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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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.

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.

1
The set up. Sigur’s cavalry moves along the road towards the bridge.
2
… 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.
3
With the cavalry heading towards the rear, it’s up to the poor bloody infantry.
4
Hurrah! At the earliest possible moment, the Union cavalry arrives.
5
The Confederates haven taken position in the rough ground and a musketry duels starts.
6
The Union infantry rushes towards the fort. In the foreground, you can see the already dismounted Union troopers.
7
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.
8
While the well-drilled Union infantry has formed line, the dismounted cavalry has been repulsed by the Confederates in the wheat field.
9
The Union line advances, trying to hit the Confederates in the flank.
10
The Union line is in a bad position now – it’s either forward with the bayonet or being caught in a cross-fire.
11
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.
14
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.
15
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!

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.

pic1
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.

pic4
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.

pic5
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.

pic3
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.

pic9
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.

the_end
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.