Fire & Movement Interview with John Hill

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Fire & Movement Magazine was a founded in 1975 by Rodger MacGowan with its first publication in 1976 and ended in January 2010 with the last print issue totaling 150 print issues in all.  The focus of MacGown’s F&M magazine was on wargames, both traditional and computer wargames.   In February 2010, Fire & Movement has been reconstructed as an online magazine.  In 1999, this popular wargaming magazine inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts Design’s Hall of Fame.

Below is a a transcript of an interview Fire & Movement did on my father, John Hill, in the 1980s.  You may download the F&M Interview John Hill in PDF.  Thank you Nigel Ashcroft for sending me this.


John Hill: Interview with F&M

John Hill: Interview with F&M

F&M: John, please tell us something about yourself: your background, work, hobbies.

John Hill: Unlike many wargame designers with bizarre backgrounds, I am fairly conventional in that I did what used to be expected of the American Male. I went to high school and to college and opened business while getting married and having 1.4 kids. I bought a house in suburbia, acquired a dog, and began to save for my second car and a summer house on a lake (socially mandatory if you live in Indiana!).  While not all went without a hitc — I lost my hobby shop in a flood, for example — I completed the American Dream, and my biggest worry is a screwed-up swimming pool vacuum.

F&M: How and when did you first become interested in wargaming?

Hill: I have been interested in wargaming ever since I started playing with toy soldiers, and I was the first kid on the block to own Tactics II. My prime intellectual pursuit has always been the Art of War and why, historically, certain people or nations were better at it than others. The practice of organized conflict is mankind’s oldest profession (prostitution being but the second). I am totally fascinated by the mechanics of battle, and at the same time totally appalled by its senselessness—a classic love relationship, I guess.

F&M: You ran your own wargame company, Will you tell us that story?

Hill: I started Conflict Games simply because I felt there was a market for “fun” games, playable, designed for “effect,” different from what SPI and Avalon Hill were then bringing out. I did have the advantage of being a hobby business man first and knowing how to market games. But the enterprise grew to the point that it ceased to be fun—imagine a living room decorated in early box. At that point I sold out lock, stock, and barrel to GDW. Unfortunately, GDW at that time was inexperienced in merchandising. But they learned, and I now rate them as one of the best in marketing strategy.

F&M: As the award-winning designer of Squad Leader, you view that game today? How do you explain the great success of the series?

Hill: Squad Leader was a success for one reason: it personalized the boardgame in a World War environment. Take the “leaders,” or persons, away from it and it becomes a bore. Though this may sound surprising, the game has much in common with Dungeons & Dragons.  In both games things tend to go wrong, and being caught moving in the street by a heavy machine gun is like being caught by a people-eating dragon.  Squad Leader was successful because, underneath all its World War II technology, it is an adventure game – indeed, Dungeons & Dragons in the streets of Stalingrad.

F&M: Your “design for effect” philosophy, in other games, has come under some attack for being simply an excuse to “fudge.” How do you respond to such criticism?

Hill: I’d have to say that such criticism is a premature judgment.  The whole hobby of wargaming is one gigantic fudge. In absolutely no way can we simulate the horror and fear and confusion of a battlefield.  Any person who believes we are obtaining “realism” in any game of ours has very little understanding of war. On a realism scale of 1 to 10, the highest possible rating we can hope for with paper and cardboard is a 2. Since the whole effort is such a monstrous fudge, it seems amazingly silly to scream that some little nuance is fudged. The only way you could possibly approach an accurate simulation of the battle environment and its tension would be if both players had the clear understanding that the loser would be shot.

F&M: You have proved quite clearly that a designer does not have to belong to a wargame company in order to be successful. Your independent work is very much admired and your talents are now
being sought after by several companies. Have you ever toyed with the idea of joining a company as a staff member?

Hill: Yes. As a matter of fact, I talked very seriously with a number of them. But, as yet, no one in wargaming could afford to pay me on a full-time basis. This is a reflection not on any one company, but on the whole industry. This wargame industry simply is too small to pay its professionals what they are worth. When faced with the decision of hobby industry versus wargame industry, I have chosen, and will always choose, the hobby industry. It is bigger, and hence has bigger bucks in it.

F&M: Apart from your free-lancing, what position do you hold in the hobby today?

Hill: I am an advertising executive for Boynton & Associates, who publishes the leading hobby trade magazines, along with some beautiful catalogues.

F&M: I’m sure you are working on many new games. Would you care to name them?

Hill: Too many to enumerate! I am still refining my Civil War miniatures game Johnny Reb and, along with Dave Parham and Dana Lombardy, some exceptionally interesting World War II encounters will be brought forth. On the back burner are a monster game on the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a kinky fantasy game, a bizarre simulation of the Mexican Revolution (more fun than history), and so on…

F&M: How do you view the wargame industry today? Are the companies doing all they can to give the gamers their money’s worth? And what could the gamers do to help bring about improvements?

Hill: In terms of giving the customers their money’s worth, they are overdoing it.  Board wargaming is the most underpriced hobby I can think of, the biggest bargain in the history of leisure time. A $15 Squad Leader game can easily provide a hundred hours of amusement — that works out to less than one cent per hour.  Quite honestly, in terms of consumer versus industry, it’s the industry that is getting ripped off.

F&M: How do you see the future of wargaming?

Hill: I think wargaming is about to emerge as a real business.  Right now, all the major companies are still stymied as none of them knows how to push ahead to break into the world of “real business.” The industry is in the birth pangs of evolving from a big little industry to a little big industry, and the major publishers are floundering about how to do it. But when it does happen, we’ll see a breakthrough in growth so big you wouldn’t believe it.

F&M: How important are physical systems and graphics?

Hill: As the hobby attempts to become a real business, graphics become the key. In many respects, they will become the most important ingredient. To compete, good graphics will no longer do, they must be outstanding. As an example of where we must head, look at the new Italian wargames from the Team: in terms of box graphics, they make our whole industry look like a kindergarten. Good graphics become more important than good design. This may sound like heresy from a game designer, but it’s going to happen—and it is a good step.

F&M: Who are your favorite designers?

Hill: My favorite designers — that is like asking what my favorite food is. I find very good stuff in the games of them all. But if you push me to declare any particular preference, I might say I’m partial to Richard Berg, simply because his games make fun of themselves.  Of all the designers, he takes himself the least seriously, almost mocks his own work. For that reason, if for no other, I really have a soft spot for the guy.

F&M: What about developers?

Hill: I have only worked with three: Don Greenwood, Dana Lombardy, and John Butterfield, and all have their good points. Don, I respect because of his experience. John approaches development more as sophisticated play testing, and that has merit. Dana probably is the most creative in his approach, and his sense of humor and tradition in graphics help him visualize how best to produce a game that will be fun. The ideal developer might very well be a blend of these three.

F&M: And which critics do you listen to?

Hill: I have an overall preference, and that is for the older critics, who are much better able to analyze what is right or wrong with a game. Also, I much prefer to be judged by those who have actually been in combat and know firsthand how really screwed up military operations are. The older critics have much more maturity, having had many more years to reflect on the nature of war and how history has presented it.

F&M: Did you follow the Great Debate of critics versus designers? What was your reaction?

Hill: This debate is very healthy. The only problem is that it seems too easy for both designers and critics to pass themselves off as experts. But, given time, the good critics will still be with us, as will the good designers. The public, I think, will eventually come to realize who has talent in either or both capacities critics to keep poking at us designers and I’d urge designers to stand fast on their work and not be afraid to punch back.  After all, the public loves a good fight.

F&M: How do you view the hobby press today?

Hill: At this time, the hobby press needs to mature. Generally, they “have arrived” in terms of graphics and presentation, but they have reached a point of stagnation in terms of quality growth. The problem is that all the hobby magazines exist on the charity of their authors. Sooner or later, qualified writers will tire of producing for no return. I personally know several very talented and knowledgeable writers who have been turned off by the lack of any reasonable financial remuneration. Unless the wargame press starts to pay their contributors regularly and decently, I fear an exodus of writing talent.

F&M: Richard Berg, in his final Moves #44, expressed his fear that the hobby had fallen under the curse of the “Three N’s: NATO, Nukes, and Nazis.” How do you feel about this?

Hill: I believe what Richard means is that, right now, NATO, Nukes, and Nazis are what is selling games. But I would certainly not call it a curse. Given a year or so, something else will be hot, and I’d never call any theme a curse if it sells games. We would be presumptuous when saying, since Nazi stuff  all wargamers are sick. That is ridiculous. The so-called “love affair” with the Nazis only proves that in World War II they were the only outfit with really sharp uniforms. Moral issues aside, a black SS uniform.

F&M: Games on contemporary topics have lately been criticized as morally wrong, being science fiction, etc. Would you let us have your opinion?

Hill: How can a game be morally wrong? War may be right or wrong, depending on your religious bent, but not a game. Games are neutral. They are like mirrors. Perhaps, by portraying a moral wrong, they might perform even a moral good by calling attention to some great evil.

F&M: How do you feel about the hobby awards?

Hill: What can I say? They lack class. The whole presentation is run like a bowling banquet. At ORIGINS, the winners are treated like those of a backgammon tournament. And the highest award, the Hall of Fame, has become a PR contest  – between the big publishers.

F&M: What are your personal goals in life?

Hill: My mind is too small even to begin to comprehend what I want out of life. At least I have enough intelligence to realize that the hardest thing to understand is one’s self. So I settle for one short-term goal after another. Right now, my most immediate goal is a really good heater for my swimming pool…

F&M: We wish you good luck with that, and with everything else!


For those of you wargamers you knew my father well, I am sure you can clearly visualize in your mind my father speaking these words in his interview with Fire & Movement magazine.  I could not help but laugh a little at some of my father’s analogies and sense of humor coming through during this interview he had in the 1980s.  My father, John Hill, is dearly missed by all.

Feel free to leave comments below and I will respond shortly.  Thank you for reading.

 

16 Comments

  1. Steve

    This website is bbbbbbad to the bone.

    I hate to sound like an old guy but back in the day for me was pre-internet and back when we didn’t have computers to sit with me and my crew played pen and paper RPG’s. I’m a nerd I know…SHHHH I don’t get to play much these days but I still love it when I come across something new from that world. I’m definitely gonna check out ADF. Sounds like my kinda thing anyway thanks for the article. Now if I can just find someone to play with I’ll be golden.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Hill

      Hi Steve:

      Thank you for the entertaining comment. I chuckled as I read it. I can relate to the pre-Internet days myself. Computers were not introduced until I was in high school, so just like you, my earliest memories of playing games was something known as Boardgames – that word is not used so much anymore is it?

      In addition to Across A Deadly Field, my father also designed Squad Leader and Johnny Reb as well as Battle of Stalingrad. And yes, you will need to find someone to play with. Check with your local hobby shops and see if you can join a group of gamers in your local area. Within this website are also rulebooks which you can download when you find a group of wargaming buddies. For example, you can download the Advanced Squad Leader Rulebook and the Johnny Reb Quick Reference Charts.

      Thank you for visiting and have a wonderful day!

      Stephanie (AKA John Hill’s daughter)

      Reply
  2. Chris

    Hi, I stumbled upon this site, which is amazing I must say! Such a useful and quality content and site layout overall .
    Very well written and easy to understand, especially for beginners.
    I will definitely visit your site in the future, thank you very much for sharing your knowledge with us and good luck.

    Kind regards

    Ct.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Hill

      Hi Chris:

      Thank you for visiting my tribute site to my father. I appreciate you checking it out. My father, John Hill, designed a number of popular wargames to include Squad Leader and Across A Deadly Field (ADF). If you are interested in wargaming for your yourself or your child, please visit my parent’s guide to wargaming. It is will give you a further understanding of what wargames look like.

      Stephanie

      Reply
  3. Norris Darrall

    Thanks again for your excellent work. I happen to be the custodian of the Tet Game, rules, board, counters. Had a lot of fun playing the Mexican game “Viva Zapata” I think it was. Keep his memory alive for all of us. Regards to your Mom.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie (Post author)

      Hi Norris:

      Thank you for the kind compliments. I think I have heard of the Mexican game “Viva Zapata” – it sounds familiar. I will work hard to keep his memory alive in all of our hearts. I will let my Mom know you send your regards. Thank you again Norris. My regards to Margaret.

      Stephanie

      Reply
  4. Sonny

    Hello thanks for the info about a great war game designer like,John Hill.

    I am quite new to the gaming industry and have some interest in the subject I managed to come across your website doing a Google search.I like the fact that your father based his game on WWII as I have a close interest in the history of that time period.The details and excellent craftsmanship of,Squad Leader for example is second to none awesome game!. I have enjoyed playing Johnny Reb in the past.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Hill

      Hi Sonny:

      My father was passionate about Civil War and World War II. His miniature wargames focused on those two great wars of our past. Squad Leader had won the Charles Roberts and H.G. Wells awards for best tactical wargames in 1977 and 1983. Thank you for checking out this website today. Please come back and visit soon.

      Stephanie, John’s Daughter

      Reply
  5. David Joyce

    Hey man, I visited your site and WOW, I like it. I love history and love learning about the struggles of ordinary hero’s during World War Two. Great site, hope you do well. Not enough people are interested in WW2 and a lot of them think it is ancient history, but it is still within our living memory. Wargames that your father John Hill designed like Squad Leader and ADF and Johnny Reb are a good way of keeping the subject in the consciousness of the people. Is that what your father wanted to do? Keep our history alive and well in our minds and memories? What are some of the other wargames your dad designed? Can I buy some of these wargames off this site? I believe wargames are educational and can much about our present from studying the past. I noticed in the interview with your father, they talk about Dungeons and Dragons. I used to play that a lot as a kid.

    Fair play to you for keeping their stories alive!

    Wishing you happiness and success.

    David.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Hill

      Hi David:

      Pleasure meeting you. Thank you for reading the interview of my father by Fire & Movement magazine. I enjoy history as well. My father wanted to maintain the memories and stories of our fallen soldiers of the Civil War and WWII through his wargame designs. In absolutely no way can any game designer totally simulate the horror, fear and utter confusion of war, but at these games allow us to grab glimpse into what may or may not have been altered if different scenarios had been present.

      In addition to Squad Leader, Across A Deadly Field and Johnny Reb, my father designed

      Battle of Stalingrad. Yes, you can purchase wargames my father designed as well as other wargames off this website. You may visit any of the following online stores on this website:

      ADF Amazon Store

      ADF Barnes & Noble Store

      Squad Leader Amazon Store

      As my father indicated in his interview with F&M Magazine, Squad Leader as much in common with Dungeons & Dragons. In each of the games, things will go wrong and being caught in our streets with a heavy machine gun is no different than being caught by a fire-breathing people-eating dragon — they both present real dangers.

      Thank you again for visiting my ADF tribute site to my father. Please come back soon.

      Stephanie

      Reply
  6. Belinda

    Hello Stephanie, first of all let me tell what an honorable thing you did for your father. By reading, he must of been an amazing person. To leave a legacy behind and you making it a tribute. There isn’t many people today that honor their fathers and mothers which is so important. Your website shows honesty, its neatly setup each in its place. I hope that everyone that comes to this site not only enjoys the reading but capture the emotion that flows on each page. Let every gamer feel how your dad did. Thank you Stephanie

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Hill

      Hi Belinda:

      Thank you for kind sentiments and you are right about not too many people honor their parents anymore today. I agree on its importance indeed. My main goal is to show honesty, integrity and also boldly illustrate my father’s passion. My father was able to successfully turn his hobby (niche) into a business and that can be difficult but he was determined and he is living proof that you do not need to work for a company to make your passion a reality. My father’s independent work was admired by many and still continues to be today.

      Thank you for visiting my site and for leaving such a kind comment.

      Stephanie

      Reply
  7. Cory Ring

    What a great article and some insight from John! You are right…you can definitely feel his sense of humor here. He is truly missed.

    Cory Ring

    Reply
    1. Stephanie (Post author)

      Hi Cory:

      Good hearing from you. You certainly can almost hear his voice as you read through the transcript of the interview with Fire & Movement. He is, as you said, truly missed indeed.

      Steph

      Reply
  8. Alex

    Dear Stephanie,

    Thank you so much for sharing your father’s story, and the development of his wargame. I wish you the best as you take care of your mother in New Mexico!

    Reply
    1. Stephanie (Post author)

      Hi Alex:

      Thank you for the kind word. I am glad you enjoyed the story. I am definitely doing my best to take care of my mom here in New Mexico. We have had good days and bad days for sure.
      Stephanie

      Reply

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