Forward Observer 14

An Extended Visit to Lard Island

I am, as you have probably worked out, prone to fads. Normally, in our exciting hobby, this means seeing a range of figures and leaping off madly into that period. This time, the period and figures were in place, if a little dusty, and it was the rules that prompted a fresh interest. The period is Napoleonics, and the rule set is Sharp Practice (SP) by the talented chaps known as the Too Fat Lardies. In the last couple of months I have managed three games of this one, which lets me offer some initial views, even if they are far from fully formed.

Rule One. There are quite a lot of comments below, some of which may be construed as negative. In the main, they aren’t. Please view this as a function of an unusual rule set that raises interesting questions, and my efforts to promote a discursive environment. I like these rules a lot, and think some of you will too.

The first observation is that the rules have an appreciable learning curve. I am no stranger to rule sets, indeed a fair chunk of my working day can be spent reading, editing and writing them. Nevertheless, I had three runs at SP before I even felt competent to play. The fact that my opponent had also read the rules was a huge help in getting through game one. The message is: stick with them, and expect to have some blank looks. Overall, I expect that the rules may be better taught than learned by reading.

Despite this swotting we effectively played a subset of the rules; through natural selection rather than intent. This often happens with longer, compartmentalised systems. What it means is that small sections of rules, in this case the chrome and specifically the innovative musical command mechanism, fell by the wayside as we got to grips with the core concerns. That is fine, and we will introduce them as time and scenarios permit. I think the biggest omission was ‘Make Ready’, which is a very short rule that adds the important opportunity, or overwatch, fire.

I also feel that the rules would benefit from a second edition re-draft and streamlining, particularly adding some tight definitions in a glossary. Matters are not helped by quite a number of typos. SP introduces a lot of concepts but is in places a little woolly. For instance, we never did work out what constituted a charge, exactly how it works, or when it happened – so house rules appeared on a number of issues, and on omissions, such as manhandling guns.

The major comprehension difficulties arose on definitions of groups, formations, units, and individuals and how they all acted and interacted. For instance, the simple act of deploying skirmishers in pairs resulted in several minutes of page turning and two confused gamers. For this reason, in truth, we blundered through these areas initially and when in complete doubt made a common sense ruling. By the third game we were getting used to what these various entities could do, how, and why they were there.  But I can’t say it is intuitive. I can however see exactly why these rules exist, and what they are trying to simulate. The good news is that the nuts and bolts runs off an A4 reference sheet. The really good news is that you can fire questions at the Lardy Yahoo group and answers come back quickly.

SP is, if I can try for a sum up, a rule set that emphasises command and friction effects over hardware or morale issues. Instrumental in this command structure are the ‘Big Men’ – leaders with influence – who drive everything from movement to rallying. These individuals are the sparks by which units ignite, or not. In game terms, we were well into the second game before we worked out just how distinct these figures are from the units they command, in all respects, and we resolved to put them on round bases in future… For instance, the rules indicate that Big Men are not counted for most purposes in unit strength, so the old wargaming skill of ‘head count at a glance’ therefore needs refinement.

Big Men operate through a rather neat command system. At the top level we have the Lardies’ famous action cards, which are prepared for each leader and mixed with blind (fog of war), general, specific and National Characteristic cards depending on the scenario. The resulting two decks, which can obviously be customised as much as you like, cleverly dictate the feel, flexibility, quality and efficiency of your forces.

Broadly, these cards allow activation of leaders, and also indicate the interleaved turn order, but if your card doesn’t appear in a given turn, or your Big Man is otherwise engaged, you may not get to move. Some ‘control’ gamers will be running from the room at this point, but to me a chaotic system like this, spiced with random events, is pretty much required these days. Beyond the need to do some preparatory work on the card decks, I really like this part of the game and the Lardy approach in general.

Once activated a leader will acquire a number of points, depending on his quality, cards and the game situation, which will be familiar to any player of board games – these points allow a spend on a menu. Next, he will probably use one of these points to activate a unit in range who will then in turn receive two action points to spend on another menu. Normally these choices are blindingly obvious (reloads being rather important!), but often require some thought. Action points are represented by allocating d6’s, and are needed to move, rally, spot, load, fire, negotiate obstacles and so on, with duplication being allowed in most circumstances. So here you have a series of interesting decision points, and a decent feel of being on the spot as commander unable to do everything he would like to.

The rules work at a ‘grand skirmish’ level. We are not dealing with nuances of hardware, second by second turns, nor crouching, climbing and crawling, but we are still very much in small unit tactics territory. There is also a marked literary slant, with frequent nods to Flashman, Hornblower and the eponymous Sharp(e). As well as the usual stuff, there are rules for wooing women, character development and acts of derring do.

Combat and melee are old school with lots of dice and quite a few modifiers to check. I am not a great fan of either approach but I like the way these work together, and the systems are not lengthy or onerous. I wouldn’t say they are overly deadly either, with units suffering either kills or shock, the latter representing a steady build up of morale, straggler and wounded effects. It works really well, but does require some unit status markers – we used the micro dice from EM4 in various colours. In this way SP offers a good, ‘software’ based, model where units falter and become ineffective sometimes without losses.

For my purposes, SP fits neatly into the rules market, helping to plug one of the many holes. While we already have two very good rule sets – The Sword and the Flame and Flagship’s Rampant Colonialism – in the same weight class, I think the historical scope of SP and the new ideas it delivers will establish it as a contender. While some, but not me, will prefer the extreme detail (and charts) of Chef de Bataillon, or the easy going history of Warhammer Napoleonics (when they finally emerge), SP will appeal to those gamers who realise that troops do not always do what they are told, or fight like supermen. So, not for everyone, but right up my street.

I think it is fair to say that SP can handle a handful of troops up to 100 or so. While Warhammer may argue this number makes for an army, most of us realise this is not the case. SP also delivers a game that completes easily in an evening’s play.

Which brings me neatly to the subject of ‘level’. Normally I can play a game and get a good feel for who I am, be that general, colonel, captain or corporal. I also develop a firm mental image of unit size and scale: for instance, a WWII game is almost always 1:1 for me, in my head and in practice, whereas I can adapt to, say, 1:50 for ‘big’ horse and musket battles. SP threw me completely, in terms of figure scale, formation, drill and even doctrine – line infantry and light infantry blurred, unit capabilities were queried, and this all forced me to think through what I was seeing on the table. Companies? Battalions? Again, while this may read as a negative, it was in fact that jarring and enlightening process of changing one’s preconceptions while trying to rationalise what these rules are saying and how they relate to historical precedents and, indeed, rules that have gone before.

The net result is a set of rules that provides not only a good, quick, competitive game, but also credible amounts of friction and consequential challenges. While you may wish for your cavalry to flank rapidly, you may find that they don’t get started for a bit. Infantry are not guaranteed to perform heroic deeds, but may just do them anyway. Interestingly, even though it includes lower level detail – reloading is something we don’t usually encounter – SP doesn’t feel like a traditional skirmish game. The key use of cards, and inclusion of units, command and I suspect out own adjusted perceptions, mark these rules as a fresh experience.

Sharp Practice is an interesting, deep, even challenging, rule set. It has tons of black powder potential, far wider than the rules’ evident focus of Napoleonics, and with an upcoming expansion will also cover the later part of the century. While the systems are essentially straightforward and occasionally light hearted, one can see the underlying attempt to model history shining through. Playing this one has made me think about a lot of issues in the skirmish/small unit area, about Napoleonics generally, and has provided three intriguing games so far. It has that knack of generating ideas as you read through the rules.

I also think there is a definite need for ‘prep’ in the shape of a considered scenario and having the appropriate cards, deck lists, markers and a fair few dice ready to go. Do not underestimate this element, which should be done well in advance of game day. This should improve with scenario booklets and the excellent, and growing, support that the Lardies give all their rules.

What you will notice missing from this conclusion is any mention of fun. This is partly because it apparently annoys the designers…! While I enjoyed the games, and they certainly had some memorable narrative highlights, I did feel they were rather ‘serious’ and that I was working quite hard to get up to speed with the system in games one and two. Admittedly, we also played the battles ‘straight’, emphasising traditional tactics and combat over rescuing maidens or stealing booty. I also have a well known aversion to silly names. As game three was better, I expect this to improve in future outings and I look forward to many of them. Highly recommended.