Relief Force – Sharp Practice AAR

Last week-end, Sigur and I had another game of Sharp Practice. I had devised a short and simple scenario: A Union held fort was attacked by a Confederate force, but a relief column was on its way.

Sigur decided to command the attackers and got a couple of infantry, a unit of cavalry and a small mountain howitzer. I had three rather weak units in the fort. To make things more interesting, I drew card for the composition of the relief force, which gave me three units of regular infantry and one unit of cavalry armed with breech-loading carbines – quite a potent combination.

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The set up. Sigur’s cavalry moves along the road towards the bridge.
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… and there goes the cavalry! Having been shot to pieces by the Union soldiers in the fort, it flees to never be seen again. Sigur’s skirmishers adopt a more methodical approach.
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With the cavalry heading towards the rear, it’s up to the poor bloody infantry.
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Hurrah! At the earliest possible moment, the Union cavalry arrives.
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The Confederates haven taken position in the rough ground and a musketry duels starts.
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The Union infantry rushes towards the fort. In the foreground, you can see the already dismounted Union troopers.
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The dismounted Union cavalry tries to work around the Confederate flank and rear to take out the mountain howitzer, which is shelling the fort with some effect. One group of Confederate infantry have taken position in the wheat field to check the bluecoats’ advance. The shooting at the fort continues.
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While the well-drilled Union infantry has formed line, the dismounted cavalry has been repulsed by the Confederates in the wheat field.
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The Union line advances, trying to hit the Confederates in the flank.
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The Union line is in a bad position now – it’s either forward with the bayonet or being caught in a cross-fire.
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Forward it is, then! One group runs towards the howitzer…
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… while the other two charge the Confederate line. Alas! Both attacks get stuck and do not reach their intended targets.
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The Confederates counter-charge and break the Union line! The Union skirmishers have taken position to screen the line from the shooting coming from the wheat field.
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The Union attack breaks down. The group charging the howitzer was pelted with canister and took to its heels, while the rest are falling back or routing, being shot at by everything the Confederates have.

Well, that was that. With my Force Morale at 2 and Sigur’s at 7, I conceded defeat. My relief force was routing and the garrison in the fort would probably surrender.

This was a fun and interesting game. Sigur was very unlucky at the beginning, as the turns were short, he couldn’t deploy much, and then my relief force turned up at the earliest possible moment. He squandered away his cavalry, but so did I. Detaching a group from his line and positioning it in the wheat field was a prudent move. For a moment it looked very dangerous for the Confederates, but I don’t think it was actually that close a game. I took a huge risk by moving my infantry that far forward and by trying to charge his units. Playing aggressively can have a psychological effect on the other player which can make a situation look more dangerous than it really is – believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of aggressive moves many times!

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Stealin’ Horses – A Sharp Practice AAR

Having finally finished painting the Native Americans, we decided to have a game of Sharp Practice to try them out. K. played the Union defenders, with four groups from 2ndRegiment, Indian Home Guard (irregular skirmishers) and two groups of 1stKansas Colored Infantry (regular line infantry). I played the Confederates and got 4 groups of Cherokees (irregular skirmishers), one group of cavalry and one small mountain howitzer.

To make it more interesting, there were two objectives and I randomly drew one of them. K. wouldn’t know which I had. Turned out I had to steal the horses!

setup_map

I also had a moveable secondary deployment point, which I cunningly positioned in the woods to the left, near the house where the second objective was located. For the first couple of turns, I had very bad cards and was unable to deploy my troops. K. meanwhile put most of her skirmishers to cover the house and keep my moveable DP in check. Fortunately, that was what I wanted. As my cards were so bad, I didn’t move my secondary DP but deployed the skirmishers as soon as I could.

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The Union covering the objectives.

At first, I thought I could maybe get this done with swiftly and moved them toward the paddock. However, K. immediately reacted and moved her skirmishers to cover the approaches. She had quite an impressive defensive line so for the next turns, I manoeuvred around, probing her line and trying to find a weak spot. However, she countered each time by shuffling her nimble skirmishers around. At least the effect was to totally confuse her about my objective.

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The Union’s line of defence.

Finally, I decided to go for the flank and moved most of my skirmishers to the far left. When they went out of the woods, the ball finally opened and bullets started to fly.

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Flankers.

Meanwhile, I had deployed my cavalry from my main DP and had them canter on the right towards K.’s regulars, which covered the paddock. I also had kept back one group of skirmishers, which was positioned in the middle, ready to dart forward and grab the horses.

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Cavalry on the move.

Unfortunately, my flanking groups got themselves into trouble by moving a bit too much forward. K., playing her Indians aggressively, immediately charged them into the flank, with the result that they were driven back. She also brought a lot of muskets to bear unto my braves. I knew I wouldn’t stand this too long, so I wanted to get the job done while this firefight occupied the bulk of her troops.

The threat of my cavalry made K. a bit panicky and she dissolved her line to avoid being hit in the flank. For unknown reasons she also had one group retreat into the field behind the paddock (she later said that this was her one big mistake). Surprisingly, my cavalry made a successful charge and drove the Union infantry back.

At the same time, my reserve skirmishers ran into the paddock and started to capture the horses.

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Horse thieves at work.

K. was hard pressed now. Fortunately, the infantry which had retreated into the field decided to take matters into their own hands. A random event caused them to charge forward and hit my troopers in the flank! Surprised by such impudence, the cavalry broke and was for all purposes out of the game. This gave K. the space to press the horse-thieves, which she did relentlessly. After weakening them by musketry, she charged and broke them. With my Force Morale down to 2 and any chance at getting the horses gone, I conceded defeat.

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The end.

Another fun and very close game of Sharp Practice! The Indians worked well, I might modify the characteristics a bit but generally, they are fun to play – fast and nimble, but as soon as they take casualties, they don’t last long. I couldn’t really use my moveable DP and I certainly didn’t develop the potential of the mountain howitzer – after dragging it unto the hill, it was parked there for most of the game and, due to the difficult terrain, could only get one or two shots off. Perhaps I should have taken more risks with what is essentially a highly mobile piece of artillery. My cavalry performed well and exploited K.’s single error; however, she was quick to recover and, as I had no reserve, could attack and break the horse thieves with impunity.

As always with Sharp Practice, there were some great stories developing. Of special notice was Union Sgt. Big Beaver, who was the driving force on K.’s right flank and, although most of his men became casualties, survived the affair with a wound. Undoubtedly, he will show it off to his grand-children long after the war, as the centrepiece of a long and dramatic story about how, one day in 1863, he single-handedly fought off a Confederate raiding party intent on stealing a herd of horses.

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.

Waud_KennesawsBombardment
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.

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!