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An Interview with Mark Mahaffey, Wargame Artist

by Dan Pinkham, 19 September 2012

GrogHeads sits down with artist and wargame map designer Mark Mahaffey to discuss his contributions to the wargaming hobby.

click maps to go to full versions of the images

mGive us a brief introduction to yourself.

My name is Mark Mahaffey. I am a 29-year-old freelance graphic designer and mapmaker working out of Columbia, South Carolina, almost exclusively within the wargame industry. I’ve worked on or worked with most of the big companies, including GMT, Compass, and MMP, as well as many independent projects and Against the Odds magazine.

Tell us about your association with the wargaming community.

I’ve been a wargamer from my youth (when I was a staunch Avalon Hill/Victory Games disciple) and of course working in the industry over the past six years has allowed me to work with some of my wargaming heroes from that time. I won’t soon forget Mark Simonitch emailing for the first time saying he wanted me on a project - that’s the defining moment when I realized I could make a go of this as a day job. Getting to spend time with people passionate about their subject is a gift, as all wargamers know, and to be involved in the production is even better. Getting to work with Ed Beach on the map for Virgin Queen and Phil Sabin on Lost Battles were particular delights of the last couple years.

What got you into the wargaming?

My brother and I were introduced to Francis Tresham’s Civilization by a friend, and caught the bug. We even founded our own “wargame company” as children, though looking back I was far more interested in creating the components than the actual game (a tendency that continues to hound my pet project monster game on Lepanto!) and so working with the art aspects of games has proven a great fit as well as a dream job.

What are some of your personal wargame favorites?

I don’t get to play as much as I used to, alas, but these days my taste runs more towards multi-player, narrative-driven games like Civilization, Here I Stand, and Game of Thrones — with a little War of the Ring thrown in (a design that I think deserves more respect than it gets).  Growing up, I did a little more hardcore wargaming, things like Stonewall Jackson’s Way and Peloponnesian War were favorites. I also am the only (I think) person who has Guerilla for their all-time favorite AH title - in retrospect, largely because it was one of the few games that played well, even best, with three players.


How did you get started working in the wargame industry and turn it into a day job?

All my life I’ve been playing with my own wargame art - but in truth, it became a day job thanks to the internet. There was about a month in oh, 2006 I think, when I went on a kick creating my own custom map artwork for games I wanted to look differently than they did; I think the first was for the revised edition of Axis & Allies. I started posting some of them online on BoardGameGeek, and was soon fielding offers from publishers, and then private clients for work. I have learned a great deal since starting out, of course, and some of those old maps pain me a bit, but a few I still love.

You mentioned doing work for most of the big wargaming companies. What type of work and for which games have you done work for?

Goodness, it’s quite a list now I’m happy to say. One of the great joys of working behind the curtain on these is getting to interact with passionate designers, who often know their subject as well or better than anyone alive. Almost all my work is taking playtest components and turning them into designs that are aesthetically pleasing and aid the play of the game. Some recent successes (I hope) have been the artwork for Sekigahara and the maps for Virgin Queen, Red Winter, and Kingdom of Heaven. I’ve been creating artwork for all issues of Against the Odds for the last year or two, trying to fill the big shoes Craig Grando left behind. We’re about to finish up artwork on Codeword Cromwell (the long-expected solitaire offering from Dan Hodges, who also designed Where There Is Discord). Usually juggling a dozen or so projects at once.


You said “all my life I’ve been playing with my own wargame art.” Could you give us some more insight and detail into this statement?

Sure - just mean that I remember making my own maps and counters for games from a pretty young age. I think the first map I did was a straight redraw of AH’s classic 1964 edition of Gettysburg, with magic markers on poster board - still have it somewhere here.  Always got as much or more joy from creating counters and maps and boxes as I did from playing the games - including the ones we made up. There was even a monster game called More Than Conquerors with several thousand counters, geomorphic maps, and an ASL-esque rulebook binder, all in a near-future post-apocalyptic society-building setting. In retrospect, would have been much better as a computer game!

Which of your finished projects are you most proud of?

Wow, that’s a tough one. There’s not many I’m not proud of. I thought the designs we came up for A Most Dangerous Time for MMP worked out really well. Even though the game wasn’t particularly well-received, I’m proud of the artwork for the new edition of Blackbeard that GMT released a few years back. The moody cover design for Spartacus is probably still my favorite - been trying to use more live photography in game artwork where I can. That particular photograph was taken by Carl Nordgaard.


It is obvious your map work goes beyond just functionality and into a form of art. What is the inspiration behind the work you do?

Well, that’s most kind. Generally, the inspiration is in the history of the period - trying to evoke some aspect to connect the player to that period and place the game’s artwork squarely into that world.  The simple example that leaps to mind is using a palimpsest motif for MMP’s Warriors of God. In a similar vein I had done a map meant to look like a set of stone tablets for Julien Bonnard’s The God Kings - unfortunately that one was not published. That kind of thing. Obviously font selection, colors, and tones try to reflect a period too - the black, red, and white at play in For Bloody Honor (on the Russian Civil War), for instance. Sometimes will just be inspired by something interesting I see in the world of maps; very much want to do a map in a similar style to the excellent opening credits of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Do you have any ongoing projects you can tell us about?

Sure. We’re about to send Nations in Arms and The War: Europe 1939-1945 off to the printers for Compass Games. After we finish Codeword Cromwell, Daniel Hodges has a few more projects in the wings too, hopefully those will each see fruition. The next four games from Turning Point Simulations are about to be announced this fall. And as I am art-directing Against the Odds magazine, their forthcoming docket is a large part of my forthcoming docket. Also been handling much of the game artwork for several new indie publishers, such as Revolution Games.

If time and money were no object what would be your dream project?

Well, I’m working on my dream project — my monster game on Lepanto — and it’s a beast. Finding the time to devote to finishing the rules remains the big hurdle - but I will finish this thing one day! I would love to do something with early explorations in Canada as well, but I’ve learned from Lepanto not to announce specific ideas before they’re truly ready for the public.



From your point of view where would you like to see the wargaming industry go from where it is today?

That’s an interesting question - I do find when I attend a con or talk to people online, that the hobby is aging out a bit. There’s a few companies working with ideas for porting boardgames over to iPad/Surface technologies, but I’m not sure that’s the ultimate end. Suppose I’m a bit of a Ludditeluddite when it comes to gaming, for most of the classic reasons, the tactile and social experience topping the list. As the line between computer and board games continues to blur, it will be interesting to see what companies survive or appear and why.

I would like to see the hobby grow again to where it is commercially viable to print full high-end components, but the astonishing mix of business interest and volunteerism exhibited by the vast majority of folks I have encountered along the way is a pleasure. Believe me, no one does this just for the money, and that’s an environment I love working within.

I suppose I’d like to see a wargame renaissance as much as anyone - but for the time being, I tell people I’m poor but happy, and hope to work in this industry as long as it exists... Though to be clear, many people have pointed out we are in a bit of a mini-golden-age for wargames, and I do think that’s true - there’s a lot of great work being done.


Thanks for your time Mark. Is there anything else you like to add for our readers?

You are welcome! I appreciate all the kind words (and some of the thoughtful criticisms) I’ve received over the years from the wargaming community, you all are the best.


For a full list of games that Mark has done work for check out his page on BoardGameGeek.

Also make sure and check out Mark’s website, Mapology

Discuss this interview in our forums >>

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