How absurd is Sharp Practice?

Whenever I teach someone new to play Sharp Practice, he or she is generally set back by what they perceive to be a lack of control. There is the card activation, which makes it impossible to predict which unit will be activated next. There is also the “Tiffin” card, which ends the turn, often without all units being activated. Then there is uncontrolled fire, which can lead to units blazing away even if you want them to move. And finally there are the random events, causing sometimes funny but often annoying things to happen.

At that point at the latest they start to ask if this isn’t a bit too much – surely the designer overdid it, introducing crazy stuff just for the laugh?

Homer_SkirmishWilderness
Winslow Homer: Skirmish in the Wilderness (1864)

An avid follower of TooFatLardies will now point to one of Richard Clarke’s articles, where he invokes the concept of “friction” as the core of his design philosophy [1].

Friction is a term employed by military theorist Carl von Clausewitz to denote all the unplanned and often unplannable things that happen in war [2]. “Activity in war,” he writes, “is movement in a resistant medium.” Moving over real terrain is nothing like moving blocks of wood over a map in the safety of the general staff’s office. “It is, therefore, this friction […] which makes that which appears easy in war difficult in reality.”

The thing about friction is that you just can’t predict what it will be and when it will happen. Why? Because, he says, it is due to “chance”. Potentially everything can go wrong and contribute to the plan going awry.

“So in war, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.”

This, you might say, is all well and good, but it is mightily abstract. So I collected some examples of friction in the American Civil War with regard to things happening in Sharp Practice.

Hillen_Charge
John F. E. Hillen: Charge of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry Division near Kingston, Georgia, under Colonel Atkinson (1864)

Let’s start with one assumption behind the randomized card activation and the Tiffin card, namely that commanders didn’t always act immediately and couldn’t always do what was required of them.

This is what happened when Col. Jennings tried to form his regiment to counter a Confederate attack during the Gettysburg campaign: 

“Officers were running around waving their swords, shouting and swearing, but no one dreamed of obeying them. Men became separated from their companies, and each fellow did what he thought proper… The commands from half crazy Captains and Lieutenants were often unintelligible, and perfectly contradictory.” [3]

Granted, those men were militia. But look at the difficulties General Pillow had when he attacked the Federals at Fort Donelson and discovered that a Union brigade was posted where he didn’t expect it:

“[The enemy] did receive me before I had assumed a line of battle and while I was moving against him without any formation for the engagement. For the first half hour of the engagement I was much embarrassed in getting the command in position properly to engage the enemy.” [4]

Such a situation is well known to players of Sharp Practice!

Lovie_Shilo
Henri Lovie: Battle of Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh), Sunday Evening, 6 o’clock, April 6, 1862 (1862)

What about uncontrolled fire? This was actually quite common and it is not too hard to imagine why. The noise and smoke on the battlefield made it hard to see what was happening and to hear orders, and the exercise of loading and firing was a reassuring routine in an utterly terrifying situation. That’s why officers often lost control of their men once they started to fire at will:

“Every man was shooting as fast, on our side, as he could load, and yelling as loud as his breath would permit. […] The other side were yelling, and if any order were given nobody heard them. Every man assumed the responsibility of doing as much shooting as he could.” [5]

But, you might say, certainly the random events are a bit absurd. Take for example this one: Charge them to Hell! Inspired by their volley and convinced the enemy is done for, the firers surge forward 2D6 inches.

Well, that’s exactly what happened during the Battle of Honey Springs.

“The Second Indian Home Guard on the right advanced into the Kansans’ [1st Kansas Colored Inf.] line of fire. Bowles shouted at them to fall back and form on the regiment’s right. The Twenty-Ninth Texas heard Bowles’s voice and mistook it as a command for a general retreat. The Confederates rose, advanced from the tree line, Bowles later recounted, ‘and, like true soldiers, commenced to press, as they supposed, a retreating foe.’ However, the First Kansas Colored Infantry was not on the retreat. At a distance of twenty-five yards, the black soldiers fired. The line of Confederate soldiers shattered.” [6]

Thinking “the enemy is done for”, to use the phrasing of the random event, the 29th Texas surged forward – right into the volley of the Union soldiers.

20513v
Edwin Forbes: The charge across the Burnside Bridge–Antietam (1862)

Ok, another random event: “Where’s that damnable map?” If the troops are in a march column, they will halt when next activated while their Leader gets the lie of the land.

In November 1864, when a Union landing force intent on destroying the Charleston and Savannah Railroad marched inland, their lead elements took a wrong turn. Because the officer in charge had no decent map, the men, comprising sailors dragging boat howitzers, marched fifteen miles to get to a place that was no more than three miles from where they had landed. [7]

Then what about this? Spitting Feathers! The Group or Formation conducts all movement with a 􏰀1 pip per dice until they can quench their thirst with suitable liquid.

At Gettysburg, Col. Oates blamed the lack of water on the hot second day for his failure to take Little Round Top. [8]

And this? A nasty discharge! The Leader commanding the firing unit is rather over􏰀enthusiastic and steps forward to motivate his men. As a result he is shot in the backside by his own troops.

Ok, that’s easy – at least two famous generals were wounded or killed due to friendly fire, namely James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson.

Waud_KennesawsBombardment
Alfred R. Waud: Kennesaw’s Bombardment, 64 (1864)

“We might go on heaping up illustrations, if we were not afraid of being tiresome,” as Clausewitz writes. But I hope that this short list shows that the random events in Sharp Practice are not as outlandish as they sound – even if I admittedly couldn’t find an example of an officer stepping into a dog turd (I’m not done looking though!). I also hope that it shows that the friction built into Sharp Practice is not just an obsession of Richard Clarke or a means to make the game more frustrating, but rather that it models pretty good what was happening on the battlefield according to eyewitnesses.

A Note on the Illustrations

Modern paintings of Civil War battles often give us corny and completist representations, where even the tiniest belt buckle has to be of the correct type and colour. In contrast, the contemporary images I've assembled here accept that the situation they are depicting is inherently chaotic and overwhelming. Because they are, by definition, unfinished, sketches are especially apt for producing a sense of fleeting and disparate impressions. Winslow Homer's oil painting manages to give us a haunting depiction of the vulnerability of soldiers, who seem to be not only beset by an almost invisible enemy but by the untamed nature of the Wilderness itself.

Instead of showing us everything to the last detail, those images manage to far better represent friction exactly because they include blind spots and leave things unseen.

Footnotes

[1] See e.g. Richard Clarke: “Friction or Fiction – A Lardy Perspective on Wargames Rules,” published on the Lard Island News blog.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz: On War, Originally published 1832, cited after the 1873 translation available online.

[3] cit. after Scott L. Mingus Sr.: Flames beyond Gettysburg. The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beattie 2013, p. 131.

[4] cit. after Timothy B. Smith: Grant Invades Tennessee. The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson, Lawrence. University of Kansas Press2016, p. 274.

[5] cit. after Earl J. Hess: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat. Reality and Myth. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas 2008, p. 85.

[6] Ian M. Spurgeon: Soldiers in the army of freedom. The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War’s first African American combat unit, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 2014, p. 171.

[7] Sharon S. MacDonald and W. Robert Beckman: “Heroism at Honey Hill,” North & South 12 (2010), number 1, pp. 20-43: 24.

[8] Edwin B. Coddington: The Gettysburg Campaign. A Study in Command, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1968, p. 391.

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16 thoughts on “How absurd is Sharp Practice?

  1. Mikko August 9, 2018 / 10:50 am

    This was a brilliant piece! I think in a lot of wargames and rpg’s people want “realism”, yet often view realism as unrealistically clean and neat. Real life, war included, is full of silly blunders and weird coincidences. Take this Wikipedia example leading up to the legendary battle of Culloden:

    “After a heated council with other officers, Murray concluded that there was not enough time to mount a surprise attack and that the offensive should be aborted. O’Sullivan went to inform Charles Edward Stuart of the change of plan, but missed him in the dark. Meanwhile, instead of retracing his path back, Murray led his men left, down the Inverness road. In the darkness, while Murray led one-third of the Jacobite forces back to camp, the other two-thirds continued towards their original objective, unaware of the change in plan. One account of that night even records that Perth and Drummond made contact with government troops before realising the rest of the Jacobite force had turned home.”

    If Sharp Practice is absurd, it seems to model the absurdity of war well!

    • cptshandy August 9, 2018 / 11:30 am

      Thanks Mikko! And that is a great story which illustrate friction very well, especially because it seems to have been no one’s fault – just plain bad luck.

  2. Pete S/ SP August 9, 2018 / 1:40 pm

    Interesting post. I’ve got an ambivalent relationship with the Too Fat Lardies stuff (I’ll admit to having not played Sharp Practice though- just their 20th century stuff). I like what they are trying to achieve but I’m not always keen on how they go about it.

    I’ve had some game of theirs I tried to play grind to a halt with absolutely nothing happening due to the friction in the system. It may have been realistic but it wasn’t fun in the slightest…

    …it is a hard balance to strike and one I don’t think they always get right.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    • cptshandy August 9, 2018 / 1:55 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts. I love Sharp Practice and never had a boring game, but I think much is down to scenario design. For TFL games, I guess it really pays off to take the time to design a scenario which gives different objectives and interesting terrain. Also, it’s a set of rules that profits from being played often, as it takes it a bit to get proficient with the rules.

  3. Pete S/ SP August 9, 2018 / 2:18 pm

    I would like to give Sharp Practice a go. I’m not so interested in the Napoleonic Period but I an interested in the ACW expansion.

    For full disclosure the bad game was with Troops Weapons and Tactics. I found it telling that the game itself was, to a large degree, supplaneted by Chain of Command (which is a great game). That makes me think it wasn’t overly popular in itself….

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    • cptshandy August 9, 2018 / 2:24 pm

      I’ve never played Troops, Weapons and Tactics, but I’ve played Chain of Command. I think it’s a great game, but I’m just not into the period. 20th century tactics are too unforgiving for me – make a mistake, and you’re done 🙂 I find Sharp Practice gives a much more narrative game. You should try it – it works very well with ACW!

  4. Steve Baker August 9, 2018 / 4:12 pm

    I understand that all of this battle chaos is entirely realistic – you don’t have to justify that.

    But you’re clearly missing the point.

    This also has to be a GAME, and it has to be fun. I’m very sure that being in command in a real battle was no fun at all. It was stressful, frustrating, sometimes boring…all of the things that a game shouldn’t be.

    For me, tabletop gaming MUST be both fun AND an exercise of skill – and while it certainly is an important part of a skilled commander to make allowances for the unpredictable – when you make the amount of unpredictability in the game so enormous that no amount of skill guarantees victory – then you might as well flip a coin to determine victory as play the game.

    That said, I don’t want this to become like chess – with zero luck and 100% skill – and I don’t want it to become like Chutes and Ladders where there is 100% luck and zero skill.

    I work as a video game designer – and we know that to make a game fun, you have to balance the luck and the skill. If you ever **EVER** make the player think they lost solely because they were unlucky – then their enjoyment of the game plummets – and the replayability falls off fast.

    That’s not just a theoretical thing…video game publishing is a ruinously expensive activity – a failed game costs tens, possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. So this is all about the numbers – and careful studies of this have been performed.

    In the real world, maybe the outcome in an even fight really is 80% luck and 20% in the skill of the commander. But that’s just not something I want to participate in. Make it 20% luck and 80% skill – and now I’m interested. Make it 10% luck and 90% skill and I’m probably hooked.

    It follows that to preserve an adequate skill element, and to avoid annoying frustration that saps away at the fun of it – realistic amounts of chaos may have to be dialled back in the name of the game actually being worth playing. By all means have battle chaos have an effect – but don’t have it making your players tear their hair out.

    To my mind – these rules push things *FAR* beyond the realms where I find it fun. I come into one of these games feeling like no matter how skillfully I play – I may easily lose…at which point, I really don’t want to play.

    So bear in mind: “It’s only a game”.

    If you imagine you can EVER reproduce realism – then you have to lock the players away in drafty tents out in the backyard and have their only knowledge of the game be inaccurate maps and dubious reports from aides who had their own agendas and in turn only saw a quarter of the battlefield at any one time.

    • cptshandy August 20, 2018 / 5:52 pm

      Hi Steve, thanks for your thoughts and sorry being late with replying – your comment was lost in the spam queue and I discovered it only today.

      Of course I understand that this is a game and I would never want it to be realistic in the sense you described – I’m not interested in experiencing real war in any shape for form, it’s far too horrible.

      Your insights from video games are interesting, however I think there are different ways to enjoy games and different reasons why people play games. Quantic Foundry (https://quanticfoundry.com) has some interesting statistical data on the diversity of gamer motivation. I’m not especially interested in proving my skill, I’m playing a game because I want to participate in a story. When playing historical wargames, I want that story to be historical plausible and to mirror what I’ve read (research into the history is another thing I enjoy and something that is integral to gaming for me). Sharp Practice delivers that for me – and, most importantly, it is fun. I agree that a game has to be fun, we might just have different ideas of what constitutes fun for us.

  5. LeVermenarque August 13, 2018 / 10:07 am

    I do not play sharp practice myself, but now I sure want to!

    Great piece, very colourful and well written.

    One thought: the ACW is known to have been a quite chaotic war, due to disorganised command (due to secession), untrained soldiers, etc. The ACW surely offers many many examples of things going very wrong… Still, many things went wrong during the French-Prussian war of 1870 and WWI.
    Strangely enough less examples seem to come to mind about the Napoleonic wars. The Russian and Spanish campaigns are considered strategic failures but it seems that history did not record as many tactical failures as during the ACW or WW1 (or WW2). I wonder if it is a reflect of the truth (I do not think so) or of the “legend” that was built around it.

    Anyway, my thoughts are taking me too far. Great piece!

    • cptshandy August 13, 2018 / 10:31 am

      Thanks! Interesting thoughts, I’ve never thought about it that way. I haven’t read much about napoleonic wars (and almost nothing about 20th century conflicts) but I’ve at least come across examples of uncontrolled fire in the Spanish campaigns. A comparison would certainly be interesting.

      One reason why the ACW is full of examples may be that due to the unprecedented high literacy rate, so many eyewitness accounts in letters and memoirs are available – especially accounts from the ranks, which might be more willing to report botch-ups than the often vainglorious memoirs of officers.

    • LeVermenarque August 13, 2018 / 2:02 pm

      This may well be true. Napoleonics wars are more shrouded in the “heroics” (especially here in France) than any other conflict. There are indeed famous example of tactical mistakes in Spain, but it suits the heroic narrative since “The Emperor” was not often there. Russia is another story entirely.

      We have many examples of this during the 1870 conflict and both world wars. I’ll start looking for an officer stepping in you know what 😉

    • cptshandy August 13, 2018 / 2:24 pm

      Please let me know if you find something! 🙂

    • adminpulliamorieat August 13, 2018 / 11:47 pm

      “Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon” by Rory Muir is full of rather chaotic and frictious anecdotes, mostly from the Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns

    • LeVermenarque August 14, 2018 / 8:10 am

      Good to know! I’ll have a look at it, thanks for the tip.

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