Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sharp Practice V2 - Dipping Into the Lard

With so much stuff coming out lately it has been hard to keep up - but one set of rules that I haven't been able to put down has been Sharp Practice version two. It is compelling, characterful, and extremely accessible.

Sharp Practice is a skirmish ruleset written by Too Fat Lardies. TFL says on their own website about themselves:
Welcome to the new web store for TooFatLardies, the vibrant wargames development partnership that produces an ever growing range of rule sets for what we think are discerning wargamers. The emphasis with any of our rule sets is on replicating the real core issues for each of our periods. The emphasis is on what Clausewitz described as “friction” on the battlefield, along side the stresses and pressure of command.

I've heard a ton about their rules on the Something Awful forum and Meeples and Miniatures Podcast, with most people highly recommending their rules as they always follow their main directive - 'play the period, not the rules'. I have always heard that their rules (mostly talk about Chain of Command) are very focused on the leaders and how they operated during battle - moreso than most other games.

I was always interested in trying out the rules, but I just haven't had a chance to until this last Sunday. Matt at MichToy has spoken to me about Lardies games before, and was definitely interested in SP2, so I scheduled a game session with him.

One of the main reasons I say that the ruleset is accessible is that it is a skirmish ruleset. We're able to get a game in for most any black powder time period with around 50 models. Compare that to many regimental or brigade level rulesets where you need hundreds of figures - it is very daunting. I am still planning on playing Black Powder, but it will be after I get a few Sharp Practice forces finished so that it isn't one huge slog. This is huge for me because the ACW is my favorite period, bar none, and I haven't even really ever figured out a good way to play it.

It is also accessible in that they have created the rules that fit both the early black powder periods and the later ones - all the way up to the Civil War. The Civil War is definitely different from even the Revolutionary War, in that the rifled muskets were way more accurate and the formations used were different. The rules will work for both periods.

He puts the SHARPe in Sharp Practice
When we think about the Civil War, we mostly think about huge battles where the armies were sometimes 70,000 - 100,000 men, but there were many small skirmishes that we can recreate. The rules give a great set of characterful reasons to take the field. You create your officer, including background and upbringing, giving you a reason to like (or not like) this dude leading your force.

You also have the option of inserting characters into the game - mostly civilians who are going about their business or need to be saved or captured. Your officers interact with these people. Think about the militia or gang leaders in Sharpe movies, the main love interests, etc. The game really is evocative of these movies as a narrative experience.

The scenarios included in the book are mostly about doing something specific - ie. going to a place and retrieving something. You can make these characterful for your time period, like foraging in Georgia, fighting off a local home guard, or acquiring horses in the Civil War. A lot of these ideas bring me back to my ACW reenacting hobby. We have small amounts of men in small companies, and we often do 'tacticals' where we have to do a specific task, like escorting a local official through an area.

The game itself is very compelling - the leader rules make it so your men on the field are important to you. It is also very tactical with the chips or cards that you use to activate your troops. It isn't necessarily alternating activation, but random alternating activation.

Each commander is given a number and activates when their chip or card is drawn. then the 'flag' cards can be used to interrupt activations to activate out of order, or give bonuses to troops, etc. Turns are not static - if the 'Tiffin' [Tiffin is an Indian English word for a light midday meal (luncheon)] card is drawn, the turn ends.

This might be scary to folks who come from other games where all of your guys do something every turn, but in real warfare, troops get stacked up, miss signals, commanders waffle on orders, soldiers go to ground, etc. It can be inconvenient at some times, but I wouldn't say it is punishing or bad design. I think it pretty well simulates the fog of war and breakdowns in command and control.

The rulebook is full of beautiful photos and art
The flag cards can also be used to activate units who haven't activated at all that turn, so the turn isn't truly over until that happens. This is forgiving and lets you keep up.

I won't do a blow-by-blow this is how the game works type breakdown, because there are better sources (PT1, PT2, PT3PT4). I will say the turn kinda breaks down as follows:

  • Draw card
  • If its a number, that commander activates and either directs his troops to do something, or assissts them by pulling off shock
  • If its a flag, you hold this until you can use your flags to do something - take an activation, boost effectiveness, etc.
  • If its the Tiffin, the round ends
  • If the Tiffin is first drawn, then the 'chapter ends'. This is in support of the 'narrative' feel of the game. Lots of things get reset, like troops become loaded etc.

If three flags get drawn in a row, then a random event occurs. This again is in support of the narrative feel of the game. You sometimes can't control your troops or your environment. The two charts show for movement or firing random events - whomever activated last will roll on the chart based on what they did.

The commanders themselves have a few options as to what to do each turn. Their number of options are based on their command level. A level four commander can command four different groups or formations to do something, and he can be up to 12" away. You can also use the aforementioned flag cards [Command Cards] during the turn to interrupt actions and do something immediately, as in the example below.

For most forces, reloading and shooting will be different actions. You can also 'present' which allows your formations to all fire at the same time. TFL has created some tokens to help out with gameplay which I find somewhat valuable.

Tokens for Present, Uncontrolled, and Shock
The actual formations themselves are one of my favorite things, as a drill enthusiast. You can see the authors actually checked the drill manuals and put them in the game. Your men can change formations into line, column, skirmish, etc.

So not only does it present the rules for doing each formation, it actually tells you what they were used for and provides shots of the models actually doing it. Some of these formations we'll never use in ACW, but we could use them when we do Napoleonic wars or Rev War.

Skirmishers are a bit different in most cases in how they fire, bonuses, how they move, etc. They're done well - I can really see on the board how I want to use my skirmishers and I believe it to be a historically accurate interpretation.

While you have seen a ton of infantry, we haven't seen any guns or cavalry! They are in the game - the cavalry can be part of your standard force organization. Artillery, field medics, chaplains, etc are support pieces that can be chosen before the game starts.

You actually roll randomly to see how many 'points' of support are available to you before the game starts.

Lists have been included for Confederates and Union forces. I am keen to try the Confederates 1862-1865 list.

It makes sense, it has a good main force of three group and two groups along with skirmishers for the edges or the front of the force. It has four commander activations which will make for a larger game than we played but shouldn't be a problem. 1862 is the year of the war I'd like to portray with my models.

The Union forces are a bit of a head-scratcher, as Confederates would have been outnumbered pretty much the entire war in a generic scenario. I can understand not having better leadership early on, but they likely should have another set of skirmishers or two groups of eight infantry. The good thing is that you can modify these rosters as TFL have encouraged people to do so.

The roster is how you write your 'list' to get going to the battlefield. Each line shows you how good your troops are and what they can do. Can they be part of a formation, do they have a first fire bonus (powder is dry, rifles clean), can they do controlled volleys, are they allowed to generate bonuses for crashing volleys, stepping out, or drill, do they have any special rules, what weapons they use and how many men are included.

The last part that I find very compelling is how morale works. Generally your troops are less likely to die from musket fire, and more likely to take shock. Shock degrades their effectiveness on the field and can even make them break and run if they receive too much of it. If you start losing troops, your morale will go down. Once something has been triggered, you look at the Bad Things Happen chart to see if you lose morale:

So if you have a group that breaks, on a 1,2,3,4 roll on a D6 you lose 1 point of morale, 2 points if you roll a 5 or a 6. Once you've lost all your morale you lose.

You can track your morale using this chart. There are modifiers to the army once you get below five points of morale.

Please check back tomorrow for a full breakdown of our game we played and my impressions, and then next week where I talk about the list I'm making and what it is made up of. Until then, I highly suggest checking out this blog for some great introductory thoughts on black powder gaming.