Rearguard Action – a Sharp Practice AAR

After doing other stuff, I started to crave for a game of Sharp Practice – it seems I can’t go too long without wanting to play what is still my favorite game. Fortunately, Sigur was willing to take command of the Confederates and join me in a scenario that I’ve played twice before – once years ago with the Wars of the Roses variant of the old Sharp Practice and once as an ACW scenario.

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The set-up.

As my aim was to capture the Confederate Deployment Point, my basic plan was to feel out Sigur’s position with my skirmishers and trying to get him to deploy his troops. I would then identify the weak point (either the road through the village or the ford) and deploy all of my line troops to push through there.

As so often in Sharp Practice, this plan didn’t even survive the first turn.

The game started with my skirmishers deploying in the field on my left flank while the dismounted cavalry deployed to the right, heading towards the ford. To my great surprise, Sigur deployed his three main line units into houses right at the edge of the village. I was pretty happy about that, as I thought that I could easily pin him there.

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My skirmishers advance under fire.

However! After Sigur’s troops had fired at my skirmishers, they suddenly let loose a Rebel Yell and charged out of the houses towards my stunned men (Random Event). Sigur decided to go with the flow, moved the rest of his troops out of the houses, formed line and poured lead into my poor boys. 

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I didn’t see that coming!

The skirmishers immediately skedaddled behind the fence but the Confederates kept up a murderous fire and managed to wipe out the whole group, while its NCO was knocked out by a spent bullet.

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What just happened?

While his line troops were pummeling my left flank, Sigur had also deployed a group of skirmishers at the river banks. Those managed to rough up my dismounted cavalry, which was about to sneak up on his line’s flank. The troopers fell back behind the toll house to regroup.

Things were definitely not going as planned.

At least I had managed to advance my other two groups of line infantry to the ford, where they were getting into a firefight with another group of Confederate skirmishers. However, I was unsure what to do now – should I push ahead and risk getting flanked?

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Meanwhile at the ford…

It seems that this was exactly what Sigur had in mind, as he suddenly formed an open column and marched right towards the bridge. Well, I couldn’t let that opportunity go by! Luckily enough, my main commander’s card came up and I could deploy my three groups to enfiladed the cocky rebels.

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Surprise!

That hurt! The Confederates were in a bad spot, but Sigur was up to his game. He swiftly about-faced his column and, using two flag cards, double-quickly marched them right back through the village. I also formed column and followed, but was much slower. The Confederate meanwhile established a second line of defense behind the fences on the other side of the river.

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Step lively, lads!
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The Confederates have successfully established a second line of defense.

At the ford, the Confederate skirmishers were losing the musketry duel with my line and retired behind the horse stable to take a breather. I had regained some of the momentum but was still unsure how to proceed. Should I cross the ford, only to be pitted against Sigur’s reserve, which was not yet deployed, or should I push my left flank guys – after all, my enfilading fire did weaken the retreating rebels?

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What now?

So I marched my left flank column up to the field and formed line, starting a firefight that soon devolved into a contest of attrition. To stack the odds in his favour, Sigur finally deployed his last two groups, forming one long line of five groups. That certainly looked impressive (and the number of dice he had to roll when shooting was ridiculous!).

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The thin grey line.
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Face-off.

I knew I could not stand indefinitely against those numbers, but if I could hold long enough I might push my other troops over the ford and towards the Confederate Primary Deployment Point. Unfortunately, it took me a while to get the guys going, and all the while my left flank line took an incredible pummeling. But still, to our mutual surprise, they held. 

When the right flank groups (infantry and dismounted cavalry) finally trudged through the ford, Sigur’s skirmishers had prepared an ambush for them and, moving swiftly out from behind the stables, they enfiladed the blue column!

We both knew the battle’s crisis had come – something had to give. Fortunately, for once the cards were on my side and I drew four command cards before my leaders were activated. I decided to make a final crashing volley with my valiant line and use the other cards to double-quick the dismounted cavalry towards the Deployment Point. This plan finally worked and my troopers rushed the Confederate position, capturing the Deployment Point and winning the game.

This was a very hard-fought affair full of surprising twists and turns. At times, it looked like my luck had run out. Sigur showed cunning and skillful generalship and several times threw the Union attack off track. If not for the steadfastness of my left flank line, my whole attack would have broken down.

Again, Sharp Practice produced an exciting and dramatic narrative. Especially the staunch determination of my left flank line was the stuff legends are made of – their casualties were atrocious, but they just didn’t break.

Another thing I really like about Sharp Practice is that it is one of the few wargames I know where, with skill and some luck, you can actually pull off a fighting retreat. I’ve seen this done by K. in our Ambush game and now Sigur did something similar, pulling his boys out of a tight spot and forming a second line of defence.

A great game with a congenial gaming partner – this is what wargaming is all about!

The photos are by Sigur, thanks for letting me use them!
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Animal House

Well, well, well – it seems that animal ardor, creature craze, fauna frenzy or even zoological zeal are rampant, at least among my mates, as Sigur and Virago have both bought the new Osprey rules-set Burrows & Badgers. How could I resist? Especially since I’ve already got a set of Oathsworn animals, which I bought about two years ago. I’ve occasionally painted the odd figure since then and now have a collection of ten anthropomorphic animals awaiting adventure.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but now that Burrows & Badgers has arrived, they might see the gaming table yet. It’s not that I need another set of small-scale skirmish rules – there is still Songs of Blades and Heroes, which I really like – but Burrows & Badgers is a lovely book with great illustrations by none other than Gary Chalk. And there are some interesting ideas in there.

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I haven’t played it yet, so I can’t tell you more than that, but I will keep you posted if I do. And I will definitely paint the rest of my animals – this is one of my favourite line of miniatures and painting them is a real pleasure.

Make it so!

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather, so there was not much gaming (or even painting) going on. However, a couple of days ago, we had some friends over and decided to try a game I’ve had lying around for a while: Space Alert.

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It’s a cooperative game with two unique features: First, it comes with an audio-CD, which provides the instructions for the different scenarios. Second, the main part of the game runs in real-time. Basically, you play the crew of a starship and have to make sure the ship survives before heading into hyperspace. The computer voice, which is provided by the CD, gives you information on threats you have to counter. You can either shoot at them or transfer energy to the shields. However, energy is a limited resource and somebody better be in engineering to make sure that enough is available where it is needed.

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During the second part of the game, all the things you have decided in the real-time environment (and ‘programmed in’ with cards) are resolved and you can see how you have done and whether the starship has survived.

The game is great fun and demands real team work. This is not as easy when a countdown is running and information is coming in all the time. During the first game, which was a training mission, everybody was running around the ship and doing his or her thing, resulting in comical scenes were people were moving past each other without coordination. 

As the game is short – the real-time part of the training missions takes 7 minutes, after which you will need about 15 minutes for the resolution phase – we tried the training mission again. We managed to survive in the end, but considering that this scenario did not use the full rules yet and there are several more different kinds of threats to come, advanced missions are not going to be a walk in the park!

I really like the game. Real-time planning definitely adds to cooperative gaming and the experience is very thematic – it’s a game that really gives that Star Trek experience.

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Currently Reading

For our Gettysburg Battle Day, I read a couple of books on the battle. One of them was Edwin B. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign. A Study in Command from 1968.

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This is, in some ways, a book that shows its age. Published eight years before John Keegan revolutionized military history by writing about the experiences of the common soldiers in The Face of Battle, Coddington firmly concentrates on the higher levels of command and on the decisions of the commanders. He is also quite judgemental, voicing his opinion about who made which mistake and how it could have been avoided. However, it still is a very good and rewarding reading. Coddington presents a clear narrative, making it easy to follow the action and his analytical approach helps to clarify many decisions.

The one thing that impressed me most however, was the ending, specifically the last sentence of the book. Usually, you expect from an ending a wrapping up of the whole narrative, a closure that gives the whole thing a meaning and makes you feel that something has been achieved. He describes how General Warren, after Lee had crossed the Potomac back into Virginia, sent a message to the War Department ordering maps of the Shenandoah Valley. And then he ends with the sentence: “And so the war went on.” No closure, no wrapping-up or bestowing meaning – instead the sobering, even bleak reminder that Gettysburg, something that today is remembered as a highly significant turning-point, at the time was just one episode in a war that was far from over.

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Ronald S. Coddington’s African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album is a very different book. It presents 77 photographs of African-American soldiers from Coddington’s own collection. Each image is accompanied by a short biography of the soldier depicted. This is quite an achievement all by itself, as it is not easy to get biographical information about men who, in many cases, had been illiterate slaves who left no written evidence by themselves. One of the great things about this approach is that it puts the individuals, their choices and their actions into the foreground. This provides a much-needed contrast to the stereotypical description of African-Americans even by well-meaning white officers like Thomas Higginson. All the variety can’t, of course, conceal the common experiences. Most of the men were scarred by slavery and the war and few grew old. But one of the saddest thing was their treatment after Reconstruction: time and again, you read how in the late 1870s and 1880s, when white suprematist groups crawled back out of their holes after Union occupational forces had left the South, African-Americans were driven from political offices and terrorized, many of them ending in an abject state of poverty.

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Touching on the subject of African-American experience, Brian McGinty’s The Rest I Will Kill is a short and dramatic retelling of an astonishing event that happened early in the war: In July 1861, a U.S. ship was captured by a Confederate raider. The prize crew wanted to sail the ship to Savannah, where it would be sold off. The ship had a free black cook named William Tillman, whom they planned to sell into slavery. What happened next took them by surprise, though: Tillman, aided only by a German sailor named William Stedding, overpowered the prize crew and single-handedly sailed the ship back to New York. At the time, Tillman became a celebrity and was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. The book is an easy read, telling an exciting story while also providing background on the political situation as well as on the biographies of the people involved. It clearly shows the desperation, but also the courage African-Americans showed in the face of a regime that treated them as chattel.

And now for something completely different, as they say. I’ve also read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy lately, but most of it left me rather disappointed. I have to say that I’m wholeheartedly sick of the whole ‘dark and gritty’ thing. Not only is this a childish view on life (it’s laughable how people think it is ‘realistic’), it’s also full of rather disturbing torture porn – seriously, what is it with those people and sexualized violence?

Eames

Fortunately, I hit upon some real gems. The first pleasant surprise was Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. Imagine a classical D&D-like fantasy world where adventuring parties are treated like 80s rock bands. This is basically the analogy Eames bases his story upon and to my surprise, it worked really really well. It’s the well-known story of an old hero and the effort to, one last time, get the band together. It seems Eames couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a funny book or a tragic one, but both facets actually work equally well. Of course it’s overdone and sometimes corny and a bit of a lad’s story, but hey, so’s glam rock! Certainly the most captivating, most original and most fun fantasy novel I’ve read for a long time.

Chambers

 

For science-fiction, the same is true for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I know I’m late to the party with this one – I’ve seen it before, but I was always a bit apprehensive as I usually enjoy action-oriented sci-fi. Now I finally started reading it and wow, it’s good. There is almost no shooty stuff, but the story is still captivating and exciting. A lot of original ideas and about as far away from dark and gritty as you can get. It’s a feel-good novel about community and tolerance and living together despite being different. Highly recommended!