Today I would like to present you with one of the more anticipated wargames rules releases of recent – Sharp Practice 2 by Too Fat Lardies.
Sharp Practice (SP), originally released in 2008, is a large scale skirmish game based on leader figures, command&control and the exploits of the literary heroes of the horse and musket era. A typical game will feature 50 to 120 figures a side and a handful of leaders. Now SP2 has come around in a beautiful soft-cover, full-colour book of 120 pages.
Despite everybody’s best efforts SP1 is often regarded as a Napoleonic period skirmish game and even though there are some brilliant supplement books having put the rules in War of the Roses and American Civil War contexts the badge ‘Napoleonic’ stuck. Of course there’s the name which is rather reminiscent of the popular Sharpe novels and indeed films and it has to be said that the drill section of the book went into great detail (in the best sense of the expression) on infantry and cavalry drill of the Napoleonic period. With SP2 the book cover makes it very clear (in bold letters): These are war games rules for large skirmishes in the era of black powder, 1700 to 1865.
In broad terms this means linear tactics from the wider introduction of the ring bayonet to European armies to the end of the American Civil War; a time by which the linear tactics of the Napoleonic era and before had been pretty much replaced due to the improvements of infantry rifles.
First things first
There is no set ground scale in Sharp Practice 2, but for making scenario design easier 12″ on the table being equal to 50 yards (or just under 46 metres) is a good rule to go by. Equally, there is no set figure scale. The game looks nice with 28mm and it looks ‘right’ with 15mm figures. If you choose to play with 10mm figures (a particular favourite of mine) or 6mm (which may lead to discussions) the author suggests using centimetres instead of inches. A game with 15mm or 28mm figures will be perfectly playable on a regular 6′ by 4′ table, for smaller scales 50x70cm are suggested. Although tables can be pretty much as large as you please. It just shouldn’t be smaller than the suggested sizes.
Apart from miniatures and terrain you’ll need a tape measure, a bunch of six-sided dice (a good handful, maybe 15 or so), a few markers and either chips or cards. These can be bought from Too Fat Lardies or you just make them yourself. Some people don’t like cards for some reason, which is why the option of using chips instead was introduced. Same thing, really. Either draw a card from a deck or put your hand in a bag and draw a chip. The results are the same. Both media have something about them. Cards can have really nice artwork printed on them, they can be stored very easily and personally I prefer the ‘feel’ of cards. It’s also more evocative of the film Maverick starring Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson and James Garner. And that’s the best card drawing related film in history.
Chips on the other hand allow for gimmicky fun things of course. Drawing from a pouch of (lead-free!) musket balls with small engravings or a bit of paint on them may fit very well thematically. Maybe if you get yourself a good quality primer and some big ball bearing balls or maybe even glass marbles that would work rather nicely. Either way, the results are the same
The markers required are mostly to show the state of gunnery on a group of combatants and shock points.
What SP2 puts above all is the narrative of a game, so it’s always advisable to work out a nice scenario, even if it’s simple, rather than insisting in having a pitched battle of so and so many points for a perfectly ‘balanced’ game (and we all know that points systems guaranteeing a balanced game is a fallacy).
For ease of scenario building though SP2 for the first time in a Too Fat Lardies game features a full-on points system, and isn’t even ashamed of it! Keep in mind this is purely optional, but it’s also nice to have something help with orientation. The rule book includes army lists for the French-Indian War, the American War of Independence, the Peninsular War (Napoleon in Portugal and Spain), the American Civil War and the Indian Mutiny. At the time of me writing this review already a bunch more army lists have popped up on the TFL website and written by fans.
As an example I’ll show some screenshots from the French 1805-1807 list. Each list actually usually is about three different ones depicting historically sound forces of the era:
The second part is the unit stats along with their points cost, special rules and stuff they can or can’t do. In this case we got the French army in their glory years, so they’re a well-trained, motivated force of regulars.
In addition to units based on the various settings there are support lists. Each scenario grants players a number of support points to spend. The generic support list includes things like additional leaders, ammunition carts, dummy deployment points (more on this later), priests, ladders, engineers, fortifications, scenario-specific tools and specialists and much more. Already you can see some bits were taken from Chain of Command.
If you choose to use the points system the difference between forces is made up with extra support points for the player on the side which has the lower points value. For example Blue Player has a force with a total points value of 80 and Red Player has a total points value of 76. According to the scenario each player gets an additional 12 points of support, meaning Blue ends up with the 80 points his force costs plus 12 points he is free to spend on support and/or additional units. Red gets a total of 16 points to spend (12 + the difference between Blue’s and Red’s force value). This is a very straightforward points system. To keep people from ‘list building’ or ‘force optimization’ the rulebook presents believable forces for each of the periods covered by the army lists in the rulebook. Don’t take this for a way to make this game a ‘tournament game’. Sharp Practice very much is not. I think it’s more of a concession to the times.
Setting up your Game
The rulebook includes six generic scenarios (Encounter, Sweep the Table, Defence in Depth, Escort Duty, Attack an Objective and Rescue Mission. The book also includes suggestions for mini-campaigns and for minor character angles to include in your game for more depth and drama.
As with any other skirmish game, Sharp Practice gets better with terrain. Use plenty terrain, use pretty terrain. The rules suggest setting up the table and then working out which scenario you play, unless you have a very specific scenario in mind.
Troops are deployed from Deployment Points, very similar to Chain of Command’s Jump-Off Points. This means that troops are not just put on the table right away, but the point in time at which they are deployed is up to the player. Deployment Points depict safe passages to the battlefield for troops to take. This is a very elegant solution to several things: Players don’t get more information than they should logically have about enemy troop movement and locations whilst players also don’t have to bother with a ‘blinds’ system. A speedy solution which adds another interesting tactical element, especially as soon as Dummy Deployment Points and Movable Deployment Points (usually for extremely terrain-savvy local troops) come into play.
So how does it work then?
People who played Sharp Practice (or Dux Britanniarum) before will feel right at home with the core mechanics.
Cards are turned upside one at a time, or chips are drawn one after another. In the following I will refer to cards, but the game can be played with chips just as easily. Each leader in the game has a corresponding card, if his card is turned up, he gets to go. Leaders each have a status of 1 (a Sergeant or similar) to 4 (might be as much as a Major), the same number is the number of Command initiative they got. When ever a leader is activated they get to spend their Command Initiative points on several things, each costing one CI: Activate a group under their command (in which case the group has two actions to spend on move, fire, reload, present and so on), guide a group’s fire, make groups form up into a formation (which makes them unwieldy to move, but much more steadfast in combat and effective at firing) or split off figures for special duties.
In addition to that leaders may act on their own, have scenario-specific special thing carried out, rally troops (= remove shock points) and so on.
Movement ranges are rolled for, so each action a group spends on moving they get to roll 1d6 and move the result in inches. Firing is equally simple – you roll a six-sided die (d6) for each man firing, the target number to hit is determined by the range (ranges are set up in easy to memorize range bands of 12”. The close range of a musket is 12”, the long range is 24”. A rifle may fire at target up to 48” away, but takes two actions to reload, unless they do the famous ‘tap reload’.). Some modifiers may apply to the target number to hit.
Once the number of hits is determined you roll for effect, depending mostly on any cover the target group is sitting behind. This will either result in kills (= remove one figure or place a casualty marker if your figures are not single-based) or – more likely – shock points.
Shock works just like in any other TFL game – units carry it around with them, points of shock reduce movement and firepower (unless rallied by a leader), have a unit gather too many points of shock they will be broken and retreat.
To add another tactical layer to all of this the deck does not only have Leader cards, but also Command Cards. Quite a lot actually. They are always only usable by one side, are put to the side once drawn and players can do all sorts of nifty tricks with them. People familiar with Chain of Command or Dux Britanniarum will recognize this as a combination of the Chain of Command Dice mechanic and the hand cards in Dux Brit. Simply put, Sharp Practice’s Command Cards are accumulated over time and the more a player has at his disposal the more things they can do with them. These actions include bonus dice in close combat or firing, activating period-specific special rules, interrupt the opponen’t actions and so on.
The activation deck (or bag of chips) also has the classic Tiffin’ card which denotes the immediate end of the turn. Any units not activated this turn may now be activated using remaining Command Cards, otherwise they have to remain in place and don’t get to do anything this turn.
Some people don’t like mechanics like this, because it makes the game less predictable. I have to say that I like this a lot, because…
As we all know things sometimes don’t go the way we want in life, and as far as I know this is even more true for the extreme situation of combat. I like a fair amount of unpredictability in wargames and it just makes sense. Looking at historical accounts of battle all these surprises, blunders and plain cock-ups are not only accountable to the inability of commanders (not claiming that such a thing doesn’t exist, mind you). There are so many factors people under stress, fear, rage, exhaustion and so on are exposed to that the problems commanders of even small groups of people, even trained combatants, become apparent. Sharp Practice models this and puts much emphasis on these leaders who see themselves confronted with a never ending string of small crises.
Speaking of the emphasis on leaders – Sharp Practice’s most notable trait is a clear focus on the narrative of a game. Leaders are more than just their level of competence and the games you play will be full of random events and non-combatant ‘minor characters’ who inhabit the table. Officers will be strictly divided by the fact of whether or not they are gentlemen or not. You roll for their background, their general character, possible extra handy skills, charisma and looks. All of which may or may not come into play when interacting with minor or major characters.
You see, there is a certain amount of role-playing elements to this. Not only in terms of leaders, but also when it comes to certain scenario specific tasks and the use of specialists such as spies, interpreters, thieves and so on. All these things fit into the game rather seamlessly and enrich the gaming experience manifold. In a skirmish game sat in the 18th and 19th century this really is something One would come to expect or at least wish for. Good skirmish wargames always have a story unfold itself. Sharp Practice makes great use of this and adds a bit on top.
And yes, there are duels and potentially bad effects of officers ‘losing face’.
So much for my quick little rules introduction of Sharp Practice 2.
Anybody who read Sharp Practice 1 knows that this set of rules was well detailled, clever and fun, but also slightly hard to penetrate. With Sharp Practice 2 the authors achieved an exemplary job of ‘pimping’ a set of rules to fit with the requirements of the time. Full colour, great production value (well, picture quality could be better at times), there even is some ‘wargamers porn’ in there! The book’s layout is very solid and clear, even though some of the rules are still to be found in surprising places. Still, with each rulebook, especially since Dux Britanniarum, the Lardies rules look better and clearer. This one even has a very good index!
Other than with Dux or Chain of Command though the current incarnation of Sharp Practice of course doesn’t only have to appeal to people who are new to the game, but also to folks who know and love the first edition of the rules. I have yet to hear of any fan of the old SP rules not liking the new ones.
What the authors did here was take the whole thing apart, check every single aspect for ways to improve on it and to bring it up to date. Then it was put together again. So all the good things are there, a few things even have been added. Some things have been dropped (like the different rules for buglers, drummers, fifers and shouters), but those really were slightly too granular for such a game and in the end didn’t add that much. The ‘blinds’ system has been dropped, but replaced with a mechanic which does very similar things and probably better in the deployment points system.
For people who enjoy ‘pick up games’ or enjoy just slapping together a game quickly the points system has been introduced, with a big ‘take it or leave it’ tag attached to it. It’s perfectly serviceable and via the support lists encourages you to add bits with period flavour as well as additions which just make sense and which probably don’t get featured in other skirmish games.
On top of all of this there is one more simple reason to get the new Sharp Practice – there just is nothing like it out there. Muskets and Tomahawks does a similar thing and also has this narrative thing going on, but it’s restricted to a much smaller time frame and to smaller forces. I strongly advise anybody who is even slightly interested in fun skirmish games with a narrative to them and a very nifty war game behind it to have a look at Sharp Practice. It covers over 150 years of quite eventful history, so I’m sure you’ll find something you’re interested in.
Sharp Practice is available directly through Too Fat Lardies ( http://toofatlardies.co.uk/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=6&sort=20a&page=1 ) from GBP 15.00 for the PDF rules or GBP 25.00 for the full colour soft-cover printed rulebook, as well as a variety of bundles of the rules with cards, tokens and/or chips.