(Photographer - Sue Macpherson ARPS)
I know that you were born in Tanzania and that you moved to Oxford at age 19. Can you tell me more about your experience growing up and how that led to the creation of Jenga?
I was born in Tanzania, and my family and I lived in Kenya before we moved to Ghana when I was 17 years old. I have a brother who is 13 years younger than me, so he was around four or five when we moved to Ghana. He had a collection of little wooden building blocks: they were scraps from a sawmill that happened to be almost the size of the Jenga pieces we have now. We would play around with these blocks, and although not a game at first, after many such occasions of mucking about with these offcuts, a proper game evolved and we had some sets of blocks made specifically for us.
I had a set of these blocks with me when I moved to Oxford at age 19. I taught a group of friends how to play my family’s game, and many of them started asking me to bring the ‘wooden bricks game’ every time we got together. It became so popular that any time there was a party, people would ask for it. It slowly dawned on me that this game didn’t already exist, that it was a novel idea, which is when it occurred to me that I could start my own company to produce and put the game on the market. So there really wasn’t a sudden eureka moment as such, rather there was a slow turning point. That was when I set about deliberately designing a game based on the handmade set we had played with over the past few years. And that’s when I tried to figure out how to mass-produce these wooden blocks as though they were still handmade. In other words, how to keep the slight and random variations of the handmade blocks that I knew were so essential to the game.
I was lucky in that I had a clever carpenter friend who suggested a solution that involved sanding the wood with a special template before cutting it into pieces. And this worked, resulting in pieces that had the variations of the handmade set.
People may not know this, but each one of the 64 blocks in a Jenga is very slightly and randomly different from every other block. This means that no two sets of Jenga are the same.
I read that the first Jenga sets were made in the woodwork shop at a Camphill Community Village in Yorkshire. How did this partnership come about?
Camphill is a worldwide movement, and there are several Camphill Village Community Trusts around England all existing to provide a life of opportunity to individuals with diverse learning and support needs. The Camphill community in Yorkshire has a farm with a dairy and a very successful woodworking operation. The wood workshop at Camphill in Yorkshire was well known for producing very high-quality wooden toys, so I went up there and met a Camphill co-worker who became a good friend of mine, and he came up with the idea to tumble polish the pieces once they were cut, adding to the handmade quality. He told me that though they would be happy to make me a few hundred sets, if this game became successful, Camphill wouldn’t want to commit to making the game indefinitely. The woodworkers at Camphill were artisans who needed variety; making blocks for Jenga sets all day would turn it into a factory and it would become quite boring. The stars truly aligned and it was a really great partnership. In the end, Camphill made almost 2000 Jenga sets for me over the course of the few years I produced and marketed the game myself - that is, before it was licensed to Irwin Toys and then Hasbro.
Irwin Toys released JENGA in 1986 when video games were exploding. How did Jenga become a runaway success at a time when many people thought that board games would become a thing of the past?
Well, it began with the Irwin brothers, of Irwin Toys in Canada, falling in love with the game and deciding to take it on even though most of their marketing team were against doing so. They looked at it, and thought, "What's the fun of it? It's a set of children's blocks". And they absolutely hated the name of the game. They were thinking, nobody knows what this game is about and then you give it a name that no one has any idea what it means. It would be impossible to market and sell.
And what is incredibly interesting, is that a very similar thing happened with Hasbro. The two Hassenfeld brothers were shown the game by the Irwin brothers. They played it together in a hotel room in New York while they were both in town for a toy fair. Again, they absolutely loved the game, but the marketing team had a really hard time taking it on for the same reasons as before - an unknown game with a meaningless name and nothing to indicate how much fun it was to play. Therefore, I was extremely lucky that the Irwin brothers and Hassenfeld brothers believed in it enough to push it through.
Also, as you mentioned, the timing of Jenga’s 1986 launch in Canada was very important. Video games had become so entrenched and people had begun to believe that board games were done until suddenly Trivial Pursuit arrived on the market in 1983 and became a massive hit. Trivial Pursuit was created by the Canadian designer Chris Haney, so now everyone was looking to Canada for the next "Trivial Pursuit" to tap into the social interaction that people clearly craved and that video games lacked. And they found Jenga!
A quote of yours that has really influenced my work as a designer is, “In a world that was getting more and more complex, this was something simple, and sometimes simple works". How does this quote reflect your approach to design?
I would actually revise this statement: I would replace the word "complex" with "complicated". I think something complex can actually be deep, and rich and rewarding, whereas something complicated is more often just plain difficult. I don't like complicated games or complicated design. What I aim to do, in anything that I do, is to find the simplest way to create something really complex and rewarding. I personally love games that provide minimal material and few rules. It then becomes more about how players interact and play with each other, which I find much more fun. For example in a game like Ex Libris, people may be hesitant to start playing because they might think it’s going to be a difficult game and that you’ll need to be a book buff and know stuff, when really all you have to be able to do is bluff and fool other players into believing you! The game is simple. The players add the complexity.
What is something that people might not know about you?
I'm married to a real-life Spiderman! Well, he is a zoologist who is world-famous for studying spiders, which of course I have learned to love and admire.
I helped build a house called JENGA, in Kenya - which is fun, given that JENGA means BUILD! In Swahili, the main language of Kenya. The success of Jenga allowed me to support a wonderful research centre in northern Kenya, where they have built a house for visiting scientists from around the world, which they called Jenga House.
I am currently a Senior Associate of an Oxford University College, with a research interest in PLAY, so it might surprise people to know that I was a school drop-out. I didn’t go to any university, let alone one of the best in the world!