Block by Block: Leslie Scott’s Jenga Game (or, in Swahili, Zuia kwa kuzuia: Mchezo wa Jenga wa Leslie Scott)

Leslie Scott and Jenga, 2020, photo by Sue Macpherson, ARPS . The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Born in Tanganyika (now the Republic of Tanzania) in East Africa, English national Leslie Scott and her family moved to Ghana, a country rich in wood, when she was 18. She and her family had played a block stacking game since childhood, and she commissioned sets of blocks from a local sawmill. In her 20s, Scott moved to Oxford, England, and brought some block sets with her. Her British friends loved the game to obsession, she says, “but it took me a while to realize that it didn’t actually exist as a product.”

The original Jenga game, 1983. Leslie Scott Associates, The Strong, Rochester, New York.

While it wasn’t exactly her eureka moment, it was at least a flash of inspiration, the kind many game inventors hope for and some achieve. But Jenga’s success didn’t happen overnight. Scott first commissioned 100 games built by Camphill, a community in Yorkshire for people with learning disabilities. According to Scott, “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.” And she added, “Computer games were just taking off, and everyone thought the board game was dead.” The English department store Harrod’s agreed to order some sets of the game, if Scott would demonstrate them during the Christmas holidays. The game was selling, but she had mounting debts.

It was the North American—initially the Canadian—market that spurred greater interest in Jenga. After an Irwin Toys executive spotted the game being demonstrated at a Toronto department store, he brought it to Irwin, which signed a deal to produce it in Canada and brought the game to the 1986 Canada Toy Fair. And Irwin had connections with (and would eventually be purchased by) Hasbro, Inc. Both companies, however, thoroughly disliked the name Jenga.

Scott grew up speaking both English and Swahili, and “jenga” comes from the Swahili kujenga—to build. With a love of games and gaming—she’d once designed learning games for corporate development―she said, “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.” The name was almost a deal-breaker for the industry giants, but her instincts were correct. We see unique or foreign language-derived names and brands everywhere. They purposefully call to mind only the products they represent. As Scott later said, “I stuck to my guns.”

Hasbro’s Hassenfeld brothers first saw and played Jenga, at Stephen Hassenfeld’s New York apartment, and his brother Alan later wrote that they “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. 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.” As a proprietary tabletop game, Jenga has been ranked second only to Monopoly in terms of worldwide sales, which is especially interesting considering how long Monopoly has been on the market. In terms of numbers, a recent estimate topped 80 million Jenga games sold. The game has proved fun for young and old and from two to multiple players. As Leslie Scott also told the Oxford Times, “In a world that was getting more and more complex, this was something simple, and sometimes simple works.” And that simplicity and universal appeal helped earn Jenga a place as one of the three 2020 inductees to the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Article written by Nicolas Ricketts, The Strong National Museum of Play.

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