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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Wargaming Article Published

The recent issue of Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy magazine contains a special feature on raiding actions during the American Civil War. One of the article was penned by me!

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It’s on a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time, namely the Combahee River Raid. I’ve written a three-part scenario for Sharp Practice, which can be played as a series of successive games or parallel on a club evening.

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Guy Bowers did a great job with the graphic design and the article is illustrated with very nice pictures of 28mm figures. Those, however, are not from my collection, as my photographic skills are not up to producing publishable images – something I really should work on.

So, here are some images from our playtesting:

I have to say that I’m a bit proud to have published something in what is, in my opinion, the best wargaming magazine around. Guy Bowers is always interested in things off the beaten path and the magazine really puts gaming into the foreground. If you are interested in the ACW, check out this issue – it has a number of fascinating articles and great ideas for scenarios!

Ambush! – A Sharp Practice AAR

In the latest issue of Wargames Illustrated (#365), there is a rules- and period-agnostic ambush scenario by Mike Bradford. It sounded fun and like it would work well with Sharp Practice, so K. and I set up a quick game.

We imagined our skirmish taking place very early in the war, with untrained troops bumping into each other at an important crossroads. Both sides had troops from the early force lists, with the Confederates fielding one unit of Zouaves and both sides having cavalry as reinforcements.

The game started with my skirmishers rushing towards the hill (which was one of the objectives) while K. marched her column along the road.

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My skirmishers took some pot shots at the Rebels and even hit some, but my main aim was to secure the hill before K.’s skirmishers came in.

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In their zeal, K.’s column had marched quite far ahead. When my infantry suddenly turned up, they immediately formed line and delivered a volley, giving quite a shock to the Rebels.

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At the same time, K.’s Zouaves rushed forward and charged right at my skirmishers on the hill. They tried to evade but were caught. However, in the following melee, they had luck and got off cheaply, with both sides falling back without taking too many casualties.

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And then came the time when the trap was sprung! Out of nowhere, my cavalry appeared and charged right at the Confederate column. I was lucky and had four command cards after they deployed, so I immediately activated them again, hoping to give the already shaken Rebels the rest. Alas! Things did not go as intended. The Rebels stood firm and gave my troopers quite a licking. They broke, skedaddled and never were seen again. What a blow to the Union Force Morale!

The Rebels decided they had seen enough, turned about-face and marched off, blatantly ignoring my line, which was firing wildly without doing much damage.

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Deftly, K. brought her Zouaves around to screen her retreat, while I couldn’t get my shooting troops under control in time to chase her. I got off one or two volleys, but couldn’t stop her from bringing her boys out safely.

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The Rebels had evaded the ambush and won a victory!

What a fun little game this was! It was surprisingly quick for a game of Sharp Practice (we played for around an hour), but full of unexpected turns. In this scenario, you don’t know beforehand who will get reinforcements and therefore who will be the ambushing player, which contributes greatly to making it interesting. Also, the victory conditions change for the ambushed player, as bringing at least half of their troops out will also achieve a victory – an option K. chose to take.

The game also had a decidedly early war feeling to it, with undisciplined and half-trained troops all around, the cocky Confederates marching a bit too far forward and the impetuous Union cavalry botching the ambush by recklessly charging the column. Of course, this was my main tactical mistake – I would have badly needed the cavalry for the pursuit of K.’s retreating troops. I was sure I could beat the already shaken Rebels, even if I know that ACW cavalry is not made for shock tactics. I dearly hope that I have finally learned my lesson!

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).

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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.

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…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.

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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.

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…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.