It has been 40 years since Leslie Scott launched Jenga, which means ‘build’ in Swahili, the language of her childhood in Africa.
We find out more about the life of the designer whose game has sold more than 100m sets worldwide, at her 100-acre farm in Oxfordshire.
What inspired you to come up with Jenga?
I was born in what’s now Tanzania and grew up in East Africa. My father was very inventive and made a lot of toys. We were a close family and loved playing board games, all of us sitting down together.
My younger brother had some building blocks that were just off-cuts, and we used to pile them up. There must’ve been a moment when we realised we had a game and started to repeat it. We had a few sets hand-made for us in Ghana and I brought one when I moved to Oxford in my late teens.
I got a job at Intel, which was fantastic and exciting. After a while, I knew I wanted to start my own company. Having realised by then that I had a novel game idea, I decided to turn this box of bricks into a product and take it to market.
How difficult was it to break into the market and get your concept onto the shelves?
It was very tough, and looking back I can’t believe the risks we took. I had no real business plan or toy-market experience but borrowed money from the bank, underwritten by my mother. When I needed to borrow more she put her house up as collateral, which was incredibly irresponsible of me and the bank, but it worked out.
One of the main challenges was figuring out how to machine-make the blocks while retaining the handmade element. For the game to work, every block needs to be slightly different from one another. In 1982, having trademarked the name and patented the game, I had several thousand blocks manufactured in Yorkshire, according to a method I had devised with the help of a cabinetmaker friend. These I packed, 54 blocks per set, ready to launch at the 1983 January Toy Fair in London. The Oxford Times ran a competition event a few months later.
I sold a few thousand sets in this country but the big breakthrough came in Canada. A friend was living there at the time and was demonstrating the game in a mall when a toy company rep from Irwin Toy saw it. They loved it and asked for the rights to produce and sell it in Canada – Trivial Pursuit was huge in the mid-1980s and they were looking for the next big thing.
The only problem was that Irwin didn’t like the name, as it didn’t describe the game. I was determined to stick with Jenga, which they finally accepted and even embraced, branding the word Jenga into each block and advertising it on TV as “the great game with the strange name”. Through Irwin, Hasbro acquired the worldwide rights in 1986 and took it to the next level.
Jenga is phenomenally popular around the world and still sells millions of copies a year. How do you view its success?
It’s mind-blowing. Of course, nobody goes into a market if they don’t believe they’ll be successful, but even so, it’s beyond any dream I had to find that Jenga is now played in practically every country. I’m pleased I stuck by the name and kept the Jenga trademark.
How has the game changed your life?
I started designing other games at the same time, and Jenga’s success gave me freedom as it meant others didn’t need to be blockbusters and took the pressure off. I’ve designed and published 40 other games; most are more niche. Luck and timing certainly play a part, and if Hasbro hadn’t come along when it did, it might have been very different. It’s changed my life enormously.
Do traditional board games and toys still have a place in the modern landscape of online gaming, videos and social media?
Sales of board games actually grew during Covid-19. There have been fears over the years that video games would destroy the industry, but it’s a different sphere. The appeal of board games remains – they bring people together and engage all ages, and children have never stopped wanting that in their lives.
- What is your favourite game? Cluedo is up there, and I love word games such as Boggle.
- What’s important in a game? I enjoy games involving social activity, where someone can be witty or clever.
- Do you play with family? My daughter’s a games designer, but my husband [Fritz Vollrath, a zoology professor at the University of Oxford] isn’t a natural player and would rather be outside looking at animals.
- Any tips for playing Jenga? If you play a lot you get an eye for what’s feasible or possible. I’ve observed over the years that when the tower gets to a certain height, all players are willing it on and have a vested interest.
Are there any parallels or crossover between toys/games and farming/land management?
Life is about contingencies, and that’s certainly true for both of them. You can plan as much as you like in farming, but you can’t control the weather or the government, so there’s that element of chance. Managing land is one of the riskiest businesses, as is taking a game to market. You also need a flexible mindset for both.
What advice do you have for others who are looking to create a new product or service and bring it to market?
If you have a good idea for a game or product and can’t sell it to an existing publisher, think hard and be realistic about going ahead on your own. You need to be tenacious, know your market and have the resources to promote your product properly.