Review by Peter Snow
Jenga, one of the world’s classic games, has sold over 50 million sets and its appeal shows no sign of slackening. Many of those who, like me, have spent happy hours, breath held adding bricks to its tottering towers or whooping with delight as a rival brought the whole edifice toppling down, must have wondered what lay behind this fascinating game – just who invented it and why and how it became such an international phenomenon. In this wonderful book I found all the answers and much more.
Leslie Scott, its inventor, unearths the roots of Jenga (‘Build!’ in Swahili) in the games her ex-pat family played in 1950s Kenya. But it was one Sunday morning as an under-employed macramé-teacher in 1970s East Oxford that she woke up and realised its commercial possibilities. About Jenga tells of the challenges and obstacles she overcame on the way to making her dream reality – the collisions with bank managers and debt collectors, predatory agents and big-time players, sinister flatterers and shady copycats as well as the unexpected allies and good angels who helped her on the path to success.
Reading it, I realised I had at last found a model business book – one with a human face, rich in lessons for entrepreneurs and all those seeking to take a new idea to market, but written with great wit, learning and fluent clarity and blessedly free of the jargon or the self-deluding vanity that disfigures so many of the books in this area.
Embedded in it I also found much more – a moving family memoir, not to mention a vivid and personal chunk of social history over the last four decades, telling how Leslie Scott took her first faltering steps in the then male-dominated world of business.
This makes About Jenga sound portentous and does not do justice to the many delightful comic vignettes studding its pages. I almost rolled on the floor with laughter reading about one incident, when Scott, then Intel’s first UK marketing manager, shared premises with the Potato Marketing Board. One day a Board representative marched in and plonked down a sack of a new type of spuds and asked her in all seriousness to report on their suitability for the new culinary product – microchips – that he had heard she was preparing.
Circling out from her experiences, Scott – an unusual and attractive blend of businesswoman and Oxford intellectual – offers interesting reflections on the role of branding not just in business but also in art, history and nature (she devotes, incidentally, some of her earnings from Jenga to supporting a zoological and ecological research station in Kenya), on metaphor and the larger relationship between games, life and business.
How best to characterise this strange, multifaceted book? Perhaps as the journey of an intelligent, if somewhat naïve and Candide-like, young woman through an Alice-in-Wonderland world and her attempts, then and now, to make sense of it. Buy it, read it. Like the game it celebrates, I predict it could well become a cult classic. With its humour, rich layering and period background, it would make a fabulous film or TV docu-drama. Agents and producers, please note.
Review by Eric Jones BookReview.com
Leslie Scott is my new hero. Existing in a world that’s becoming engorged on the digital wave of electronic gaming, and having succumb to the wave myself (yes, I do moonlight as a video games vendor), its invigorating to hear someone intelligent profess the merits of the board game. Although Leslie Scott’s book lends a heavy emphasis on the business of creating and marketing the game Jenga, it also forges into the philosophical; the Tao of Jenga, if you will. And it is in those places where “About Jenga” shines brighter than any other business book that Greenleaf Book Group has ever produced.
Given Jenga’s near intuitive simplicity, you might expect that it came about nearly by accident, but the truth is that how the game is played is not the same as how it’s marketed. The look, the feel, the precarious situation that Jenga puts its players in, even its name, are the results of a life lived in the pursuit of knowledge. Scott was born in Africa, and educated in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Oxford. And she has leant the bulk of this pursuit to the launching of the classic game, taking great care to learn the practice of selling an idea, protecting the rights of that idea and launching a phenomenon.
“About Jenga” is not a blueprint for creating a game with mass appeal, rather it is Scott’s exploration of how a mix of fate and effort culminated in the perfect storm to help her push Jenga on the market from the ground up. It is very much a story of a woman up against the world of corporate licensing who discovers a way to triumph in a way that only someone with the intellectual moxy to go up against it in the first place could. It’s inspirational in a number of ways.
There’s a good bit of memoir involved with “About Jenga”, and this wouldn’t be as interesting if not for the unique upbringing that Scott experienced in the first place. The real star of the book is Jenga itself, and it’s in Scott’s battle to get the game off the ground that the book really takes off. The mine field of trademarking and legalese would be daunting for anyone, especially when being propositioned by a major company. Leslie Scott operates like the James Bond of the board game business, and Jenga is her Walther PPK. It’s small and packs one hell of a punch.
I’ll admit that I’ve never really been much of a fan of Jenga, the game. I’m a story kind of guy, and when I play board games I want to be riveted by the twists and turns along the likes of which games like Monopoly, Risk, and Clue provide. But I’m not ashamed to admit even to my videogame store co-workers that board games have a special place in the household that Sony and Microsoft will never break. The fancy effects of virtual reality are just like the overstuffed CGI of films today, and board games have all the indelible artfulness of the theatre. The most important thing that “About Jenga” provides is to remind us that its top selling point is the metaphor that Jenga provides us with. You and your opponent are perched together on a single perfectly geometric tower, faced with only those decisions below you, and each decision brings you closer to the end. It’s short, it’s simple, it’s fun. Jenga is life. Choose wisely.
- Eric Jones BookReview.com
Leslie, it was wonderful! Meringues, Real Tennis, Camphill (Dinny Konig is my son-in–law). What a special read. Congratulations! In awe of your nomadic, rich life – awesome.
-Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro’s Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors
An-Edge-of-Your-Seat-Read by Tim Walsh
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenga inventor, Leslie Scott for my book, Timeless Toys. After reading her new book, it was clear to me that I simply scratched the surface of her remarkable story.
About Jenga tells the tale of inventing one of the most popular games in the world, and like the game she made famous, her book is filled with edge-of-your seat suspense. From the game’s humble origins in East Africa, to its trek to England, Canada, the US and then the world, this toy tale is punctuated with ups and downs, huge risks and vast reward. Yet this is much more than a recounting of the development and rise of a great game brand.
About Jenga: The Remarkable Business of Creating a Game that Became a Household Name is essentially a book on the business of creating and licensing games. Scott shares how she tried to patent her game (with a comical poke at her lawyer), but she also shares her somber, cautionary tale of signing an agreement (without a lawyer) that she unfortunately must live with to this day. I thoroughly enjoyed her detailed research and opinion on what makes a great game, but it was her deeper reflections on the nature of play that made this book a good read. While Scott delves into her own story and shares many family pictures, About Jenga is much more than a memoir. It’s a book on the business of game licensing and the universal human desire for play.
Oh, and by the way, it’s also an inspirational story of a remarkable woman, who with creativity and grit, gave the world one of its greatest games.
-Tim Walsh, Author of Timeless Toys:Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them
Leslie Scott’s book is a cautionary tale of ‘Inventor Beware’. Told with honesty, humor and insight, About Jenga traces the history of one of the most successful family games the toy industry has ever seen. Kudos to Leslie Scott; she should feel very proud.
-Hal Ross, President, RP Toys Limited, Author of The Doll Brokers.
About Jenga is terrific. I think it should become a must-read for author-inventor-entrepreneurs.
-Bob Peirce, Chairman BritWeek, and former British Consul-General LA