All in the Family Features

Q&A with Jenga Creator Leslie Scott

Scott Family

One of my favorite places in the entire world is Leslie Scott’s English countryside kitchen. I could chat with Leslie in her kitchen for hours and days on end and have been fortunate to do so on many occasions. The same holds true for Freddie, only it is an Airbnb kitchen we’ve shared in Nuremberg during Spielwarenmesse. And, they’ve both been in my kitchen many times. Kitchens are where the best conversations take place, whether it is while cooking, baking, sharing a meal or enjoying a cup of tea (or stronger). Kitchens warm the body and the soul… especially the kitchens where Leslie and Freddie can be found! I think you can imagine Leslie telling the following stories over a cup of tea. -Mary Couzin

How did you and your family first enter the toy industry?

Leslie Scott: I have my father, Robert Scott, to thank (or blame) for inspiring my choice of career. If choice, or indeed career, are the right words for a way of life I was fortunate enough to stumble into. Dad wasn’t in the toy industry himself; far from it, he was a WW2 fighter pilot turned oil company executive, but throughout our childhood in Africa, he designed and made most of the toys and games that my three siblings and I cherished and loved to play. Stilts, swings, slides, see-saws, zip lines, trampolines, go-carts, sea-faring rafts made out of empty oil drums, and treehouses — he made them all. And then he showed us how to make and fly kites and paper planes; and how to build card houses; and create windmills to hold out the car window on long journeys; and cotton-reel rubber band powered cars, and small electric motors; and ingenious little glass divers that you could make rise and fall in a bottle of water; and marble runs from folded newspapers that snaked around the garden, and a myriad of other playful gizmos — all great fun, although some were rather dangerous, e.g. stuffing matchstick heads into empty metal ballpoint pen cartridges that, when heated up, would whizz off at an incredible velocity. Oh and of course, there were those metal cans quarter-filled with water and placed on a bonfire and then thrown into cold water that would crumple with ferocity and a noise loud enough to wake the dead! And he showed us how you could draw and write on a cellophane sheet that, when heated in the oven, would shrink so uniformly that it ended up as a tiny, perfectly proportioned edition of the original drawing — with the writing still legible.

What I’m trying to convey is that, encouraged by my father, I grew up creating and making and playing all manner of toys and games. And yet, it never occurred to me or anyone else in my family, or indeed my school career advisors, that I might consider the toy industry as a profession. This pretty much happened by chance.

One of my first jobs straight out of high school was working for Intel, the corporation that had just created the world’s first microprocessor on a chip. Those were heady days with things changing so rapidly that even Intel’s own sales engineers couldn’t keep up with its own product. In my early 20s, I became the Marketing Communications Manager of Intel UK. I didn’t report to anyone, and was left to my own devices to figure out what this job might entail. Aside from running public facing exhibitions and fairs, one of my self-appointed tasks was to keep the sales teams informed and up to date on Intel’s products. I developed a range of puzzle solving team games to be played at the bi-annual international sales conferences. Each country would put up a team of salesmen (they were all men at the time, I’m amazed to recall) and it became a badge of honor to win one of these highly competitive games.

I loved my time at Intel, but I confess it spoiled me for working for more established companies, or indeed anyone else at all. I had been given so much freedom to make of my job what I wanted, or at least thought was needed, that I realized that I was probably only fit to work for myself. So, I became an entrepreneur and established a business — Leslie Scott Associates — and, while pondering what that business would actually do, I struck upon the idea of turning a handmade wooden game we played within my family into a commercial product. And that’s when I created Jenga and that’s how I first entered the toy industry.

Who has been involved and who is involved now?

Sadly, my father had passed some years previously, but my mother — ever up for an adventure — encouraged and supported me from the start, not only by helping out when I launched Jenga at the London Toy Fair 1983, but also by underwriting my bank loan. She used her house as collateral. I think back with horror that I allowed her to do this — she could have lost her home, and nearly did. Jenga was by no means the overnight success I had assured her (and the bank) it would be. Luckily, very luckily, all turned out well. In the end. I self-published and marketed Jenga for a few years before first Irwin Toy, and then Hasbro acquired the license. During this time, I partnered with an old friend from Intel days, the very talented designer Sara Finch, and together we created myriad games to license out or publish ourselves as Oxford Games Ltd. All the while, we employed, on a freelance and ad hoc basis, various members of my family. My mother ran the office for us when we were based in her attic, rent free. My sister Sue, a professional photographer, took all our promotional shots from the start, and still does; my brother Graham, a pulmonary physician in the US, represented Jenga, and then Oxford Games, which he still does. My other brother, Malcolm, an airline captain, test-played all our games, and still cheers us on from the wings!

When Sara Finch retired from OGL, the company decided to cease manufacturing, and licensed out its entire range of forty or so games, The Oxford Collection, which included such classics as Ex Libris, Anagram, and Bookworm.

Do you think the next generation will get involved?

The next generation is involved in the form of my daughter Frederica Scott Vollrath. Freddie, a professional product designer (with a degree from Falmouth), returned from Berlin four years ago to join Oxford Games Ltd. Now, as the company’s design and marketing director, she runs OGL’s small, but perfectly formed (!) games’ publishing and online business. And she designs, invents, and creates new games to license to other publishing companies. Today, my role is to act as a sounding board for my daughter’s ideas — to critique and to encourage (and to check the contracts). Although I haven’t retired, I have stepped back a short distance so that I can stand and admire and enjoy her creatively playful work.

This interview appeared in the February 2021 issue of TFE Magazine.