Friday, April 20, 2018

The 2-Half Squads' Interview with John Hill

The 2 Half-Squads (Jeff Hallett and Dave Kleinschmidt) have just celebrated their tenth year of presenting entertaining and informative reviews, banter, after action reports, rules discussions and performance pieces to the Advanced Squad Leader community. In addition to their tenth anniversary, they are as of this writing three short of the milestone of 200 episodes. As they like to say, they are "the only podcast dedicated 100% to the greatest game in the world.’ For my money, the real meat of their episodes has been the interviews with luminaries in the ASL community, which provide a unique and intimate look behind the scenes.
As someone with a deep personal interest in the history of wargames I regard interviews such as these as important historical documents. I find myself referring to them often in online discussions where, for example, newcomers to the ASL and greater wargaming communities pose questions that are nicely answered by the designers, developers and publishers themselves in their own words. Making reference to a podcast has its challenges, as the contents are distributed in hour-long (or more) chunks, and sharing specific bits of conversation is logistically challenging.
From the 2 Half-Squads website

LINK TO THE ORIGINAL INTERVIEW
To that end, I’ve chosen to transcribe the interview I find myself most often referring to others. John Hill was a well-known game designer from the 1970’s on, and is of course famous in ASL circles as the original designer of SQUAD LEADER. There are many interviews with Hill in various vintage gaming magazines, but the conversation with Jeff & Dave covers much (interesting) ground I had not seen discussed by Mr. Hill before. The 2 Half-Squads interviewed the man himself in February 2010 for their Episode 32. He passed away shortly after the 2 Half-squads completed Episode 132 in January 2015, and the interview was re-released at that time.
Transcripts are not an exact science. Clarity can be an issue – in this particular case, Mr. Hill’s speech was very informal as one would expect of an intimate conversation, and some words were either garbled, or frankly, beyond my comprehension. (I am familiar with a gladius, for example, but some other terms he makes reference to in regards to ancient historical combat are unfamiliar to me.) I suspect some words have been inadvertently skipped or mashed together in the process of recording them from a phone conversation.
Beyond these technical limitations, I’ve deliberately kept many of the idiosyncrasies of the speech patterns in the transcript. Hill changes tense and pronouns, often in mid-sentence, and sometimes invokes a third party (‘he says’). Though it looks odd in print, I thought it more important to present the words as actually spoken. These irregularities may speak well of the skill of the interviewers, as Mr. Hill seems to have felt quite at ease with them. And if it seems like Jeff & Dave are not holding up their end of the conversation (“mm-hmm”), knowing when *not* to talk is also a skill that the best interviewers acquire.
I’ve edited out some cases where words or phrases are repeated while the participants gathered their thoughts and tried to evict the umms and aahs, though a couple have been left in where I thought they might be appropriate such as a clue that the speaker has had second thoughts about whatever words may have come to mind first. Variations from the recording (the elimination of superfluous words, repeated phrases, or unintelligible phrases) are captured either by parenthesized words (like this) or ellipsis ("...") and in some cases a question mark (?) to indicate something completely unintelligible to me. There will no doubt be some words that have been changed in the transcript, some inadvertent, some deliberate (for example, when the speaker jumbles two words together but it is clear what he intended to say).
The original podcast may be found at this link, and the entire series is naturally recommended for anyone with an abiding interest in, or affection for, “the greatest game in the world.”
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Jeff: Hello, John.
JOHN HILL: Yes, how did the sound check go?
Jeff: Oh, it sounded beautiful, you sound very handsome.
JOHN HILL: Well, let’s not jump to conclusions.
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: I appreciate your kind thought (but) I have to certainly question the veracity of the information given the fact that we’re… I’m not on a television phone.
Jeff: Yeah, unfortunately – though we’d like to see you, we’d like to take a peek into your game room, I’ll bet it’s really nice.
JOHN HILL: Well, like most game designers, I don’t play that much.
Jeff: Ah, yeah, that’s a problem.
JOHN HILL: I don’t know, maybe it’s some sort of unexpected, and, you know, curse, you know… James Dunnigan was always proud of the fact that he never played a game.
Jeff: Is that right? (laughs) Well ...we were looking at your page on Wikipedia. Did you know you had an entry on Wikipedia?
JOHN HILL: I’m sure someone put one in.
Jeff: Yeah, and among many other things, it mentions that you were… I’ll just read this: “Hill was named to the Wargaming Hall of Fame, receiving the Charles S. Roberts awards at the Origins gaming convention in Chester, Pennsylvania on June 23rd, 1979. Hill developed what is arguably the most popular rules set ever developed for regimental-level American Civil War miniature gaming, the JOHNNY REB series.”
JOHN HILL: Oh, well that’s true, that’s true enough. People often (say) what is the… they’ll ask me what I think is the most popular Civil War miniatures rules, and I says well, it’s not JOHNNY REB. And they’ll look at me sort of weird, and I would say, it’s (a) basically the most common regimental set of Civil War rules is a variant of JOHNNY REB. Every...the system is very, very robust, as is SQUAD LEADER, (as) you can just pile a lot of stuff on it as ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER proved and the system holds up quite well.
Jeff: Yeah. Yes, it does.
JOHN HILL: And JOHNNY REB, you’ll…people have been tweaking with it and adding stuff on it and taking chrome on, taking chrome off and playing with it forever and…uh, now, it still holds up well. As a matter of fact, the two systems, if you look into them, JOHNNY REB and SQUAD LEADER are very similar. In some respects, JOHNNY REB was the further development of the SQUAD LEADER chronology, except it’s now done on a simpler, more simultaneous mechanism which is more traditional with miniatures games as opposed to the phased turn sequence in board games.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: But if you break down the JOHNNY REB turn sequence you’ll say ‘hey, this is basically SQUAD LEADER but it’s being done simultaneously.’
Jeff: Oh, I see.
JOHN HILL: And you can certainly do it, you could go back from one to the other and you could (and there is)…and that’s because they’re from the same roots. Ah, that is (a) depiction of the chronology of combat which hasn’t changed since Cain and Abel. And that, you know…you go back to pretty much all battles are pretty much the same, and just different scales, different weaponry and that…One side will have a piece of land, one side is going to be the defender, he’s very happy with what he has, he’s dug in, and does whatever he wants to do to fortify his (position), and the other guy is determined to take it away, either by driving him off or killing him and then taking it away.
So you have a phase where, you know, the attacker will do a prep fire, whether it’s, uh, you know…24/7 bombardment like the Somme, or hail of arrows like back in the Persian era, or, you know, just some heavy suppressive fire from MG-42s, it’s basically a prep fire.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: In the Civil War, the one hour barrage by the Confederates before Pickett’sCharge. It’s a prep fire.
Jeff: Right. Right.
JOHN HILL: And then, okay, they says that prep fire has softened them up a bit, hopefully (that) we can now advance. So then there is the advance, and then the defenders that are not dead, dazed or otherwise out of it, they will put on a defensive fire, whether it’s with arrows, with (?), with javelins (and) their various weapons or whatever you have. It’s David with a sling or long range stand-off defensive weapons. Well, then, that either stops the defender (sic) or it doesn’t. Or if it makes him go to ground and make him crawl forward slowly, and then finally the attackers that do survive the defensive fire will attempt to close with and destroy the enemy. Whether it’s a Roman with a gladius, or a German with a Schmeisser, basically this chronology comes out the same.
Jeff: Mm-hmm. And did you discover this on your own, or was this…
JOHN HILL: Yeah, yeah, pretty much but it’s not like DUHH.
Jeff: Right. (laughs)
JOHN HILL: But obviously, start reading military history, and uh, it’s almost the same thing every…there’s always a prep fire phase where you’re throwing rocks at each other with slingers in the days of the Philistines, or heavy artillery in today’s modern world.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
Dave: Well what…
JOHN HILL: The chronology is the same.
Dave: Yeah, I’d like to ask you, then, what your gaming background was. I mean, we joked that you had… don’t have a lot of time to play games since you’re designing. Were there games that you liked best when you were a youngster?
JOHN HILL: Well…when I started out with the dawn of Creation and started out with TACTICS II. And played that to death. And then we waited with bated breath for every new game that Avalon Hill would come out (with) once a year. And then there was BLITZKRIEG, which I liked. (?) it was something different other than TACTICS II (and) had hexagons. Wow – well how’s that for novelty?
Jeff: Oh, right.
Tactics II

JOHN HILL: And then we went to BATTLE OF THE BULGE which I thought was very good. And…but I always wanted a much more tactical game. And then…because (I was) fascinated with small unit actions and both small and large unit actions still saw a similarity to the chronology. And so I was really excited when SPI came out, starting coming out with some of their tactical games. The first one I think was Dunnigan’s TACTICAL GAME NUMBER 10.(1) I have no idea what one through nine looked like. But yeah, that was, you cut out your own counters, pasted them together, and yeah, it was, okay, it was an attempt but you still had a lot of anomalies in it.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: Then we came out with PANZERBLITZ. And that still didn’t feel right, beyond the problem with “PanzerBush”, the quirk in the rules that you couldn’t interrupt your fire as a person ran from one cover to another.
Jeff: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Dave: Okay.
JOHN HILL: PanzerBush…gimme a break, you know?
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: And then also if you fired at someone, I think, okay, each unit represents five tanks and I says, okay, and you could kill all five or you could disrupt them. When the most likely thing is you maybe kill o-, if you open fire on a platoon with your appropriate, your platoons or whatever, you might knock one out,…damage another one. But you wouldn’t disrupt them, I mean it’s not like these five tanks are now scrambling around bewildered.
Jeff: Right.
JOHN HILL: You either, you know, (with sort of like) you either did no damage, disrupted the tanks or you killed them all. There was nothing in between.
Dave: So was that…did you
JOHN HILL: That gave me the impression that okay, something’s…that’s, then they put in the…uh, problem with the PanzerBush effect and things like this. So more and more it was a question of scale. Okay, so if you really want to show attrition on weapons and you don’t want to have a tally sheet or something to keep track you might, should perhaps go down to a lower scale, squad and single vehicle. And if you look at most of the stuff I was studying, was not the massed armour battles of Kursk but I was looking at a lot of the fighting in Normandy and the fighting in Stalingrad and things like this where it was small groups of men with armour support. Occasionally the tanks would fight (?) platoon against each other, you know, a section to the fore but it was mostly the special…it was combined arms fighting. The actual big quasi stand-off tank duels, and they happened out in the Ukraine and certainly the desert, but I found the little combined-arm actions more interesting. So… I followed a lot of other things and so that was the root of SQUAD LEADER.
It was two things. One, I was not getting, there was no game showing the type of level I was interested in at the time and there was nothing that seemed to be an accurate simulation of the chronology of the tactical combat.
Jeff: So the scale of SQUAD LEADER really came about from the need to meet those criteria?
JOHN HILL: Yeah, … the criteria, that didn’t feel weird.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: But if I fired a group of five tanks with an appropriate five tanks there would be a … you would get something better than nothing, disrupted or all five are dead.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: And I…since I played SQUAD LEADER before I played some other World War II miniatures games, I played BATTLEGROUND miniatures game…
JOHN HILL: Mm-hmm.
Dave: …SKIRMISH, and I know that…they can run up on you, and there’s like no defensive fire, and it drives me insane. Because…
JOHN HILL: Yeah…that’s sort of like what you had in PANZERBLITZ where everything is a strict phase, where you can’t do anything. You know…when it just says okay we have (a) six T-34s, they’re going to run right up to the 88 and nothing’s going to happen?
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: I don’t think so.
Dave: Yeah, or well…in this game system you have a…where if you lay your opp fire out (in) like a certain area, and you can’t turn to your left and fire at someone (who) runs up at you down the street. You know, which again I’m like this doesn’t quite, doesn’t work for me after playing your system. So…
JOHN HILL: Well yeah, and you can certainly make your case that okay if you’re suddenly…change your arc of attention or something like that(2), your, you know, quick reaction fire. Yeah, your fire could be degraded. You could easily work it into SQUAD LEADER, treat it as moving fire, half factor. Because for all practical purposes you … can make a case that your attention is moving. If you’re at a crew-served machine gun and it’s too far over the flank you have to pick it up and slap it down on the flank.
Dave: Yeah, which would be harder to do than with a rifle, or pistols…
JOHN HILL: Yeah,…but the thing is that’s the nice thing about SQUAD LEADER. A mechanism is there. If you could say, if you defined an arc of attention, arc of where your primary fire suddenly changed target, you could say ‘well,…a lot of things are changing.’ Attention’s changing, you don’t know the range (so) it’s a snap shot, so to speak. Depending on the weapon you can easily treat it as moving fire.
Dave: Right.
JOHN HILL: And if one unit is a squad, the whole squad may be actually doing subtle little movements that if nothing else going for them, from the north side of a foxhole to the west side of a foxhole, or something. But if you want…if you adjudicate that that would degrade their performance, you have a mechanism, treat it as moving fire. Does the same kind of thing in JOHNNY REB. If somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t think this is right.’ Okay, treat it as this thing or the other thing. So you know, you have a mechanism to address situations that a person may not be, feel comfortable with or they may feel that they’re an anomaly. You don’t have to gut the whole system and redo it.
Jeff: Right. Were you working for Avalon Hill when these thoughts were formulating in your head?
JOHN HILL: No. I was just a free-lance designer.
Jeff: Oh.
JOHN HILL: I was actually… I had already done, had my own game company, the ConflictGame Company. Or I was doing quirky little things. My first published wargame…or, not a wargame, was a game on organized crime called THE BROTHERHOOD.
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: Which is more of a family game, more like a 3M game or something. But it had an edge to it, but it also had the fact that you were the Godfather and you treated everything like a business. Which was just go out and kill the other guy. Ah, hit men are expensive, and… it may be better just to say you can’t make a profit in a certain area of the town but you can in another area and they just move your operation. So that was sort of quirky. That was the first one. It was pretty quaint.
The second one almost was a tongue-in-cheek game. Yeah. And it still is popular with this (?) little cult and that was VERDUN. Which incidentally was re-published I think last year or the year before.
"The Game of Attrition"

Dave: Oh.
JOHN HILL: It was published by Cool Stuff Games. You know, you sort of wonder is it a real serious wargame when the sub-title of the game VERDUN was THE GAME OF ATTRITION.
Dave: Right.
JOHN HILL: And no matter what you do, it’s unfortunate somewhat, you can have occasionally great successes but pretty much at the end of the game everybody’s dead.
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: Yeah, you may have taken the ground and (?) it basically, everybody has chewed through all the reserves and until they’re willing to say, sort of… fascinated by the Germans actually calculated that during the Battle of Verdun the casualties were so predictable, German efficiency at its best, that they realized that every week they would have to totally draft all the young men in a single German town and then the next week they would have to go to another town. But that basically…it was the concept of soldiers treated as a consumable.
Dave: Mm.
JOHN HILL: You know, they’re just a form of ammunition.
Jeff: Were you happy with the way that turned out?
JOHN HILL: Yeah, it accurately simulated it.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: But there was enough…there wasn’t enough…wiggle-room for tactics, what kind of artillery barrage, and that kind of stuff. That, yeah, at least you could get something for the fact you were burning… battalions like popcorn.
Jeff: Yeah. (laughs)
JOHN HILL: The weird thing was you began to think you…the Germans had to roll for reinforcements, because Falkenhayn was very stingy. He actually did not want to get a victory. An outright victory. Which he probably could have in the beginning. Capture Verdun. He wanted to always be threatening right on the edge of it so the French would continue to pour troops in to defend. The whole point is he deliberately wanted a battle of non-decision, because he felt that Germany could withstand a prolonged attrition better than France could.
Jeff: Right.
Dave: Oh, okay.
JOHN HILL: It’s sort of a, you know…God help us if our military leaders ever fall into that mentality.
Jeff: Oh yeah.
Dave: Yeah. How many total games do you think you’ve designed in your entire lifetime?
JOHN HILL: Maybe…published, uh…I don’t know, probably twenty-ish.(3)
Dave: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: Every now and then I try to sit down and count, and I’ll (?) with some other wargamers and they always say ‘No, no, you forgot this’ and ‘You forgot that.’ …There’s another number of wargames that I designed for the government, for the intelligence community, that…
Dave: Oh, really?
JOHN HILL: …that don’t count since they were all classified.
Dave: Oh, really?
Jeff: Can you talk about them now or would you have to kill us?
JOHN HILL: No, they’re still classified.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
JOHN HILL: No, and I wouldn’t have to kill….I hate people when they say that.
Dave: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: I was part of the intelligence community and …the only person that gets in trouble is not the recipient of the information, it’s the person who committed the security violation (by) babbling.
Jeff: Right. Oh, I see, yes.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, so…that is usually said by people who are intelligence community wanna-be’s or something.
Jeff: (laughs)
Dave: Or people like Jeff who just like bad jokes.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, right.
Jeff: Yes, I do.
Dave: (laughs) So how did they contact you? Or did you seek that out as opp-
JOHN HILL: Well, it was sort of a mutual thing. I had been involved in…There were people, obviously, in the government who play wargames, and some that are very familiar with both everything that goes (on) within the government – gaming circle there and within what we might call our field, more common recreational entertainment field of wargames. And they were constantly (calling?)…a person who has done a tremendous job on that is Matt Caffery, I think he’s a general now, for the Air Force.(4) He was head of wargaming at (their Air (Force)?) university. But he’s very, very knowledgeable (about) the commercial wargame field. And…he always was trying to bridge the two. But I had…basically at one point there was an issue I had in doing some consulting work for one of their ‘beltway bandits’ back when I lived in Virginia, for the intelligence community, and so I already had the clearances to a point...But then they decided they needed a wargame on a certain subject because there was a big debate between State Department and the Defense Department on you know, should we do this, that, or what happens when we give these guys this weapon, you know, et cetera, et cetera. So, they decided they wanted a wargame and one of the persons was familiar with my work. And he says ‘Well, I know a guy, he lives right here in Virginia and already has the clearances. Why don’t we give him a call and see what he can do for him as a contractor?
Jeff: Yeah, and were they…did they give you, then, requirements for what they wanted and did those influence you in coming up with designs to make them realistic?
JOHN HILL: Well, the thing is, first of all, yeah, they show me what they were looking for. The main thing is they are looking for often a specific answer. I called in, I got very much involved with the analytical wargame. It’s a wargame that says if X does this what is the…decision matrix after that? What are the probable outcomes? You know, the whole question of, okay, well that and if there is a reciprocal escalation on the other side what was the probable outcomes of that?
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: It’s sort of like, you show them…you start working with hexes, okay….You can create a wargame world where they can plug in things to find out what is the effect of, should we (this type of operation and the office says okay we?) like to help decide but we don’t want to do X, Y and Z. And eventually I got very much involved in the intelligence community and gaming out various mil-, uh, weapons options to the Mujahedeen.
Jeff: Mm-hmm, right. Oh, really? So the games that you designed for them-
JOHN HILL: And by the way, the movie Charlie Wilson’s War is very well done.
Jeff: Oh, yeah, it’s a great movie.
Dave: Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: Were the games you designed for them more strategic level?
JOHN HILL: More tactical.
Jeff: Really?
JOHN HILL: You know, because by then I had already developed a reputation as the tactical guru from SQUAD LEADER and some other things.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: It was almost like…or tactical/slash/operational.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: So there was plenty of folks doing the strategic, and the Army, the military, had a lot of its own wargames which unfortunately often were, the result of those were either training, which is one thing, or they were trying to…designed to prove or justify the virtues of X weapons system.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: Now, that’s fine and that’s all…in training those are both simple and valid uses. But an analytical wargame which they’re doing for the (?) actually says what’s actually just going to happen without any real decisions coming in on it. You know, let other people make the decisions…I’ll just game it out and you can run it as many times as you want. No, a lot of times there was, they wanted a computer game, and they wanted this, that. So it was amazing, you’d go into the library of existing government wargames and there was maybe a hundred different systems and you could pick a system you want, call up whoever had it and say ‘hey, DIA(5) or CIA would like to use this for some stuff, can you…can we get the software from you?’ Since its government, already government-owned, ‘yeah, fine, not a problem.’ But it was sort of fascinating just to go, when they gave you the requirements and say ‘if possible, we don’t want this created from scratch, can you go kick around the government wargame libraries and find something that would work? Or that you could modify to make it work?’
Jeff: Yeah. That does sound interesting.
JOHN HILL: It is. You know, it was….and, heck, it kept me gainfully employed for twenty years.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: That’s what I was going to ask next. How long. Twen-
JOHN HILL: Actually, during that time period, with the exception of JOHNNY REB I still was pretty much not that active. I…for obvious reasons I didn’t want to touch anything even inkling of modern war.
Dave: Right.
JOHN HILL: Because after a while your brain becomes a jumble and you don’t know what you’ve learned from unclassified sources and what you’ve learned from classified.
Jeff: Ah, yeah.
JOHN HILL: And so you just decide, hey, you know, I’m not smart enough to sort it out anymore, so…
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: …I know the information but I can’t sort out where I got it. Obviously with the Civil War I was safe.
Jeff: Yes.
Dave: Yes.
JOHN HILL: There’s a few things that are still classified on the Civil War…
Jeff: Is that right?
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: …involving the Lincoln assassination.
Jeff: Oh, okay. Wow.
Dave: (laughing)
Jeff: Well….when did you, if we could talk to you, you know, because our main focus is, of our podcast, is about SQUAD LEADER, when did you get the first ideas that you would design a game like-
JOHN HILL: Well, after a while. Because…I should go back to earlier, I just said I was totally dissatisfied with what were always available in terms of a tactical wargame. You know, it didn’t show the lower echelons and also had silly effects like in PanzerBush, and some of the…and where you, where a guy can run from cover to cover and not be fired (at) in between, and even though there was a lot of minis, in many respects I started designing this as a miniatures game, first. Because I wanted to play with Micro-Armor. And you know, but I figured this was all sort of the same thing. And the interesting thing about it was that I also ran into the same situation that you had made, pointed out. There is a number of wargames that had this ridiculousness that a person could run right up to a person point blank and not receive any defensive fire.
Dave: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: So I sort of worked it out. We used to play monst-... Micro Armor and I used little wargame counters for the infantry. That also was (to) sort of make it work, so you started with a standard. (You) said ‘okay, what is the base unit we’re going to work with?’ And then everything is relative to that. What is the, you know, the lowest common denominator? And if you notice in SQUAD LEADER, the…I think the basic unit is a four-four, something like that?
Dave: I’m sorry, what do you mean by that?
JOHN HILL: A combat factor of…
Dave: 4-4-7?
JOHN HILL: Yeah, 4-4-7, something like that?

Dave: Yeah. That does seem like the base, yeah.
JOHN HILL: Yeah. And the reason I started with that, particularly the 4-4-7 was I had tons of VERDUN counters left over that were already labelled as four-fours.
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: So I figured ‘well, I can play with…use these ones for playtesting’ and just throw on a morale number of seven, or whatever.

Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: It doesn’t matter if this is…because all the numbers are relative, so pick a number as a base. You know, for your common G.I., neither elite, neither green. Neither hero, nor coward. You know…
Jeff: Right.
JOHN HILL: General run of the mill. So, we started playing with it like that. And it was coming together rather nicely. You know, I talked to Eric Dott(6) about a tactical miniature game, that was played with minatures, he said ‘I’m not interested in miniatures.’ And remember, Eric Dott was the late Eric Dott, now, as president of Avalon Hill, he says ‘we just do board games.’ Alright, not a problem, one inch is one hex.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: And it translated perfectly, because basically it wasn’t based on another game, it was based on what I, my perception of reality. And for a long time I’d go to wargame conventions and run SQUAD LEADER in miniature.
Dave: Yeah, which I have done also, actually.
JOHN HILL: It works very well.
Dave: It does, yeah.
JOHN HILL: Whether it’s SQUAD LEADER or ASL, it all works very well. I was at a convention out west and a guy had actually built a section of Stalingrad that was on the…that I had, from my little game board, you know, that actually he was doing a miniature of the infamous The Guards Counterattack.
Dave: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: Which is probably the most-played wargame scenario of all time.
Dave: Yeah, it probably is, I suppose.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, the first scenario of SQUAD LEADER.
Dave: Right.
JOHN HILL: And that worked out, and there were a lot of guys that (?)…in many ways, ASL is, you know, it’s just SQUAD LEADER with a hell of a lot of chrome.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: And some guys like a lot of chrome, some don’t. Fine. It proves that the system will function if, whether you layer on as much as you want. You know, when you get down to looseleaf book number three or something, you know, you’ve layered on quite a bit, (but) that still works.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: My personal preference, I think, in…I think ASL has gone too far with too much detail, and too much that slows down the game too much.
Dave: And when you look at the fact that they reissued ASL Starter Kits
JOHN HILL: Yeah, I thought that was a rip-off.
Dave: …which have pared it back down.
JOHN HILL: Yeah…but I also think that I was sort of, had a bit of…a lot of gamers told me they had a problem with…’your old counters are no good any more, you gotta buy all these new ones.’ So, I sort of like wherever possible to try and keep backward compatibility.(7)
Dave: Right.
JOHN HILL: (But) it’s become a legend, it’s become a lifestyle. The problem I thought…once again, it’s the old question of detail versus playability. It’s not necessarily realism. Well, realism has many different flavours. One of my design objectives with SQUAD LEADER was once you learned the game, the basic game, you could play it in real time, two minutes (per turn). People have done that.
Jeff: I’d like to try that sometime.
JOHN HILL: You know, because it’s supposed to present the actual quick, snap decisions of combat.
Jeff: Yes. Right.
JOHN HILL: You know, go back through Band of Brothers and time some of the combat sequences.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: You will see everything. Prep Fire. Defensive Fire. Advancing Fire. Close Combat. He comes up to the building and throws in a hand grenade. And he says ‘hey, this is all happening in a two-minute cycle.’
Jeff: Hmm.
JOHN HILL: And you have to make decisions – and that was the whole point of…you could do it in two minutes, you had to make quick decisions. You couldn’t ponder, and says ‘okay, let me look up a rule on this, is this in Volume 3 or Volume 4?’
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: No! Somebody says ‘go for it’, you know. When you began to lay on all the extra detail and chrome of ASL where people are…You know, I’ve watched people play it, and they’ll spend most of their time going through the rules.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: Which they’re very complete, you know. And they’re obviously, when there are multiple volumes, they gotta be complete. But when it takes, because of all that rule-checking back and forth, when you have, when you now have two-minute turns, assuming you’re trying to simulate two minutes of combat and takes a half-hour to resolve…
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: …you’ve gotten a lot of detail, but I think you lost the realism. Realism is in the stress and snap-decision of small-unit combat.
Jeff: Were you aware of that when you were designing SQUAD LEADER? Were you paring back things? Was detail creeping into your design, which you later took out?
JOHN HILL: Yeah, it was a constant thing. You’d want to put more detail in, at the same time you could still have the fast and furiousness of it.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: My personal opin- and it’s a balance. You know, a matter of fact, a matter of personal taste. Many things. I think the best balance was attained in CROSS OF IRON.

Dave: Now, did you work on the next two modules?
JOHN HILL: I worked on CROSS OF IRON and CRESCENDO OF DOOM. And it did some work on G.I.: ANVIL OF VICTORY but that was mostly Don Greenwood.
Dave: Okay, right. Okay, I remember his name, yeah. Because I actually just got started in when they did the ADVANCED.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, well…
Dave: But I know exactly what you’re saying about the speed thing, and it is a lot…you can still capture that with the new…with the ADVANCED, but if you stick with infantry. I think that really helps. Or if you’re playing someone who really knows the rules really well, which is not me! And I’ve been playing a lot.
JOHN HILL: Mm-hmm.
Dave: You know, I can rely on him: ‘okay, what happen here when you overrun me, okay, you got deception, deception, deception,(?)’ or I’m just ‘I’ll just do that’, you know? But you’re right, I really like a game that when you put a little more pressure on it and try and move those turns along.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, and the thing is… the whole question of options. How much options do you really have? For, you know, some people (?) the concept of should you be able to….span of control. And, you know, if you’re the wargamer in SQUAD LEADER and you’re running the normal assortment of counters, you probably have maybe a company…maybe… four squads in a platoon, maybe three platoons…twelve to sixteen…squads out there, maybe more, maybe less. You’ve…got a couple of tanks in support or something like this. Now, so you’re the wargamer, so you‘re functioning as the company commander, that’s your cockpit. You suddenly say ‘get those tanks over there’, and send the tanks over there, let’s hope the armour does its thing. Knock out this little roadblock or something like this with the infantry support. But you’ve just given the order for them to…. How they actually, necessarily do it, and what options are really being chosen by the people in the tank, your infantry support, the defenders and stuff like this, you can’t control. You just hope they do their job, and…they get lucky.
Jeff: Hmm. Right.
JOHN HILL: So somebody’s thinking ‘okay, the tank’s going to overrun this, and my options are this option, this…’ I sort of thought, well, the options are really if you go back to the concept of you are the company commander, your option is you order it into battle, tell it where to go and hope for the best. So that’s why you could…I think a lot of that stuff as you go further away from the wargamer as a role-playing person (he’s the company commander) the more you should probably abstract the various events. Rather than having all the specific little options played out. But a lot of gamers (?) want to be able to say ‘no, I want to be able to do… control the options of everything
Dave: Yeah, I actually want to be the infantry guy throwing the DC and the tank commander and…
JOHN HILL: Yeah. You know, once again, as I say, watch…Saving Private Ryan or any of Band of Brothers and the first thing that…the combat is very well done… The people are sort of in control, but they’re really not. You watch… things are going on, the guy who is supposedly commanding this is just watching, just hoping and trying to react and trying to make decisions but his actual span of command once you’re engaged is very limited.
Saving Private Ryan

Jeff: Yeah, you see in that: you see an enemy squad coming around the corner of a building, you don’t, you don’t weigh…’Should I fire at him, or should I wait until he…’ (laughs) ‘
JOHN HILL: You’re going to cut loose
Jeff:…crosses the street (to) fire. You’re just gonna cut loose. Yeah, that’s right.
JOHN HILL: Or you’re just going to say… you’re out there by yourself with your Colt .45 and here comes a German squad with an MG-38(sic) you just hope somebody else is around to take them out.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: (laughs)
Jeff: Now, did you…as you were designing it, you know, what was your consideration regarding fog of war? That’s always been a sort of a topic around wargaming that’s been really interesting.
Dave: In and around SQUAD LEADER.
Jeff: Yeah, in and around SQUAD LEADER specifically.
JOHN HILL: Well, I think you always try to blend in as much as you possibly can, fog of war, to a point. You want to have as much (as) you possibly can without… with still making it playable. You could get ridiculous to the point that no one, there’s no counters on the board and you’re not even, everybody’s plotting and charting and stuff like that. Well, c’mon guys, it’s still supposedly a game. But on the other hand, too much fog of war itself is unrealistic. There’s a lot of games that sometimes over-stress it…There’s the little blocks…
Jeff: Yes. The block games, right.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, you can’t see what’s behind them and stuff like that, you know, you can’t see…you see just a block representing troops.
Dave: Yeah, WASHINGTON’S WARS did that, I remember. But it only did it when you were, like, far away, so…
JOHN HILL: Yeah, but in reality though, particularly let’s say on the Eastern Front….they got one of the big block games on the Eastern Front. Everybody pretty much knew what they – intelligence was very good. Everybody had good orders of battle on the other guy.
Dave: And you had aerial reconnaissance, and you had radio communications…
JOHN HILL: And everybody says, you know, you can look at the Russians’ Operation URANUS which, the big cut-off at Stalingrad. The Germans weren’t surprised by the Russian attack. They saw aerial reconnaissance, they saw all the stuff building up on their flanks. It wasn’t lack of information, it was the misjudgement of maybe, ‘yeah, well, they can do that but we probably will, yeah, we’ll attack and we’ll deal with it.’
Dave: Yeah, right.
JOHN HILL: It was a mis-… not so much the lack of information but a lack of appreciation of the potenti…the poor fighting quality of the Hungarians and Romanians and Italians. And also an overestimation of what *they* could do…
Dave: Correct.
JOHN HILL: Which is more…rather than just a lack of information, big…total surprise. In some (?) also Kursk, it wasn’t…both sides knew, everybody knew what each side had or what each side was doing and everybody, and the Russians knew when the Germans were going to attack. It was a battle of perfect information. On both sides.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: And so it was, the mistake was not a lack of intelligence, it was this mistake of judgement. You know: ‘Do we really want to do this?’ …so that’s an example, sometimes, you know, what is the fog of war? I think fog of war is more relevant in some of the more mod-…anc-… more period games where people’s whole armies could hide behind a hill and come out of a fog and things like that.
Jeff: Yeah. Okay.
JOHN HILL: And also it becomes a little more fog-of-war-ish as you get down to the smaller units. Very rarely, you know, it’s not like the company commander in the middle of a fight for a little town somewhere in Normandy has access to, at that instant, access to all the aerial photography. You wouldn’t. And even then it would be 48 hours old. So: so what?
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: He doesn’t necessarily know exactly what i-…you know, what amount of Germans are coming around, at him at this moment. He’s pr-… very much…he’s in a close action inside a town, or, you know, woods or something, he’s, he will very quickly find out…
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: …whether…so in that case you have the fog of war. I think you could work a lot of that into SQUAD LEADER and ASL.

Dave: Yeah, weren’t the concealment counters…they were in the original SQUAD LEADER, right?
JOHN HILL: Yeah, that’s what they were there for, and there’s, other, you could…they could mean a lot of things. They could say ‘it could be real, it could be dummy’. You were also, could do some amounts of ‘okay, I have a whole platoon hidden behind X Hill’ or something like this. The hidden counter could als…usually estimate if its real or dummy. You could also, could be ‘it’s real but it represents like six squads.’ Easily enough done with just a little roster sheet.
Jeff: Right.
JOHN HILL: But you don’t want the fog of war element to become a tedious game in itself. You know, bottom line, we do this for fun, and after a while if it becomes too much work why bother?
Dave: Yeah, with all, recording all the secret things and that kind of stuff.
JOHN HILL: Now, some people, that’s their game. You know, they’re, that’s okay. But they really like that.
Jeff: Yeah. So did you design the game so it was fun for you, or were you thinking of your audience? Then did you make certain concessions on your own?
JOHN HILL: I felt that primarily I tried…the group I was playing with thought the way I did, so (if) it was fun for me, it was fun for them.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: Beyond that group, one didn’t know. That’s why so many wargames are a dud, because the designer thinks they’re a lot of fun, his little group thinks they’re a lot of fun, but when they go out and throw it out into the great piranha-pit of wargamers at large…
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: NOT!
Jeff: Yeah. And in 1977 you published SQUAD LEADER and what was the reception like when it…
JOHN HILL: It was outstanding… I remember when Avalon Hill first, when they first released at a wargame convention in some little place in Long Island, I think.(8) Not Woodnough(?) College, but maybe….I think it was somewhere else like that…Basically they sold out the first or second day and they had to get more games schlepped up from Baltimore.
Jeff: That’s a good thing. And when it went to press, were you happy with the way it was? Were you satisfied when…
JOHN HILL: …I was…it was fine. There was always going to be some compromises and stuff…
Jeff: Were you already starting to work on the next…
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: Yeah…
Jeff: … improvements…
JOHN HILL: … to some degree, what would be next, what I should we should go. Something, they wanted to do certain things for marketing reasons, like, you know, and I says ‘okay fine, whatever’. But I don’t know what…person came up with the idea that the box should be purple.

Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: You know, which is the most unlikely colour for a wargame box. Well, second most unlikely, the first one would be pink.
Jeff: Yeah. (more laughter)
Dave: It's not very military...unless you're like an ancient, I don't know, Prussian or something.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, okay, Caesar's colour...I think the colour of the Emperor of Rome was purple.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: Yeah... Did...
JOHN HILL: And, it was, you know, that was just..., but now that's probably one of the most sought after antique wargames of all time, the 1st Edition purple Squad Leader.(9)
Jeff & Dave: Yeah.
Dave: Did you, um, can I talk business a little bit? Do you sell these games in bulk? I mean, you know what I mean, is it like...you're contracted, or you design it and then you just sell it all at once, or do you keep a royalty system, or has that changed throughout history, or ...
JOHN HILL: Well back then I was doing everything on a royalty basis.
Dave: Per box sold, or...?
JOHN HILL: It would be so many per game sold, and it could (be so much) per game unit or it could be a percent of the amount you get, maybe, if it's a fixed percentage maybe you get a different amount or it's a wholesale sale, or retail sale, or you just come up with a flat figure. There's been a lot of different ways (of) doing it. You know, and a lot of different companies want different ways.
Dave: Right.
JOHN HILL: More and more, not even more and more, a lot of times depending on when I look at the level of whatever somebody wants something and, maybe, usually just the scenario for their existing game. I've done a scenario for the Flights of Fantasy's(10) TIDE OF IRON. It was their idea, and it was a good idea, to get all the famous wargame designers together to design one scenario for the TIDE OF IRON game... So there was no real royalty, in essence, they all go, all the scenario go into one scenario book, so that was a flat fee.
Dave: Okay. And now you don't get it...well, you don't get anything, obviously, from the ADVANCED system?
JOHN HILL: No, I don't.
Dave: And your-
JOHN HILL: That was a mistake on my part, not to really go into...not to press fully for that with, you know, the full legal power that could be available to me. But I didn't. So I didn't get anything on ASL.
Dave: Okay. The...and of course, no one makes a living at this, or have you managed to kind of do that, or...?
JOHN HILL: No. No one has made a...They made a living by using it as a lever into something else. Certainly I made a very good living with the intelligence community for 20 years.
Dave: Right.
JOHN HILL: Which, my introduction to that was primarily through doing some wargames, and then one thing led to another and then pretty much it was just sort of sucked into the whole thing, and you know... But it then works, but that's the fact the government pays very well.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: So, but now designing wargames and stuff, yeah, I can (?) living but it makes such...it makes pocket money and I never will because, you know, I've got a pretty good government pension, so I don't have to (rely) on it for a living.
Dave: Do you consider yourself-
JOHN HILL: Most people who make a living out of wargaming are not doing it in the commercial sector. They eventually... come to the attention of the prof-... governmental sector, then you can make some very good money. Provided they have the right contacts... the timing is everything. You can't just come out and say 'I'd like to sell a wargame to the DIA or something like that.' Well, it doesn't quite work that way, they already got their contractors, so...
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: ...they just got to hook up with some bidding for something, that's a whole other game in itself.
Jeff: So after SQUAD LEADER, you know, the 1st Edition, then ...that came through four editions I believe, is that right?
JOHN HILL: That's possible. Yeah.
Jeff: And were you involved in those second, third and fourth edition modifications?
JOHN HILL: Of SQUAD LEADER, yeah.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: Well, I was involved in cashing...I was cashing my royalty cheques, certainly.
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
Jeff: That's the best part.
JOHN HILL: But after a while, they're just sort of, you know, cleaning up the rules and plugging and chugging and at least getting away from the purple box.
Jeff: Yeah, right.
Dave: (laughs)
Jeff: Which they did, on 2nd Edition, I thought.
JOHN HILL: Oh yeah, they most certainly did. As they were doing it they created the...all-time, you know, the number one collector's 1st Edition. I know guys...who just constantly go through the consimworld listings and everything, and constantly hunting for the, hoping that someone has ... a purple SQUAD LEADER...unpunched, will surface. Lots of luck, but if you do, it's going to be serious money.(11)
Jeff: Yeah. You don't have a stack of those stashed in your basement?
JOHN HILL: No, everybody has asked me that.
Jeff: Yeah.
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
Jeff: Ah, what the world wants to know.
JOHN HILL: Yeah that would be... no, no...no.
Jeff & Dave: (more laughter)
Dave: And it also said that you-
JOHN HILL: I probably should have!
Jeff: Yeah, if only-
Dave: Looking back, yeah-
JOHN HILL: You know, I could have treated it like a wine, take a whole case of the purple SQUAD LEADERs and, you know, stashed it away for twenty years.
Jeff: Well who would have thought, I mean, it seems to us that there's a reason...
JOHN HILL: It's a phenomenon, it was unpredict-
Jeff: Yes.
JOHN HILL: And that was the... No one expected it to be what it was. The normal run of a game would be, you know, it would be popular for a couple of years and then sort of die out. And then another game would be in vogue.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: There's an old saying that 80% of all wargame sales happen in the first two years. That was the rule of thumb in the commercial wargaming industry at the time.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: Because everybody went on to the newest and greatest whatever it was... To have planned for SQUAD LEADER being what it was would have been impossible.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: You know, two things you never can really predict is total disaster and total success.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: But odds are too much against either one.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: Ninety-nine percent of the time you get something in the middle. And SQUAD LEADER was such a successful design in the basic mechanisms of how it works, whether it's SQUAD LEADER, ASL, JOHNNY REB or any one of its numerous imitations, it had an elegant simplicity about it that gave it legs that had not been seen probably before or since.
Jeff: Mm-hmm. Well it seems to us that there's, you know, something of a Renaissance, I guess, in this kind of board gaming and we suspect it's because people played these when they were younger, high school, college...
JOHN HILL: Yeah, and they're sort of getting back into it.
Jeff: And they're getting back into it, the kids are gone to college themselves, and people have time and-
JOHN HILL: ...starts poking around in his basement and stuff and goes 'ah, yeah, I remember that.'
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: And he dusts it off, 'yeah, that was cool, man, I had a lot of good times with that.'
Jeff: Yeah, and of course the internet makes it so easy, then, to find people to play, it's a wonderful thing. I mean, I found-
JOHN HILL: Absolutely. Oh yeah, before the internet you just sort of ... it was by pure chance.
Dave: Yeah, or you made your friends play.
JOHN HILL: Your friends, yeah, you converted a few friends and you played the role of the apostle.
Jeff: Right.
JOHN HILL: ...Or eventually maybe you started a little wargaming club at your high school or something like that.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: Or college, or whatever.
Dave: Now you had also owned a game store, is that right?
JOHN HILL: Yeah, I owned a co-... it was a hobby shop. It was in Lafayette, Indiana. It was, you know, common general full-line hobby shop. Mostly model railroading and military hobbies of which wargaming was one part of it.
Dave: Okay.
JOHN HILL: But I ... it wasn't primarily a game store. Games... I did okay with the games but the bread and butter was in the more established hobbies such as model railroading, R/C models and things like that. The main reason was model railroading was an established adult hobby, but now adults had a lot more money than the high school kids who were primarily the core of your wargaming group at the time.
Jeff & Dave: Right.
Dave: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: Now any smart businessman focuses his business on the hobbies of the rich.
Dave: Yeah. (laughs)
JOHN HILL: You know, so, yeah...adult, model railroaders, they had a lot of money, they could drop a couple hundred bucks on a single engine and stuff like that....I want to sell stuff to these guys. But the wargaming was fun, I had ... I enjoyed it and stuff but...it was primarily the hobby of the people of, in high school and college and (they) do not have that much disposable income. A few did, but not that many.
Dave: Yeah, and I think though-
JOHN HILL: And it was...okay, then, that's when I was running the hobby shop and then I even, that's when I spun off my game company, the Conflict Game Company.
Dave: And how long did that last?
JOHN HILL: Oh, it lasted for about a couple, two, three years. And then I sold the company to Game Designer's Workshop.
Dave: Oh, okay, right, right.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, and they ran with it for awhile and it's (a) sort of sobering thought that very, very few wargame companies survive, maybe five to ten (years) at best...
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: And some not even that long,
Dave: Do you have any insight into the failure of Avalon Hill, or were you not that...?
JOHN HILL: Eric Dott's (?) never was a failure. His whole concept was ... Eric Dott was a businessman.
Dave: Was he the owner of Avalon Hill?
JOHN HILL: Yeah. He owned Avalon Hill. Basically Eric Dott owned a printing company. Actually Charles Roberts sort of started Avalon Hill and the company went bankrupt, mainly because they owed Eric Dott's printing company so much money, so Eric Dott just wiped out the books, took over Avalon Hill, (he was) smart enough to see this little company has some legs, let it run for awhile, but the whole point was, he would keep it going to the point he would be able to cash in and sell it off to somebody else. And he sold it off, eventually, to Hasbro.
Dave: Right. So you mean the printer guy, Monarch, is that Monarch Printing, or something?
JOHN HILL: Monarch Press, yeah. That was owned by Eric Dott. That gave him the angle, the leverage to take over Avalon Hill and then run with that. Eric Dott was a supreme opportunist and businessman. The company was a ... his strategy, you know, whether...he sold it off for a good chunk of change. So from his viewpoint, it wasn't a failure at all. It did exactly what he intended it to do. It was a commodity that he picked up cheap because they were broke and they owed him money and eventually...it made a good cash flow all through the years, then he sold it off for some serious bucks to Hasbro.
Dave: And what, how did they not manage theirfunds well enough...printing too many games at once? Or do you...
JOHN HILL: ...Well, I think it was ... well it was sort of hard to say. They're only bringing out one new product a year, and so your whole life, or life or death is based on what's going to happen to that one new prod-... you know.(12)
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: You better have a winner every year.
Dave: Yeah, so-
JOHN HILL: And had SQUAD LEADER not come along they probably would have died a lot earlier. Because they had a number of really bad games. You know, one that was sort of mediocre was Lou Zocchi's LUFTWAFFE. And yeah, okay, it sort of played out in a very simplistic way where....the big air campaign over Germany, but eventually Germany is pounded into oblivion, all the targets are bombed. (It) didn't really ha-...you know, it was okay, but it didn't have the kind of excitement. Then there was the all-time, I think the biggest dud of a wargame, it was designed by Tom Shaw: KRIEGSPIEL.
Jeff: KRIEGSPIEL?
JOHN HILL: KRIEGSPIEL.
Jeff: Hmm.
JOHN HILL: That was their game for one year. And they, you know, maybe it was very novel, and different, but it was totally out of touch with what the wargamers wanted....and what they were looking for. So you're bringing out one game a year and if you bring out a total, you know, dog, whether it's a brilliant design or not, if the gamers don't like it you're dead in the water.
Jeff: And SPI on the other hand was coming out with-
JOHN HILL: Yeah, they just cranked them out like popcorn.
Jeff: Three a month, or something like that, for a while?
JOHN HILL: Yeah, and the whole point was, yeah, some were good, some were bad...
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: ...some were hideous, some had little (?) but who cares? You got a....you didn't like it you got another once coming, a couple coming next month.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah, right. (laughs) Right but that didn't-
JOHN HILL: ...you throw, you do enough of them, you're going to get funds, you're going to have a part, an even mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. But...they were cheap enough and popcorn enough that you happen to get one of the ugly ones, so what? Maybe the next one's going to be great.
Jeff: Have you seen the ... we recently received an email with a link to some video on YouTube of an SPI infomercial. What they call an infomercial from 1977 or so, or 1980. It's about five minute long commercial for SPIGames, have you seen that?
JOHN HILL: No.
Jeff: I'll email it to you, it's pretty...fun to watch.
JOHN HILL: (laughs)
Jeff: It'll take you back.
Dave: Yeah, it'll take you back.
Jeff: It'll take you back.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, I'm sure it would.
Jeff: Do you play...what are you playing these days? Are you still playing? Have a group of guys you-
JOHN HILL: Oh, occasionally I'll be get together, when I go to the conventions I'll get talked into a JOHNNY REB game or something like that.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: ... Okay, you know I went to Consimworld...and I'll occasionally play something, but usually people just want to sit there and talk about games, or I'll ... talk about some of my...ongoing design work and stuff.
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: I really don't play that much anymore...it's simply, I'm more interested in who I'm playing with.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: My God, there are some people out there who take this stuff way too seriously.
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
Dave: And you made the game, and you're saying that...
JOHN HILL: No, but there is a... I went to a fun little convention, I recommend it to you, it happens every two years, down in Indianapolis, it's called JOHNNYCON.
Jeff: Oh.
JOHN HILL: It was based, the guy who runs it was one of the original playtesters of SQUAD LEADER, one of the original playtesters of JOHNNY REB and he became a big JOHNNY REB fan so he founded JOHNNYCON, it was basically based on JOHNNY REB and all derivatives thereof and since SQUAD LEADER was the prequel...it's always played there in apparently endless variations. It's in Indianapolis...this year in June. And if you're in Chicago, I can promise you it will be a great, a good time. There's only about 50 guys there. But you're going to be with all the guys who were there at...the creation.
Jeff: Mm-hmm. Might be a worthwhile road trip.
JOHN HILL: ...If you're in Chicago, it's a two hour drive.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, we might do that. It'd be fun to see...
JOHN HILL:....I'll be there... and a lot of the other guys, there's always some beautiful SQUAD LEADER miniature games. One fellow did a beautiful version I think, of, I forget the actual scenario but everybody knows it, Hill 681 or something like that(13)...
Jeff: Yeah, right.
Dave: Oh, with the big hill.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, which...and I had sort of forgotten, about this scenario and forgotten how to play SQUAD LEADER even. But this guy had done it brilliant with miniatures, he did all the terrain in miniature, you know... So...I was playing this scenario as the German, it's very frustrating for the German, you guess, when you're constantly seeing, (when) you're getting ahead, you know, more Russians coming or something, like that...
Jeff: Yeah, here comes some more...
Dave: Yeah. (laughs)
JOHN HILL: ...so finally I got these bastards under control, 'aw, ma-an,' you know?
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: Which was really what the Germans felt like in the post-Kursk era.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: Yes, no doubt.
JOHN HILL: And, at one point, I says 'you know,' - I was getting so frustrated - and...something like that...I had a significant string of bad luck, and I find myself (saying) 'this is really unbalanced, what moron designed this scenario.'
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: And then the response, 'well, you did!'
Jeff & Dave: (more laughter)
JOHN HILL: Oh - okay!
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
JOHN HILL: But yeah, so, in closing, so frustrating that I had even forgot I was the creator of this monster.
Jeff: Oh, my gosh.
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: But everybody had a great laugh about that.
Jeff: Yeah, well. Maybe we will get to JOHNNYCON this year. That sounds very interesting...
JOHN HILL: It is. And you'll get, the guy will probably once again bring Hill 681.
Jeff: Mm-hmm.
JOHN HILL: ... It is cleverly balanced in there, the German keeps thinking 'I almost won this time, maybe the next time If I do just that little bit different.'
Jeff: Yeah.
JOHN HILL: That makes for a good wargame.
Jeff: It'd be worth the drive. It would be worth the drive just to meet you, because, you know, like it or not you're a legend.
JOHN HILL: Well, thank you very much.
Jeff: How's that feel. I mean, when we ...it's really been a real honour to talk to you.
JOHN HILL: Well, thank you very much.
Dave: Definitely. Yes.
JOHN HILL: But, I mean you're gonna...the people who will be there were one who were some of the first playtesters of JOHNNY REB and the first playtesters of SQUAD LEADER. The guys who played it in miniature, crawling around on my basement floor.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: (laughs)
JOHN HILL: You know, this is the real grognards.
Jeff & Dave: Yeah....
JOHN HILL: The thing is, you begin to see all the games are, JOHNNY REB is basically derivative of SQUAD LEADER. And you see all these different variations. The thing is you can put on any game you want, provided it's a, based in some way, loosely cosmically with, from JOHNNY REB/slash/SQUAD LEADER.
Jeff: Mm-hmm. Sounds like a kick.
JOHN HILL: It is, it absolutely (is)....because it's so grossly informal, it is a kick.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: Now, that is Hill 621 you think, that scenario we were just talking about?
JOHN HILL: I forget the number, but everybody's knows what I'm talking about.
Dave: Yeah, I think it was 621, it's listed on the ROAR(14) record where they record who wins and it actually comes up 75 victories for the German and 74 for the Russian. That's pretty well balanced. According to this.
JOHN HILL: Yeah, you don't get more balanced than that.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: Alright, well thank you anyway. Anything else you'd like to say?
JOHN HILL: Well, no, I think you pretty much covered it from the SL and ASL viewpoint.
Jeff: Well, we appreciate you very much taking the time to talk with us, I know-
JOHN HILL: Well, it's been my pleasure fellows, fun to reminisce about a lot of the quirks of hobbies, how these things come to be.
Jeff: Yeah.
Dave: ...we had interviewed the new full-time employee at MMP last week(15) and we had you this week, and I told Jeff it's all downhill from here.
JOHN HILL: (laughter)
Jeff: We've already got our...maybe we should stop recording, Dave, and just fold up the tents.
Dave: Yep...after this, there's just nothing more important than these two guys.
JOHN HILL: You've already climbed the two mountains you wanted to do.
Jeff: That's right.
Jeff & Dave: (laughter)
Jeff: Well, thanks again very much, John.
END
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NOTES
  1. Hill may be referring to Tactical Game 3, which was the precursor to PanzerBlitz.
  2. Hill refers several times to “arc of attention”, perhaps a more common wargaming term would be “covered arc.”
  3. Boardgamegeek lists 21 published titles with Hill as a designer.
  4. The LinkedIn page of Matt Caffrey, Jr. lists him holding the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Wargame Coordinator position beginning in May 2005.
  5. Defense Intelligence Agency
  6. Eric Dott was the president of Monarch Services, which was Avalon Hill’s printer. When Charles S. Roberts sold Avalon Hill to its creditors, Dott eventually became the sole owner of Avalon Hill.
  7. Hill’s response is a non-sequitur as the ASLSK don’t require the replacement of counters. He is likely referring instead to the reaction of original Squad Leader players to having to start from scratch again with ASL, which completely replaced the rules, player aids and counter sets. Only some of the map boards from the original Squad Leader series continued unchanged in the new game system.
  8. ORIGINS III was held on Staten Island on 22-24 July 1977.
  9. Reaction to this notion of "sought after" in the community is mixed. The author tried very hard to obtain an original and eventually did find two purple boxes for sale, at modest prices, in the last 10 years or so.
  10. Hill is referring to Fantasy Flight Games.
  11. This author did the same with the ebay listings. His pair of purple boxes contain later edition components inside the box. Finding a true 1st Edition may be a difficult task. This author has produced a guide to authenticating a 1st Edition - click here or see the video on YouTube.
  12.  Hill is talking about the original loss of Avalon Hill by Roberts to Eric Dott in 1962, rather than the sale of Avalon Hill to Hasbro in 1998.
  13. One suspects this is actually Hill 621, the popular Scenario 5 from the original SQUAD LEADER.
  14. Remote Online Automated Record. - website
  15. Chas Argent was featured in Episode 30 "All That Chas"

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this great interview. I enjoyed it immensely.

    ReplyDelete