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Forging the First Ogre

by Winchell Chung
December 1, 2017

When I was a high school student in 1975, I ordered through the mail the game Stellar Conquest from an ad in Analog Magazine. Metagaming Concepts, the parent company of Stellar Conquest, advertised their fledgling newsletter called The Space Gamer within the game. For no particular reason, I doodled some starships in my subscription letter. Metagaming was so starved for artwork that they printed my drawings in the second issue and asked for more. I did quite a bit of art for subsequent issues. They later commissioned me to create illustrations for game manuals.

In 1976, I was commissioned to do the art for their new game, Ogre. After signing the nondisclosure agreement, I received a typed rough draft of the rules, written by their brilliant game designer, Steve Jackson. It included Mr. Jackson's rough sketch of how he wanted the cover to appear. There was no detail; the Ogre cybertank was indicated by a black blob.

Studying the rules revealed that the Ogre had two big guns, six smaller guns, twelve antipersonnel weapons, six missiles, and zillions of tank treads. Oh, yes – the rules also mentioned that an Ogre would be facing an entire army. The frightening implication was a solitary Ogre possessed firepower equal to said army. This is the sum total of the information with which I had to work.

In addition to designing the Ogre, I also had to create the various army units as well. Different types of tanks, armored hovercraft with jet engines instead of propellers, and troopers clad in powered armor.

Now came the research phase. I checked out from the library every single reference book that had pictures of tanks. I filled page after page of newsprint paper with rough sketches from those pictures. Fortuitously, my high school art teacher was a WWII tank expert and I shamelessly picked his brains about tank construction, battle tactics, design philosophies, and related matters. I immediately noticed that the Ogre had similarities to the Bolos from Keith Laumer's novels. That did not help much since Laumer was vague on the details and the book cover illustrations were uninspiring.

Gathering reference images is easy and mindless, but at some point I had to stop fooling around and actually do the hard work of design. The Ogre was a futuristic cybertank, but it was still a tank: a platform moved by tank treads while transporting gun turrets on its back. Attempting to alter that reality would be a waste of my time. If a century of military research had failed to discover any radical improvements, I certainly was unlikely to invent any. Besides, even if I succeeded, the result would just confuse the customers. I wanted the cover to grab a person's attention and get them excited enough to purchase the game, not bore them with puzzling out exactly what they are looking at.

I focused on how to arrange the Ogre's suite of weapons in a visually interesting manner atop the tank platform. I figured the platform did not deserve a lot of design work. After all, treads are treads. I tried twin primary guns each surrounded by a cluster of three secondary gun turrets. This was logical but visually dull. Also, the entire clanking mess would have to be mounted on a turntable or the Ogre could only attack targets in the forward firing arc. I went a step further with three secondary guns welded on a primary gun, so the four weapons would fire at the same target. That was even worse; it drastically reduced the number of targets that could be engaged simultaneously. So I went back to the drawing board.

I tried a single large spherical turret containing all the guns next. It had a series of three rotating bands. The upper and lower bands had three secondaries in ball turrets while the middle band had a primary on each side in azimuth mounts. This had the virtue of allowing the Ogre to rapidly aim weapons at targets in a 360° firing arc. It had the liability of looking totally ridiculous. A spiky ball on treads was not very terrifying.

I tried a hemispherical body on treads with primary turrets at the front, missile racks on the rear, and two long, skinny booms holding secondary triple turrets way up in the air. While the booms would give the secondaries the high ground in any engagement, they looked vulnerable. Even worse, they looked silly.

Up to this point, I had designed the primaries to be long and skinny. I started experimenting with short and stumpy. I tried a more conventional tank turret with two stumpy primaries in large ball mounts, and the secondaries in fixed ball mounts directly attached to the platform proper. I tried to make the turret look futuristic by sculpting it with oddly angled planes. I did not realize it at the time, but I had inadvertently solved the problem of the "scary" factor. The front of the turret was not perpendicular to the platform; instead it was sloped backward at a sizable angle.

About this time I showed these and other drawings to my art teacher. He noted that the deep indent between the heavy tank's cupola and the body was "shot-trap city," that is, it would funnel incoming hostile fire into the fragile connection between cupola and body. As an off-the-cuff remark, he said it would be nice for the Ogre to have a telescoping sensor boom so it could hide behind a hill and peek over it.

I thought I would take a break from the Ogre design and instead work on the cover art composition. I roughed out the placement of the design elements, and almost without thinking I sketched in the Ogre. Right before my eyes everything gelled. I knew the Ogre had lots of tread units, so I placed parallel tracks. I placed a telescoping sensor boom. I placed a pair of stumpy primaries in oversized ball mounts. Most important of all I used the sloping front. Suddenly there was the classic Ogre "look": the massive invulnerable appearing front, the signature sensor boom, and the twin primaries looking like huge evil eyes. It was impressively scary.

Mr. Jackson sent directions for alterations, annotating a photocopy with red ink, and I made the alterations. But the basic design was established at that point and has not changed for over 40 years.

When I made the cover drawing, I thought I was just finishing yet another art commission. Little did I know that the drawing would become the definitive image of the game; indeed for a few years it was the unofficial logo of Steve Jackson Games itself. But I am very happy that in my small way I helped Ogre to become a success.

The Ogrezine PDF, combining all of these articles with additional new material, may be purchased on Warehouse 23.

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