What I did on my Hols, Part Two. An initial look at Sharp Practice v2
So, on to part two of our recent exploits. Followers of our Twitter feed will know that Tuesday night is gaming night on Lard Island or, more to the point, the evening when we get the whole in-house playtest group together to test the rules at whatever stage in the development cycle they may be at. For the past few months the commentary has been on largely Napoleonics, ACW or Indian Mutiny as we have been working on Sharp Practice.
Judging by sales to date, there cannot be many wargamers who have not come across Sharp Practice. When we published the rules eight years ago, they were one of, if not the, first sets of rules for that large skirmish game which has become so successful since then. Indeed the reason we wrote the rules was that we could find nothing which filled the gap between the classic skirmish game, with a dozen or less figures a side, and the much larger battle size games where the battalion was the smallest unit. So, with the rules having been so popular, why would we consider a second edition?
Developing and designing rule sets is a process which combines the odd spark of revolution with an industrial tanker full of evolution. There are few ideas or rule mechanisms which are truly brand-spanking new; most have come about through the development of ideas and concepts which gradually take shape and then evolve over time. Within the Lardy stable of rules there are a number of threads where rules share some very similar DNA. Sharp Practice was the start of one such branch of the family tree and from that acorn came such shoots as Through the Mud & the Blood for the Great War, Dux Britanniarum for the Arthurian “Dark Age” period and, of course, Chain of Command for WWII platoon level games came forth. As we progressed down this path, the rule sets have seen some old ideas developed further and new ideas spring forth. Indeed, our other large project for 2016, Fighting Season for conflict in modern Afghanistan, has been a particularly fertile area of development. So, when one of the lads at the club wheeled out his new Napoleonic troops, we looked to Sharp Practice and thought it could do with a tidy up.
Indeed, a tidy up was all it was originally meant to be. I am very keen to streamline rules to the point where they become almost invisible. Usually, this means making the core mechanisms very simple so that they can be memorised, leaving just the key area of command and control for the players to really think about during a game. If you’re representing a force commander on the table, you should be facing similar decisions to the ones faced by your historical counter-part.
My original intent was to look at the firing ranges and simplify them. Not unlike many sets of rules at that time, the original Sharp Practice rules required a pretty constant reference to the playsheet during play; that was why we put the playsheet on the rear cover so that it was always to hand. This allowed you to look up just what your musketeer required to hit at whatever range, as it would be rather different to your rifleman and different again to your opponent’s Voltiguers. Compare and contrast that to the simplicity of Chain of Command, for example, where ranges and to hit rolls are much more consistent across the piste and, as a result, entirely memorable.
So, that was indeed the starting point and we had some fun games just making some very rudimentary changes. But as is the way with our group we started trying out some different ideas. As far back as last summer someone asked “Can we us Command Dice rather than cards?” and, naturally, we gave it a try. Interestingly we found that you COULD use command dice, very much in the same way that one does with Chain of Command, but it really made for a very different game. Chain of Command is all about making tactical decisions on the battlefield. Sharp Practice by contrast was much more about the influence of leaders and larger than life characters on the troops around them. By removing the cards and introducing dice we completely lost the key connection with those characters. It took no more than a couple of games to decide that command dice were great for WWII, but for the black powder era they were not what we wanted.
However, making the decision to try the game in a card-less state, did get us questioning whether the rules needed to be as card-heavy as they were in its first edition. Not only do you have the Game Deck with the characters in that to determine the order of play, but you also had the bonus deck which added some degree of seasoning to the mix. When one added things like additional cards for sentries and their ilk, a game with even just a small number of troops could require fifty odd cards to make it playable. We are determined that when we publish the second edition of the rules, the cards required will be available to purchase, either separately or as part of a bundle. This is a huge saving in labour for the gamer but if we were going to have to provide a set of cards seventy cards or more in size so as to accommodate larger games, then this was going to be a costly experience. The question was asked, could we get the same effect with less cards?
Of course, we could go down the cheap card route and not bother worrying about this. But we have all seen games on the market which use cheaper “business card” size decks with square cut corners and I really am not happy with this quality. Owners of Dux Britanniarum and the Raiders will know that the cards we sell for those games are playing card quality and, as a result, they stand the test of time. This was what we wanted to replicate, but I was keen to simplify things, if not least because nobody remembers the “more 1’s then 6’s rule” in the heat of play, so again the streamlining process would apply to both the way the rules worked and the way the events were generated.
Hmmm. Already, by Summer of 2015, the minor streamlining was looking much more like a significant re-write. However, at that point I was flat out working on Fighting Season and some of the mechanisms in that used some very subtle variations on the Chain of Command dice system in CoC to reflect some of the modern technology which served to differentiate WWII with modern combat. Whilst the effects we had created were very 21st Century, the essential game mechanisms were universally useful. In particular the concept of immediate or delayed benefit.
I won’t go into full detail here as some cats have to remain in certain bags, but imagine a mechanism where you get a penny every time you do something. You can immediately spend that penny on a sweet or, if you save up sixpence, you get a box of ten sweets. In game terms the sweet is an in-game benefit, so maybe an additional Command Initiative you can use for immediate but limited benefit. However, the more pennies you get the bigger the box of sweets you can generate, in other words if you resist taking the small bonuses now a larger or better bonus could be coming down the line. Or it might not. And that is the key when it comes to command. There are benefits to waiting, but there is the danger that you lose out altogether.
Ultimately, by linking a limited number of “Grasp the Nettle” cards to a whole gambit of possible areas, you can use these to generate random events whilst at the same time generating opportunities for making command choices about when to take the small win and when to wait for the big one. Do I rally off that Shock where my line is wavering, or do I wait until I have more cards and play the “Rebel Yell” option which will not only see Southern hearts take courage but will propel them forward with vigour. In many respects, the system which we have created replicated the hand management decisions in Dux Britanniarum, but where the cards allow you do create the outcome of your own choosing if you can amass sufficient numbers of them.
Talking of Rebel Yell, the cover of the original version of Sharp Practice was adorned with the words, “Wargames Rules for Large Skirmishes in the Black Powder Era” and the introduction to the rules was equally period neutral in that the rules are not, and never were, a set of Napoleonic rules. However, the name and the cover have understandably meant that this is how they have been viewed. With the second edition we are determined that the rules will provide all the gamer needs to cover a broad sweep of at least a hundred years from the mid-18th to mid-19th century, with specific notes and army lists for some of the main conflicts of this period. So the rules will cover the ACW straight out of the box in the same way that you can put together a Freikorps and loot your way across Europe or a body of rebellious colonials and confront the forces of your rightful King. What’s more, you’ll have a list of support options to help you build your force and we will be providing Pint-Sized campaigns with which you can challenge your heroes to the full.
So, that’s just a brief outline of what you can look forward to with Sharp Practice v2. A faster, slicker system with lots of room for in-game decision making but with a much slicker gamer-rules interface where you should be able to pick things up in your first game and then just enjoy being Flashman or Brigadier Gerard or, God forbid, Jebbediah Butplugg.
All the photos shown here show playtest games of Sharp Practice covering the Indian Mutiny, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and the American War of Independence. If you can’t wait for Sharp Practice v2, you’ll be glad to know that Sharp Practice and all of the supplements are curently available at 35% off from the TooFatLardies web site here: Sharp Practice