Tuesday, January 13, 2015

John Hill, Squad Leader, and Me.

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Mr John Hill, wargame designer and the writer of one of my all-time favorite games, Squad Leader.  Squad Leader will always hold a special place in my heart as a game that taught this once young cadet at military school the actual difference between cover and concealment like no lecture could!

Squad Leader perfectly articulated the US Army's infantry rifle platoon and squad battle drills to me , and taught me skills that would later be used on the battlefield in Iraq.  It's true and I can reference it in my journal from my first tour as a Rifle Platoon Leader in Iraq in 2003-2004.

Here are some basic tenets of combat that Squad Leader helped teach validate:

  • The fireteam or squad that makes contact, returns a high volume of fire while the team not in direct contact bounds, flanks, and assaults the enemy.  (Squad Leader prep fire phase)

  • If you can be seen, you can be hit.  If you can be hit, you can be killed.  (Squad Leader defensive fire!)

  • Risk is part of the job.  No risk can be mitigated to the point where you are not taking a risk.  (think of the advance phase and that leader, the only guy you have left on the table who can do anything, moves up 1 hex to throw a satchel charge into a room or fire at the rear deck of a Panzer IV.  It's the last turn of the game.)
  • Things really do break down and at the most inconvenient times, and in the "real Army" it happens much more frequently than rolling "Box Cars."  (Squad Leader's brilliant "breakdown roll" occurring when you roll 2 sixes.)  Once upon a time, I was leading a convoy of vehicles in heavy fog on a very long road march from Balad to a small base outside of Nasiriyah.  As convoy commander, I was in charge of all of the vehicles from our Battery, and that morning when I woke up, I must have rolled double sixes because my radio would constantly shut itself off.  Yes, my state of the art, digital SINCGARS radio would constantly need to be turned off and turned back on just so I could send 1 quick message before it f***ing died again.  So we used motorola "walkie talkies" and I communicated with the vehicle directly behind me, who would send messages to the entire convoy.  (There was no time to switch radios and hey, the radio worked during the pre combat inspections we did.  We just had no idea it stopped working immediately after.) We also had a trailer literally break an axle and it had to be towed to the nearest US Forward Operating Base.  So imagine that, a recovery operation occurring during the middle of a large movement.  The brilliance of John Hill's work is apparent in this mercurial equipment breakdown roll.  

Mr Hill has been criticized for Squad Leader's lack of a "fog of war" mechanism in that troops do exactly what you want but I will tell you that you'll be hard-pressed to find a better game that portrays infantry combat and is so rich in detail and texture while maintaining its simplicity.

Rest in Peace, Mr Hill.  And thank you.  Your work helped shape this officer's impressions of the battlefield.  I hope that when it's my time (whenever it may be) I'm sure they'll have a copy of Squad Leader at Fiddler's Green.


  1. Thanks for this great tribute, Steven, it captures my feelings about John Hill as well. He was a passionate historian and understood some of the chaos and friction of combat. I've never seen combat, but like you I've seen army road moves screwed up, I've seen battalion size units lose each other way out in the training area, kit malfunction, tracks thrown, maps misread, resupplies not happen, troops get tired and fatigued and generally ready to "break". I don't know if John Hill ever wore a uniform, but he certainly got it. Rest eternal grant to him O Lord.

    1. Michael,
      I dont know what he did in the real world but he sure could write a set of rules! He either had some experience in uniform himself (or around military people) or just maybe he was incredibly well read. Either way, the hobby lost a great mind!

  2. Sad news in deed. Squad Leader ranks as one of all time favourites, because as a 14yr (a long time ago!) when I first played the game, it bought a sense of realism to wargaming.

    1. Mark,
      It was the first "proper" tactical wargame I played and it made a lasting impression on me!

  3. That's a real shame. John also wrote the Johnny Reb ACW rules and many other games. I do remember Squad Leader very fondly. You're quite right Steven - it gets knocked by many gamers, but what a perfect system it is.

    I think I'll pick up those rules again and try them with miniatures.

    That is an excellent writeup with regard to seeing how John's rules apply in real world situations. I loved that. Thank you.

    1. I wrote a small bit about Johnny Reb III and thought it might have been perceived by some as in poor taste. (a joke about how if you go to purgatory you play Johnny Reb III as the attacker all day and all night and your attacks always fail). I took that part out. JRIII in my opinion is a terrific ACW "simulation" and if you don't use correct ACW tactics, be prepared to have your heart broken!

      You know it was originally a miniatures game. Squad Leader worked magnificently for me with 15mm troops. Very enjoyable.

  4. I grew up with SL (and its supplements) and still have a big big plastic tub with about a dozen ASL modules that haven't seen day for 20 years and I'll likely never play. I just can't bear to part with them.

    I vividly remember one of my first games of SL where a Russian Rifle squad went Bezerk and wiped out about 3 German squads in Close Combat causing a flank to crumble and the game to be lost. Great stuff

    Thank you indeed John, for all the fun, education and memories.

    1. Paul,
      Same with me - I have SL and a few modules but cannot bring myself to get rid of them! I probably never will.

  5. Farewell fearless leader

    The original John Hill Squad Leader counter: Lt. Hill, a modest 9-1 leader.

    When I purchased the famous purple edition of John Hill’s 1977 Avalon Hill game, Squad Leader, at the Origins held in Ann Arbor, Michigan that same year, I and many others were immediately hooked on the game system and ease-of-play. We attended all of John’s lectures and in a day or so mastered the game. By the end of the convention many of us were combining our game boards and units to play monster self-designed scenarios after having played all 12 scenarios in one long weekend.

    Squad Leader would also win the title of Best Tactical/Operational Game of 1977

    This was not my first encounter with John or his many excellent board and miniature games. Most notably in the mid 1970s was Johnny Reb, now known as Johnny Reb One. I still have the original mimeographed legal size cheat sheet printed on both sides, which was all you needed to play the first iteration of the Johnny Reb system. In that playtest addition, resolution used a single 12-sided die.

    I mention these two games and I call them systems because they have an incredible longevity through continuous reprints, revisions and new editions, including new games derivative of earlier manifestations. Although the 1977 edition of Squad Leader is my all time favorite, the game would generate many supplements, which would lead to the development of Advanced Squad Leader. The whole Squad Leader family of games has sparked a gamer following that keeps the game alive (SL or ASL) to this day after almost all of the SL and ASL games are long out of print. ASL is directly responsible, I believe, to the development of the online VASSAL game engine for playing board/miniature games virtually.

    Johnny Reb would lead to JRII and JRIII. From my perspective, I see Across the Deadly Field as John’s Opus Majus and final version of the Johnny Reb system. From my point of view, I believe ADF is his finest version and I hope it will emerge as his most popular American Civil War gaming system. I spent the entirety of 2014, from Fall In 2013 to Historicon 2014, and all those conventions in between, promoting ADF.

    This brings me back to Lt. Hill, the U.S. 9-1 leader counter of the original Squad Leader. Many of us literally wore out our original counters due to continuous game play and finger handling. We of course replaced them by purchasing new games. This is not true with 99% of the board games I own. Further, in 1977, we understood the game as cardboard version of a miniatures game. Today I play the game using 15mm figures and terrain. My point is that as long as gamers continue to play John’s games he lives on.

    In untold thousands of games, his old Lt. Hill counter has often suffered a KIA result or has broken under fire. At times it has conducted heroic acts, or has rallied squads at critical times. Whatever the outcome, Lt. Hill reemerges game after game to fight on and on to the enjoyment of the table top gamer whose only purpose is to have fun, learn history, study tactics, engage in competitive play and build friendships.

    John was a good friend and his games build many life-long friendships.

    I will miss him. We will miss him. However, as Lt. Hill, he will always be in our games, not only as a counter, a figure, a GM, a moderator, a game designer, a human, a man, and as one of the greatest game designers of all time.

    Patrick LeBeau
    January 13, 2015

    1. What a fantastic post Patrick.
      Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    2. Thank you, Patrick! I will include a Lt Hill from now on in all my WW2 US games! By the way, Johnny Reb III was the first "proper" miniatures rules I ever purchased, and while my bayonet attacks never once succeeded in carrying a position, I believe I learned something about ACW combat that I could not have learned in any other way.

      John Hill and his extraordinary rules will always have a special place on this blog and in the hearts of all historical miniature gamers.

    3. To put the intellectual debate into perspective as it applies to Johnny Reb, I was never a fan of JRiii. I liked JRi and JRii. I used to say that JRiii was JRi on anti-depressants. Everyone knew my views were meant to jostle and provoke response but everyone also knew, despite preference, that the game of JR was always in flux and as John would say, was always our game as gamers after publication of whatever edition currently available. Now with Across the Deadly Field I believe a new evolution of JR is at hand. I say this to all of you SL and ASL enthusiasts because gone are the order counters and a more SL move counter move procedure has been instituted. To share what some may not know, the TO HIT and the following DAMAGE DR rolls were derivative of the artillery HIT and DAMAGE procedures first introduced in JRi. Take a look at Across the Deadly Field, and I know I am biased and perhaps a bit sad at this moment, but you will see SL concepts incorporated in the game design without losing the flavor of late 19th century horse and musket tactics and the command and control problems of linear combat. However, Squad Leader and Cross of Iron are my all time favorite board game or miniature game systems. I play all versions but those two originals in their simplicity and ease of play. Take care and be well. PL