It's actually not a toy, as such, it's a board game! Packaged in a flat, square, cardboard sleeve exactly the size and shape of an LP record, the front cover proclaims it to be "Game of the Year" (it doesn't say which year) in five languages, lists the seven languages the instructions are translated into (Chinese and Arabic readers don't get to know that it's the game of the year) and lists various impressive catchphrases:
AGES 7 to 107
A minute to learn - A lifetime to master
Quick to pick up - Slow to put down
Capture small shapes to frustrate your opponent.
Construct large shapes to defeat your opponent.
"Kensington is a really fascinating game, offering a formidable and potentially victorious challenge to such classic rivals as Chess, Backgammon or even Cards. Excellent value!"
© World Copyright 1979 Forbes-Taylor Patents Pending
I think the judgement of the last thirty years is that Chess, Backgammon and Cards have seen off the challenge from this formidable opponent. But hey, that slogan about a minute to learn, a lifetime to master sounds a little familiar, doesn't it? Othello had been launched in Britain just a few years earlier, using that same phrase. Does Othello merit a mention as one of the games that were destined to be blown away by Kensington? Nope, not a word. Indeed, the back of the pack, which tells the story of Kensington's creation in great detail, makes it out to be something entirely new, different, exciting and unprecedented in the world of games!
"Kensington," it modestly begins, "is the brilliant outcome of arduous research by two eccentric British friends to develop a game of pure skill that can be easily learnt and as enjoyably played by children and adults in each and every country of the world, irrespective of language or way of life. Not since chess and checkers (draughts) first appeared from the East a dozen centuries or so ago has there been such a remarkable breakthrough in the games world, where lately most of the running has been made by the trademarked leaders, Monopoly, Scrabble and Mastermind, all of which depend on a measure of luck."
It continues in this vein for a long time. What it doesn't mention is that in the late seventies and early eighties, the games market was completely deluged with "brand new" games of skill that were going to be much more popular and exciting than chess and draughts. Othello was the one that has stood the test of time, in its own limited way, but there were many, many more. Kensington's blurb ignores this completely. It doesn't even mention Nine Men's Morris, the traditional game that Kensington turns out to resemble very closely indeed. No, it attributes its innovative genesis to Brian Taylor and Peter Forbes, "the Rolls and Royce of 1982", depicted on the back cover playing Kensington on the steps of the Albert Memorial with very 1982 hairstyles:
The inspiration for the game, apparently, came from "a volume of ancient Islamic patterns" found on a second-hand bookstall in Kensington, hence the name, and the rest of the description of its origin and creators is actually quite fun to read, so I shouldn't really be so rude about it. It's just that it clearly does believe that they've invented something that would completely revolutionise the board game world.
Open up the double-album-style packaging, and you get the instructions and an interesting photo of people of all ages and cultures playing the game:
There's an old man smoking a pipe, a trendy young woman wearing a trendy young dress and a policeman's hat, a hatless policeman whose face is completely obscured by a hexagon, a young girl with pigtails, a vicar portrayed by either Robert Lindsay or someone who looks strikingly like him, and a black man in a rasta hat. They all look like they're having tremendous fun, except the man with the pipe.
I'm sure it can't actually be Robert Lindsay. Citizen Smith had just been cancelled, it's true, but he can't have been so hard-pressed for acting work that he had to pose as a Kensington-playing vicar.
The rules can be found on the internet, here (the only thing it doesn't mention is the four-player or six-player variant, which simply consists of dividing the players into two teams and taking alternate turns). That website says that it's an excellent game, although the wikipedia page says it's somewhat flawed and one-sided once one player has gained an advantage (exactly like Nine Men's Morris, which it was based on).
So there you have it, that mystery's solved. It was a very brief flash in the pan that beat othello to the top-ten-games-of-1981 list, but disappeared into the limbo of lost board games quickly afterwards. That'll teach them to steal othello's slogan.
Edit: Hey, that's weird. That website I linked to, tragsnart.co.uk is mainly devoted to board games, and especially Kensington, but also has a page devoted to the comic book art of John Byrne, who I mentioned in my blog just yesterday. It praises Byrne rather more highly than even he deserves (even more highly than Byrne habitually praises himself!), but hey, he is a great artist and writer and he deserves some excessive adulation here and there.