JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. This week we're broadcasting a special episode from NPR studios in New York, where we're opening up our phone lines to contestants all across the United States. Before the break our contestant Mary won her way to the final round at the end the show, and we're going to find out a little later who she will face off against. But first, it's time for a game we call Mystery Guest. A stranger is on the phone. Jonathan and I have no idea who this person is or what makes them special, only our puzzle guru Art Chung does.
ART CHUNG: That's right. You and Jonathan will have to ask yes or no questions to figure out our mystery guest's secret. Our mystery guest today is calling from England. Mystery guest...
COULTON: That's a clue.
CHUNG: ...Please introduce yourself.
LESLIE SCOTT: Hello, my name is Leslie Scott and I created something you do with friends.
EISENBERG: Something you do with friends?
COULTON: Something you do with friends?
CHUNG: You have to figure out what she created. And, Ophira, you get the first question.
EISENBERG: OK. Leslie, is it a game?
EISENBERG: (Laughter) I'm close.
COULTON: All right, so far so good.
EISENBERG: So is this a board game?
COULTON: Is it a card game?
SCOTT: No (laughter).
COULTON: I'm out.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Oh, wait a second.
EISENBERG: Is it a - what other kinds of - there's board games. There's card games. Does it involve darts?
CHUNG: Yes, she invented the age-old game of darts.
EISENBERG: Well, there could be a variation I'm not familiar with.
COULTON: She invented darts and the pub.
EISENBERG: Oh, wait a second. Is it beer pong?
SCOTT: No (laughter).
EISENBERG: Oh, OK.
COULTON: Is it a game that traditionally one sits down at a table to play?
SCOTT: Yes, but you don't have to.
EISENBERG: Yes, but you don't have to.
COULTON: Very cagey, Leslie.
CHUNG: I'm going to interject and say that the table is very useful.
EISENBERG: OK. This game that you've invented involves some sort of pieces or props that enable you to play the game?
SCOTT: Absolutely, yes.
COULTON: So - right - so I need to purchase some stuff in order to play this game, I can't just play it right now here with my friends.
EISENBERG: Right? That's how you make the money, right, Leslie?
COULTON: She really has us over a barrel with this game that you have to purchase a thing in order to play it.
EISENBERG: OK, wait a second, wait a second. I'm forgetting what era we live in. Leslie, do these people have to be in the same room?
SCOTT: To play it?
SCOTT: Yes, absolutely.
EISENBERG: Oh, so I was thinking, well, it's over the computer or the hand-held device.
COULTON: It's a good question, though. Is it - it's not - is it a computer-based game at all?
EISENBERG: OK. So you're with a bunch people. You have no cards, no dice, no board. What is it?
COULTON: Are there letters and/or words involved?
COULTON: Is it a word game?
COULTON: Do you need to read in order to play this game?
SCOTT: No, you don't.
CHUNG: I'm going to ask a question, Leslie. Is is it one of the most popular games in the world?
SCOTT: It is.
CHUNG: And do you think that Ophira and Jonathan have played it?
SCOTT: I think they will have played it.
EISENBERG: It's something that is played more by children?
SCOTT: It's played by children and adults.
CHUNG: Does it involve physical manipulation of those pieces?
COULTON: Oh. Oh.
EISENBERG: Yeah, go ahead.
COULTON: Is it Jenga?
SCOTT: Yes (laughter).
CHUNG: There you go.
EISENBERG: Yes. That's a great game.
COULTON: That is a great game and I have, in fact, played it. You're right. Wow. You invited Jenga? That's crazy. It seems like that game has just existed forever...
EISENBERG: Forever, yeah...
COULTON: ...Like the moon.
EISENBERG: ...How long has that game existed?
SCOTT: Well, I put it on the market in 1983.
EISENBERG: Now, what inspired this idea to create this game?
SCOTT: I was born and raised in Africa and I have a much younger brother. He was about 5 at the time and I was 18. And he had a set of wooden building blocks, you know, just children's wooden building blocks. The only thing that made them slightly different from any that you'd normally see around is that they were all more or less the same size, almost the same dimensions as now Jenga is.
EISENBERG: OK, so they were very uniform.
SCOTT: Yeah, they were uniform. And they were sort of shaped from offcuts from a saw mill in Ghana. So they were sort of slightly handmade things. And we were just playing around with this, that came up with the basic idea for the game. And then a few years later I just sort of played it with various friends who all went - they loved this game (laughter). And then I decided to put it on the market. I mean, there was a lot of - more involved in doing it, but at that stage I had to sort of figure out how to mass produce something that had been handmade before.
SCOTT: But I still had to have built into this the idea of the slight variances that you have because it was handmade originally.
COULTON: Right, because of course you have to have a loose - that's the thing when you're playing Jenga is you sort of poke around until you find a loose piece...
COULTON: ...And that only happens if the pieces are not entirely uniform.
SCOTT: Yeah, absolutely. So they're all randomly different and only very, very slightly different. In one set...
SCOTT: They're all so slightly different. And then I gave it the name Jenga, which is actually Swahili, which is the language I spoke growing up in East Africa. And it means build. It's imperative - get on and build (laughter).
EISENBERG: Get on, build.
CHUNG: And is it true that toy companies didn't want it to be named Jenga, they wanted to give it some other more generic name?
SCOTT: Yeah, they hated the name Jenga (laughter).
EISENBERG: Sure, 'cause they know...
SCOTT: I mean, I published it myself to begin with. And then first of all the Canadian company Irwin Toy wanted to take it on and then Hasbro after that. I mean, it was almost a deal breaker. They said they wanted it to be called something other than Jenga because here was a game that - nobody knew anything about the game.
SCOTT: And really it just kind of sits there as a block of wood. It doesn't look like anything.
COULTON: (Laughter) It doesn't look like much fun, I suppose.
EISENBERG: And then it's got a weird name. And how are you going to sell this?
EISENBERG: I'm glad that you stuck with it because it's actually - well, now it's a very iconic name. And everyone knows exactly what that is.
CHUNG: Now, Leslie, Jenga was the first game you created. But it wasn't the last. And you're a professional game designer.
SCOTT: Yes, I am. I am. And, in fact, I've actually - I've designed and published something in the order of about 40 games.
SCOTT: I mean, they're not all on the market still (laughter). But some of them are. And I have a company called Oxford Games. And that now is actually run by my daughter. And our most popular one at the moment is a game called Ex Libris, which is a book game.
I mean, most of the other games I've designed are not the same sort of mass-market appeal as Jenga. The way you - those questions. You said, do you have to read? You have to do - you really don't...
EISENBERG: You need no skills.
SCOTT: There's only about two rules. You need no skills - no craft skills - to play Jenga.
EISENBERG: But you know what?
COULTON: Yeah. So it's sort of a perfect game for that reason.
SCOTT: Yeah. It's certainly one of the reasons why it's so successful and played, you know, all over the world.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much for creating that game. And thanks for being an amazing mystery guest.
SCOTT: Oh, it's fun (laughter) to talk to you.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much. Leslie Scott, creator of Jenga and many other games, thanks for being our mystery guest on ASK ME ANOTHER.