Excerpts

The Fifteen Chapters

ONE BUILDING BLOCKS

Are when and where I was born relevant to this story of the origin of Jenga or its success as a game, or even to my own success as a games designer? Well, maybe. Certainly, many people argue that both nature (i.e., the genes you inherit from your parents and they from theirs) and nurture (when, where and how you were raised) significantly influence the talents you have and the choices you make throughout life. So, perhaps a brief summary of my background and family might shed some light on how and why Jenga came about in the first place.

TWO AN UNLIKELY OXFORD EDUCATION

It’s funny how things can turn out. Many, many years after abandoning teacher training college in Oxford, I ended up home-schooling our two children for several months at a time when we decided to live in the middle of the African bush, miles from any town or school.
I rather enjoyed this challenge and had even convinced myself that I was doing a reasonable job until my son, who was eight years old at the time, gently interrupted me one day, and asked, “Mum, I really don’t mean to be rude, but exactly what qualifications do you have for teaching us?”

THREE ‘INTEL INSIDE’

As final postscript to this tale: Keith was right – Raymond Blanc did go far. He’s right there at the top, a celebrity chef with a television show, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons Hotel, and two Michelin stars to his name. In linking the cutting-edge company, Intel, with the innovative, rising star Blanc, Keith created an association in the minds of those bankers that I am sure they have never forgotten.

FOUR REAL TENNIS AND FLAPPY DUCKS

Real, Royal, or Court Tennis, or Jeu de Paume, as it is known variously in the countries where the game is still played (Britain, the United States, Australia, and France) is the medieval forerunner of lawn tennis. With just forty-six Real Tennis courts left in the world, part of the appeal of playing this esoteric game is the access it grants to some very exclusive, exotic locations.

FIVE THE NAME OF THE GAME

So, why did this word jenga feel so right to me? Why, when most new words failed, did it succeed? And why, despite its success, have I avoided – albeit unconsciously until now – launching any other game with a seemingly meaningless word for its name?

SIX PATENTLY OBVIOUS

Before I launched Jenga at the London Toy Fair in January 1983, I made an appointment to see a patent agent to discuss how best to protect the game.

SEVEN TRADEMARKS AND OTHER HAZARDS

Curiously enough, in addition to a patent agent practicing law in the twentieth century, it is a baker of the thirteenth century who must be thanked for the daily crust Jenga earns me today.

EIGHT TAKING JENGA TO AMERICA

In the summer of 1983 I decided I would take Jenga to America. My older brother, Graham, was by then a medical doctor, married, and living and working as an intern in a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. He and his American wife agreed to act as my agents in the United States. So, with an enormously heavy box containing fifty sets of Jenga, I set off to conquer the United States, hoping for a little more success than I had so far achieved in the United Kingdom.

NINE THE LEARNING CURVE

Once a game of Jenga has come tumbling down, it is no longer possible to tell from looking at the scattered bricks, which brick had been supporting which other brick before the tower fell. Looking back on the years immediately following my launch of the game, it would appear, even to me, that I was engaged in all sorts of odd and seemingly unrelated activities during that period. Yet, like the individual bricks of the game, each activity must have underpinned another and played a supporting role in the overall construction of Jenga.

TEN THE GREAT AND THE GOOD

And of course, having been at boarding school in the West Country, I knew about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famously audacious engineer who had built the West Country’s railway network, tunnels, and bridges. Still, I was entirely unaware, until Richard pointed it out, that there was a huge body of people, mainly men and boys, who were passionately interested in the history of rail and the Great Western Railway in particular. The GWR, he informed me, was fondly known by its many admirers as God’s Wonderful Railway. Enough said; of course I was interested in designing a GWR game.

ELEVEN THE RISE AND RISE OF JENGA

The Randolph, standing across the street from the Ashmolean Museum, is the grandest of the old Oxford hotels and is immortalized by the TV series Inspector Morse, based on Colin Dexter’s popular crime novels. In this magnificent setting, The Oxford Times’ Jenga championship drew a good crowd and considerable local media coverage, not only by the newspaper itself, but also by local radio and television.

TWELVE GIFT-WRAPPED GAMES

We warily stepped out of the toy world and dipped our toes in the gift market by exhibiting at a tiny Museums’ Association exhibition (a couple of stalls set up outside a conference room) with a prototype of The Hieroglyphs Game, which we had designed for Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

THIRTEEN THE POWERFUL ART OF BRANDING

When you first arrive as a visitor to the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya, you are handed an information pack containing everything from an article on the history of Mpala (the 48,000-acre wildlife conservancy and working cattle ranch in which the Centre is located) to logistics and security issues. It’s a fat dossier; living and working in the middle of a huge tract of arid African bush land, where domestic livestock graze among wild animals, poses unique problems and real dangers that have to be managed with care. Part of this management relies on the time-honoured tradition of branding.

FOURTEEN BUT IS IT ART?

I am not, I hasten to add, attempting to elevate branding to the level of Art with a capital A, the kind of Art that, according to Germaine Greer, is so powerful it “enables the immortal soul to emancipate itself from the dying animal” (The Guardian, February 11, 2008) but to make the point that it is an art form as distinct from a science.

FIFTEEN JENGA AS METAPHOR

A well-applied metaphor can help clarify muddled thinking and can even enable an entirely new train of thought, which is why, I believe, artists and scientists are forever hunting down new material for new metaphors.
In this context, Jenga is a gift from the gods! Here is a fresh, concrete, physical, and tangible “concept” that might be applied metaphorically to more abstract concepts without risk of empty platitude.

About Jenga