When I think of the word "wargame," one of the images that immediately pops into my head is the cover to Avalon Hill's Squad Leader, designed by John Hill and first published in 1977. I never owned a copy of the game and can't recall ever actually having played it myself, but I often watched others play. That's the extent of my direct involvement with this simulation of squad-level tactics during World War II. Given that, it might seem strange that it looms so large in my memory, but, thinking back on it, it makes a great deal of sense.
If you've ever seen a copy of Squad Leader, you'll remember the high quality of its components. Its counters, for example, were very attractive and, to my neophyte's eye, quite easy to read. I envied the wargamers I knew, who could look at the morass of tiny numbers and symbols on a counter and understand their mysteries. This was a talent I did not possess, which probably contributed greatly to my never having gotten into wargames, despite my interest in them. But Squad Leader made me think I could develop this talent; its counters weren't nearly as intimidating and they were attractive too -- a shallow judgment, to be sure, and yet an honest one by my young mind.
Moreso than the counters, it was Squad Leader's geomorphic hex maps that really caught my attention. The game made use a large number of sturdy maps that used a top-down projection to represent the terrain on which its action took place. I adored these maps, so much so that I eventually acquired them -- they were available for purchase separately -- for use in my various RPG campaigns. They were, to me, what the map of Outdoor Survival was to Gygax and Arneson. I distinctly recall using them in several wilderness-based D&D adventures, as well as in Gamma World, because many of these maps included ruined buildings that seemed well suited to a post-apocalyptic game. I'm pretty sure I used them in my Twilight: 2000 campaign too, but then that's only appropriate.
Being geomorphic, the maps could be re-arranged in many ways in order to produce a wide variety of areas for use in play. The reason for this was that Squad Leader, though it had pre-written scenarios, was designed to allow players to create their own scenarios easily, something that, as I recall anyway, wasn't common (or possible, in some cases) among other wargames of the era, which were designed to simulate a single specific battle or theater of war from history. Again, speaking as a non-wargamer, this really appealed to me and I remember listening to some of the guys I knew talk about the scenarios they'd created. I sensed in these discussions a remaining thread of connection between roleplaying games and the wargames out of which they grew, something I didn't feel when I listened to wargamers talk about other such games.
Every so often, I feel the urge to search out a cheap copy of the game on eBay, purely out of nostalgia. Unfortunately, I've found it hard to locate one that's complete and in reasonable shape without paying an arm and a leg for it, something I can't justify given the unlikelihood of my ever playing it. Still, I recall this game very fondly. It's a reminder of a specific time in my life and of a time in the hobby when a complex World War II simulation with hundreds of cardboard counters could be found on the shelves of Toys "R" Us and similar stores. To me, that's probably the biggest indication of the fact that things have changed a great deal since my youth and I can't help feeling a little melancholy about that.