The passing of John Hill – Wargaming Pioneer

John Hill“Blaine, Best of Luck.  Remember the art of war is more luck than is consequently assumed.”  John Hill  

This week John Hill died and it rekindled some fond memories I had of the man.  Most of you never knew John so please indulge me.  John designed wargames – military simulations.  He was an award winning designer.  Some of his game designs, namely Squad Leader (Avalon Hill’s mainstay WWII tactical combat game) and Johnny Reb (Civil War miniatures combat) were considered outstanding in the industry – if not groundbreaking.

I met John at a game convention in Kalamazoo Michigan right after Squad Leader 2nd Edition had been released.  We played with his first edition rules (for you true fans, I’m talking about the purple box edition – not the yellow second edition rules).  John had a big battle board set up in 1/285th scale miniatures.  He used Squad Leader counters and Microarmor tanks and vehicles.

I remember being on the German side and I remember cursing the numbers of Russians coming at us.  Those damned T34/85’s lit up my Panzer III’s like Roman candles.  We had to move up and take three crossroads and then a Russian held town.  The crossroads were relatively easy – but the town was a tough nut to crack.  When you went in with tanks you learned how almost worthless the advantages of armor were with short narrow streets and freaking Molotov cocktails.

We had a stalemate of a battle by holding the crossroads, a draw.  After two attempts to hit the town which did infinitely more damage to us than the enemy, we held back.  The Russians, not wanting a draw, pushed out of the town.  One thing with Squad Leader is you gain a healthy respect for machineguns.   The Russians lost a lot of men and we were able to move our remaining armor up to catch them in the flanks.  Many brave men died on that field of green felt that afternoon.  When they made their final push, we rushed in with our armored cars to their rear, securing a German victory.

John Hill didn’t play – he refereed the event, teaching us the nuances of the rules as we went.  He was like a maestro conducting the event.  For me as a kid, to meet the designer and play such a huge battle, it was awesome.

Squad Leader remains a tribute to the genius of John Hill.  It was a game where wargame became personalized.  The roles of the leaders were so important and the sheer tactics of where you set up your fields of fire, that you got a strong sense for just how critical tactical operations were.  There was almost a D&D quality to the original Squad Leader – complete with some counters where you could name your leaders.  The game had an adaptive set of rules, so that each scenario added a new aspect to the game’s complexity.  Sure, everyone does it now, but Squad Leader really broke some ground doing this back in the day.

The game went beyond me – going into Advanced Squad Leader with a massive rules binder, a bazillion dollars in supplements that you had to buy.  The game grew far beyond my love for it.  Just the thought of reading all of those rules seemed to ruin the fun aspects of the game.  Yet this game will remain one of his greatest contributions to the wargaming industry.

Johnny Reb miniatures rules was fun.  I had gotten into miniatures with Napoleonics (Tricolor rules) and dozens of stands of Airfix figures.  At Origins I played Johnny Reb once and loved the simplicity and (if my memory is correct) the simultaneous movement.  The game was fun – plain and simple. It became THE standard for Civil War miniatures gaming for decades, no small feat.

John Hill is gone – but he gave thousands of men, hundreds of thousands of hours entertainment.  What a great way to be remembered.  “Gentlemen – sound Taps please, we’ve lost one of the good ones…”