Writing my thoughts on John Hill’s recent passing is a difficult task. But not for the obvious reasons. As a lad I was exposed to John’s seminal design for squad based tactics that he himself did not think much of; Squad Leader. I played it as youth, enjoyed it and promptly forgot it along with all things wargaming while life intervened for the next 20 odd years.
Then on a recent whimsy just a few weeks ago I re-acquired the original 2nd Edition of Squad Leader and Cross of Iron. Oh the memories, as I looked at the Guards Counter Attack and Tractor Works! Settling in to re read the rules it struck home then that unknown at the time, as a paltry youth, I was playing with the very foundation of tactical gaming at the time. Oblivious to the import of a design that would spawn dozens of titles all attempting to capture that deep narrative and essence of warfare at the squad level which Hill so effortlessly captured in the original and to my mind the best incarnation of Squad Leader.
Back in those days most of the gamers in our little group did not focus on the designer but rather the topic. Isolated in Australia we rejoiced at anything the game store had, few if any of us knew the difference between Designers A or B.
It was not until 2010 that my full understanding of the fact that Hill’s body of work stretched back prior to Squad Leader! Simpler games such as Kasserine Pass had his imprint, as well as titles such as Hue, Verdun and Jerusalem! Hill had a knack in the 70’s and 80’s of absorbing a topic, and creating just enough rules to convey the situation.
He also chose topics not often covered. Perhaps his most involved design was Bar Lev, a riot of color, “hazy rules”* and a 20 step play sequence that overwhelmed at first until it clicked. When it did, the game mechanics portrayed a very challenging situation for the two combatants effortlessly. It was also recently that I realized Hill was not just a figure from the Designer Hall of Fame, rather he was still a current board game developer in 2010 with the reprint of Yalu which focused on the Chinese counter offensive in the Korean War.
Not knowing the man does not diminish my appreciation for him as a designer one iota, on the contrary it adds to his mystique. That smiling charming face will always be my impression of the man who graciously devoted his time and energies to our hobby. That is my likely extent of emotional attachment to the personhood.
While many mourn his death due to personal association or some sense of obligation I do not. I do respect their loss, empathize with their pain.
I knew just his games. I did not ‘know’ the man.
Thus it is hard to write about my feelings without a sense of unintended callousness seeping out. For me John Hill lives on. He ain’t dead to me!
He lives on in his designs, he lives on in the influence his designs wrought, but most of all John Hill lives on every time I pick up one of his counters, check his rule books or gaze at his maps.
Farewell and thanks for everything.
*See Moves #12