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?

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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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ACW Rules Kickstarter

At the beginning of the year, I had the plan to upscale my ACW gaming to Regiment/Brigade level. I’d really be interested to fight some smaller actions, comprising one to three brigades per side, on the tabletop. I even painted flags and commanders to be able to use my Sharp Practice units as regiments.

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But which rules to use? I’ve tried out several and read some more, but none of them have completely captivated me. My game of Black Powder was fun and I subsequently bought the rule-book and the ACW supplement. However, I didn’t like the books at all – they are, for lack of a better term, reactionary in every sense of the word. Kugelhagelanother set I tried at the club, is a more dynamic game insofar as it breaks with IGO-UGO. In fact, I find it too dynamic, playing too loose with historical plausibility for my taste.

Longstreet is the game favored by my chums Virago and Sigur. I really liked the game I played, but upon reflection, there are a couple of things that keep me from getting it. First, the price – I’d need the rule-book plus two sets of cards, which would set me back about 100$, and although I’m prepared to pay a price for a rule-book, this is too much. Second, it’s geared towards one brigade per side, and I’m not sure how it would do with two or three. And third, while the card mechanism is fun, it feels a bit too abstract and gamey for my taste.

I then got Pickett’s Charge, which looks very good. I was impressed by the historical depth and by some of the rules mechanics. However, the level of battle I’m looking for might be a bit too small for those rules. Also, I’ve watched a game being played at our Gettysburg Battle Day and it looked like hard work. I think I’d prefer something that is a bit more streamlined.

Being a wargamer, I then decided to write my own rules. I even had three test games. They worked ok and I’ll continue working on them, but still, they didn’t give me the experience I was looking for.

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Some time ago, Mike Hobbs mentioned Over the Hills on the Meeples&Miniatures podcast. This is a set of regimental level napoleonic rules produced by Stand to Games and has become his go-to rules for the period. I liked what he said and thought that I wished they were available for the ACW.

Guess what? They will be soon (hopefully)! Stand to Games has just launched a Kickstarter for Over Malvern Hill, an ACW variant of the rules. They seem to be geared just towards the level of engagement that interests me. They furthermore seem to play fast while still retaining a feel for the period.

This is what the authors say about their design goals:

“We wanted to produce a fast paced easy to play game where the psychological effect of warfare was strongly reflected throughout the game and the rule mechanics.

Command and Control and ACW tactics should be firmly rooted in the game.”

To model the psychological effect, they use a fatigue score which diminishes as the unit takes casualties. They also have an interesting turn sequence which enables to non-active player to react. And they even include rules for sieges and balloons!

Perhaps they’ll be the rules I am looking for? Let’s see – I backed the Kickstarter and hope it will be successful, as I’m eager for a chance to try them out.

Escort Duty – Sharp Practice AAR

Having recently finished a handful of Confederate Native Americans, I naturally wanted to play a game with them. We settled for the Escort scenario from the Sharp Practice rule-book, as we had never played that before. Also, raids on federal supply trains were quite common in the Indian Territory.

The terrain featured a lot of hills, rocks and woods  and also a sunken road – a perfect spot for an ambush. We decided that the Union convoy, which was commanded by me, would travel along the road in marching formation until attacked. I could, however, deploy my skirmishers and cavalry on the flanks.

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After I had placed my troops, K. positioned her deployment point. She also immediately began to deploy her line troops in a position to enfilade me as soon as I moved out of the sunken road. Blissfully unaware of the danger, my convoy moved forward, the leading formation entering the sunken road. K. also had one group of Indians move through the woods. When those opened fire on my skirmishers, the game was on.

However, before my troops could exit the sunken road, K. sprang an ambush. I’ve given the Indians the ‘Tactical’ characteristic and she made good use of it. Rushing to the crest of the sunken road, they delivered an enfilading volley on my unsuspecting men. Shocked, they turned to face their assailants, but another volley was too much for one of the groups, which fell back. My Force Morale started to sink.

 

It was going to get worse, however: K.’s line troops now moved into position to block the sunken road’s exit and fired at my bottled-up and already shaken groups. Both broke and fled back toward the supply wagons.

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While this was happening, my rearguard took position to fend off the cavalry K. was moving into position. Before they could get off a shot, however, the cavalry charged them furiously and emptied their pistols into the ranks. Yes, K. had two command cards and used ‘Sam Colt’s Equalizer’ to inflict shock before going in. Lo and behold! I was on the receiving end of the first successful cavalry charge in all of our games of Sharp Practice. The Rebel troopers not only broke my formation and made one group fall back, they also killed my Leader. This was the last blow: My Force Morale was down at 1, while K.’s was still at 10.

A victory for the Cherokee Raiders!

Wow, that was one of the quickest games of Sharp Practice I’ve ever played. For the Rebels, everything played out perfectly: The ambush in the sunken road, which was followed up by bottling up my advance guard in the narrow gorge, and, before I could react properly, the swift charge by the cavalry, which made short thrift of my rear guard. Nonetheless, it was a fun game which felt decidedly different from most of the other games of SP I’ve played recently. This one really felt like a swift ambush – there was no probing of positions and slow advance of lines, but a series of fast and furious blows which ended the affair before I could get my act together. K. played the Native Americans boldly and aggressively and Sharp Practice delivered the perfect narrative for the situation.

I’m now going to assemble a Union Indian Brigade and then the tables will be turned!

Native Americans in the ACW

K. has been pestering me for some time now to make ACW scenarios involving Native Americans. A couple of years ago, she even made me buy an Osprey on the subject. However, I never got the project going as I couldn’t find the right figures.

I’ve finally decided that if I can’t get the figures, I have to convert them. So what did they look like?

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A Union Indian Home Guard soldier.

The so-called ‘Five Civilzed Nations’ (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole) were split between support for the Confederacy and loyalty to the Union. Officially, for various reasons they sided with the Confederates; however, a great number of warriors from those tribes also enlisted in the Union Indian Home Guard. In many tribes, the men of mixed heritage, who had adopted Southern culture (often including owning slaves), opted to join the Rebel forces. The more traditional ‘full-blooded’ members of the tribes stayed with the Union. Many were members of the influential Keetoowah Society, a secret society founded in the 1850 that not only stressed the preservation of ancient customs, but also had ties to abolitionism.

Though promised uniforms and weapons, Confederate Native Americans didn’t actually receive any, so they wore their civilian cloths and used their own weapons, mostly shotguns. Often mentioned by eyewitnesses are their long hair and the peacock feathers they stuck to their hats.

Native Americans on the Union side at first only got the navy blue 4-button sack coat and hardee hat. All other clothes, including the trousers, they provided themselves. Most of them were home-made. Only in 1863 would they be provided with army clothing. They did get decent weapons, though (various models of rifled muskets). They also wore their hair long, but – being more traditionalist – stuck eagle feathers to their hats. Interestingly, the Union Indian Home Guards also contained African-Americans, men who had escaped from plantations in the Indian Territory and had joined the loyal groups.

Looking from the perspective of 15mm figures, there are three main characteristics that would stand out: The basic clothing, the long hair and the feathers.

As the Confederates were a motley bunch, I grabbed a couple of spare figures with hats, some of them regular Confederate infantry, some from the useful Home Guard Militia pack from QRF/Freikorp15 and some from Peter Pig’s Western range.

I then took some green stuff and added long hair, a feather and an occasional scarf to the figures.

I’m far from proficient with green stuff, but this was easier than I thought.

I then painted the figures, trying to get a varied appearance and avoiding the grays I use for Confederates so as to give them a more unique look.

For the Union Indian Brigade, I used Peter Pig‘s Union infantry with hat and repeating rifles, mainly because they wear hats and I had them at hand. Of course the warriors were not armed with repeating rifles, but I decided no one will notice anyway.

I haven’t finished painting them, but you’ll still get a picture:

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I mainly want to use them for Sharp Practice, so I intend to make four skirmisher groups of each side plus two groups of mounted warriors for the Confederates. Incidentally, both sided started out as mounted troops but also fought dismounted. Over time, the Union warriors lost their horses due to attrition and Confederate Raids, so in the end all Union Indian Brigade regiments were dismounted and fought on foot. I’ll do a post about a Sharp Practice Force List for Native Americans in the ACW some other time.

 

Bibliography

Academic historians have for a long time neglected the Western Theater of the ACW and especially the Indian Territory, so there is quite a number of substandard literature out there. For the wargamer, the most comprehensive and useful book is Mark Lardas’ Native American Mounted Rifleman 1861–65, published by Osprey. The best overall history of the Native American experience is Mary Jane Warde’s When the Wolf Came. The Civil War and the Indian Territory, University of Arkansas Press 2013. It includes a detailed analysis of the political conflicts as well as a solid and comprehensive overview of the campaigns, battles and skirmishes. For a military perpective, another good book is W. Craig Gaines’ The Confederate Cherokees. John Drew’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles (Louisiana State University Press 1989, with a new edition published in 2017), which has a broader focus than the title would suggest.

Some studies dedicated to specific persons or battles have been published, but as far as I have seen them they are of a decidedly mixed quality.