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The Queen of Games

The messiness of real life (dog pee?) is behind each of Kim Vandenbroucke’s creations. And that’s what’s flung her to the top of a small, goofy, secretive world of game inventors.

Playing Peeing Pup, at least as an adult, is an exercise in staying calm. It’s essentially a game of hot potato, except instead of tossing around a vegetable, you’re frantically petting a plastic puppy, willing it to bark three times so you can pass it off before it pees in your face. Adding to the tension: I’m playing with the game’s inventor, Kim Vandenbroucke.

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As the 40-year-old from Logan Square and I engage in a couple of rounds on a recent afternoon, I find myself hopping up and down and yelling at the incontinent dog, squealing every time it makes another noise (“It farted!”) and squeezing my eyes shut in fear of getting sprayed.

You can see why kids love it.

Peeing Pup, a Hasbro release initially sold only in Walmart, was a smash hit last holiday season — the biggest success of Vandenbroucke’s 17-year career as a game creator. (She won’t say how many games she has licensed in all, but her website lists 36.) It also landed her a Hasbro Emerging Inventor Award, as well as a nomination for game innovator of the year at 2019’s Toy & Game Innovation Awards, or TAGIEs, which are basically the Oscars of the industry.

Kim Vandenbroucke

How does one come up with such a strange — and strangely appealing — notion for a game? The idea came to Vandenbroucke in a flash one day, the kind of fully formed concept that she knew immediately would be a winner. “I was sitting at my kitchen counter, staring at my dog, Otis, who was looking a little shaggy, and I was like, ‘Man, you used to be so cute.’ Everyone wanted to hold him back then, but no one wanted to hold him for too long, because he’d pee,” she says. “And then it just hit me — that is a game!”

The idea had all the attributes that Vandenbroucke requires of a perfect game. To start, it doesn’t take long. When Vandenbroucke and I play, we work through three rounds in less than five minutes, and that includes refilling the dog’s water. (My theory is that the game is set on a timer and squirts after 30 to 45 seconds; when I bounce this off Vandenbroucke, she just smiles and shrugs.) Length of play is important to Vandenbroucke both as a competitor and as a parent. “I have limited time, and I’m pretty competitive, so I’d rather play two games in my free time and have a chance to win twice,” she says. “Plus, with a lot of games, at some point you realize: I’m going to lose, and I really hate when that happens and I still have another 20 minutes left to play.” Vandenbroucke, who has a 5-year-old daughter, also knows the torture of being roped into a game that lasts forever.

“Like Candy Land?” I ask.

“Well, with Candy Land, most parents admit to cheating,” she says. “The minute you pull a candy cane and have to go all the way back to the beginning, it’s like the misery continues.”

But expediency isn’t the only magic ingredient baked into Peeing Pup. Equally vital: It offers the same entertainment factor even if you’re not winning. After all, what kid doesn’t enjoy getting sprayed? “I really like thinking through the question of, Is everybody having fun?” Vandenbroucke says. “I like to make sure that even the person who’s losing is having fun.”

Of course, not all of Vandenbroucke’s inspirations come in a flash. Some games, like Blue Plate Scramble, start with a name and are reverse-engineered. (“I have a running list of great names with no game associated.”) Others are inspired by a feeling she wants to evoke among the players. Take the Build Up, a game where players force their opponents to add layers to a teetering tower, which was motivated by her desire to create a revenge-fueled stacking game. “I hate stacking games, because I’m really bad at them,” Vandenbroucke says. “So I was like, How do you put that feeling of revenge into the game, so that I’m actively forcing another player to add something to the stack? I wanted the revenge element amped up to an 11.” The Build Up is currently available only in Scandinavia, but it’s been a hit there, winning Party Game of the Year in Finland in 2018.

The game of Vandenbroucke’s that has been on shelves the longest is Scattergories Categories, a 2009 Hasbro release that is a twist on the hit 1988 word game. Instead of using one letter to fill out 12 categories, players have only one category per round — “Names of Cities,” for example — but have to come up with answers that start with each letter in a related word printed on the card they pull. (For “road trip,” say, answers might be Raleigh, Oakland, Atlanta, Detroit, and so on.) “At the time, it was really popular to have line extensions for classic games,” Vandenbroucke says. “My family loved playing Scattergories, but it had a shelf life because eventually we’d get bored by the same 12 cards. It was really limiting. But then I wondered, What if you flip-flopped that?”

While Peeing Pup was something of a lightning strike, most of Vandenbroucke’s games — she pitches 35 to 50 ideas a year — require more work to flesh out. She blocks out about an hour every day for brainstorming and is specific about what she’s working on in each session. One day it might be “mass-market children’s games,” while another might be “crass adult party games.” Her ideas come from everywhere. A car-ride exchange with her daughter — “What do you think is in that truck?” — became Chugga Choo!, a puzzle game that involves loading cargo into train cars. She was recently inspired by a meme she saw on Twitter, but when she realized the name she’d come up with was already taken, she moved it to her “revisit later” pile.

Sometimes she just plays with trinkets in her office — a repurposed walk-in closet that looks like the love child of a Michaels craft store and the Target game aisle, with shelves to the ceiling that are stuffed with games from ThinkFun and Peaceable Kingdom and baskets full of things like buttons and cardboard and many-sided dice — to see if she can create something cool. Once, while playing with a little cup and cards that looked like the signs that hang on hotel room doors, Vandenbroucke realized the cards fit perfectly over the cup. In the resulting game, Raccoon Rumpus, the cup became a plastic raccoon face that cards printed with different outfits could be hung on to dress up the critter.

As she continues to flesh out an idea, Vandenbroucke puts together a super-basic prototype. “If a game is turn-based and more intense than something like Peeing Pup, I’ll play it with myself to figure out the minimum number of turns it takes for someone to win and also to see what kind of advantage it is to go first,” she says. “It’s always important to think about the math. Are the odds so terrible that the ‘cool thing’ is never going to happen or the game is going to take forever? Or can you win in four turns without much struggle? Is it decision-based or 100 percent luck? Do players always feel like they have a chance to win?”

Answering these probability questions is relatively easy for Vandenbroucke, a Glen Ellyn native whose mother was a math teacher. “Growing up, when we played a game like Yahtzee, we weren’t allowed to use a calculator, ever,” she says. “And if you made a really terrible decision mathematically, you’d have to explain yourself.” Games were popular with her family, though being a game inventor was never on Vandenbroucke’s radar because, as she explains, “I didn’t even know it was a job.” She majored in industrial design at the University of Illinois and discovered the gig at a college career fair. “I looked around, and it was like washing machine companies and office furniture, and I didn’t want to do any of that. Then there was a toy and game invention forum, and I was like, That doesn’t sound painful.” She was hired at the now-defunct Chicago-based toy and game creator Meyer-Glass Design and went out on her own when the company closed in 2006.

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Before she pitches one of her creations, Vandenbroucke considers the finer points of play, like what goes on the dice or the cards, how many cards are in the deck, or what’s on the board, if there is one. If she needs to be sure a game will work with multiple people, she tests it with friends, who must each sign a nondisclosure agreement. “Game invention is a hugely secretive world, because when you look at the patentability of games, it’s very limiting,” Vandenbroucke says. “You cannot patent game play. You can patent a mechanism, and you can copyright the rules, but it’s really easy to rip off games.” Researching online recently, she came across a foreign website that had a version of Nibbled, her 2017 kids’ game in which players wear fish clips on their bodies. “It was a cheap-looking rip-off from Asia, and there wasn’t really anything I could do. It was just like, Well, I guess that’s flattering?”

Even after a game hits shelves, Vandenbroucke’s development process remains largely hush-hush. She’s tight-lipped when I ask how she made the prototype for Peeing Pup, since the final product is a mechanism that would seemingly be tough to create at home. “I’m not allowed to tell you what exactly I showed,” she says. “But in general, I create whatever is the easiest, least expensive way to prove it’s playable.”

When she’s ready to pitch, Vandenbroucke makes a “sizzle video,” a minute-long promo for the game, often starring her husband, Paul Grzybek, a firefighter and paramedic in Highland Park, and her daughter, Brynn. Most videos feature a prototype, though some might just show an illustration. While she’ll usually pitch the same game to multiple companies, Vandenbroucke is thoughtful about what she pitches where. “Some companies like knowing there’s a trend associated with a game,” she says, noting that Peeing Pup was especially successful because it hit during a pee-and-poop moment in children’s games. “Some companies just want a great name. And some companies don’t have the money to spend on great artwork, so I’m never going to pitch them something that’s going to rely on cover art.”

In a pitch meeting, Vandenbroucke usually gets half an hour to make her case  for multiple ideas. “I’ve figured out that I can pitch 12 games in 30 minutes,” she says. “I talk fast.” From there, she may get requests to reduce the number of cards or game pieces necessary. In a meeting where she proposes 12 games, it’s a good day if a company agrees to consider four. “I get a lot more noes than yeses,” Vandenbroucke says, though the first game pitch of her career, a magazine scavenger hunt for tweens called Cover to Cover, was licensed on the spot in a meeting with Hasbro. “The goal was to be the first to find the best-looking Jennifer, or the worst hairstyle. I was like, This inventing thing is so easy.”

A licensing deal usually comes with an advance against future royalties. A breakout game can easily earn its inventor six figures, Vandenbroucke says, though she won’t specify more than that. Sometimes she’ll get an additional fee to write the game cards, like with Scattergories Categories, or even get hired to write for other inventors’ games.

In an industry where inventors cast a wide net of ideas, hoping to land a handful of hits that will carry them, luck certainly plays a part. But the odds are stacked in Vandenbroucke’s favor as much as anyone’s. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of what’s currently on the market — and of everything that’s been on it in the past 20 years. That’s due not only to her decades in the business but also to the Game Aisle, a game review blog she started in order to keep up with the industry. “People will often say to me, ‘I have an idea for a game.’ And then they explain it, and I’m like, ‘Yeah that’s on shelves now, you can buy it at Walmart’ or ‘That came out four years ago under a different name.’ It’s really embarrassing to show up at a pitch meeting with something that’s already been on the market — that’s a rookie mistake.”

Mary Couzin, president and founder of Chicago Toy & Game Group, which hosts the TAGIEs, says Vandenbroucke’s blog has raised her profile in the game inventor community. “Whenever you can wield a little bit of power, you have influence,” she says. “Everyone in this industry knows Kim, and I think some people even fear her.”

The games Vandenbroucke recommends repeatedly include Qwixx, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne, though some of her own favorites are the classics, like Yahtzee and Rummikub. The best games, she says, “are the ones that have the same strength of play every single time, and you’re not going to think, Oh, I know how to win this one.”

Like Peeing Pup, perhaps. During our final round, when I think I have it figured out, I try to time my pass back perfectly in an effort to stay dry.

I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

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