Alumni & Friends

Jenga: a tale of randomness and design

In November Senior Associate of Oxford’s Pembroke College, Leslie Scott, was honoured by her wildly popular invention Jenga being inducted in the US’s National Toy Hall of Fame. Sold in 117 countries across the world and loved by all ages, as a family- and pub-favourite, Jenga is now officially a classic.

Read the full interview on the Science Blog as Ruth Abrahams caught up with Leslie Scott, to find out how the game evolved and why its simple concept keeps people coming back for more.

 

How did Jenga come into being?

As a game, it evolved amongst my family when we were living in Ghana in the mid-70s. I moved to Oxford a few years later and had a set of these blocks and started to play it as a game. They weren't exactly like the Jenga blocks are now but the principle of the game was there.

I played a lot with friends here in Oxford. But it took a long time for the penny to drop that this didn't exist already as a game. People and children have obviously been piling up blocks of wood for years, but actually to turn that into a game, it just didn't exist.

So in 1982, I decided I was going to take this game to market.  But that's when the issues started. I knew nothing about the toy industry and nothing about retail business. But I was just so convinced this was going to work.

 

What are the secrets to Jenga’s success?

Not many people realise this but each one of the blocks in the game are slightly randomly different from each other. And that's absolutely deliberate. Because without that, the game just really doesn't work. If they're all identical it just sits there. So that sort of randomness was a factor of the original, handmade wooden blocks.

I had to figure out how to mass market some of these flaws. Then there was the question of how many actual blocks there should be, plus their size. The original ones were slightly longer than Jenga blocks are now. That meant you couldn't assemble them three by three and make a stable tower to start with - there were gaps between each.

But I figured out that if you made them just slightly shorter you can square it up. So you can start with a fairly stable tower. The decision to go for 54 blocks was trial and error. You start with 18 rows and it just worked - I don't think there was anything more scientific.

 

How did you scale up production to maintain randomness?

I spoke to a carpenter I knew and asked him how would you do this. He came up with a very clever suggestion, which was to send the planks of wood through a sanding template that was not in itself 100% even. So these planks of wood would go through that template, and then be chopped up into the pieces.

The next stage was introduced by a group of people in Yorkshire at a place called Camphill. It's a sheltered community for adults with learning disabilities and other special needs - it's a movement all around the world. In Yorkshire they have a farm, they've got a dairy, but they also have a woodworking shop.

They had already been making wooden toys, and a person that I knew at Oxfam suggested talking to them. I went up and saw them and asked if they would be interested in doing this for me? And they said, “Yes”, provided that if it became successful, I took it elsewhere to be manufactured because they didn't want to spend the rest of their lives just churning out hundreds and thousands of the wooden blocks!

They came up with this idea of tumble polishing them. When you very lightly tumble polish it puts a nice sheen on them. It smooths the edges, but it doesn't smooth them totally - it introduces another level of slight inconsistency, so it's really clever.

I haven't seen how Hasbro make them now in vast quantities, but I understand it's not that different. This randomness is still built into it. People love playing with wood. There's that tactile element to it, but it's also actually key to the functioning of the game.