Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

[Designer Spotlight] An Interview with Winchell Chung

“Saying you ‘just illustrate’ is an understatement. I may design a game, but I literally don’t try to visualize the components. I think of the games as a system of factors that interact through spatial movement and number values. Your illustrations are a pleasure to me because they make a barren game entity into a beautiful visual concept.” — Howard Thompson in a letter to Winchell Chung

Jeffro: Your web page says you were contacted by Howard Thompson to do the artwork for Ogre. How did your number end up in his Rolodex…? And how did he know you were up for the job? How did you two negotiate the contract…?

Winchell Chung: This was back in the young and innocent days, around 1975, when I was in high school and Metagaming Concepts was a new company. In the current issue of ANALOG magazine, I saw an ad for a space combat game called Stellar Conquest by Metagaming Concepts. This was relevant to my interests so I immediately purchased a copy by mail. A couple of months later, Metagaming Concepts launched a pamphlet newsletter called The Space Gamer, and sent a sample issue to everybody who purchased Stellar Conquest, along with a subscription form. I immediately subscribed. And since I had always been something of an artist, I scribbled some artist conceptions of the ships from Stellar Conquest in the margins of the subscription letter.

As it turns out, Metagaming Concepts was so hard up for material for their newsletter, they actually printed the scribbles in the next issue. And sent me a letter asking for more artwork. I made the cover of the newsletter by about the third issue¹. This is how they figured I was up to the job, I had a track record with them. Months later Mr. Thompson wrote me. He mentioned that they were in the process of designing a new game, and would I be interested in illustrating the rulebook? Indeed I was. And after signing non-disclosure agreements, I received the typewritten rules to the game Ogre², along with a roughly scrawled image by Steve Jackson with an idea for the game cover.

Since I was just a kid in high school, I knew nothing about negotiating nor standard rates for artists. Mr. Thompson offered to pay me an amount that seemed like a lot to a teenager, and I accepted.

Jeffro: Wait… did they seriously print your subscription-letter doodles in Space Gamer without nailing down your permission first…?

Winchell Chung: Yes they did. This was back in days of yore when Metagaming Concepts was less a company and more an expensive hobby. The entire industry was like that. The first issue of Space Gamer looked like it was run off a photocopy machine. And since I was something like 17 years old at the time, I didn’t know any better. I was just flattered that they saw fit to use my art work.

Jeffro: Incredible. Now, you’d bought Stellar Conquest sight unseen just on the basis of a magazine ad. How did that work out…? Did you scrounge up some buddies and wring some game sessions out of it…? Or was it more the sort of thing you read, tinkered with, daydreamed about, and so on…?

Winchell Chung: I managed to force a few gameplay sessions out of my little brother, but yes, finding opponents was a problem. I played many a solitaire game, playing left hand against the right. I tinkered with the rules, adding refinements and experimenting with variants. I even tried making a 3D star map to play on. The most successful variant was from somebody else, writing in The Space Gamer. They merged the games Stellar Conquest with GDW’s game Triplanetary. Lots of fun to play, but a full game could take a month to finish. I was quite enamored of the entire space combat genre. I had most of the early games: SPI’s StarForce, Outreach, Vector Three, and StarGate, GDW’s Triplanetary, Nova Game Designs Timelag, Metagaming’s WarpWar, Godsfire, and Holy war.

Jeffro: Which of those games got the most play at your table back in the day? And which one would you recommend as being most worth tracking down and playing today…?

Winchell Chung: Number One is GDW’s Triplanetary. It is a classic. An absolute blast to play, and educational as well (teaches vector addition and Newtonian mechanics). I think I played it the most, and recommend tracking it down the most. Much later, Steve Jackson Games made a game that sort of merged Triplanetary with Ogre, called Star Fist. It is also worth trying to find. Number Two is SPI’s StarForce. The playing board is a reasonably accurate 3d star map of the stars within a 20 light year radius of Sol. This is not a bang-bang-shoot-em-up game, it is more like two Karate masters circling each other, until one makes a mistake. Or appears to make a mistake.

Jeffro: After setting the appearance of the Ogre for all time, you evidently had a pretty good experience working with MetaGaming– you went and did the artwork for WarpWar! Now, if that had been me… I’d have felt like a true rock star of gaming at that point. How did you deal with it…? Did anyone at school or in your neighborhood quite grasp the awesomeness of these accomplishments?

Winchell Chung: Oh, it was very much like the current situation on the internet. There are some people who on certain forums are internet gods. But outside of that circle everybody thinks that you are just some dork who lives in your parent’s basement. Yes, it was indeed a very heady experience to be “the guy who drew the Ogre”, and to be occasionally recognized at science fiction conventions. Plus seeing that one particular drawing of the Ogre used and re-used zillions of times by Metagaming. But then you go to art college and the students look down their noses at you because you are not an artist, you are a low-life “illustrator”.

Jeffro: Wait a second. You’re pretty much on the short list of old school gaming illustrators– a list which includes Erol Otus, Denis Loubet, “Speed” Webber, and Liz Danforth. Several artists were more prolific than you during those early days of hobby gaming… but I can’t think of anyone that came up with anything as iconic as the Ogre and the conventional forces that fought with it. To this day, that image is synonymous with one of the greatest game designers our hobby produced. The cover of the original microgame is explosive, dynamic, powerful, kinetic…. I have this image in my mind of you taking out your portfolio… and then a hush falling over the room as they gaze in wonder and awe at that quintessential image. But you’re telling me they looked their noses down at you…?!

Winchell Chung: Well, the art students were art students, not gamers. They were much more interested in talking about ivory-tower nebulous things like expressing your inner being and the meaning of art. Impractical like, y’know? They would absolutely love paint-drip works by Jackson Pollock, and sneer at something like a NASA vision by Robert McCall. For them, actually being paid to draw something that was not your own idea was one step away from prostitution. The iconic Ogre, with its massive sloping invulnerable front and death-dealing eyeball cannons left them cold. But I knew that I had created something significant, and that I had given the players an image to make the game come alive for them. Have you ever thought about the debt owed to Ralph McQuarrie when he created the look of Darth Vader’s mask? And I knew that the art student’s attitudes would get a swift wake-up call when they graduated into the real world and found themselves flipping burgers for a living.

Jeffro: J. D. Casten was the best type-in program game designer of the mid eighties. He says that when he went to college, his “Computer and Information Science adviser was unimpressed with [his] claims to computer knowledge.” On the other hand, I saw yesterday that for someone looking to get an internship at Slate, doing something like a personal blog was far more relevant than your GPA and which classes you took. Given your experiences, do you have any advice for people that aspire to do creative work even on a freelance basis? In art, writing, or game design… what do you feel is the most important thing to focus on?

Winchell Chung: I think that Joseph Campbell said it best: “Follow your bliss”. It is not particularly new advice, naturally there is a better chance that one’s work will show passion if one’s work is in a genre or topic that one is passionate about. The other guiding principle I follow was given to me by my maternal grandfather. He said “Grandson, if you have not learned something new today, the day is lost.” When I am planning some artwork I tend to do research on any details that I am unclear on (such as when I Google to get a better idea what a spacecraft airlock hatch looks like). But the research will often mention some other item that is also interesting, so I’ll do followup research on that. In the process I will be applying my grandfather’s advice. The practical outcome is that my work will have a richness and verisimilitude that makes it stronger.

Jeffro: Your Google+ feed certainly seems to indicate that you you’re learning new things every day. You link to more space science facts in a day than I can keep up with… and you’ve made me realize that everything I thought I knew about the universe is at least thirty years out of date! Do you have any thoughts on how all of this information can be synthesized and condensed down into playable games…?

Winchell Chung: The only way I know to synthesize and condense the info-flood is to do it the hard way: collect stuff that seems relevant, and distill it manually. About 20 years ago I started to do that. After a few years it occurred to me that others would be interested in that sort of thing. So I made a single solitary web page with the distillation of the most important stuff. As I gathered more information, I added further pages. I created a monster. At last count, I have 78 webpages in my infamous Atomic Rocket website. I really wish that an actual rocket scientist would make something like my website. But until they do, I’ll have to do the best I can. For my crimes, my website has become The Word where people in science fiction forums go to settle their arguments. I also use it to keep alive knowledge of vintage science fiction. These young whipper-snappers these days have never heard of Heinlein or Asimov. And if I read something in a science fiction novel that raises a question, I can ask my scientist friends for the inside scoop, then put it in my website. Such as what is the minimum population of a space colony to ensure enough genetic diversity. My other ulterior motive is that I want to read more hard-science SF novels, and play more hard-science SF games. So I figure if I want this, the least I can do is help out the authors and game designers.

Jeffro: Do you have any more anecdotes about Metagaming you can share– anything about its origins, growth, sudden demise– or about working with Howard Thompson and Steve Jackson in the early days of gaming?

Winchell Chung: Howard Thompson was always enthusiastic about my artwork submissions, as he put it he loved such art but he himself could not draw a straight line. I believe the first actual game art I did for him was for The Ythri, based on Poul Anderson’s novel The People of the Wind. I had not read the novel, so Mr. Thompson sent me his copy, the one with all the game notes scrawled in the margins (I still have that safely packed away).

Working with Steve Jackson on Ogre was very stimulating. He would receive my rough drafts, then send back a letter prefaced with “the artwork is fantastic!” … followed by items that needed changes. Like the original heavy tank image had the turret overhang the body to such a degree that it would tend to channel enemy weapons fire toward the joint. I only met Steve Jackson physically once, at a gaming convention. My father had made me a silk-screened T-shirt with an original Ogre drawing I made for the occasion. I walked up to Steve and smiled. He saw the shirt and said “Hey, that’s pretty good, Mr…” { looks at my name badge } “…Oh! No wonder!”

Jeffro: Wow… The Ythri is a really obscure game! Most serious gamers would know Ogre, Microgame fans would of course know of WarpWar, and Traveller junkies would be really familiar with the Annic Nova. Are there any other games that you worked on that you wish more people were aware of…?

Winchell Chung: Well, I did have some interesting art in The Ythri, but the actual game was pretty lackluster. It did have an interesting two-tiered map, with a space map with the planet hex, and the planet hex expanded into a planet map. But otherwise it was forgettable. I did some artwork for Avalon Hill’s Powers and Perils, which was their attempt at making a Dungeons and Dragons RPG. Again, I liked my art, but the game was almost unplayable. Otherwise you’ve mentioned my other main illustration works.

Jeffro: What is the story on that galaxy image that’s in your work area? Is that something you’re currently working on?

Winchell Chung: It is from the galactic star map I made– It is one of my star map posters. I compiled stellar data, wrote Python programs to do the grunt work, angled the galaxy image with Blender 3D, and composited it all together with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I’ve done lots of recent work using Blender 3D. My latest project was a mod for the computer game Kerbal Space Program, implementing an Orion nuclear bomb propelled rocket.

Jeffro: Thanks so much for taking time out to share all of this with me. This has really been fascinating.

¹ The cover image of “The Space Gamer #3”  here on Board Game Geek.

² You can see images of Ken Schultz’s Ogre playtest counters and the cover of the playtest rules here.


One response to “[Designer Spotlight] An Interview with Winchell Chung

  1. Pingback: A Double Portion of Awesome; Hold the Controversy | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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