks. Gripping stuff eh? You bet. For these very bricks transformed Leslie Scott’s life forever, placing her firmly at the top of any world ranking of game inventors.
Now, after building up to it for years, she is finally ready to reveal herself as the woman responsible for the worldwide phenomena that is Jenga.
Often when she does mention that she is the creator of the famous game that has sold close to over 50m copies there is disbelief.
“People are usually surprised when I tell them,” she admits. “Many seem as incredulous as they would be if I had told them that I had invented the wheel. Having played it for years, they assume Jenga has been around forever.”
But that may be the secret of Jenga’s massive worldwide success. For it is a game that always appeared too obvious to have been designed with intent. Claiming to be the first person to have devised a game that involves knocking a tower by piling wooden blocks on top of one another just seems a little too far-fetched.
Yet Jenga was invented, 27 years ago as it happens, and is the product of an obsessive woman’s business brain, and a voyage of commercial discovery from the savannahs of Africa to the real tennis courts of Oxford, and from offices above the old Potato Marketing Board in Cowley to the toy departments of America’s greatest stores.
The game has delivered rich rewards to Ms Scott, who lives on a farm five miles outside Oxford, near Beckley, with her husband, the eminent Oxford University zoologist Fritz Vollrath.
Things had appeared very differently in 1982 when she set out to market Jenga. Back then it meant putting her career on the line and risking her home and that of her mother — all for the sake of a game.
But what a game — with only Monopoly and Scrabble offering worthy opposition!
While Ms Scott still struggles to come up with any simple explanation to explain Jenga’s attraction, others have had less difficulty.
“It is one of those crazy stupid things that come along from time to time, and it worked,” reckons toy company boss George Irwin, of Irwin Toys.
“In a world that was getting more and more complex, this was something simple, and sometimes simple works.”
Simple it may be, but the story of the creation that became a household game has given Ms Scott material for a book that is both a real-life story of victory against the odds and a cautionary tale for anyone who relishes the game of business.
In her working life Ms Scott has been a waitress at Brown’s restaurant in Oxford and an employee at Intel UK, then based in Cowley, where she would devise games to help staff remember new products. But it turns out Jenga’s roots are in Africa, which is her home for at least some of the year.
Her father, a Spitfire pilot, went to live in Kenya soon after the end of the Second World War, while her mother was born on a tea farm in Tanganyika, now Tanzania.
Ms Scott was born in Dar es Salaam, where her parents had moved to in 1955 with their two-year-old son, Graham. Later, the growing family moved to Kampala, Nairobi, Freetown and finally, as she turned 17, to Accra in Ghana.
There is a theory that Jenga was first played by the Chinese using perfectly crafted pieces of jade, while many assume that Jenga was originally played by Africans.
“As far as I am able to tell — and I have researched this pretty extensively —- no game even remotely similar to Jenga existed before the early 1970s,” she says. “It isn’t an African game played by generations of Ghanaians. There are no illustrations of people playing Jenga from any culture at any period before now, and there is no mention of such a game in any literature, folklore or anthology of games.”
If not African in origin, Ms Scott first played the game there with members of her family, eight years before she gave it a name borrowed from Swahili, meaning ‘build.’ “I would love to be able to pinpoint the precise eureka moment in which the game was fashioned from a collection of handmade wooden blocks, but I can’t, because I don’t think any such moment took place,” she writes in About Jenga.
Her family were games lovers, while the hours spent outdoors make it unsurprising that a collection of her younger brother’s building blocks evolved into a stacking game. By 1974 the family had progressed to playing with blocks made to order from a carpenter in Takoradi, Ghana’s main port. The children even gave sets of Takoradi bricks as presents. (Many years later she spotted a letter in The Oxford Times, in which a reader recalled coming across a game called Takoradi Bricks at the home of the British High Commissioner in Accra.) If the precise moment of its birth is unknown, she well remembers the time in Oxford when she decided that Jenga held the key to her fortune. While working at Intel, she recalls how people would demand to play “the game with bricks” at her dinner parties.
Her boyfriend at the time was Oxford University’s real tennis professional. She came up with the idea of holding a fundraising feast on the court in Merton College Lane, with wine served in goblets and venison on platters. A section of the court was given over to Elizabethan games and she cheekily slipped her own modern game of bricks, claiming to anyone who asked that it was conceived during the reign of “an Elizabeth”.
The enthralled response of the professional games players convinced her that the game should be brought to market.
To work, the blocks had to vary slightly in size, with a friend coming up with the idea of finishing the bricks off in a beeswax tumble polisher. The first boxes were manufactured by a small company in Yorkshire and Jenga was launched at the London Toy Fair in January 1983. Her hopes of applying for a patent had to be dropped because of the crippling fees but she wisely trademarked Jenga to protect her rights in the name. Recognising that the key to success lay in giving people the opportunity to play, or at least see the game being played, she persuaded The Oxford Times to sponsor the first Jenga championship in the ballroom of the Randolph Hotel a few weeks after the game’s launch.
But she now recognises that she seriously underestimated the scale of the problems facing anyone launching not only a new game, but a whole new game concept. Sales were initially disappointing and she was faced with selling her house and her Intel shares.
Her now ex-boyfriend agreed to act as a guarantor for an increased loan, while her mother allowed her house to be used as security to secure yet another loan.
Today Ms Scott says the only defence she can offer for allowing her mum and closest friends to take such risks was her unshakable belief in her wooden bricks.
The breakthrough only came in 1986 when the game was relaunched at the Toronto Toy Fair, when Alan Hassenfeld, chairman of the toy giant Hasbro “just flipped” and declared: “We just have to have it.”
But her success across the Atlantic was to be soured by a deal she signed assigning the worldwide rights of Jenga to the Canadian-based brother of an Oxford friend.
Today she recognises that it has cost her many millions of pounds.
It means she still receives only a little over 20 per cent of the royalties that the publisher pays for Jenga.
Pulling out a calculator, she told me that she receives just five cents from every ten dollars from sales, while the agents earn 75 cents.
Jenga has allowed her to go on to devise and market close to 40 games over the past 26 years, co-founding Oxford Games Ltd.
Some games were commissioned and designed to celebrate particular Oxford institutions like the Bodleian Library. She continues to play Jenga, although her two children, Frederica, 21 and Digby, 18, now usually beat her at her own game. They apparently get plenty of practice when they are away at university.
“I understand the a drinking version of Jenga is very popular in Leeds and Falmouth,” she chuckles, happy in the knowledge that in these days of collapsing businesses, her game of tumbling bricks will be her lasting monument.