Jenga: The Story of the Simple—But Infuriating—Game

James Logie
Photo by Valery Fedotov on Unsplash

You've probably played Jenga at some point in your life. You probably own it even though you're not sure how you ever got it.

It's just one of the games that seem to be in every house.

Jenga was released in 1987 and is considered one of the biggest-selling games of all time.

The story of Jenga is really interesting as it has very humble roots--but became a huge hit in the 1980s.

It’s the perfect game no matter your age and it’s one of the few games that kids can compete against adults.

Here’s the interesting story of Jenga.

What Is Jenga?

In case you haven’t played Jenga for some reason, here’s a quick recap. The entire set is made up of 54 blocks and involves taking out one piece at a time and stacking it on top of the tower.

You can play by yourself or with as many people as you’d like.

It’s also a game that can be over in a few seconds, but the average playtime lasts around 5-15 minutes.

Each block is three times as long as it is wide and 1/5th as thick as its length. Each of the blocks has really small, and random, variations, and that’s what allows them to slide out.

You may have wondered why they sometimes are so easy to move out of the stack, and it’s because of these little variations.

If they were all exactly the same, it would be too difficult to move the blocks. These small variations also allow for imperfections in the stacking process--so you have to adjust to each situation.

It’s a simple concept but it goes into making the game so great and challenging.

There’s a little cardboard stand that helps you build the tower and the official rules are that the person who builds the tower gets to go first.

You can’t take blocks from the top level, or the level beneath it, and only one hand can be used to move a block.

There’s also an official rule that you have ten seconds to move a block.

You lose when the tower falls over or if any piece falls from the tower that’s not the block you were trying to move.

The Origins of Jenga

This may seem like a corporate game dreamed up in a big pitch meeting, set in a boardroom with big-time game designers. But it’s not: It was designed by one woman.

Leslie Scott was the co-founder of Oxford Games Ltd. and she was born and grew up in East Africa.

She spoke English and also Swahili. It was the early ‘70s and the game evolved within her family by using building blocks.

The family had purchased the blocks from a sawmill in Takoradi, Ghana.

They had come up with this simple stacking game and found it to be pretty fun and addicting to play.

Leslie played around with a few names of what to call it. The first one was “chezza” which means to play. But it was also the name of their dog, so she looked for something else.

They thought about what was involved with the game and that the whole principle was to basically just build.

The word “Jenga” means “build” which comes from the word “cojenga” which means “to build." After coming across this--the name stuck right away.

Some people think that this is an ancient African game, but it’s not, and no such game exists.

It seems like such a simple concept that it must have been used centuries before. But Scott researched everything, as well as lived in Africa, to find out it was an original game.

The First Release of Jenga

Jenga was not a mass-manufactured game just yet. It started as more of a grassroots project. Some of the earliest sets were made in 1982.

Scott had trademarked the name Jenga and launched the game at the London Toy Fair in 1983. She sold it through her own company called Leslie Scott Associates.

The whole thing was an English product and the original Jenga blocks were made for Scott by a company called Camphill Village Trust in Botton, Yorkshire.

The game was a hit at the toy fair and enjoyed by people of all ages due to its simplicity and for how challenging it was.

Taking Jenga to a Wider Market

An entrepreneur from California named Robert Grebler was the brother of a close friend of Leslie Scotts'.

He saw some promise in the game--and she did too--as she was investing her own money to market and sell it in England.

She was certain it was something worthwhile to pursue, and he picked up on that. He got the rights for Jenga from Scott for use in Canada and the U.S.

This was in April of 1985 and later that year she gave him full worldwide rights.

Grebler would assign these rights to Pokonobe Associates which was a company he put together.

He was so certain of the potential in Jenga that he recruited two of his cousins to form Pokonobe Associates in 1985 to be able to increase the distribution of Jenga.

Pokonobe Associates would then connect with toy company Irwin would be the first to distribute Jenga in Canada.

The Problem With the Name

Grebler was on board with the name Jenga, Scott obviously was, but the name was holding Irwin back a bit. They weren't sure about promoting Jenga if this was to be the name.

The name Jenga didn't mean anything to anyone and did not indicate anything to do with what it was, or how you would play it.

Later on, of course, the name Jenga would be synonymous with the game and would never need to be explained. But before this, there was a real concern.

They weren’t just unsure about the name: they absolutely hated it. But they loved the game.

Also, at this point, Scott had switched the name up a bit and was calling it “Jenga: The Perpetual Challenge."

This was an even more confusing name.

As Scott describes it, Irwin’s viewpoint was that no one had come across the game before and you couldn't even compare it to anything.

Irwin thought a meaningless name gave no indication of how the game is played. They had no idea how they would sell, market, or advertise something called Jenga.

Irwin wanted to call it TImber! and possibly Tumbling. But Scott was steadfast. She said that they just needed to stick with it and one day the name would have meaning.

Eventually, they agreed that the name would be Jenga and went full-on with it.

Launching Jenga

Irwin embraced the name and decided to not downplay it, but make it a key focus in the launch of the game.

A key marketing phrase would be the simple “It’s the game with the strange name." Now they had to get it out on the market.

Jenga was a huge hit when it was demonstrated at the 1986 Toronto Toy Fair. Over 400,000 orders were placed right then.

An insanely catchy song and commercial were put out that would help create massive interest. The song would get stuck in everyone's head.

Jenga would be fully released in 1987--even though there was still some of the distributing that was needed working out.

Irwin was licensed to sell Jenga in Canada and would be the master licensee worldwide. They could then choose who they wanted to distribute the game to in any different country.

For the U.S they went with Schaper Toys who had been making toys and games since 1949.

Hasbro would acquire Schaper and would launch Jenga under the Milton Bradley name. Hasbro would eventually take over most of the licensing for Jenga around the world.

Jenga did well out of the gate and continually sold at least 4 million units a year all the way to the year 2000.

Other Versions of Jenga

Over the years, there have been other various versions of Jenga released. There was “Throw ‘n Go Jenga” which was made up of colored blocks and a six-sided die.

There was Jenga “Truth or Dare." It looked just like regular Jenga but there were three different colors of blocks.

There was Jenga Xtreme which used parallelogram-shaped blocks that would be able to create some pretty crazy-looking towers.

And then there is the Jenga Giant and Jenga XXL. These are the massive ones that you can find in some restaurants.

Some of them get up to 4 or 5 feet high, and when playing, the tower can reach up to 8 feet. They use the same rules but you can use two hands to move the 18-inch blocks.

Wrapping It Up

Jenga is an amazing game. It was launched during the golden age of video games where we were experiencing technology that we never thought would be possible.

Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Commodore 64 and others like it were demanding our focus.

There were so many new toys and cartoons vying for our attention, but a simple game was still able to make an impact.

It speaks to its simplicity--but playability--that even though we were experiencing all these new monumental toys and video games: there was something special about a tower of blocks.

It must appeal on some level to our inner toddler where we are fascinated by blocks, building something up, and watching it fall over.

Jenga plays so well as it requires focus and skill and it immediately draws you in.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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