Freddie Scott Vollrath's Vision for Oxford Games and More!

Freddie Scott Vollrath, daughter of Leslie Scott (the inventor of Jenga), has recently assumed the chief position at their company, Oxford Games. Within the universe of Gamedom, this interview with Freddie absolutely qualifies for our Legends and Legacies series. Inventor Peggy Brown, interviewed Leslie a few years ago (also a terrific read involving hen houses - click here) now questions Freddie!

You’re an industrial designer, and so am I. In college, I was the only woman in my major course of studies, and still remain in a small minority of product designers. Is your experience similar?

Happily, for me there were considerably more women in my year than I had expected. Even so, we still only made up about a quarter of the class. Here’s hoping that it’s an upward trend. You never know, maybe in another 20 years, we'll have reached the half-half mark.

What prompted you to choose design as a focus?

I initially determined to do fine art, but luckily started with a Foundation Course. This is a one year degree where you try out all the various fields that come under the heading of ‘Art’; illustration, fashion, fine art, craft and product design. I think it was a combination of the teachers I had on the product design section together with some amazing workshops that made me decide to focus on product design.

I had a similar experience – taking a required year of Foundations, I entered thinking I’d be a Graphic Designer, and wound up loving 3D/Industiral Design. I believe a good designer can design anything. Paper clips, landscapes, opera houses. What are your thoughts about good design?

I think ‘good design’ arises when you have clearly defined the problem (s) you are trying to address, and you find the simplest way to solve them. And when it comes to board games, adding a pinch of fun, too!

What are your design peeves?

Making things more complicated than they need be.

That’s a good answer and covers a whole lot. I can’t stand fake woodgrain on anything that’s not wooden, among about a million other things. I will spare you from elaboration. You’re welcome.

I’m an American who studied in America, and you’re a Britain who studied in Berlin. What contrasts do you see between the two cultures? How does one design well across cultures?

Oh my goodness, well to start with I’m half German/half British so I think I’m entitled to both love and be critical of both cultures. While I think German engineering is undeniably the best in the world, I find much German design (packaging, graphic etc.) too retro - and not in a cool way! But I should add that Berlin itself is a unique city, with a culture and design aesthetic all of its own. In my opinion, everyone and everything in Berlin is cool…even when they do retro!

I concur- Berlin is cooool with at least four Os. It has a very distinct and confident vibe. After graduation, I had a few options to start my career: I was offered a job designing pots and pans, another opportunity designing tractor parts, and a third designing games for Western Publishing (a huge book/comic book/game publisher, the game division of which was later sold to Hasbro). Once in a while I wonder what it’d be like had I chosen a different design path. What were your options upon graduation, and what guided your decision to take on a role at Oxford Games?

I probably did exactly what one should not do at uni, that is, instead of focusing on a specific area of design I became a jack of all trades. After uni in the UK I moved to Berlin for what was supposed to be just a couple of months learning German. But this turned into 3+ years. I more or less bummed about there focusing mainly on graphic design and crafts. I rekindled my love for board games there. Berlin is full of board game cafes and my new friendship group there was full of game lovers. I decided to try my hand at board game design and was lucky enough to get my first taste of the industry at ChiTAG and the Inventor Conferences. From that moment on I was hooked! When I told my mum that I was thinking of going into the industry, she invited me to work with her at Oxford Games Ltd, with the idea of awakening it from its current rather dormant state and, one day, running it myself. That day has now come, and now I'm her boss! Mwahahaha!

That’s a truly maniacal laugh you have. I like it. Oxford is a place of deep and proud history. Oxford Games also enjoys a proud history. What’s it like to be the standard bearer of it now, and how do you carry that history forward?

A rather daunting task to be frank, Oxford Games has a very strong brand image that I would not wish to dilute, though it does require some modernising. This is proving to be a delicate operation, but I am finding it an interesting challenge!

What is it like being the daughter of the genius behind Jenga?

Fab! I bask in the reflected glory that is Leslie Scott! Honestly, I very rarely think about it until I see or hear Jenga mentioned on TV/Radio or in conversation…..so, err, maybe I do end up thinking about it rather frequently. I can’t deny that it has helped me hugely when I decided to go into board game design, though the assumption that designing balancing/tower games is in my blood is not necessarily correct. Though I do have excellent hand-eye coordination!

Do you play Jenga?

I have to admit, not so often recently (sorry Mum). Though I did play it a lot at Uni...for obvious, alcoholic, reasons.

Do you like it?

Love it! Especially since I can now beat the inventor with ease…..old age has not steadied her hand.

Did you ever change the rules to Jenga to make it into an actual drinking game? (Asking for a friend.)

NEVER! (still do…)

Do you ever feel pressure to outdo in some way, or surpass Jenga?

Ha, I seriously doubt that would be possible. So I feel there is very little pressure to produce anything as successful as Jenga.

How do you like working with your mom?

It is great, I think we are able to understand what one another is trying to get at very quickly. Though our opinions are often different, we tend to have a similar design outlook and aesthetic. I think we’re both happy that we don't agree on everything as that could be dull, for us both. I find that the need to defend one’s design or idea often makes it so much better.

Problems only arise when I tell her she can’t take her holiday time…but she tends to win those arguments!

I suppose she’s earned a bit of accrued holiday time by now. Are you inventing new games lately?

Leslie and I are actually working on a game together at the moment, which has a rather a novel mechanic - or so we think. We are working with a charity called Save The Elephants on this project, too… so exciting stuff!

What’s your vision for Oxford Games?

I think Oxford Games has a strong footing in the industry and an even stronger brand identity. I would like to rekindle our image of being the go to games company for bookshops, museums and historical organisations. Also re-introducing and rebranding some of our old favourites as well as introducing some new games that fit within the brand.

What’s your vision for honoring Leslie’s legacy?

I think the Oxford Games brand identity more or less does that for itself. There would be very little point in mucking around with a formula that is so clear and works so well. Leslie need not worry about her legacy being forgotten.

What’s your vision for creating your own legacy?

That is a very tough question to answer. I would like to think that Ex Libris LIVE! (our new podcast panel show) would be part of my legacy, but I think it will take me a little more time to figure that out.

How do you balance being a designer and running a business? (This is something I’m constantly having to balance, and I always seem to end up short-changing my inner designer. Grrrrrrr.)

I totally agree, as we are a very small company I find that on a day to day basis I spend more time on paperwork than design, especially in the lead up to Christmas, which is ridiculously early in this industry. I tend to do most of my design work in the Spring time, and I try always to make space in the week to work on the more fun stuff! But having said that, I think building a business can be pretty creative and rewarding, too.

Tell us about Ex Libris LIVE!

Ex Libris LIVE! is definitely my baby. Though Ex Libris, the game of first lines and last words, is a board game designed by Leslie and published in the 90s, I feel that I have really put my stamp on it by turning the game into a game show and podcast (which is recorded in front of a live audience, hence the rather enthusiastic ‘LIVE!’)

Ex Libris is a game in which players bluff and counter bluff as they write fake but plausible opening or closing sentences to genuine books, attempting to fool fellow players into believing that their scripts are the authentic first lines or last words of these works.

Ex Libris LIVE!, is the panel show where we invite published authors and wordsmiths to play Ex Libris the game. The show is hosted by the well-known broadcaster, David Freeman. While fellow panelists write their counterfeit texts, David interviews, in turn, each of the four participants, giving them an opportunity to discuss their recent work or latest book.

It proves to be a fab formula and a great way to interview a number of authors at a time. And it can be incredibly funny, too. You’ll just have to listen to it yourself to find out exactly why...

WTF about Brexit? (Okay – you don’t have to answer this one.)

Urgh…Let's just say that within one month of the results, I applied for, and now have, my German passport.

What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?

The tendency to gender everything worries me, as does the fact that toy publishers are apt to claim they are helpless to change anything with the excuse that ‘it is what the consumer wants’. I am, however, hugely heartened that there is now a strong pushback against this. I definitely design games, and packaging, that are gender neutral.

I absolutely concur. I can’t believe separating product categories along gender lines is still a thing. Sheesh! Ever since I was a kid, I just played with anything I wanted to play with. There were no girls’ Lego sets at that time- thank heavens!!! What was your favorite game as a child?

100% has to be Rummikub. I used to play this with my German grandmother (Grossmutter) for hours on end during the summer holidays in a little hunting lodge in the Eiffel, Germany.

That’s a great memory – I can vividly imagine that hunting lodge – quaint and cozy with the aroma of weisswurst upon gentle piney breezes. Stop! If it didn’t actually smell like that, just please don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. What’s your favorite game now?

Bohnanza or Pandemic...don’t make me choose!

Okay – no need to choose! THANK YOU, Freddie for sharing your stories and insights with me.

Readers: Subscribe to Ex Libris LIVE! on itunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Freddie says, “Trust me, it’s good fun!” Trust her. It is!!

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