6 Questions with Kim Vandenbroucke
This week, I’m talking to Kim Vandenbroucke, the award-winning designer of more games than I could easily list here. She also runs The Game Aisle, a website filled with game reviews and industry news. Kim and I met on the convention circuit (ToyFair, ChiTag, etc) many years ago.
She’s one of those people who always has a kind or supportive word. Pitching at those conventions can be as brutal as it is fun, and Kim helped me out more than once, as I was dragging myself down the aisles, trying to look cheerful.
On to the questions!
A question I frequently hear from kids (and adults) is how to become a game designer. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that the question isn’t about the business or actual process of designing a game, but rather about developing the skills that are needed. What’s your answer? What are the skills needed to be a good game designer? How would a person strengthen those skills?
I absolutely agree that it’s a skill set. Anyone can design a game and technically that makes them a game designer — but is that game fun? Does anyone want to play it more than once? More experienced game designers know that it’s not just the rules that matter, it’s the overall experience a game brings the players.
I always say that the best games are the ones where you have fun while losing. Being able to see how players are reacting to your game and where they are struggling, and then being willing to take that feedback and tweak your game is huge. Many folks want to cling to their first design and aren’t willing to change it or try other things. At the same time, you really need to be willing to fail and say an idea just isn’t working. All of this takes a lot of practice.
With all the game design experience that you have, is there any part of the process that you still find challenging? How do you work through it? Any tips for a new game designer who’s deep in the weeds?
Good ideas don’t grow on trees so the whole process isn’t easy. Yet, the part I find most challenging is to remember to step back and look at my design when I’m in the thick of designing the details. It’s too easy to get bogged down in the small stuff along the way and lose sight of what I wanted it to be. I need to remind myself to come up for air.
The flipside of my previous question: what’s the most fun part of designing games? Is there something you look forward to, each time you get started?
I think the whole process is enjoyable, but that doesn’t make for a very good answer. If you made me pick, I’d choose the initial ideating. I love coming up with ideas!
Some days, the air just feels ripe with creativity, like you can feel the ideas mulling around you just waiting to be plucked out of the ether. Other days, not so much and the ideas are clunky — and that’s okay. Sometimes the bad terrible ideas make me laugh the hardest. Not all of my ideas are gems, but if I can laugh at my bad ideas, then I’m happy.
Do you have any fun player stories, maybe from play-testing or from a convention?
I couldn’t really think of any fun player stories that I could share, but if you omit “player” (or replace it)…
What many people don’t realize is that when open-to-the-public shows like ChiTAG and GenCon are going on, inventors are likely running from meeting to meeting pitching as many ideas as they can to as many companies as they can squeeze into their schedule.
We’re often walking very fast with suitcases or large bags with ipads and prototypes trying to stay on schedule. It’s not advantageous to schedule breaks because you want every minute you can get of face-time with your clients. Keeping all of that in mind, I had my best convention experience at this last ChiTAG when the inventors had access to Razor scooters to ride around Navy Pier (like a giant convention center). It was so much fun and it saved me a ton of time! But the best part was when I snuck through the fair floor to get to a meeting I ran into a Wookie who wanted to take my scooter for a ride. How do you say no to that?!
It seems to me that the game industry has experienced incredible growth over the last several years. In the hobby market, D&D live streams have carried it to new heights of popularity at the same time that kickstarter has enabled startups to create a wide variety of games. In the mass and specialty markets, we’re seeing larger and larger portions of “regular” stores dedicated to games. Can you break out your crystal ball and give us some predictions for the future? What do you think is going to happen over the next 5 or 10 years?
Gosh I wish I knew what was going to happen! If you asked me 10 years ago if I thought Toys R Us would be closed and Target would be killing it in the exclusives market, I would have been very skeptical.
I think we’re in a “wobbly” time in the market. There’s a lot going on worldwide that could impact our industry, the insane growth we’ve seen in games is not likely to continue forever, and mass market is in flux due the loss of TRU and the change in people’s buying habits (buying online instead of in store). I think we’ll see a slowing of the games category, but I think we’ve changed the attitude of the American public on games.
We were starting to really dumb down games by removing rules, strategy, conflict, etc., but the last decade showed that Americans are willing to play games with more depth. Not only do adults crave something new and fun to play, versus the old standbys, they also want their kids (preschoolers especially) to be playing games that involve more than just a pathway. We will always have the “funny moment” product, but I’m hoping we’ll continue to see more variety on shelf and maybe some more strategy from the big companies.
I always end with the same question: what’s next? Do you have any new games coming out that you can tell us about?
I had Party Game of the Year in Finland last year (sadly The Build Up is not available here in the US yet) and I’ve got a new party game with the same company coming out later this month, so fingers crossed for a repeat!
My game Chowasaurus is coming out with University Games soon, and within the past year I had Peeing Pup with Hasbro, Heads Talk Tails Walk with Think Fun, Button Button Belly Button and Pick Me Up, Piggy! with Peaceable Kingdom.
And that’s all I can share right now!