Inventor Leslie Scott: ‘Computer games were just taking off – and there I was trying to sell a pile of little wooden blocks’
Interview by Jenny Stevens
Leslie Scott, inventor
When I was 18, my family moved to Ghana, a country rich in wood. We would often play a game with these little wooden blocks from the local sawmill. I brought a few sets with me when I moved to Oxford in my 20s and, whenever I played it with friends, they became obsessed – so much so that I’m sure I was only invited out because I used to bring my blocks. It was clear everybody loved this game, but it took me a while to realise that it didn’t actually exist as a product. So I decided to put it on the market.
I must have been mad. Even though I was only in my early 20s and knew nothing about the toy business, I had 100 or so sets made at Camphill, a community in Yorkshire where people with learning disabilities live and work. They bake, make cheese, and run a small woodworking shop. They agreed provided that, if the game was a success, I’d find an alternative manufacturer, as they didn’t want to be stuck making little blocks for the rest of their lives.
I took the game to a London toy show in 1983. I’d grown up speaking Swahili and gave it the name Jenga, which means “build”. I was convinced people would only need to see the game, and it would sell out. But computer games were just taking off, and everyone thought the board game was dead. And there I was trying to sell a pile of wooden blocks. I didn’t make a single sale, but a man from Harrods gave me a break. He said they’d take some if I agreed to do a demonstration in the store. It was Christmas, and the shop was frenetic. People would stop, play the game, the blocks would fall over, and they’d walk off, leaving me on my hands and knees, being trodden on by shoppers as I picked the pieces up.
The game sold, but I had mounting debts. Then, one day, the brother of a friend I had given a set to called and asked if he could be my agent. He was demonstrating it at a mall in Toronto when a salesman from Irwin Toys had walked past and got very excited. Irwin fell in love with the game, and I signed a deal for them to produce it in Canada.
Jenga was an enormous hit at the 1986 Toronto toy fair. I took orders for 400,000 games! Irwin had a good relationship with Hasbro – who would become key to Jenga’s worldwide success. But neither company wanted it to be called Jenga. They said: “It’s a great game, but it’s got a lousy name.” I’d thought very hard about the name, though. I had deliberately not chosen a descriptive name like Tumbling Towers. I had this idea: that when you said Jenga, everyone would think of the game and nothing else.
It took off in Canada and the US, but I didn’t know it was big in Britain until I went into a toy shop near Oxford with my sister one day. There was a Jenga on the shelf. A woman picked it up and my sister shrieked: “That’s my sister’s game!” And the woman clutched it to her chest and said: “No, it isn’t – it’s mine!” I got such a kick out of that.
Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro
Anyone good in the toy industry thinks like a seven-year-old. George Irwin, whose company was making Jenga in Canada, called me and said: “Look, I have this wonderful game!” He came over to my brother’s apartment in New York. I remember sitting on a white carpet with six other grown men and playing Jenga for about two hours. We may have drunk some wine.
My brother and I fell in love with it. When we launched in 1986, we were at the cusp of video games like ColecoVision and Atari. But one of the most magical things about Jenga was that you could open up the box and just start playing immediately. And it played so well – the hoots when the whole thing tumbles feel good. You can do a lot of market research, but every once in a while you look at a product and, in the bottom of your stomach, you just know it’s good.