Rodger B. MacGowan: The Artist Behind GMT Games
A typical KevCon, one of our JIGG game days.
This month sees the first JIGG Blog interview and Rodger B. MacGowan will certainly be a hard act to follow. I think it speaks volumes of Rodger
that he has agreed to contribute to our Zine. It seems strange when a man of his standing in our hobby gives his time to an amature zine such as this. Rodger
is Vice President and Art Director of GMT Games. He has worked in the hobby since the 70s and has probably worked on more projects than any other
artist in the industry. The companies he has worked for include amongst others: Avalon Hill, SPI, 3W, GMT, ADG, and Hobby Japan. His most lasting
achievement however, has been the Fire and Movement magazine that was inducted into the Origins Hall of Fame at Origins ’98.
Who first introduced you to Historical Simulation Gaming (HSG)?
The fellow who actually taught me how to play a wargame/HSG correctly was Mike Brown. We both attended Oceanside High School, in Southern
California, in the early 1960’s. Our fathers were in the U.S. Marine Corps, stationed at Camp Pendelton. Mike taught me how to play Avalon Hill’s
Gettysburg which my parents had purchased for me on our vacation trip to the Gettysburg battlefield.
How soon were you hooked in to the HSG hobby?
With learning how significant intelligent play was in AH’s Gettysburg, I came to appreciate what proper tactics and strategy meant in military science. I had a
real thirst for learning more. I began reading books about military history. For my birthday I asked for AH’s new releases Stalingrad and Afrika Korps. My
parents ordered them for me and they soon arrived in the mail. I remember, to this day, opening game boxes and the wonderful aroma of the new games. I
quickly read the rules, set them up and found a new world of learning and entertainment. I think I realised then that this was a hobby for me and I became
How did you move from being a hobby enthusiast to working on so many projects?
I did not plan for this to happen. I had been a game player for many years. After graduating from the university, I worked for an advertising agency as an accounts
manager. Most of our major advertising accounts were with magazines. Over time I became quite knowledgeable and interested in the magazine publishing business. One day, as fate would have it, I was in the office of the editor-in-chief of one of our magazine accounts (a science fiction magazine). He was clearly
upset, because one of his free-lance artists had just called to say he was too ill and could not complete his illustration assignments on time for the next issue. I
informed the editor that I might be able to help him. He asked me to bring in my portfolio of illustrations the next day for consideration. The next thing I knew I was
working on a regular basis for his magazine. Over time I took this experience with the magazine business, my free-lance art background and my interest in
wargaming, and I created and founded Fire and Movement magazine and I did my first game packaging job for AH, The Russian Campaign.
Through the years, which companies have you found easiest to work with?
In the historical wargame business I’ve worked for over twenty different companies. I’ve worked for more game companies than probably anybody else in the
hobby. I wouldn’t want to rate them in terms of who was “easiest to work with.”
How important do you think cover art is in selling a game?
I know, from almost twenty-five years of experience, that it is very important. I have been told by numberous game company executives, over the years, that my
artwork made a big difference in their sales. They documented this through their various wholesalers and retailers, not to mention customer letters and comments.
In the retail business, effective, quality packaging is critical.
Which of your cover art has had the most impact?
I would have to say my cover art for AH’s Squad Leader series. This series of games proved to be the biggest sellers in Avalon Hill’s history as an historical
game publisher. Since AH’s sales were larger, overall, than any other wargame publisher in the 20th century, that makes the Squad Leader series number one in
How important do you think the art work and graphics are in the production of a game?
In my opinion, the art work and graphics in a wargame are as important as the game design itself. Quality game design/production is like quality film making.
It requires a group of people, each with special skills/talent, working together to produce a quality product. Each area of skill/talent, in the creative process, is
important. The fusion of these talents determines the end product.
What is actually involved for you within the production process?
Over the years, I have worked on every aspect of creating a game, from the mapsheets to the packaging, from the countersheets to the game cards/player aids
etc. Each requires much time and effort to produce. When I began doing this kind of game production work, I did everything in the traditional graphic arts methods
(by hand)–established before the advent of desktop computer technology. Today, I do much the same creative work I used to, except on the computer, but I’m
expected to know much more about modern printing methods and technology because of the computer revolution in graphics.
Do you think that the artists involved in the industry receive the accolades that are due?
In my opinion, no, they do not and have not over the history of the hobby/industry.
Whose work do you most admire?
As a young art student, I most admired the work of Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Their art work influenced me greatly and I still have nothing but respect for their work today. As my knowledge base expanded I came to deeply appreciate the work of Van Gogh, Picasso and other Moderns. I knew that
my limited talents could never compare to the great art work of these artisitic giants, but I tried to impart some of the feeling of their work through my own. I also
came to deeply appreciate the art work of some of the great illustrators, like Frederic Remington and N.C. Wyeth.
How did Fire and Movement come about?
The Fire and Movement story is fairly long and involved. I detailed it in F&M’s 10th anniversary issue (Nr.49). In short, it came out of my love for the hobby,
combined with my love for graphics and magazines. In the mid-70’s the hobby had more games being published, by more game companies, than ever before.
The average gamer could not hope to keep up with all the new titles, know which ones were good or bad and which ones to buy not. I thought that the hobby
needed an independant voice to review the new games as soon as possible and sort out the good from the not-so good in the industry’s flooded market. I assembled a staff of writers together, created a format for a professional magazine, gave it a title, found a publisher/printer and proceeded to create the first
issue on the kitchen table in my apartment. I remember the early days fondly.
What factors make it such a long lasting publication?
I think Fire and Movement has lasted so long because my original concept of the magazine has proven to be correct–the hobby did need a professional,
independant review magazine. F&M continues to be published today, almost 25 years since issue No. 1 rolled off my kitchen table and onto the presses. F&M
was inducted into the Origins Hall of Fame this summer at Origins “98. Also, I think F&M has lasted so long due to the many excellent writers whose contributions
made F&M a six time winner of the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Professional Magazine, and to the numerous talented editors who’ve kept the magazine
on track, no matter what troubles the magazine faced business wise. I’m very proud of Fire and Movement.
How did you get involved with Japanese HSG companies and what was it like to work with them?
In the early 1980’s I was doing free-lance art work for numerous game companies. One day, much to my surprise, I received a communication from the President of Post Hobby, in Tokyo. He said he would soon be arriving in Los Angeles and he would like to meet with me on business. I was most honoured by
his visit. Upon our initial meeting he told me how much he had admired my art work in the gaming business, especially my work for Avalon Hill over the years.
He informed me that he was launching a new wargame company entitled Hobby Japan, to be based in Tokyo, but also with stores and outlets throughout Japan
and also Hong Kong. He wanted me to do all the game packaging for Hobby Japan. I agreed and quickly went to work on my first assignemnts for him. Soon, I
received an invitation from the President to visit Tokyo, to meet his staff, to plan out our production over the next year and iron out some technical issues. My
wife and I started packing our bags and making reservations for our first trip to Japan. In short, our visit was wonderful in every way. We were treated with great
respect and honoured in so many ways by the President, the HJ staff and his lovely family. Later, I found out, that I was the first “professional” from the Historical
Gaming industry to visit Japan officially–the President of HJ had invited other leaders of the wargame industry in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (when his company was
involved mostly in the distribution of games), but none had ever made the trip. To this day, I consider this fact, that I was the first to go, something special indeed.
Throughout the 1980’s my wife and I travelled to Japan on a regular basis and my work expanded for Hobby Japan.
How were you involved in the setting up of GMT Games?
I had known and worked with Stephen Peek since the days he and Craig Taylor ran Battleline Games in Georgia. Steve and I hit it off immediately, we quickly
became friends. So, when he launched Yaquinto Games in Dallas, Texas in 1979 he came to see me to ask me to do the packaging art for him. I of course
agreed and we worked on many exciting projects together. We got to know each other very well and one day Steve offered me the position of Art Director at
Yaquinto. I wrestled with this decision for some time, but ultimately turned his offer down. How does this relate to GMT Games you ask? Well, in 1990, Gene
Billingsley was trying to launch a new wargame company. As a game designer and businessman, Gene had knowledge of many aspects of what needed to be
done in starting a game company, but in terms of graphics he needed help. He had been consulting with Steve Peek, since Gene was planning with Steve to
have GMT’s first three games printed by Yaquinto’s printing facilities. Steve told Gene that if he needed help with game graphics he should get in contact with me.
Gene called me from Hanford, California and we set-up a meeting. Gene drove all the way down (about a five hour drive) and presented me with his plans for
publishing three new games in time for Origins. The artwork that he had completed by free-lance artists in Hanford frankly was not useable. I told him that there
was nothing I could do to help him if he was married to the idea of having the games ready for Origins–there was just not enough time to get the work done.
I said that if he gave me more time, skipped Origins, and worked for a later release date, that I could help him. He left unhappy and disappointed. He drove all
the way back up to Hanford and upon arriving immediately called me on the phone. He said he had thought about what I had said all the way back home and
decided I was correct. In many ways that moment was the beginning of GMT Games.
Why did you move toward a pictorial counter from the traditional symbolic counters? Do you think this has helped?
This came about due to the nature of the Great Battles of History Series we started in the early 90’s. Since the Ancient period games the series depicted were
at a tactical scale, and the emphasis was on formations of men and cavalry (plus elephants!) moving against each other, I thought the counters should be pictorial,
not abstract–much like miniatures. “SPQR” was the first game in the series where I had the time to develop my ideas on designing counters to look like real soldiers
and horsemen in battle. Has this pictorial look of the counters helped in terms of sales–yes. The first print run of “SPQR” sold out; the second print run sold out;
and we are now seriously considering yet a third print run of “SPQR.” The success of the above led to a reprint of “The Great Battles of Alexander” in a Deluxe
Edition where I redid all the counters to match the look of “SPQR”–this game also sold out. We just published the sixth volume in the GBoH Series this month.
All the games use this pictorial look to the counters and our loyal GBoH customers seem very pleased overall with what we’ve done in the series.
What are you presently working on for GMT games?
I have just completed the packaging and counterart for our third volume in our WWII Eastern Front Series, “Barbarossa: Army Group Center.” I also just
completed the design, layout and editing of the new issue of our in-house support magazine “C3i.” I’m now at work on our next volume (Volume VII) in our
Great Battles of History Series entitled “War Galley” which features numerous naval battles in the Ancient World.
Are you working exclusively for GMT or do you have any other projects on the go?
No, I have never worked exclusively for one company, but as Vice-President and Art Director of GMT Games my loyalty is with the company. But, I continue
to help other game companies and publishers–over the last few years I’ve done artwork for MiH Games out of Germany, Australian Design Group, and
Operational Studies Group in Baltimore.
Do you think the recent purchase of TAHGC by Hasbro will be good for our hobby?
This is very hard to predict. Hasbro has not made their plans known, in any detail, in terms of what they’re going to do with AH, as we’ve known it. I could see
this situation go either way, depending on what route Hasbro chooses. I am cautiously optimistic.
How do you see the future of historical simulation gaming?
This is very hard to say. I’ve heard predictions of doom and gloom in terms of board wargaming for over twenty years now. But, with the loss of SPI, GDW,
and AH (not to mention a number of smaller firms)–combined with more and more emphasis on technology, the “dumbing down” of our youth, and the utter
lack of knowledge of history by so many (with greater emphasis on revisionist history) it is impossible to know. I want to be positive about the future of our
hobby, but I can’t help but be concerned.