Jenga creator Leslie Scott on building an iconic toy

Billy Langsworthy talks with Leslie Scott, the inventor of Jenga, about creating an iconic game, the influx of tech toys and her other game creations.
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There are a handful of games so iconic that on name alone are universally recognised, but few are as simple, or successful, as Jenga.

While some inventors go through three, five, ten different products before a creation takes off, for Leslie Scott’s Jenga, it was first time lucky.

“Jenga was my first toy invention, or at least, it was the first toy that I devised, named and put on the market,” Scott tells ToyNews.

“Like many children growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in Africa, I spent many hours playing with toys and games that I, or my siblings or parents, had devised from anything that came to hand - bits of wire, stick, stones, mud, sand, etc. Jenga itself was based on a game I devised and played in the early 1970s with my baby brother’s toy building blocks.”

While many would assume the most difficult aspect of bringing an idea to reality would be the first stages of product development and manufacturing, Scott’s first hurdle came from retailers.

Scott continues: “As I never considered trying to licence the game to a toy company, actually launching Jenga onto the market wasn’t difficult at all. Other than my bank manager, I didn’t have to convince anyone of its merits. I decided on the name; designed the packaging; how and who to manufacture the blocks, and I assembled the games, and took a stand at the London Toy Fair.

“The difficulties started once I tried to sell my game, when I came up against a brick wall. Apart from Harrods and a couple of small independents, no retail toy buyer was in the least bit interested in talking to a one-person, one-product company, especially as that one product was new and entirely un-promoted.”

The difficulties continued for the first few years.

“At first, and for several years, I wasn’t at all successful in the sector - in fact I was struggling to survive.”

But then Hasbro licensed Jenga in the 1980s and the game went on to become what it is today. Despite the early struggles, Scott never doubted Jenga’s potential.

“I never imagined it being so iconic but when I took it to market, in my youthful naivety, I did believe that it would be very successful,” continues Scott.

“I would never have taken the risks I did (borrowing money from my bank, my friends, my family - selling my house, etc) if I hadn’t believed that Jenga would enable me to at least pay off all my loans, and at best, make me a good deal of money.

“Of course, I now realise that I was exceedingly lucky that Jenga made it at all, let alone become so huge. But to give you an idea of how certain I was that it would be successful, when I named it, I deliberately chose a word that is ‘meaningless’ in most languages in the belief that it would become synonymous with my game. In Swahili (a language which I grew up speaking), Jenga means build.”

The success of Jenga is a tough act to follow. Knowing this, post-Jenga, Scott has focused on tackling a different games market entirely.

She adds: “For the past 20 years or so I have concentrated on devising games for a very different, more niche market. Through my own company, Oxford Games, I have published around 40 or so games, some of which are (or have been) best sellers in their own way. For example, Ex Libris, the game of first lines and last words, published in 1991, is still going strong. As is Anagram, the ingenious game of juggling words.”

But the toy industry Oxford Games is working in is very different to the one faced by Scott at the 1983 London Toy Fair. So what does she think of the influx of technology into the world of toys?

“Whether we like it or not, we have to accept that our children and grandchildren will have to be tech-savvy to cope with the world,” says Scott.

“Therefore, I think the toy industry has a vital role to play in designing toys and games that help a child to use technology without curtailing his or her creativity and imagination. This is not to say that I believe all toys should be tech-based, on the contrary.”

And to budding toy inventors, Scott says: “I suggest that they take their idea to a well regarded toy company.
“I know that I went it alone, but I also know that I was incredibly lucky that the risks I took paid off in the long run, and this only happened because Hasbro licensed Jenga.

“I would also recommend that they do a little more research than I did before plunging into the toy world,” she concludes.

If you are a toy inventor and you'd like to share your story, email us at Billy.Langsworthy@intentmedia.co.uk.

Or if you would like to pitch your game idea to the likes of Hasbro, Flair and Asobi, click here for information on our Toy & Game Inventors Workshop.

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