Friday, May 11, 2012

Interview with Dean West - part 2

Question 2: What can you share with Cigar Box Heroes about the early days of Johnny Reb rules development with John Hill?

During the 1960s I did not play miniatures games. However, the military board game industry emerged during the sixties and I was the first one on my block to purchase Tactics II, designed by Charles Roberts and published in 1962 by the legendary Avalon Hill Game Company. Tactics II was the first military board war game ever published. This game was too theoretical and stark for my taste, but in quick succession AH published Gettysburg, Afrika Korps, D-Day and Waterloo. I played these games extensively (learned Waterloo when on my Honeymoon in 1966).
In college, my interest in Horse & Musket warfare was far greater than my interest in studying for my classes. I read every book in the Ball State University library on the Napoleonic or French Revolutionary wars, and bought many others besides. I hoped to someday design a Napoleonic miniatures game that was heavy on tactics but still fun to play and challenging.

A Polaroid picture of a  Johnny Reb campaign game in Dean's basement 20+ years ago.

After marrying, becoming the father of twin boys, landing a job as an adjustor at State Farm Insurance Company, and graduating from college–in that order–I became interested in trains and scale model railroading. My problem was that there were no good hobby shops in the area. Late in 1969, I heard about a hobby shop only sixty miles away, in Lafayette, IN that was rumored to be a scale modeler’s dream. I took off work and hurried over there, to find that “The Scale Model Shop” was everything it was rumored to be. The proprietors of that special place were John Hill and Norris Darrell.

The Scale” was a terrific hobby shop where a “serious” scale modeler could find about anything needed to build model railroads or war game terrain. I visited the shop often. Initially, my friendship with John and Norris was founded on mutual interest in modeling Colorado Narrow Gauge railroads. But as the months rolled by, it became apparent that we also harbored a mutual interest in war games. Soon, we were talking more about military history and less about trains. I learned that John owned his own board game company, Conflict Games. Conflict Games publications included Verdun: The Game of Attrition, Kasserine Pass, Overlord and Bar-Lev. All were designed by John (Several of these games have recently been reissued by other companies). Over the course of a year or so, war gaming, modeling, and historical research replaced model railroading as our primary mutual interest. However, our interest in very detailed model railroad scenery has been a major factor in our insistence on very realistic wargame miniatures boards. John has even taken this penchant for detailed wargame boards into his latest board and miniature game design - "Shiloh Dawn" for Pacific Rim Publishing.

A preview of the map from John Hill's latest project "Shiloh Dawn". 

Squad Leader and Johnny Reb were invented almost simultaneously in John’s basement roughly between the years 1971 and 1978. Both were developed and play-tested under John’s leadership by a dedicated group of war gamers who were also amateur historians. We even had one professional historian in the group, Professor Gunther Rothenberg (Gunther eventually wrote several well-received books on Napoleonic warfare). Squad Leader was already under design when I joined John’s gaming group sometime in 1972. We played the earliest versions of the game on John’s basement floor using Micro-Armor tanks and vehicles. Terrain was cardboard cutouts or chalked in. As the design developed, unit counters representing infantry, heavy weapons squads, and officers were introduced. The use of counters to represent infantry formations made the battles seem more realistic and interesting. An Allied player soon learned to fear the arrival on the battlefield of a column of Micro-Armor SdKf 251s with Feldgrau unit counters stacked on them.

Another 20+ year old Polaroid picture of a Johnny Reb
scenario played in Dean's basement.

 Occasionally, we needed a break from WWII play-testing, and as the Horse & Musket guy on the team, I volunteered to bring my Napoleonic figure collection to John’s basement and to host a game using my homegrown rules. By 1973, I had amassed respectable forces of French and Prussian 25 mm figures manufactured by “Der Kriegspieler”, and had hobbled together a half-assed set of Napoleonic miniature rules based loosely on the Napoleonique rules written by Jim Getz (Empire) and Duke Seifried - "Uncle Duke". Just like any war gamer past or present, I’m incapable of playing anyone else’s rules without first modifying them to suit me. John’s the same way, and so every time we played my game we made changes and found problems until finally John decided that we could do better and so John and I embarked on the design of a horse & musket miniatures game. Thus the Johnny Reb project was born. After some discussion, we decided to base our rules on the American Civil War (ACW). We decided on the ACW because we had access to tons of research material, all in English, and we could also visit the battlefields. Another reason is that it would be somewhat easier to design a game based on our Civil War because the troops and tactics were more generic. Unlike the Napoleonic Period, we would not have to struggle with the complicated problems inherent to depicting “national differences” in tactical doctrine, maneuverability, or temperament of the many European belligerents.

A picture of John Hill's "Battle of Resaca"
scenario from Historicon 1997.

Both Squad Leader and Johnny Reb were considered at the time of their publication to represent major advancements in recreational military game design. Squad Leader was published by Avalon Hill in 1977, and quickly became the best-selling military board game in history up to that time. For his achievement, in 1978 John Hill was awarded the "Charles Roberts Award" for "Best Tactical - Operational Game" at the Origins II convention. In 1980, the subscribers of Campaign Magazine selected "Squad Leader" as "the Best Game of All Time". Johnny Reb was finally published in 1983 by Adventure Games, and quickly gained great popularity among Civil War miniatures players and in 1984, John received the H.G. Well's award for Johnny Reb as "The Best Miniatures Rules of 1983".  
Play testing for the Johnny Reb tournament at Origins 1986.

If you guys are still interested, in my next submission I’ll try to describe some of the Johnny Reb mechanics that were considered innovative when the game was published twenty-nine years ago. 


  1. Very interesting to hear how it all started and developed. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks so much, what a great post!

  3. Very enlightening Dean! Thanks for sharing.

    Now, I want to hear about you play testing John's design "The Battle for Stalingrad" which was eventually published by SPI!!