How Kim Vandenbroucke, Designer of Cheese Louise, Makes Games

Photo by Callie Lipkin, Illinois Alumni Magazine.
Photo by Callie Lipkin, Illinois Alumni Magazine.
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Kim Vandenbroucke is the creator of The Game Aisle, and a self-proclaimed Brainy Chick – a title that may be an understatement. Kim is an intelligent person who doesn't just think – she acts on those thoughts, and the result is a flurry of activity that makes the world a better place. She blogs, reviews games, is active on social media, finds time to do brainstorming/consulting work at Brainy Chick Inc., and - oh, yeah - makes lots of great games. She's worked with organizations like Mattel, Hasbro, Winning Moves, and Cranium, and she's designed a wide variety of games, among them Scattergories CategoriesCheese Louise, and Marco's Polos.

Wow.

Basically, she gets stuff done, faster and better than most of us could dream.

Here's how she does it:

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Tell us about yourself - who are you? What do you do?

I’m Kim Vandenbroucke, a toy and game inventor – as well as an industry blogger – based in Chicago.  And since my name is impossibly long, I’m sometimes better known as just @TheGameAisle.

What board games are you playing most right now?

It’s always changing.  The big ones this past week: Carcassonne, backgammon, and Can’t Stop.

One fact that we probably don’t know about you:

I don’t eat any sea creatures. (It’s a smell/texture thing.)

What are you naturally good at that helps you in your work?

I don’t like to work on one thing for too long.  Some people might say it’s giving up, but I prefer to think of it as more of a positive.  I tend to put things that aren’t working on the backburner and let them simmer instead of polishing them and trying to make them work the way they are.  I’m far more likely to set something aside than try to force a bad design to work.

some older ones, some newer ones... basically ones I could find floating around my office.
some older ones, some newer ones... basically ones I could find floating around my office.

What are you not naturally good at, that you’ve learned to do well anyway?

Coming up with great game names.

Unless I start with an awesome name and design a game around it, I really have to spend a bit of brainpower and time on coming up with a name that shines.

Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?

I only license games so I never have to reach the “final product,” it’s more of a “final prototype.”  I start with an idea (name, theme, game play concept – whatever has attracted my attention) and I do a quick mock-up and play it on my own or with another person.  If I think it has promise it moves to the next step of being refined and polished, if not then it either dies or ends up in the “let it simmer” pile and I may revisit it when I have an idea of how to fix it.

What design-related media do you consume on a regular basis?

I’m a huge consumer of media – it’s probably one of my biggest downfalls.  I look at everything from high-end packaging design websites to industry newsletters to viral pet videos.  I guess I feel that you never know what is going to inspire you so I try to look at a huge variety of stuff.

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without?

Programs: Adobe Illustrator and Alias Sketchbook Pro

Tools: Wacom Cintiq, X-Acto knife (I hate scissors)

Supplies: Post-it Notes

(Yeah, once you've used X-acto, there's no going back -A)

Cheese Louise Proto vs Manufactured
Cheese Louise Proto vs Manufactured

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest?

I playtest as soon as possible, and I’ll be honest, I’ve made some shoddy looking prototypes.  I’ll take whatever scraps I can find to make the first one, as there’s no sense in wasting time or money on something that might not work they way I thought it would.  After that it’s “playtest as needed” and some need a lot more love and finesse than others.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them?

Self-editing I think is the biggest obstacle.  There are times I think something is too simple or silly to show to a client and then I see what’s new in their line and I think, “wow, my silly little game was way more fun!”  Still working on overcoming this one.

How do you handle life or family/work balance?

My work schedule is very flexible most of the year, but pre-ChiTAG or New York Toy Fair it’s all-consuming.  I think it’s key to make time for the things that are important, and to plan the rest of the fun around my busy times of year.  Also the weekends don’t mean that much to me – I’m happy taking a Tuesday off if that makes more sense than not working on a Sunday.

I work in essentially a glorified walk-in closet that for some reason is considered large enough to be deemed a bedroom in the city of Chicago. Seriously, I doubt you could put a twin sized bed in it and close the door! Anyway, I share it with my dog Otis -- his crate is one of the legs of my desk.
I work in essentially a glorified walk-in closet that for some reason is considered large enough to be deemed a bedroom in the city of Chicago. Seriously, I doubt you could put a twin sized bed in it and close the door! Anyway, I share it with my dog Otis -- his crate is one of the legs of my desk.

Do you have a second job? If so, what do you do? If not, when/how did you quit your day job?

I sort of have a second job.  I do development projects within the toy/game business and I also do brainstorming work outside of the toy/game world.  My first job out of college was at a toy/game invention firm and I just continued on my own when they went out of business, so I never really had a “day job” to quit.

How many hours/week do you generally devote to game design? How many to other business-related activities?

This changes week to week so there’s really no answer.

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?

I’m drawing a blank here, but one piece of business advice I do take to heart is “presentation is everything.”   No one wants to see a prototype with ketchup on it or read rules that look like they’ve been run over by a truck.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?

Have a backup.  If that’s regular freelance work, a part time job, or a sugar daddy – whatever it is, just make sure you have enough money to keep the power on and ramen in the pantry.  It’s really hard to come up with creative ideas and take bold chances when you’re worried about money.

Who would you like to see answer these questions?

Sid Sackson – but since that would take a séance, I think it’s probably not going to happen.

(I'll have to get out my ouija board. -A)

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