Getting to know Sharp Practice 2
For this project we decided that we would not start playing until we had enough painted troops for a game. This has the advantage of giving you some motivation to paint your troops, especially if your clubmates are approaching the goal faster than you. However, it can be a bit tough if the rule system requires a large number of troops. Thanks to a productive Autumn and the relatively small units of Sharp Practice we found ourselves with two decent forces after painting some 80 or so minis for each side. With our forces based and mustered under the absent banners of our respective nation, it was time to see what we had gotten ourselves into.
This first game was very much about getting to know the ruleset basics, so we didn't bother that much with balancing the sides. We simply used whatever troops we had, and formed them into two armies of somewhat similar size. We also wanted to concentrate on learning how to use infantry first, which I think makes sense in a Napoleonic era game. Since we focused more on the game basics, this battle report won't be a linear blow-for-blow account, but rather a set of reflections on how particular events play out.
Defenders of Russia
Shirty: The Russian force have a sturdy base of infantry. Only infantry! This due to three reasons:
So what is my Russian force made up by? For starters a four unit strong Jäger formation in the back of the picture, enough to form a modest attack column. This formation is made up of Perry plastics. Then I have a formation of three units och Carabiniers (Jäger Grendiers). These are Perry metal miniatures. I really like metal regiments, and these have nice, fast paced attack poses and look pretty agressive. Then I have two units of Strelski (skirmishers) to add some flexibility and to have some different troop types. This is finished off with drummers for the Jägers and Carabiniers as well as two officers and NCOs for all formations, adding one extra for the Jägers to have my biggest unit in good order! Hurrah!!
Jonas: The French force left their horse artillery 6-pounder cannon behind to keep things somewhat simple and even. Instead they also mustered around an attack column formation, four units strong, of line infantry Fusiliers. My stock of Voltigeur were a few men short to be fielded as proper ranked up units (8 men in each), so I chose to put them into three skirmish units (6 men in each, one of them was broken up after taking this picture). Finally I added a single unit of Dragoons on horseback and a dismounted unit of Dragoons in skirmish formation.
That's when it hit me how relatively few officers I had painted up. In Sharp Practice, you need quite a few. Each unit that operates independently needs an officer to activate. On top of that, formations like my big attack column will often be fielded with a higher level officer, and sub-officers who help along with removing shock and thereby keeping the men in line, ready to take over if needed. I had only painted one Voltigeur officer, and no Dragoon officers at all. Oh well. The Dragoons on horseback got their own imaginary friend officer, and a cornet player got to act as a second NCO for the voltigeur skirmishers. Finally a normal foot Dragoon soldier took place as a leader for that unit, as I frantically scribbled additions to my painting to-do list.
Conveniently enough we have terrain from our WW2 games, so for our first game we would have both painted troops and painted terrain! Very nice indeed. We set up a table with less terrain than our WW2 games, with a road crossing cutting through a somewhat forested area, with a few stone walls and fences to fight across. My first reaction was that it was a lot quicker to set up compared to Chain of Command, since we tend to create battlefields with more dense terrain.
Unit activations - men in fancy hats, moving about
So how does SP2 work? Each turn has activations tied to specific officers, as well as "freebies" that you get to decide how to use. These, as well as turn length, is randomized. Confused? We played with a deck of card, so I'll explain how it played out:
First, we put one card in the deck for every officer. The card has a colour (red for Russians, blue for French) and a number. We each had a list to remember who's who, so Red 1 would be the officer leading the Russian attack column, and so on. When one of these cards are drawn, the player gets to use that officer and choose between a set of orders to give to the formation that they lead. A high ranking officer can do some things that a lower ranking officer can't, such as bossing around units led by their lessers. It's pretty simple once you get started.
Then we put in a number of blue and red flags in the deck. The exact number depends on how big a game you play. If drawn, you can hold on to these for later in the turn, or use them immediately. Flags play an important role in that they enable you to active officers who haven't been drawn yet, and many units have special abilities that you can use if you spend flags. For example, many French units have the Pas de Charge rule where you can spend two flags when you activate a leader to get extra moves towards the enemy while removing some shock. The Russians, meanwhile, have the Stoic Serf rule that lets the commander spend two cards to remove D6 shock. A lot of strategy comes from deciding how and when to use these elusive resources. Also, drawing several flags in a row means that you get to roll on a Random Event chart.
The final card is the Tiffin. When this is drawn, the turn ends. Any flag cards that you haven't used can be spent at this point, either for special abilities or to activate your lazy leaders who haven't gotten off their butts yet. Then you shuffle all the cards, and start over. There's really not that much more to it.
In practice it means that turns like these are not so fun for the French!
The first couple of turns saw a flurry of activity on the Russian side, with the large units deploying and moving forwards. To make things worse, the French lack of ability to put troops on the table meant that the Russians could deploy out-of-sight, with a wider deployment area than normal. At least that blue consolation flag meant that the French could plop down their first formation to counter the rapidly advancing Russians.
While some individual turns were a bit harsh, I found them to even out over time. As long as you draw a single flag you can choose to activate the most tactically important formation at the end of the turn, and I prefer the back-and-forth style that involves both players. It felt engaging and exciting for both players at every single card flip. A good first impression indeed!
Enemies in sight!
The Russian officers, and their clearly well drilled troops, order their respective formation towards the small wood next to the road. Their skirmishers take aim for the stone wall, clearly noticing that the French are desperately pushing two units of skirmishers forward to seize the wood and slow down the Russians. The cards start to be more even, and soon both sides are completely deployed and start to close in. Even though the Russians got a good start, I didn't feel like it was impossible to catch up as the French once I got a few good draws myself.
The situation after a few turns: The French line infantry is slowly accepting the idea of marching towards the enemy. Their skirmishing buddies on both flanks are much more eager to get to grips with their enemies. The mounted Dragoons lunges forward, hoping to get into a flanking position.
Meanwhile, the Russian ranked infantry are reaching a point where they can line up and advance, bringing their numerical superiority to work. But can they hold off the Skirmishers?
First Blood - Skirmishing Skirmishers
While the line infantry formations busy themselves with finding a proper line of attack and wheeling around, we'll see how skirmishing works in SP2. The French push forward, using the extra move that skirmishers get to seize the wood. The Russians answer by rushing their own troops into the fray. Desperate firefights erupt in the woods, some men barely feet away from each other as they trade fire. This is surprisingly enough quite historical, as observers would note that men drilled for musketry could end up standing a few meters from their enemies, both sides desperately reloading instead of charging in with their bayonets.
The fighting grows fiercer, as the French side are supported by the dismounted Dragoons. The Russians have more ranked up infantry, but the French advantage in skirmishers are obvious here, as the first Russians start to drop to the floor. Musketry is not all that deadly, but shock starts to add up. Notice the big blue marker next to the Dragoons: we noticed early that it is super important to keep track of which formations have acted already in the turn. So we plopped down markers next to them as their respective card was drawn.
The French Voltigeurs see a temporary setback, and decide to leg it. However, under the watchful eye of their leader they quickly rally the shock and get back into action. The extra move you get for skirmishers means that they move very quickly across the battlefield.
Disaster struck the Russians when their leader wisely started to try to pull out in the face of numerical superiority. They were firing uncontrolled volleys (everyone were at this point!) which is faster, but less accurate. It also means that you have to roll on a table to get your men to listen to your command if you want them to stop firing as fast as they can. Time and again, the men next to the wall refused to jump over for the added safety of a stone wall, and casualties and shock started mounting as the French shot at them from three sides.
The brave and entusiastic, but dangerous, zeal of the Strelski means that one unit simply soaks up too much shock, and run away. Overall there have been very few casualties in the firefight, but the units are small and the shock adds upp quickly. The remaining Russian is heavily outnumbered, and the French skirmishers move out of the way of the slowly approaching attack column while rapidly sapping the strength of the remaining Russian skirmishers.
The other French skirmishing unit, seen to the far left above, tried to put a dent in the approaching Russian line. But so few men can't really budge a big attack column, though they manage to graze the arm of a poor NCO, decreasing his ability to order the troops. When the ranked up troops are closing in the French skirmishers have clearly won the day, but was it enough to win the battle? Seven Russian units against four French certainly doesn't look good!
But what happened to the Dragoons? You can see them at the top of the picture, faffing around. As they moved towards the flank, the Russian line got them in line of fire. The unit survived the volley, but it was clear that they were in a bad spot. So, the best way to get into safety was to speed forward, out of the Russian unit's frontage. After managing this, I started to realize just how slow cavalry are to turn around! I'd need 3-4 lucky turns of wheeling to get around, and by that point the game would very likely be over. The Russians could simply advance in another direction, and it would be long before the Dragoons would catch up. The cavalry had missed their chance to play a role in this battle, but I learned an important lesson about being careful when speeding horses around.
A Clash of Steel
At this point there everything pointed towards a sudden dramatic clash in the middle. The ranked up regiments exchanged some fire, without being decisive. Then, seeing that the Jäger column were partly trapped behind a stone wall, the Russian Carabiniers boldly charged forward, bayonets aimed at their French enemies.
Here came the part where we felt that the rules rubbed us the wrong way. Attack columns are pretty much just bad in SP2, as far as we can understand. Three units of infantry in line formation has 50% more firepower than an attack column, but will dish out just as much pain in fisticuffs, which is the term for melee in SP2. So there's never a reason to use the attack column. The Carabiniers also have the "Aggressive" trait, giving each unit more attack dice in fisticuffs, and the French were caught with unloaded rifles. Uh oh!
In this horrendous calamity, the French Captain noticed the officer leading the Carabiniers. A gentleman, here, among the lowly commoners! He immediately issued a challenge, which was gracefully accepted.
Challenges are played out as a separate "mini-game". Each combatant gets 6 dice, which are secretly divided into attack and defence dice. Then you take turns trying to attack and block, and keep repeating this until a leader withdraws or dies. In this case, there was a flurry of blows, until the Russian officer leaned back for a massive, crushing blow... and suddenly turned pale, as a frantic jab from the French captain's sword pierced his heart. The Russian was dead before his body hit the ground.
The Final Confrontation
With their leader fallen next to them, the Russian Carabiniers were determined to make the French suffer. As mentioned before, they had a clear advantage in fisticuff dice. Close combat is calculated by unit: each unit in contact get 6 dice. The two French units at the back of the column, which are supporting, only get 3 dice each. But in the initial phase the French got even fewer dice, as they had unloaded guns (-2 dice per unit), and the Russians got +2 dice per unit for having the Aggressive trait. Finally, the leaders that were not engaged in the duel could add one die per Status rank (both being the lowest, rank I). Then your roll the dice, 5's causing kills and 6's causing both a kill and a point of shock. Considering that you'll roll a whole bucket of dice, a 33% killing rate is HUGE.
By a great deal of luck, the French column held the initial flurry of bayonets. Since the combat was not decisive a new combat was immediately fought, but this time the penalty for unloaded muskets had played out. And the triumphant French captain evidently caused morale to surge, because with some 18 dice I rolled...
That's a lot of kills and shock. The Frenchmen lost many men, but the Carabiniers were broken. As they fled, the Russians only had one formation of Jägers left. They could probably give the French attack column a good whipping, but they had four units of skirmishers surrounding them, and a unit of Dragoons slowly wheeling around in their far flank. And the body of their abusive officer was already cold, so who could fault them for turning back?
The Good Stuff:
Overall we had a good time. We both enjoyed the base rules, and the activation system was suspenseful but rarely felt unfair. You never know what will happen as you flip those cards, but in the end you can usually do something similar to what you plan. It's just that sometimes it's smoother, and sometimes not.
The game size was nice as well. 8 man units is small compared to the vast armies of battalion scale games, but they are also very suitable for a new player, as painting batches of 8 or 16 models works great. Assembling a painted army for SP2 never felt like a daunting task.
I like that it was relatively fast, even for a first game. There is less "fiddling" with movements than when we play CoC, as it is less devastating to be out in the open or in the line of fire. Yet, movement matters, and it felt "Napoleonic" even though it's not 100% historically accurate unit sizes and whatnot. Yes, I know it's unrealistic with small attack columns and so on, but it played nicely and it didn't take an entire day to get to a decive, nervewrecking combat that felt like being at a high roller craps table at the casino, betting everything on black. So as a game it succeeds, if not as as a perfect battle simulation.
The Bad Stuff:
The things we didn't like was mostly the rules for the attack column formation, and that close combat might be a bit too deadly. Even if you win, chances are that pretty much any formation will be so badly bloodied after a melee that they are practically useless.
However, after playing the game and talking about it, we are definitely thinking that a few house rules can make the experience more suitable to our taste at the club, as the foundations are solid and the rules seem quite easy to modify. So this was definitely not our last game of SP2, and thankfully we did not just waste a whole bunch of money and a few months of painting. :P
So what's next? Well, for starters, I really need to paint up more troops! I need more officers in general, and I want to expand both the infantry and cavalry. For the infantry I know I want some Light Infantry, starting with the elite Carabiniers and then maybe some Chasseurs. And I need to beef up the line infantry, with more Fusiliers and Voltigeurs. Once that's done, I have artillery to paint, and after Warlord's Holidays sprue sale, I have enough to cavalry to, well, choke a horse? And TFL released a campaign module for SP2, so we can't ignore that either, can we? I already have an officer on a horse being painted, to represent a certain yet to be named heroic captain. 2017 will definitely see more Napoleonics from me.
"Glory is fleeting,