The Spirit of ’61 – A Big Game of Sharp Practice

On the occasion of my birthday, I invited Sigur, Virago and Stephan to a big game of Sharp Practice. I’ve always wanted to play a game with four players and more units than usual and this was a perfect opportunity to try this.

Our forces’ objective was to confiscate a whiskey distillery. Both had a wagon to transport the destillery as well as an assortment of infantry and one unit of cavalry. Sigur and Virago played the Confederates, while Stephan and I took the Union. I split the commands, Virago and Stephan playing the C-in-Cs and each getting three Leaders (apart from Sigur, who had four). I took the opportunity to field my 5th New York Zouaves, a colourful troop I just finished painting.

Deployment started a bit slow for the Confederates. They were still crossing the bridge while the Union cavalry was rushing forward and Col. Bendix (Stephan) moving his men into line and into the field.

early1

As my cavalry was rather wimpy in close combat, I had them dismount and advance on foot. When Sigur’s cavalry approached, my dismounted troopers opened the ball by firing a ragged volley. Lo and behold! A lucky bullet hit the Rebel leader and threw him out of the saddle.

early2

Meanwhile, Stephan’s line was opening fire, which was immediately answered by a hail of bullets from Virago’s line and skirmishers behind the fence.

early3

Casualties on the Union line started to mount and it did look grim for a while. However, this firefight sucked in a huge chunk of the Confederate forces, which was actually working to our advantage. Slowly, we worked the dismounted cavalry and Zouave skirmishers forward on our left flank, trying to outflank the Rebels. They managed to drive back the cavalry but had not enough firepower to finish the job on their own. 

midgame cav battering

As so often in Sharp Practice, it would be a question of time: Could the hard-pressed Union line hold until the Zouave arrived and put pressure on the Confederate right flank?

Capt. Kilpatrick from the 5th N.Y. had some difficulties getting his unruly men over the bridge. However, when they finally made it, they rushed forward to seize the distillery and take up position to ease the pressure off their comrades to their right.

zouavesarriving

Col. Bendix had started to slowly move his men backward so as to get them out of the firing arc of the Rebel line. After some difficulties, he succeeded, while the Confederates, dazzled by the smoke and noise, continued firing uncontrolled.

Kilpatrick had meanwhile not only brought his men into position, he also had managed to convince the moonshiner to hand the distillery over to the Union. The fellow even joined the Zouave ranks, no doubt beguiled by their colourful uniforms.

lategame_zouaves

And now came the luck of the Irish: Four command cards made it possible to activate Kilpatrick twice, pouring two withering volleys into the Confederates standing to the Zouaves’ front. They never stood a chance  – one group was obliterated and routed, while the other held on but was in a very bad shape.

lategame salvo yikes

This was the climax of the game and it secured the Union victory. With one stroke, the Confederate flank was gone.

Some Rebels, however, could not accept defeat. In what was the game’s most heroic moment, the Confederate cavalry leader, after being woken by the regimental physician and finding himself alone, drew his sabre and single-handedly charged the dismounted Union troopers. He managed to win melee, driving the wimpy troopers away.

endgame charge

This however could not really change the overall situation and the Confederate C-in-C conceded defeat.

A victory of the Union, who no doubt celebrated their triumph by tasting the hard-earned liquor!

Sharp Practice delivered another dramatic game. When Stephan’s hard-pressed line almost started to waver, we both feared for the worst. However, the timely arrival of the Zouaves saved the day for the Union.

It was a novel and fun experience to play Sharp Practice with four people. All in all, we had thirteen leaders and twenty units, with a total of about 160 figures on the table. This is a lot for someone who is accustomed to small skirmish games! Interestingly, changes in the card deck dynamics were perceptible – there were less random events and it was harder to collect command cards.

I’m very grateful to my friends for joining me in this game – thanks guys, this was a great birthday present! And once again thanks to Sigur for letting me use his photos.

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The Raft Lookout

What’s recently caught my eye in the wonderful world of tabletop gaming?

critI’ve started watching the second season of Critical Role, the fabulous RPG video series where a bunch of voice actors play D&D. So far, I find it even better than the first season. Critical Role has now started a Kickstarter to finance an animated series based on the first episode. They are known for their loyal fan base, but this exceeded all expectations: so far, they managed to get over $ 7.5 Million! That is a lot of money, especially for a Kickstarter where people don’t get a ton of stuff. In fact, the animated series will be free to watch, regardless if you back the Kickstarter or not. If you want to back it, it’s still running:

mwAs you know, I like magazines. I’ve recently decided to take out a subscription to Miniature Wargames. I’ve had it for a while before but canceled when Henry Hyde was ousted. I was pleasantly surprised by the last issue. What I especially like is the regular feature by Jon Sutherland called Command Decision. It’s a series of scenarios in a similar format to the venerable Table Top Teasers. What’s original about Jon’s scenario design is that he includes a pre-game decision which will shape the scenario to be played. This gives the scenario a bit more context and involves the player into the wider narrative without having to unfurl all the paraphernalia of a campaign. A really clever idea! I already regret having missed the previous scenarios and hope that Jon might be convinced to collect his Command Decisions in a book…

OLTcolor (Small)The ever inventive Joe McCullough has recently started an interesting new wargaming format. Under the title Operation Last Train, he has published sci-fi rules intended to game the evacuation of civilians from alien-held worlds. The interesting thing is that this is a charity project: not only are gamers asked to donate £3/$5 to Save the Children when downloading the rules, but Joe will also play a campaign. For each civilian he will rescue in-game, he will donate 10 cents. This is a fascinating and – as far as I know – novel way of linking gaming and real-world issues. People are invited to join in and there has already sprung up a lively community on Facebook.

D1dAHuJXQAII1zsThere is also news from Bad Squiddo Games! Annie has been very busy: She has acquired the magnificent terrain range from Ristul’s Extraordinary Market, which is now sold under the name of Bad Squiddo Terrain. New models have already been announced – I especially like the angry tree stumps and the scarecrows. She is also continuously expanding her believable female miniatures. Next up are more WW2 models, this time women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Annie has posted a preview with interesting insights into the design process on the Lead Adventure Forum. I’m looking forward to seeing more of those figures.

Wall’s Bridge Revisited

Almost two years ago, I played a Sharp Practice scenario from Grierson’s raid. While a fun game, the scenario suffered from several issues. The publication of a new book on the raid by Timothy Smith prompted me to revisit the scenario.

My staunch Sharp Practice opponent Sigur took the Confederate defenders (and he also took the pictures), while I played the Union attackers. Last time, one of the problems was balance: the Union is equipped with breech-loading carbines, which offer a severe advantage in firefights. I wanted to keep the technical superiority of the Union, while also taking into account the state of their troops: at that moment, they had been in the saddle for almost two weeks, moving hundreds of miles through enemy territory. They were exhausted, but had to act quick and decisively, as large numbers of Confederate troops were hot on their heels.

Therefore, I introduced two special rules:

specialrules

The idea behind the Exhausted special rule was to skew the distribution of random events a bit in the direction of the Union, thereby modeling their exhaustion and proneness to making mistakes. The turn clock should put the Union player under pressure and force him to make quick decisions, even if not all of his troops were immediately available.

Similar to last game, the scenario started with the Union “butternut guerrillas” (scouts) leaderless on the far side of Tickfaw River, as they had run into a Confederate ambush.

 

I decided to keep them there and exchange shots with the Confederate skirmishers while I moved my first two groups of cavalry to my left flank. There, they dismounted and waded through the river, taking up position on the far side. Unfortunately, their Leader had some difficulties keeping up and ended up on the other side – a mistake that would cost him dearly…

earlygame repeaters line up

Sigur meanwhile hurried his infantry to counter my troopers. He soon came under fire from the breech-loading carbines, which hurt him pretty badly. However, he managed to form line and gave back in kind – a controlled volley from close distance thinned the ranks of my troopers.

midgame lineup shootout

To make matters worse, Sigur had advanced the rest of his men down the road. Some took position on the bridge and peppered my dismounted cavalry from behind. Not content with such impunity, he crossed the river and sneaked up on my boys from behind. Before he knew what had happened, my cavalry Leader was taken prisoner!

lategame capture

This did not bode well. The cavalry on the river banks were now in a very bad position. I managed to get in the reinforcements, one group of which I sent to the river to relief the pinned troopers while the other galloped helter-skelter along the road to take the Confederate deployment point and threaten his line from behind.

endgame cav take deployment point

Alas, too late! My Force Morale plummeted and I conceded when it was at 2 (against Sigur’s 7).

endgame overview

Congratulations to the plucky defenders, which held their ground against the odds!

This was a fun game, with Sigur acting bold and outmaneuvering me completely. The scenario tweaks also worked ok. I think the turn clock contained too many steps – I would skip the reduction of Command Cards, but would reduce the number it takes to end the game to 46. Turn clocks are always a difficult thing in Sharp Practice, as the turn lengths are so variable, but it did achieve the effect of conveying a sense of pressure.

First Game of Over Malvern Hill

You will remember that I backed the Kickstarter for Over Malvern Hill, the new ACW rules from Stand to Games. The rules arrived and I liked what I saw, so I roped Sigur in for a test game. Unfortunately, he had to cancel, so I decided to run a solo game. This was probably a good idea for a first game, as I had to look a lot of stuff up…

I used the Battle of Big Bethel as a scenario. It’s a good scenario for solo gaming, as the Confederates have a rather static defense position. However, it’s a bit difficult to balance, as the Union had a huge advantage in numbers and should, by all accounts, have won – which they didn’t due to the difficult terrain and severe command problems. So, while the Union player has a lot more forces, it should still be quite difficult for him or her to win the game.

To spice it up a bit, I introduced a deck of friction cards (I got the initial idea from John Drewienkiewicz’ Wargaming in History Vol. 10: The Shenandoah Valley 1862, a most splendid book full of great ideas). At the start of each turn, a card is drawn from a deck. There are several blank cards in the deck, but there are also random event cards (for this scenario, one for the Confederates and three for the Union) and a ‘coffee’ card. When a random event card is drawn, the players whose random event it is rolls on a table and applies the result. The coffee cards signifies a lull in the action. Units in close range to each other withdraw a bit (unless, of course, they hold a scenario-specific objective), commanders may rally their troops etc.

My table set up followed the maps in Battle of Big Bethel: Crucial Clash in Early Civil War Virginia, a very good overview of the battle as well as the political background, which is in fact more interesting than the rather small affair.

setup

Like in history, my (i.e. the Union) forces arrived piecemeal and my main commander – who unfortunately was with the first column – was rather underwhelming, to put it mildly. I advanced my first two regiments, trying to keep them out of the fire from the main Confederate battery while still threatening the forward redoubt.

2

One of the regiments was sent on a flank march, which meant however that the other regiment was out of command and could only stand there. Fortunately, my main force arrived soon after.

3

My artillery had managed to silence the small Confederate cannon deployed in the forward redoubt, but neglected to drive it away for good – something that would haunt me later. Still, spirits were high and the regiments charged forward in field column. 

4

Which, as I quickly learned, was not a good idea, especially against artillery. The attack got stuck, while, on my right flank, the regiment attacking across the creek was also driven back.

6

I withdrew what was left of my attack column and waited for my last column to arrive.

7

I deployed those two regiments on my left flank with the intent to at least take the forward redoubt. A first frontal attack got stuck – fortifications are really hard to storm (as it should be). Fortunately, the coffee card came up, which allowed me to sort out my troops and redeploy them for a final push.

Alas, bad dice rolling contributed to an utter defeat in close combat, destroying my attacking regiment.

8

There was nothing left to do – the game was over. At least I had achieved a historical result!

I really enjoyed the game. At first, I had to look up a lot – it seems I didn’t read the rules as carefully as I had thought. I also changed the QRS after the first turn: Initially, I wanted to use half distances, as is advised in the rule book for 15mm. I quickly found that this looked daft on my table, as the relation between ground scale, figure scale and terrain scale felt wrong. So I used distances reduced by 1/3, which looked good and worked fine.

After the first couple of turns, the game started to flow very nicely. I still kept forgetting things and later discovered that I missed a couple of minor details. However, the game was fun and felt historical plausible. It also produced a great narrative (helped by the friction deck). Over Malvern Hill for me feels like the right balance between period-specific details and playability. I’ll certainly keep playing – hopefully, I can get Sigur to have a game some other time!