Virtual Lard III

Like for many others, the pandemic has been a bit of a struggle. Due to preconditions, I’m very cautious and really try not to get this virus. While I usually don’t mind staying at home and this XKCD comic rings true for me, I do miss my friends and our gaming get togethers. While it was warm, we could at least meet in the garden, but this is no longer possible. So I started to look for other options. I already have a virtual RPG group using Discord, which was started before the pandemic because I wanted to play with friends living far away. I also run a play-by-email Kriegsspiel which is great fun and possibly one of my best gaming experiences ever (more on this some other time).

Listening to the TooFatLardies Oddcast, I heard them talking about Virtual Lard, an event where Lardy games are played over the internet. I wanted to try this out and got my chance to participate in a game of Sharp Practice at Virtual Lard III. The game, entitled “Bridge over the Tormes”, was set during the Napoleonic Wars in the Spanish Pensinula and was run by Bob Connor. Bob had a lovely table and three cameras, two static and one moveable. I played together with Wil from the US against Francis from Edinburgh and the Lord of Lard himself, Richard Clarke. We commanded the French Forces and were tasked to take a bridge which, as we were told, was only lightly defended by some Spanish militia. Of course the nasty British turned up, who’d have thought?

The game started with Wil and me struggling to get our men forward. Some interesting mishaps tormented my Voltigeurs, among them my main Leader being knocked out by a musket ball early on and some riled up bees attacking my line troops. All the while, the Allied forces peppered us and for a time, it seemed as if we would be unable to get a hold on the situation, let alone secure the bridge. However, I managed to work my skirmishers around the Allied right flank and Wil finally got his Grenadiers going, delivering a devastating charge right into the British line. This turned the game and in the end, Wil snatched victory from the jaws of my clumsiness.

The game was a large one (at least compared to the games I ususally play), but it moved along at a brisk pace. We did play for four hours, although it didn’t feel that long. I guess that Bob must have been quite exhausted, as he had to run around the table, move the figures and keep the game going. But it worked exceedingly well. Bob drew the chits out of the bag and anounced which Leader was activated, we gave our commands and rolled our own dice. Dice rolling is a good way to keep the players involved and give them at least a bit of the haptic experience of tabletop gaming. Of course it’s not the same as standing around the table, but it still feels like a miniature wargame and not a computer game. Banter is a bit more difficult on Zoom, but we still laughed a lot.

All in all, it was a great experience I very much want to repeat. I’ve ordered a webcam two weeks ago, so I think about setting up a game for my friends and, after I have some practice, maybe even one for Virtual Lard – Richard Clarke told me that they want to continue with this format, as it is more than just a substitute for face-to-face gaming. And I agree that gaming with people from all over the world adds another quality. I’m still looking forward to seeing my friends at the table, but virtual gaming is also a fun and rewarding experience.

Fighting at the Forney Farm – Our Game

Last week, I had Sigur over for a last game before Christmas. We played Sharp Practice, using my Fighting at the Forney Farm scenario. Sigur played the Union, while I took command of the Confederates.

1TableSetup
The set-up.

In this scenario, key for the Confederate player is to push through to the Union Primary Deployment Point while keeping the Union forces coming from the Hoffman house behind the Confederate position in check. With the firepower of breech-loading carbines, it’s a very bad idea to get caught in the back!

I started by deploying a line of three regular groups at the Eastern fence, reading to march towards their objective. At the same time, I deployed some skirmishers at the Northern fence to keep an eye on the Union pickets.

2ConfLineJumpoff
Getting ready for the attack.

Sigur deployed a dismounted group near the Hoffman house to harass my skirmishers. 

3UnionPickets
Union pickets.

Of more concern to me were the two mounted groups he deployed at his primary Deployment Point. Those guys rushed towards the orchard near the Forney farm, dismounted and took position just outside my line of sight.

I wanted to lure Sigur into deploying more units at the Hoffman house, as I hoped that would make it easier to reach my objective, so I detached a group form my line and had it take up position at the Northern fence. The ball opened with Sigur’s pickets shooting at my skirmishers, which took quite a beating and had to retreat.

4BallOpens
The ball opens.

I also deployed my other line and had it march in direction of the Hoffman house. In answer, Sigur deployed the rest of his units there. I got what I wanted – now it was a matter of speed and decisiveness. So my Eastern line stepped off, climbed over the fence and marched towards the Forney farm and the waiting carbines of the Union troopers.

5ConfMarchOff
Step lively lads!

Meanwhile, the Confederate pickets took my poor bloody infantry under fire. A lucky shot hit and instantly killed my Force commander! That was bad news, as my line facing the Hoffman house was under considerable pressure and unable to do much.

6UnderPressure
Under pressure.

However, my other line was making good progress. As it approached the orchard, to my surprise Sigur decided to pull his troopers back. 

7StandOff
At them, boys!

8UnionRetreats
The troopers skedaddle. Also, the barn caught fire.

He later said he was afraid of the line’s volley fire, which is ironic because I was quite afraid of the firepower of his carbines. Anyway, the troopers rushed behind the farm house, but my line smartly wheeled and poured a withering volley into the skedaddling bluebellies. 

9CaughtFromBehind
Caught from behind.

This was a heavy blow – one group broke immediately and the other was badly shaken. This more or less sealed my victory. My line advanced without impunity and detached a group to rush the Union deployment point. A Confederate victory!

10Victory
Victory!

This was one of the best games of Sharp Practice I’ve played in a while. SP always gives good games, but I felt that this scenario worked especially well (if I may say so myself). It was quite balanced, which is difficult when one side has breech-loading carbines, and the game was close-fought – my Force Morale was at 4 when I reached the objective. With the two Union deployment points positioned on either flank of the Confederates it also poses an interesting tactical problem for both sides.

Sigur said that he made one big mistake, and that was to keep his troops at the Forney farm in cover and then pull them back. I’m pretty sure that, had he taken my line under fire, it would have been much more difficult to get to my objective. Perhaps we’ll have a refight one day…

Fighting at the Forney Farm – A Scenario for Sharp Practice

The Historical Background

Around 9.30 on July 1st 1863, Brig. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division commenced its attack on the Union position on McPherson’s Ridge at Gettysburg. While Archer’s Brigade was deployed south of Chambersburg Pike, Davis’ men advanced to the north of the road. The leftmost regiment of the brigade, the 55th North Carolina, spotted some cavalry to their left. Those were pickets from the 9th New York cavalry, which were positioned on the Mummasburg road near the Hoffman house.

Alfred_Horatio_Belo
A. H. Belo

Alfred H. Belo, the 55th’s colonel, was concerned that the Union cavalry might make a mounted charge against the exposed left flank of the Confederate line of battle. “[…] I deployed a line of skirmishers from the two extreme left companies to protect us at that end, and at the same time pick off the cavalrymen […]”, Belo wrote [1]. In doing so, the regiment started to drift to the North and lost contact with the rest of the brigade.

Meanwhile, Capt. Timothy Hanley of Company F of the 9th NY ordered Lt. A. C. Robertson with 20 men to support the pickets. At the Hoffman house, they hit upon the skirmishers from the 55th NC, which were advancing in considerable strength from the woods south of the road. Robertson was forced to fall back towards the position of Hanley’s squadron, which was deployed east of the Forney farm in a line straddling the Mummasburg road. When the Confederates reached the Forney farm, some of the squadron’s men dismounted and counterattacked, driving them from the buildings. However, the Confederate pressure was too much and the troopers retired towards Seminary Ridge [2].

This action, which is but a footnote to the Battle of Gettysburg, nevertheless makes a perfect scenario for Sharp Practice. Using skirmish rules to refight actions from big battles is usually problematic. However, in every big battle there were small, self-contained fights that lend themselves very well to be recreated. This is an interesting example, as it shows that even large-scale affairs – such as a divisional attack – consisted of inumerable small movements, the mastery of which was called ‘articulation’ in contemporary tactical parlance. In this case, Col. Belo knew that his regiment was guarding the flank of the brigades’ attack. Upon discovering an unknown number of Union cavalrymen to his left, he detached two companies to contain this threat. In doing so, however, it seems that he lost coordination with the other regiments advancing on the Union line at McPherson’s Ridge.

MapContext
The context of the skirmish.

From hindsight, we may judge that the isolated companies of the 9th NY probably didn’t pose much of a threat to the attack of Heth’s division. However, in the field, it was Belo’s call to make a quick decision, and by deploying his skirmishers he demonstrated a proficiency in articulation, defined by Earl Hess as “the facility with which commanders and men are able to make complicated formations and maneuvers” [3]. While Belo himself seems to have been competent enough, the 55th NC was not only a large regiment with around 640 men, but it was also inexperienced, as it had been mustered in the previous May and had not seen much action since [4]. In contrast, the 9th NY was a veteran regiment, belonging to Devin’s brigade of Bufords division, and the commander of Co. F, Capt. Hanley, had previous experience in the British army, where he had served in the Crimean War and in India [5].

With a handful of pickets, supported by one company, they managed to make a good show of themselves and even mounted a counter-attack at the Forney farm. Their staunch fight was probably responsible for the 55th NC’s drifting  northward and losing contact with the rest of the brigade. Ironically, this brought the regiment into a position to threaten the flank of the 76th NY occupying the rightmost end of the Union line on McPherson’s Ridge.

As we all know, the early fight for northern McPherson’s Ridge ended with a Union retreat. Davis’ brigade would then wheel to the right and meet their demise at the unfinished railroad cut.

The small skirmish at the Forney farm shows that even large-scale affairs can, when implemented on the lowest level, create fights that on a tactical level have only a lose connection to what is happening elsewhere, while still being shaped by the strategic vision of the overall attack. It also shows that this fragmentation can lead to unforseen consequences – such as bringing the 55th NC in a position to potentially outflank the Union infantry line. Again, we are reminded of Carl von Clausewitz’ notion of friction: “This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus facts take place upon which it was impossible to calculate […]” [6].

The Scenario

Map

ScenarioMap

Deployment

The Confederates Deployment Point is placed in the woods at the Western table edge. The Union Primary Deployment Point is on the road at the Southeastern table edge. The Union secondary Deployment Point is at the Hoffman house.

Victory Conditions

The Confederate objective is to take the Union Primary Deployment Point. The Union has to reduce the Confederate Force Morale to 0 to win.

Special Rules

Along the road: As soon as at least one Confederate unit occupies the road, the Union may no longer deploy units at their secondary Deployment Point. However, if they have not yet deployed a unit at the Hoffman house, they may do so as long as the DP is not taken, even if the road is on Confederate hands. This represents the pickets positioned at the house.

Forces & Rosters

Union: 3 leaders, 5 groups of the 9th NY cavalry.

UnionRoster

Confederates: 5 leaders, 6 groups of the 55th NC and 2 groups of skirmishers.

ConfRoster

 

Footnotes

[1] Wittenberg, Eric: "The Devil's to Pay". John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, El Dorado Hills: Savas Beattie 2018, p. 100.

[2] Cheney, Newell: History of the Ninth Regiment, New York Volunteer Cavalry, New York: Poland Center 1901, p. 107.

[3] Hess, Earl: Civil War Infantry Tactics. Training, Combat and Small-Unit Effectiveness, Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press 2015, p. 243.

[4] Gottfried, Bradley M.: The Brigades of Gettysburg. The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg, New York: Skyhorse Publishing 2012, p. 614.

[5] Petruzzi, David J.: "Faded Hoofbeats: Lt. Col. Timothy Hanley, 9th New York Cavalry", available online.

[6] Carl von Clausewitz: On War, originally published 1832, cited after the 1873 translation available online.

A Dark & Stormy Night – Sharp Practice AAR

On July 4, 1863, the Union cavalry was in hot pursuit of the Confederate army retreating from Gettysburg. Judson Kilpatrick’s division had information about a rebel wagon train making its way through the South Mountains and set out to capture the wagons. Due to a rainstorm, the Union troopers arrived at the approaches to Monterey Pass in the evening. When they slowly made their way up the pass road, a lone Confederate cannon opened fire.

Thus started the Battle of Monterey Pass, one of the most dramatic small cavalry actions of the Gettysburg campaign. The unusual circumstances – a fight at night, in very difficult terrain, while a torrential rainstorm was raging – made this “a night never to be forgotten”, as one participant in the action later wrote.

For Sharp Practice, I have decided to divide the action into three parts. This was a playtest for the first part, the approach to the pass road and the Confederate ambush. The results of the game will have an effect on the next scenario.

The Union had four groups of well-trained cavalry, armed with breechloaders as well as sabres and revolvers. The Confederates had three groups of cavalry and a single light gun. They also had three deployment points, two of which were hidden (marked in a map), and the ‘tactical’ characteristic, which allowed them to make ambuscades with two command cards.

1

The Union command approaches to road. A narrow road, heavy woods to both sides and reduced visibility due to it being night, as well as the driving rainstorm make this a dangerous looking place.

Nevertheless, K., who plays the Union commander, pushes on and deploys her cavalry in column on the road.

2

Suddenly, a cannon opens fire! However, due to the difficult circumstances, the firing is less than spectacular (distances were halved to account for the weather and I was unlucky with the dice…). Although slightly shocked, the cavalry immediately charges the gun.

3

The gun crew breaks and runs into the woods. Now this was quick! Buoyed by their success, the troopers push on.

4

A lone group of Confederate cavalrymen decides to mount a desperate charge to hold the Union column. However, after a short struggle, they are pushed back. The Union immediately countercharges and in the resulting melee, a sabre hits the Confederate leaders, who drops from his horse and lies dead on the ground. Things do not look good at all for the Confederates.

5

One of the Union groups dismounts and heads into the woods to catch the gun crew, which is milling about. The rest pushes forward.

Suddenly, a salvo erupts from the woods – finally, a group of dismounted Confederate troopers had managed to lay an ambush. The Union troopers in front are dazed, but one group from behind charges forward at a canter and crashes into the rebels. Now it’s their turn to be surprised, and completely overwhelmed by the relentless horsemen, they throw away their arms and surrender (we have a house rule that, if one side in melee has four times as much dice as the other, the side with less dice immediately surrenders).

6

With the Force Morale down at 1, I concede defeat. K. has lost a couple of men, but not one single point of Force Morale! An overwhelming Union victory, which will make if hard for the Confederates to save their precious wagon train…

This was a fast and furious game. I have to admit that K.’s aggressive attack caught me on the wrong foot – I had thought she would dismount and methodically work her way through the woods, giving me the chance to perform an ambuscade or two and get my gun out in good order. Let’s see how the story unfolds – the Confederates have a second line of defense at the pass’ summit near the Monterey hotel.