First Game of What a Cowboy!

What a Cowboy! has arrived – well, the pdf has, I’m still waiting for the paper copy and the cards. But this was enough to stage a simple first game with my mate Stephan. As he lives in Sweden, we did it remotely, using my table and figures.

Now I was pretty hyped about What a Cowboy!, which is somewhat unexpected, as I wouldn’t consider the Old West to be one of my main interests, gaming or otherwise. I know almost nothing about the historical American West, but I always had a soft spot for the cinematic West – in fact, I had a bit of a Western phase when I was around 30 and watched quite a number, classical as well as modern.

Also, a couple of years ago, I did a small Mexican Revolution project, so I have Mexican buildings and figures – enough for a small game set South of the border… Using this set-up, Stephan and I played a small introductory game, with two figures each, one Greenhorn and one Shootist, each only armed with a Colt revolver.

The game was set in the little town of San Serif. Sheriff John Frutiger and his Native American friend Tahoma were tasked with defending their turf from two bandits, Andale and Bembo.

I took the bandits and Stephan played the lawmen. Suffice it to say that I fought the law and won! Tahoma was killed pretty early by a very lucky shot, and while the Sheriff fought on bravely, in the end he decided to skedaddle in the face of superior odds.

We both enjoyed the game very much. I have to say that it exceeded my expactations. I really liked What a Tanker!, the game it is based on, but I’m not interested in tanks at all, so I was happy to see the core mechanic implemented in another setting. This core mechanic is centered around a set of action dice, six D6 at the start for each character, which you roll and which give you a selection of possible actions (a 1 to move, a 2 to spot etc.). This is a great mechanic: it offers uncertainty, but potentially also a lot of choice and decision points. It also makes the game very fluid and dynamic. If you have enough appropriate dice, you can move quite a lot. Not only does it bring you quickly into action, it also allows you to outmanoeuvre your opponent, which, in the town setting we had, led to some really cinematic moments – running up in the back lane behind Main Street and shooting at the Sheriff from behind was quite fun. 

One thing I was surprised about how well it worked was ammunition. In the game, the ammunition for each gun is tracked. Now this sounds like a lot of bookkeeping and potentially unnecessary detail, but it really isn’t – as there isn’t much bookkeeping involved in the game, it’s not complicated. What is more important is that it feels right for the genre and it again produces cinematic moments, when suddenly the characters have emptied their six-shooters and scramble to reload.

I guess this is the thing about What a Cowboy!: it conveys the feel of a Western movie very well.  I’m looking forward to playing more games, perhaps even a campaign – let’s see if I can rope my mates in…

Eferding 1809 – Sharp Practice Birthday Bash

As is by now tradition, I invited Sigur, Virago and Martin over to have a big game of Sharp Practice for my birthday. This time, we played a historical scenario from the 1809 campaign.

At the beginning of May, the French were in pursuit of the Austrian VI Corps. Marshal Masséna had sent one of his aides, Adjutant-Commandant Trenquayle (played by Martin), to take command of the advance guard of General Carra Saint-Cyr’s division. West of the small town of Eferding, they ran into an Austrian rearguard composed of Grenzinfanterie-Regiment Nr. 13 (Wallachisch-Illyrische) under Oberst Franz von Gratze (played by Virago) and the 2nd Viennese Volunteer Battalion under Oberstleutnant August Ernst Freiherr von Steigentesch (played by myself). The Austrians had taken position behind fences and in the farms outside the town walls, so a cavalry attack seemed imprudent. After a first, inconclusive skirmish, Trenquayle asked Carra Saint-Cyr for reinforcements and attacked with the 24e Régiment d’Infanterie Légère and elements of line infantry, probably from the 4e or 46e Ligne (commanded by Sigur).

The map (from the late 18th century Josephinische Landesaufnahme) shows Eferding and surroundings, with the blue box indicating the area depicted on the table.

As Eferding still had its medieval town wall, this was a great opportunity to finally use the castle walls I bought ages ago (at my first CRISIS, to be exact). However, I also quickly scratch built a town gate to give it a more Austrian look.

This is a 17th century view of Eferding, with the box again indicating the area depicted on the table.

And this is my attempt at recreating the view:

And the overview:

The blue circles indicate the position of the French deployment points, the yellow circles those of the Austrian.

The Austrian objective was to either reduce the French Force Morale to 0 or to withdraw at least 4 intact groups into Eferding. However, they could only withdraw after either their or their opponents’ Force Morale had fallen to 4 or lower. The French had to prevent this.

Quicker to deploy, the French brought in two compact lines, both with a skirmisher screen, as well as one group of skirmishers on their right flank. The Austrians just deployed the Landwehr, which was positioned on the flanks, and the Grenzer skirmishers on their right flank. The Grenzer line groups were kept in reserve.

The massed French advance looked pretty impressive and a bit intimidating to the Austrians, but soon the image was marred by a plucky Grenzer Sharpshooter, who shot Adjutant-Commandant Trenquayle from his high horse! Trenqualye was only knocked out and back on his feet in a short time, but still – it hurt the French pride and, what was more important, their Force Morale.

Unfortunately,  the Landwehr skirmishers on the Austrian far left realised that they forgot to pack extra ammunition, meaning they could only fire at close range (random event). They decided to make a virtue out of necessity and worked their way forward on the left, trying to outflank (or at least threaten) the French flank. 

They got up to the frontmost fence, but were then charged by the French voltigeurs and driven back with losses. For the rest of the game, the opposing groups continued a fierce musketry duel, with both leaders hit and wounded.

Oberst von Gratze nodded approvingly at the aggressive stance of the Landwehr and decided to make an even bolder move: He deployed two of his line groups at the forward deployment point, right in the center, opposite the gap between the two French lines. They fired and then charged the French skirmishers in the orchard, but inflicted only insignificant casualties. However, the French were now forced to react to the sudden threat in their center.

The French manoeuvred to get the Grenzer into their arcs of fire, withdrawing part of their righthand formation and splitting their left line into two wings. Meanwhile, von Gratze deployed the rest of his force. Everything was now on the table.

The leftmost French line received intense fire from Grenzer skirmishers, taking casualties and shock, but still advancing towards the Landwehr and the French primary deployment point. They opened fire on the Landwehr but only caused insignificant damage. The Landwehr held back for a controlled close volley.

In the center, the Grenzer in the orchard got into a cross-fire, but managed to withdraw in relatively good order and took position behind the fence.

On the Austrian left there was a stalemate, with Landwehr and Grenzer behind the fence awaiting the French advance.

This was the situation when he had to end the game due to time. Things were going quite well for the Austrians: the French attack had stalled, their right wing was somewhat stuck and would have to reorganise the groups that manoeuvred back to contain the bold Grenzer attack before crossing the fence and advancing into the fire of the waiting Landwehr and Grenzer. The Austrians would now have concentrated all their energy on hitting the leftmost French line – the Grenzer skirmishers as well as the Landwehr would have tried to inflict enough casualties to reduce the French Force Morale, which already was at 6, to 4, and then commence their withdrawal into Efferding. Virago and I were pretty confident that we could have pulled it off…

Another excellent game of Sharp Practice! It had a really interesting dynamic, the highlight being Virago holding the bulk of his forces back and then deploying them right in the center. This brought the orderly French advance into disarray, made a dent in their line and eased the pressure on my right flank Landwehr.

The only thing I will consider for next time is to either find a date where we can start earlier or play longer, e.g. a Friday. We didn’t actually play that long (about two and a half hours total playing time), and about 45 minutes more would probably have been sufficient to come to a conclusion, so that will be my benchmark for next time.

After the long COVID break, I’m really happy to play again with my friends. I’m very grateful to Sigur, Virago and Martin for indulging me, this really was a great birthday present! Thanks guys!

Queley’s Heroes – A Sharp Practice Campaign

It is well known that during the War of the Fifth Coalition, the British subsidised the Austrian war effort with huge sums. But how did the money get to Austria? Part of it was transported in silver and bills via Hamburg and Breslau to Vienna, using bankers as intermediaries. Another part was landed in the Adriatic. It seems that there were two separate deliveries, although the literature is in disagreement about the exact dates and the ships involved. It is pretty certain that in the middle of June, British frigate HMS Mercury broke through the French blockade of the Adriatic coast and landed 157 crates filled with silver and gold at Zengg (today Senj in Croatia). The crates were then transported to Agram (today Zagreb) and Esseg (today Osijek). They weighted almost 44 tons and contained silver and gold worth about 25 Million pounds in today’s money. A quick calculation shows that the transport would have needed about 9 wagons, each pulled by 6 horses.

A story to fire the imagination! Especially if you have, like me, always had a soft spot for the 1970 WW2 adventure comedy Kelly’s Heroes, featuring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland as disillusioned American soldiers who stumble upon information on a huge gold treasure hidden in a bank behind German lines and start a private expedition to rob it.

I decided that all of this would make a great campaign for Sharp Practice. As I’ve never played a proper Dawns & Departures campaign, it was obvious to chose that format. I also wanted to include my friend Stephan in Sweden, so a remote campaign was the way to go. I roped in another friend, Martin, and started to draw a map.

It would have been fun to set the campaign in Croatia, where the French under Marmont fought the Austrians in a campaign that included British naval landings and intervention by Turkish raiders. That would also have fit with the fact that the movie Kelly’s Heroes was actually shot in Croatia! However, although I have a little bit of mediterranean terrain, most of my collection only works for Austria or Southern Germany, and all my napoleonic figures are also based with this in mind. So I decided to re-locate the campaign and assume that the Austrians have sent the treasure in the direction of Vienna. However, as the French more or less control Lower Austria, the commander of the convoy decided to temporarily store the treasure in a small castle in Styria and send a messenger to the Austrian Emperor, at that time in Hungary, asking him what to do with the money.

Our campaign starts with a French sergeant finding the heavily wounded messenger and searching his sabretache, where he finds a letter indicating the location of the treasure. He informs his superior, Capitaine Queley, who decides to put together a “private enterprise operation” (to quote Kelly in the movie). As he needs cavalry, he asks an eccentric officer of Chasseurs à Cheval only known as Dingue to join him. Dingue agrees, and our heroes march off to Styria.

In our game, Stephan plays Queley, Martin is Dingue and I play the Austrians and act as an overall game master, like in a role-playing game. The players started at Aspang, knowing that the treasure is kept in the castle at Trautmannsdorf. The first turns therefore where straight-forward. When the cavalry patrol reported Austrian Landwehr stationed at Vorau, they decided to attack, but were delayed by a rainstorm. When the attack finally began, the French swept the Styrian Landwehr under Oberst Schmalzenegger from the table. Schmalzenegger was not keen to stand against French regulars and got most of his troops off the table, but Dingue had kept cavalry in reserve and pursued, dispersing the Landwehr and capturing a supply wagon.

Queley and Dingue are pretty happy: their operation has got off to a good start. The only slightly concerning news comes from their scout, who has discovered Austrian line infantry at Hartberg… but for now, everything looks good and the men have a spring in their step!

Battlefield Walk – Wagram

The weather is getting better and my friend Anton Tantner suggested a trip to the Marchfeld. Finally an opportunity to visit parts of the battlefield of Wagram, where on 5 and 6 July 1809, the hitherto largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars was fought!

Together with our wives, we first took the bus to Markgraf-Neusiedl. This was the pivotal point of the second days’s fighting and the location where the battle was decided, as the French 3rd Corps under Marshal Davout outflanked Rosenberg’s Austrians.

Unfortunately, the famous tower, which served as the Austrian HQ and observatory, is private property, and we found it very hard to find a good vantage point to look at what would have been the position of the French attacks (one of which came from the east, and the other from the south). We did get a look at the tower from outside, though. At the time, it was rectangular, the round tower was built after the battle to house a windmill.

We then took the bikeway along the Russbach in direction of Baumersdorf and Deutsch-Wagram. This walk led us along the Austrian front, which was positioned on the heights just north of the Russbach. Of course we had to climb the heights to get a better view! The banks of the Russbach would have been pretty devoid of vegetation at the time, as the Austrians would have used the foliage to cover their camp huts.

Looking south towards the Russbach and the French approach from halfway up the heights.

Half-way between Markgraf-Neusiedl and Deutsch-Wagram is the small village of Parbasdorf, at the time mainly known as Baumersdorf. On the evening of July 5, when the French army made its large but uncoordinated probing attack, it was a key position, as it was the location of bridges over the Russbach. While French and Saxon troops broke through the Austrian lines west of Baumersdorf, Austrians under General Hardegg held the village itself, thereby preventing the French to reinforce their breakthrough with artillery and cavalry. For this action, Hardegg, who had probably saved the Austrian army from an early defeat, was awarded the Maria-Theresia-Orden. The basic layout of the village is still the same as in 1809, with the large Anger (village green) in the center.

To the west of the village, we could see the heights which were stormed by the Division Dupas on the evening of July 5.

We continued our walk to Deutsch-Wagram, where Anton had arrange a meeting with historian Michael Wenzel, who gave us a tour through the Napoleonmuseum, which is housed in Erzherzog Carl’s headquarters.

Michael is extremely knowledgeable about the battle of Wagram and the 1809 campaign in general. It was a pleasure to listen to him and explain the battle and the museum’s collection. He also contributed to a recent archaeological survey, which unearthed an Austrian camp as well as soldiers’ graves, artefacts of which are among the museum’s highlights. Better still, he is also a wargamer, so I immediately talked him into giving Sharp Practice and one of my 1809 scenario a try!

We had a great day out and I was happy to finally walk a part of the Wagram battlefield and visit the museum, something I had in mind for quite some time. The museum hosts a reenactment on July 1, which I plan to attend, and Michael and I will meet for a game, so you’ll read more about 1809-related activities in the future.