John Hill: One Fan’s Humble Appreciation


John Hill

The past few years have been a bad time for the classic wargame designers of our youth. S. Craig Taylor passed away in 2012. Don Featherstone went to join the choir invisible in 2013. Bob Coggins passed on right before Historicon last year. Today, word has trickled out through Dana Lombardy that John Hill suffered a major heart attack last night and has passed on this morning. In Dana’s words:

It is with great sadness that I must report that my dear friend John Hill, Hall of Fame designer of Squad Leader, passed away today. I will post further information as soon as John’s daughter Stephanie and wife Luella let me know how they would like people to show their condolences and appreciation for John’s incredibly creative life.

All of these great designers shaped my life in some way.   I would have a hard time recounting how many times I played Ironclads, or Circus Maxiums, or Napoleon’s Battles, or SOME variation of the many game designs by Don Featherstone.   But it is John Hill, above all, that I owe much to.    Forgive me for lapsing into a brief reminiscence.

In 1978, I was a teenager.  I used to hitch a ride to a little shop in a strip mall about two miles from my parent’s house called the Book and Card.   This place sold about what you’d expect– candles and greeting cards and incense and all kinds of homey folksy kitsch.  It also had a rack of steadily growing material supporting this new game I had been hooked on called Dungeons and Dragons.  Any chance I could get, I’d either bike over there or catch a ride, and browse the racks for a new module that might catch my eye, or a new microgame from Metagaming, or something else new and exciting– it was ALL new and exciting back then.   One day, upon entering the shop, I noticed something new on the top shelf.  It was a bookcase edition of the original Squad Leader game.   It looked fat, and solid and incongruous against a background of somewhat flimsier fantasy supplements and the latest publications from the Judges Guild.  This was heft!  this was substance!   And at the price they were asking (I could be wrong, but I’m remembering something like 12 bucks), it was maybe twice what I would pay for a D&D module.. but wow, was I going to get a LOT for my money!  Granted, squad combat between World War 2 soldiers wasn’t anything I was too familiar with.  Yet this .. thing promised a lot of return for my investment, so I shrugged and bought what would amount to my first wargame, Squad Leader– from little things, great beginnings.   Now, I wasn’t unfamiliar with wargames– I knew what Avalon Hill and SPI were, and had played a few with my father from about age 12 on, but few and far between and I can’t say I was passionate about the hobby or anything like that.   My friend Pete had Panzer Leader, so even the box format was familiar to me.  I just never had had a boxed wargame of my own until that moment.  My predictions of getting lots of value for the money were prescient; I didn’t play Squad Leader for a while (my friends were more into that D&D thing I mentioned), but I still really enjoyed figuring out the scenarios and reading the design notes and rules and figuring out what all those rules meant. Squad Leader went with me to college, and it was there that it started getting played continuously. Man, if I had a nickel for the number of times I assaulted the Tractor Factory in the early scenarios…

That’s what John Hill did for me.  He opened the door to a wider world of gaming, one I had only glimpsed before.

Even though Mr. Hill could lay claim to establishing a foundation for me and many others in wargaming, one gets the sensation that he wasn’t content with being typecast as “the Squad Leader guy”. Aside from the first expansion to SL (Cross of Iron, one of the best!), John Hill didn’t involve himself in the direct design of Squad Leader afterward.  His name, however, is forever linked with that accomplishment, much like Alan Calhamer‘s name was forever linked with Diplomacy.   John wasn’t content with being a one-hit wonder; his board game design output was both creative and prodigious throughout his life:

  • Bar-Lev: The Yom-Kippur War of 1973
  • Battle for Stalingrad
  • The Brotherhood
  • Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! – Kursk 1943
  • Cross of Iron (expansion)
  • Eastern Front Tank Leader
  • Hue
  • Jerusalem
  • Kasserine Pass
  • Overlord
  • Panzer Force
  • Squad Leader (duh)
  • Tide of Iron: Designer Series Vol. 1
  • Verdun, The Game of Attrition
  • Yalu: The Chinese Counteroffensive in Korea, November 1950 to May 1951

I remember years later, I picked up Eastern Front Tank Leader (by West End Games) solely based upon Hill’s name being on the box– and was astounded about just how different and creative it was from the Squad Leader of my high school and college days– different scale, different mechanics, and a focus on command and control elements.   A very challenging game that placed you in a higher command role than a captain or lieutenant chivying your squads and gun crews around the streets of some town in Russia.

After joining HMGS and attending miniature wargaming conventions, I became acquainted with the other focus of John Hill’s prodigious output, miniature game rules.  I picked up Johnny Reb in a flea market buy and have played it quite a few times.  As I speak, John’s NEW civil war regimental rules, Across a Deadly Field, is on my Ipad Kindle App.

The miniature games I know of are:

  • Across A Deadly Field: Regimental Rules for Civil War Battles
  • Johnny Reb
  • Johnny Reb III

There might have been more.

As a designer, John was bold, interesting, and not above fudging a few elements that would shock and anger the nitpickers out there in the name of fun (see early arguments about just how wide those city streets were in Squad Leader, for instance).   John would invariably just shake his head at the criticsim, smile, and shrug– it made a better game his way– and he was right.  He had a knack for capturing the essence of a thing, and making it fun.

But enough of John Hill as a game designer.  John Hill as a man was easygoing, pleasant, approachable and invariably kind-hearted.  He was easy to talk to and had a great sense of humor.  I won’t pretend we were close friends, but I have seen him at many a convention and have talked to him many times — he was always ready and willing to discuss the nuances of something he had published or was working on.   John was a thoroughgoing gentlemen and our hobby is sadly diminished with his passing.

Bis vivit qui bene vivit, John Hill.  We will miss you.


2 responses to “John Hill: One Fan’s Humble Appreciation

  1. Another concept from Mr. Hill’s fertile mind (which I have since seen elsewhere in many places, never of course attributed to him) is to use terrain elements–more specifically buildings and the like–which are scaled smaller than the figures being used. Thus, with 25mm figures, use 20mm or 15mm terrain; with 15mm figures use 10mm or 6mm, etc. His rationale was that unless the game being played was on the level of a 1:1 man-to-figure ratio, the footprint of a house on the table was almost always larger than it would be in real life. A somewhat smaller-scale building might therefore look a little strange, but in the larger scheme of things it would more sccurately represent what you want in the scenario. Moreover, after a while the scale difference would not even be noticed!

    Seeing the wargaming greats pass on like this is sad, not only for its own sake, but also because it remands all of us that “the bell tolls for thee”.


  2. You will be Missed my Friend. I rember us meeting the First time in the 19th Va. INF CSA I know all the faces you hand picked from our unit to be on the cover Of Johnny Reb box set. We lol lot by the Fires . I will miss you John. God Rest you Dear old Rebel. Gods house is a Wonder to behold. You are Happy now John. Dave Seay