Rules Of The Game

Kim Vandenbroucke Photo by Callie Lipkin
How Kim Vandenbroucke got to be a top player in the challenging world of game invention.

Rule 1: Games are invented.

Not created.

Not developed.

And not hammered together by Santa in his North Pole workshop. Elves do that.

Games are invented.

This caveat may never turn up in Hoyle’s Rules of Games. But it is key to understanding the world of Kim Vandenbroucke ’02 FAA. Vandenbroucke is a member of the wee coterie, the small curious community that supplies game companies with compelling diversions wrought in boards and cards and dice and consoles that squawk when you hit them. It’s a world where the playing goes on forever, but the rules change and never at a quicker pace than now. It’s a world where Vandenbroucke is ascending to the top – of her game.

Visit with the inventor in her airy, pleasant Chicago townhouse – where she plays at least one game a day with her husband, Paul Grzybek ’99 ACES, a firefighter – and she will propose that you yourself now play a game with her. She sits at her desk, a long, flat wall unit extending deep into the windowed closet that she has neatly shelved and platformed and aligned into a workspace. You sit next to her. She gets down the game: Cover to Cover, which involves a scavenger hunt through headache-bright teen magazines. You must find plaid pants, among other items, while she seeks a face with freckles. She finds the freckles and hits the console, which would squawk if it had batteries. So she wins. You knew she would. But you are laughing.

“If a game makes you feel bad for losing,” she tells you, “it’s not a good game.”

Copy that. It’s Rule 2.

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In the alluring realm of creative things that sell, games are rather like books. Whether Jane Austen or John Grisham, well-known authors can go paging profitably on forever – likewise for beloved diversions such as Monopoly and chess. And as with breakthrough bestsellers, newcomer games require an elusive – even magical – combination of elements and luck to propel popular success. Most games need a really long time “to get hot,” as Vandenbroucke puts it, yet retailers sweep shelves ruthlessly clear every quarter or so to make way for the next new-new thing. This economic clash of conditions – slow development vs. quick sell – means the toy and game market belongs to big manufacturers, who license the work of individual inventors and small firms and favor well-known brands. Royalty checks are involved. Big sales are hoped for. Long shelf life is the Holy Grail.

In this challenging milieu, Vandenbroucke has invented a brilliant career, licensing or co-licensing a dozen-odd games to date with such major manufacturers as Mattel, Winning Moves, Cranium, Briarpatch, Pressman Toy and Hasbro. Her work sells in toy stores worldwide. She writes for industry magazines and is a featured speaker at industry events. Two thousand people follow her on Twitter. Her blog, The Game Aisle, is the first of its kind, drawing 1,500 visitors a month to read her reviews and winning her the title Wonder Woman of Toys, a distinction conferred in 2011 by Women In Toys, a professional association, and Playthings Magazine, a respected trade journal.

In March, Vandenbroucke gave an address at the Smithsonian as part of the museum’s Innovative Lives series, speaking on what it means to be an inventor. Since her days in the early aughts as an industrial design major at the University of Illinois, she says, she has liked “coming up with little inventions, little mechanisms and stuff like that.”

The use of “little” makes for something of an understatement. Last year, Vandenbroucke was nominated by a vote of her colleagues for a Toy & Game Inventor Award of Excellence. Among the industry’s very highest honors, this kudo tends to go to inventors of much longer experience.

“Kim is absolutely one of the top game inventors,” observes Mary Couzin, president of the Chicago Toy and Game Group. “If she were a musician, she’d be on the cover of Rolling Stone – she’s that good.” According to Couzin, Vandenbroucke has a genius for the mechanics of how games work and for inventing “clever games that are alluring but familiar” and that keep players rolling back for more.

“She has a really broad spectrum – from adult party games to preschool,” notes Peggy Brown, a game inventor based in Milwaukee. Running this gamut is, Brown points out, a good thing for game inventors to do. “That way you don’t compete with yourself.”

Thus we meet Rule 3.

Success, early and astonishing

Vandenbroucke began specializing in board, card and dice games (a relatively small segment of the $2 billion toy and game industry) in 2004, shortly after she went to work for Meyer/Glass Design, a Chicago toy and game invention firm. She landed there among other Illini recruited by senior designerRandy Klimpert ’82 FAA, who noticed first-hand that the U of I produces exceptional inventors. His observation proved correct. Within six months, Vandenbroucke invented Cover to Cover, the game played at the beginning of this story.

Cover to Cover involves magazines and a console and cards with short descriptors – like “plaid pants” and “freckles” – and an appeal aimed at the 9-14 age group known as tween girls. Tween girls are a desirable but elusive consumer target. At times toy and game manufacturers attempt to lure tween dollars with new games. At other times the same companies reintroduce new editions of old games and hope the tweens (or their mothers) buy those. Vandenbroucke – who likes inventing mass-market games in general and is not focused on any one particular consumer segment – describes tweens as “fickle.” Hasbro executives reviewed Cover to Cover after Vandenbroucke invented it. They were in high new-tween-game mode at the time and licensed Cover to Cover, agreeing to produce and distribute the game for a set period of time. It was the first game Vandenbroucke ever invented. Such immediate success was astonishing, both at Meyer/Glass and in the industry as a whole.

Cover to Cover went retail in time to get nominated for a couple of awards and go on the shelves for the 2004 holiday season. But tweens did not buy Cover to Cover. “The excitement level just dropped off, and all of a sudden it was in KB Toys for five bucks,” Vandenbroucke says, adding of such disappointments, “You have to be OK with that.

“You have to know that you’re still going to be able to survive if one of your items falls out of the mix.”

And that would be Rule 4.

Meyer/Glass closed in 2006 – in a market increasingly dominated by manufacturers, few such mid-size invention firms now survive. Vandenbroucke, on the other hand, went on to major licensing success. In 2009, she invented Scattergories Categories, a game that calls for players to find words that begin with each of the letters from a category name and are related to the category. The game is an addition to the mighty Scattergories line of word games.

“She took [the original] Scattergories and actually made a better game of it,” Couzin points out.

Vandenbroucke invented part of Scattergories Categories on her honeymoon. This was not in her original nuptial plan. A month or so before she and Paul flew off to Dominica, she had submitted a proposal to Scattergories manufacturer Winning Moves. Manufacturers being the way they are, she wasn’t looking for a speedy reply. But en route home, she checked her email. “I was, like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’” Vandenbroucke recalls. “They want more categories by two days from now!” So there in the airport in Puerto Rico, awaiting their flight back to Chicago, the newlyweds began frantically writing categories and words related to the categories. One of the categories they came up with was MARRIAGE. When Winning Moves executives saw the work, they asked her to complete the game and license it to them. Scattergories Categories has since sold in the tens of thousands. It is by far Vandenbroucke’s most successful game. It is also her favorite. Not just of the games she’s invented. It is her favorite game of all games of all time.

“I love it,” Vandenbroucke says. “And I love it when I win.”

And loving it when you win makes a pretty good Rule 5.

Seeds, windows and brainstormsSeeds, windows and brainstorms

Vandenbroucke invents her games in the same progression that Hemingway once said bankruptcy comes on – gradually and then suddenly. She carries a little notebook with her and writes down ideas as they come to her – she calls these experiences “seeds.” Mostly the “seeds” sleep in the notebook until fertilized by opportunity, such as the openings to talk with manufacturers provided at major toy and game shows. (There are two annually, in New York and Chicago.) She knows the kinds of games that appeal to different manufacturers, and she’ll zoom in on new ideas accordingly. She calls this “inventing into windows,” and windows are good places to sprout seeds. Once Vandenbroucke has the idea for a game, she writes it up. She also fashions a playable prototype that she can demonstrate, creating board, cards and pieces as appropriate and even engaging in what she describes as “light electronics” – used, for example, in consoles that squawk when you hit them.

Vandenbroucke also sidelines in brainstorming. She uses techniques for creative thinking developed in her Meyer/Glass days to facilitate sessions for companies that want to find new ways to do the things they do. Better paper goods, furniture, collectibles, bakery items – brainstorming can help improve all kinds of products, and Vandenbroucke facilitates it as long as the products involved are not toys and games. “I wouldn’t want to inadvertently steal an idea,” she explains.

Good work, plus it balances the games, kind of the way a pole balances a tightrope walker. Business at her company, Brainy Chick, fluctuates. This year has mostly been games. Two years ago was mostly brainstorming.

That’s one thing we always tell new inventors,” she says. “Have another source of income.”

Hello, Rule 6.

Trends and play

When people ask Vandenbroucke whether the kinds of games she invents are dying because of video games and phone apps, she has a two-word answer for them, and that’s “totally not.”

Games, she insists, are as in demand as ever, sought by, among others, young adults and families who want inexpensive entertainment (the recession working in favor of business, for once) and libraries looking to broaden their services and appeal. Couzin of the Chicago Toy and Game Group confirms this: “More people are playing games than ever before in history.”

There are even strong new trends, such as games coming from Europe that demand long playing times and extensive practice for mastery. While Vandenbroucke herself favors mass-market games with playing times of 30 minutes max, the popularity of the new generation of “Euro games” means she can consider imbuing her games with more complicated strategies.

Vandenbroucke admires how tablet computers, such as the iPad, are now being incorporated as a functioning part of the board in some games, though she regards this more as innovation – a strategy for companies to expand their popular brands – than inspiration.

She’s less enthusiastic about gaming apps for mobile phones, dismissing them as the purview of manufacturers who have the resources to develop and market such spinoffs.

I am not,” she concedes, “a technology-heavy inventor.”

For Vandenbroucke, games aren’t about “something to do when you’re standing in line at the grocery store.” Games gather friends and family for fun. She herself grew up in a household of game-players. She loves games and plays them all the time, inviting friends over to test out the new games that manufacturers keep sending her. In her reviews on The Game Aisle, Vandenbroucke goes out of her way to chat with the inventors and include their remarks, offering the warmth of good publicity in what can be a pretty chilly calling.

For Kim Vandenbroucke is a player in more ways than one.

This year alone I’ve had a bunch of games pushed back. One dropped,” she says. “And there’s nothing you can do to see it coming. It’s hard. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.”

Notes her colleague Tim Walsh, a game inventor and industry historian: “I’ve never seen Kim in a bad mood. She’s very upbeat and has a great sense of humor. That serves her well in an industry that says, ‘No,’ all the time.”

And so to close with Rule 7: Winning isn’t everything. But it helps.