My Gaming Year 2022

This was definitely the year of naval wargaming. If you add up all the naval wargames in my BGG statistic, they are at the top of the list with 18 gameplays.

In April, I suddenly had the urge to re-visit the 1/300 American Civil War ships I had prepared for a one-shot game years ago. Thanks to my 3D-printer, I added lots of new ships, mainly from East Coast Ironclads. At first I played my modified Galleys & Galleons rules, but from the second game on I started to tinker and by the fourth game, I was starting to create my own rules (I still logged them under Galleys & Gallons on BGG, because there is unfortunately no possibility to log games that are not in the database). I invited a couple of friends for playtesting (thanks to Sigur, Virago, Stephan and of course my wife K. for their feedback!) and, in the end, had something I was actually happy with. It needs some further development, but I’d really like to publish them in one way or another (probably as a low-cost pdf on wargamevault) this year.

Steamboats on the Mississippi.

However, the road into naval wargaming led me beyond the ACW and, after some reading, to the First Sino-Japanese War. I painted two fleets and K. and I started a campaign (which I’d like to finish this year). I then discovered that there were naval actions during the Spanish Civil War and promptly painted a Republican and a Nationalist fleet. From there, an interest in the mediterrean theatre during World War 2 developed, and I ordered even more ships, this time for the Italians and British. Virago, who has a long-time interest in naval aviation, offered to paint up some 1/600 aircraft, so I hope we can play a small campaign this year.

Ironclad action in the First Sino-Japanese War.

Next up on the list (actually in the first position if you don’t count naval wargames as one item) is a game my wife gave me for my birthday, namely Race for the Galaxy. This really is great fun and as you can see we played it a lot. This is also one of the rare games where I tend to win more often than not.

I also did a lot of role-playing this year. I started a Traveller campaign with my virtual group and had a lot of fun with world-building and running the games. I’m really happy about this group – it already existed before COVID and is an opportunity to spend time with friends living in other parts of Europe. And when I was a bit burned out DMing, Jan took over with a fabulous short Shadowrun adventure set in Germany.

De Bellis Napolenicis was another one of my rules-tinkering projects. At the beginning of the year, I started a 6mm napoleonics project and decided to use DBN for rules. I wasn’t completely happy with them and developed my own; however, this attempt at game design produced a decidedly mediocre result, so I abandoned it after a couple of play-tests.

Napoleonic action with 3D-printed 6mm figures.

Spirit Island is also a game I bought this year, mainly because my wife was interested. She also was the driving force behind playing it. I also like it, I think the theme and its implementation is great and it offers an interesting cooperative challenge.

Another recent newcomer is Undaunted: North Africa. I bought it just two weeks ago and we both like it very much, so this will see more plays next year.

The second scenario of Undaunted: North Africa.

At the beginnig of autumn, I was in a bit of a bad mood and behaved like a jerk, moaning that “no-one wants to play the games I want to play”. Keeping a statistic such as this is a useful tool to prove oneself wrong. It’s abundantely clear that I played a lot of games I like and that my friends are very indulgent – they even play-tested my not always exciting game ideas. And we had a lot of fun together, the highlights being the summer event racing game and my birthday game of Sharp Practice. So, sorry guys for being a jerk, I really enjoy all our games together and I hope that we will play many more!

My bad mood was partly a result of my working life, which was a mixed bag, with one huge exception: I started to teach at the Viennese University of Applied Arts at the department of Experimental Game Cultures. I started with a course on Innovations in Tabletop Gaming and I’m now running a course on game mechanics. This is hands down one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had – the students are curious, open and enthusiastic and the atmosphere at the department is incredibly welcoming. I really hope to be able to continue teaching there.

Modifying Malefiz in a game design session.

What is in store for 2023? I’m not really into making big plans, as I know that my interests can change at any moment. If pressed, I’d say that I’d like to publish something, either my ACW naval rules or the Star of Bravery campaign rules (perhaps even both). I’d also like to play a WW2 naval campaign set in the mediterranean, something that might get another motivational push when Sam Mustafa’s recently announced new naval rules come out. I also hope we’ll have another summer event – meeting a large number of good friends to have a day of gaming really is one of the highlights of my year. The Traveller campaign will also continue, at least until I run out of ideas, but then I’m sure someone else will take over as a GM. More Sharp Practice would be nice (I think I needed a bit of a break this year, but I start to miss it…). At the moment, I’m strangely enough again in the mood for some 6mm napoleonics, so I’ll try out Drums and Shakos Large Battles (and perhaps Blücher).

Oh, and I also want to post much more regularily on here, so I hope you will drop by occasionally. You might find a new post for a change!

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?

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.


[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.

Fact & Fiction in Scenario Design

While I like painting and modelling, what I love most about wargaming is designing and playing scenarios. Now those scenarios don’t necessarily have to be historical – it’s great fun to devise games set in a fantasy or sci-fi world. But for some reasons, I’ve become very interested in the American Civil war and I really enjoy researching the period. Fortunately, for the ACW, there is an abundance of sources available online – not only the indispensable Official Records, but also numerous autobiographies and regimental histories (many of them accessible through the Internet Archive).

Research is great fun…

However, this material can also become an impediment. Let me explain why. When I research a historical action, I try to find out as much as possible about what happened that day: which units were involved, what was the state of the troops, what was the terrain like, who was commanding, what did they plan to do, what did actually happen and so on.

The problem is that it is easy to get lost in those details. You may end up with a very detailed representation of the historical action, but nonetheless with a scenario that does not capture what it was all about. The reason for this is that scenarios are not static models. To work as games, the have to be dynamic, open-ended processes.

…but don’t forget to play a game once in a while!

Of course, the historical action was also a dynamic, open-ended process. The people involved did not know what was going to happen, and it was their decisions and actions that determined the outcome. Fortunately, modelling this is what wargames are good at. Wargames – at least the good ones – model the decisions involved in warfare. In one of the Lardies Oddcasts, Richard Clarke remarked that his games always aim at recreating the command decisions faced by commanders in the field. For this, it is important to decide what level of command you want to represent: A regimental commander has other worries than a corps commander, and to mix those levels up is a sign of bad game design. Completeness – trying to model as many decisions as possible, so that you have to micro-manage a regiment’s formation while at the same time decide the deployment of your reserve division – does not actually contribute to a more ‘realistic’ depiction of historical events.

This, I think, is equally true about scenarios. Replicating everything you know of the historical event on the table top may produce a fine diorama, but it will not result in an exciting and dramatic game. To capture what a historical action was all about, it is important to try to recreate the perspectives of the opposing commanders. What was their aim? What did they know? And what were the specific circumstances that shaped their decisions (such as terrain features or the expectation of reinforcements)? It’s important to remember that the commanders in the field had a very limited outlook, not only in the literal sense – most of the time, they didn’t see the deployment of the enemy and his movements – but also in a more general sense: They didn’t know what the enemy was up to and what he knew of their own intentions and aims. Rule sets like Sharp Practice or Longstreet have already built-in mechanics to model this fog of war. But I think it can sometimes be important to integrate such a limited perspective in the design of the scenario itself. Usually with scenarios, both players know not only their objective, but also the other side’s aims. They also know the troops involved, the reinforcements that will turn up, the terrain and so on.

From historical record…

Paradoxically, to accurately recreate the perspective and the decisions of historical commanders, it may be necessary to leave out details or to modify the deployment, the troops involved or even the terrain. Bolstering one side to create more balanced forces, for example, is not always a boring ‘gamey’ trick to make a scenario more interesting for both players.

When a Union raiding force was attacked by Confederates in June 1863, the Rebel commander didn’t know he only faced 60 soldiers. In a scenario based on accurate numbers, the Confederate player could just charge ahead, knowing he will steamroll the Union force. But this does not capture the uncertainty of the historical commander and the cautious advance that characterized this specific action.

…to an exciting game.

Historical research is great fun and an important prerequisite for designing historical scenarios, but it is not an end in itself. When the research is done, it is important to try to reduce the situation to its core: What was it all about? What was at stake for the commanders? What shaped and what limited their outlooks and decisions?

The real challenge is to translate historical facts into a game that is not only exciting to play, but that also replicates some of the command decisions faced by the historical commanders. This may involve fiction, but nevertheless – or even because of that – it may also produce those cherished and fleeting moments when, during a game, you suddenly feel a jolting connection with the past.

Review: Zones of Control

Zones of Control. Perspectives on Wargaming is an ambitious 800-pages volume published last year by MIT Press. It is a collection of 60 essays by a great variety of authors which covers a lot of ground. Hobby and professional wargames, board games, military simulations, computer games and miniature games are all discussed. Articles from designers are paired with articles by historians and people from the humanities who investigate the cultural impact of such games.


Coming myself from the humanities, I found those articles the most fascinating. The historical overview on the development of hobby wargames by Jon Peterson is an excellent read. Bill McDonald’s vindication of Toby’s garden wargames as described in the novel Tristram Shandy is great fun, while Ian Sturrock’s and James Wallis’ short history of Games Workshop is quite enlightening. Unfortunately, it’s also the only text dealing explicitly with miniature wargames.

Cpt. Toby Shandy, the original wargamer!

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that the book’s emphasis definitely lies on board wargames of the hex-and-counter variety – not something I’m particularly interested in. Most of the designers’ texts are by people working in that area and many of the scholarly articles also cover them. This leads to a bit of tunnel vision, as the development of board wargames is treated as a pretty closed tradition. I’m sceptical about the claim that the concept of the ‘scenario’ (in contrast to ‘monographic’ games dealing with one specific battle) was invented by Avalon Hill in 1970 – the idea that rules are ‘War Engines’ which can be applied to different situations has been a part of miniature wargames since H.G. Wells’ Little Wars.

Not really my cup of tea…

The book gives the impression that the most important innovations happen in board wargames design. However, while there is a lot of discussion about combat mechanics and Combat Resolution Tables, there is not that much on command and control. Concepts such as friction, which have become central in miniature wargames, are barely mentioned. It would have been nice to read a contribution by, say, Richard Clarke of TooFatLardies and get some discussion of innovative rules design in miniature wargames.

C&C, Lardies style.

Still, due to the sheer amount of information in it, reading and browsing through Zones of Control is a rewarding experience. It’s fascinating to get so many different perspectives on wargaming and there are lots of surprising and inspiring discoveries to be made. Also, I felt like I could glimpse something like a big picture in the end. One thing I found especially interesting is the repeatedly uttered observation that there is a “strong manual and tabletop ethos” in wargaming – even in professional wargaming. Several authors stress that despite the availability of computers, tabletop games offer many advantages. One of the most important is that they are not black boxes: Design choices are immediately visible and can be discussed while rules can be changed and tinkered with – and all this without spending lots of time and money on employing programmers. The tenor of the book is that tabletop wargames still have a future – something I find rather encouraging.