Sunday, 30 January 2022

Using Sharp Practice and Muskets & Tomahawks to play the American War of Independence

Sharp Practice (SP) and Muskets & Tomahawks 2 (M&T2) are two sets of skirmish rules for the black powder era. Last year I had the opportunity to use both sets, going so far as playing a scenario designed for Sharp Practice and then replaying it a few weeks later using the M&T2 rules. So I thought I would share a few thoughts, reflecting on how they play out and how well they reflect the historical period. 

Both include army lists and specific rules to cover the American War of Independence, a conflict I find particularly interesting. In the case of Sharp Practice the rules and lists can be found in the core rule book while M&T2 requires the purchase of the supplement 'Redcoats & Tomahawks'.

I guess I should preface this by saying I'm approaching this as a historical gamer. I like my games to offer a small window into history, so I'm particularly interested in the way the different game mechanics relate to my understanding of warfare during the period. While playability is always very important to me (and I accept the necessary abstractions that come with that) so is an accurate reflection of history.

The AWI lends itself well to a set of large skirmish rules, not least because the conflict featured many small actions and raids. Even the war's major battles were not large by contemporary European standards. An influential battle like Cowpens in 1781, which was to have major implications for the campaign in the south, featured a British force of only 1100 men taking on an equally small force of roughly 1800 Americans.

One of the more widespread perceptions of how the war was fought is entrenched in the events of 17 June 1775 at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In many ways that view is epitomised in the painting below and forms one of the dominant myths of that war. Here orderly ranks of blank eyed, red-coated automatons march like cannon fodder into the teeth of accurate musket fire from plucky American militia. More recently, popular films like 'The Patriot' did much to perpetuate that viewpoint.

It's probably worth noting that this picture was painted in 1897, more than a century after the battle, so it's not a contemporary reflection of the event. However it and many others like it have done much to cement a particular image of how the war was fought - by both sides. It's not unlike the first day of the Somme in 1916, an event that was not to be repeated by the British throughout the rest of that war, yet for many it has become the enduring image of the British Army's conduct of the First World War.  

More recent scholarship has shed greater light on the way the War of Independence was fought, particularly at a tactical level. Matthew Spring's 'With Zeal and with Bayonets Only' is an excellent study of the British army during the war and reflects a much more nuanced picture of tactical evolution and the dynamic nature of the combat itself.

I found that view further reinforced by 'A Devil of a Whipping' by Lawrence Babits, one of the most detailed battle studies that I have read. In this impressively researched account of the Battle of Cowpens the reader gathers a great sense of the interplay between different unit types; the influence of commanders at key moments; the speed at which the battle was fought, and, the importance of morale. 

In contrast to the perception created by that initial painting, here we see both sides changing and adapting to circumstances and the nature of the various campaigns. The actions were often fought in confined spaces such as woodland, or fields intersected with fences and scrub, and saw greater use of what we might refer to now as small unit tactics. American riflemen and British light infantry in particular often fought in small and highly mobile groups. 

Rather than the stereotyped image of line infantry marching at a steady pace it appears the fast tempo set by the light infantry often meant opposing troops had little time to fire off more than a single volley before they were set upon with the bayonet. The speed at which action unfolded in this sort of fluid situation put a great emphasis on leadership, not just commanding men but also inspiring them to stay in the fight. In short there is much going on here to fire the interest of a military historian and wargamer. It makes for a number of really interesting tactical situations and a rich vein of military history to explore through the medium of a wargame.

So how do the two rule sets compare and how well do they give us a sense of combat during the period?

They both have one key mechanic in common and that is the game turns are propelled by card activations, although how these apply in practice reflect a fundamental difference in design philosophy between the two. 

The Sharp Practice rules refer to commanders as leaders and considers these individuals to be the key influencers on the battlefield. The cards are used primarily to drive the action through those leaders, who in turn use their command initiatives to activate the units under their command. 

On the other hand the units in M&T2 are activated whenever their card type is played, for example all units that are defined as 'regulars' will activate whenever a regulars card is played. 

Commanders are present in M&T2, they are referred to as 'officers' and generally they activate when the card for their unit type is played (so that regular officers will also activate when a regulars card is played). They have an additional opportunity to activate when the 'Forward Boys' card is played. Each side has one of these and it allows every officer to activate one unit within 6", even if it has activated already. 

Overall the role of officers or leaders differs quite considerably between the two rule sets. In Sharp Practice the principal aim of the card draw is to determine the order in which leaders are activated. Once activated, leaders are then used to carry out tasks, this can include activating the units under their command, but may instead involve rallying the men or changing their formation. The better the leader in SP the more they are able to make happen. 

This is a very different approach to the one used in M&T2, here the officers are less influential and they are all alike. They are in effect small units that activate in similar ways to larger units and it is one of the most obvious difference between the two rule sets. While it is generally the leaders in Sharp Practice which activate and direct the units under their command, in M&T2 it is the units themselves which activate and their leaders with them. 

While there's a strong similarity in the way drawing cards alternates the sequence in which leaders or units are able to act there is also a major difference. In Sharp Practice we see the leaders take command and influence their men. Having the right leader at the right place at the right time can often influence the outcome of a game. It's clear to see what the rules are trying to represent here. This description of Cornwallis at Guildford Courthouse gives credence to the influence of key officers:

“Fighting along the north side of the road became so intense, Lt. Col. John Eager Howard reported, that “Lord Cornwallis, finding Stevens’ men fought bravely, and that it was difficult to force them, put himself at the head of the grenadiers and second battalion of guards, and by a vigorous charge broke the line; and that he had two horses shot under him.” Howard’s account is implies that Cornwallis saw a crisis developing, perhaps due to a shortage of officers, and rode forward to lead the attack personally.” 
Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits, Joshua B. Howard

There are two notable observations in the quote - firstly, Cornwallis saw that it 'was difficult to force them'. For whatever reason the units were unable or unwilling to press their attack and it was going to require the intervention of the most senior officer to try to influence the outcome. Secondly, Cornwallis took it upon himself to lead the unit and in doing so put himself at great personal risk.

This highlights one of the major difference between the two rule sets and that is how this activation works in practice. In M&T2 the card draws will activate units in batches, according to their type. If I have six units in a game and three are classed as ‘regulars’, then those three units will all be able to activate every time a regulars card is played. From a game point of view this works well, there are times when you will activate a number of units and make a lot of things happen. At the same time you need to be wary that your opponent may suddenly do the same. The key dynamic here is that you are not looking at individual leaders exerting their influence but types of units all activating simultaneously.

Depending on the quality of a unit type they may have several cards in the deck and so you would expect to see those units activate more often in any given turn. This is certainly one way to reflect differences in unit quality and in a more abstract way reflect the better quality of their leadership. 

That said, it does beg the question, what does this card play represent? Why do all the regulars suddenly activate at the same time? Keep in mind that they don't need to be in close proximity, or even with a line of sight to each other, or an officer. While it works fine as a game mechanic it's unclear what, if anything, it is supposed to represent from a historical perspective. After all this is a period that relied on limited means of control - voice, musical instrument, messengers or flags - all of these hampered by a noisy battlefield where vision was often obscured by clouds of gunpowder smoke. History once again points to the difficulty of doing just this:

“It took some time–perhaps half an hour-for Howe to conceive a new plan and put it into effect. If his attempts to go around the works on top of Breeds Hill had failed, then he would have to force the strong-point itself. Two of his aides were shot down next to him, slowing the delivery of orders. But eventually word reached Brigadier Pigot.”
Fusiliers by Mark Urban

Here we see the difficulty of orders reaching units and coordinating action. While Howe, the overall commander, has a new plan, having units actually execute that plan and in a timely manner is by no means a simple process. It speaks very much to the oft used quote from Clausewitz -  'everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war'.

In the game of M&T2 illustrated below the British are able to approach the rebel held hamlet from two opposite directions. Here you see two groups of regulars at one end of the table with the Americans in the middle. The British have a second deployment point at the other side of the hamlet, so the rebels face a threat from that direction as well.

On play of the regulars card the line infantry were able to advance from one side while a group of dragoons charged on from the other to drive off a group of militia. 

While it made for an enjoyable game moment I found the ability to coordinate units that were coming from opposite ends of the table not very plausible. While historically it could happen, it would be more likely to be the result of very good fortune than good coordination given the limited means of communication in the 18th century.

A simple test for any set of rules is to try to apply a historical narrative to a particular event. Is what has just happened in miniature something you would be likely to read about in a historical account? For me the coordination of units that occurs in M&T2 would tend to fail that test. 

This talk of good fortune also brings me to one of the issues many gamers have with card based activation and that is the element of luck in the card draw. While the draw of cards is random and the length of turns is variable (meaning there is no guarantee you will see all cards played in any given turn) both rule sets have mechanics that put an element of control back in the hands of the players.

The deck in M&T2 is made up of a number of different cards - unit cards, a Forward Boys card for each side, clock cards and morale cards. Players each receive three cards from the deck and keep these secret from their opponent. Clock cards are immediately discarded from your hand and are used to determine random events, the length of the game and when the deck is reshuffled. The majority of cards are those that activate the various unit types (including the Forward Boys cards) and it is they that drive the game on the table. Morale cards are played normally and force a player to take a morale check for a unit that is already suffering poor morale (a type of random 'bad things happen' event).

The interesting twist in M&T2 is that every turn players each receive three cards from a common deck and will often find that they have cards in their hand for both sides. Cards cannot be discarded and so those enemy cards must be played at some point in your turn. 

Playing the enemy card allows your opponent to activate units of that type exactly as they would had they themselves played that card. This certainly adds to the complexity of decision making during your own turn - exactly when do you want to let the enemy activate?  It calls for careful timing and an element of risk taking. To offset this disadvantage, every time you play an enemy card you receive one command ability. These command abilities can be accumulated and used in lieu of a card play in later turns. Depending on the number of abilities a player wishes to 'cash in' they have the option to carry out a range of actions including activating friendly units. This sets up an appealing degree of tension as players must try to decide which cards to play and in which order, or whether to hold off the play of the enemy card by using command abilities (if you have them) to activate your own units.

While having enemy cards in your hand presents challenging game decisions and choices, once again it's difficult to see what this is supposed to represent historically. Basically having an enemy card in your hand gives you foreknowledge of an enemy activation and you can act to mitigate that by choosing the sequence in which the card will be played. That's a rather nice game mechanic and one that presents each player with interesting dilemmas, but that's my issue, it is just a game mechanic. I can't see how it's related to any historical decision making process, for it gives a commander an amazing foresight into the future actions of his opponent.

Studio Tomahawk seem particularly good at creating interesting and interactive game mechanics. While that's to be welcomed, I find it problematic when the mechanic appears unrelated to a historical decision making or command process. This ability to foresee the actions of your enemy seems no more representative of warfare in the black powder period than having all units of the same type activate at the same time. Sharp Practice may not be perfect, but at least it is easier to try and see the mechanics in a historical context, where leaders direct their men and try to influence the outcome of events. 

In contrast to M&T2, the card deck in SP is simpler and the deck functions differently in play. It includes a card for each leader; a number of command cards (the flag cards) which function in a similar way to command abilities in M&T2, and, a single Tiffin card to determine when a turn ends (performing a similar role in creating a variable turn length as the clock cards do in M&T2). In fact, given Sharp Practice predates M&T2 I can't help thinking these concepts have provided a source of inspiration for some of the Studio Tomahawk rules.

Unlike M&T2, the cards are drawn one at a time from a common deck and revealed to both players. If it is a leader card, then that side's respective leader is activated and uses that leader's command initiatives to activate units under their command. The command (flag) cards in SP function in a similar fashion to the command abilities in M&T2 (except they are not received at the price of playing an enemy activation card). They are kept by the respective player and can be cashed in and used to enhance the abilities of a unit when it activates or to activate a unit or leader without the need to wait for their card.

Critics of Sharp Practice often complain that the appropriate leader card never appears in time or frequently enough, as a consequence their units are paralysed and 'never get to do anything'. Based on my experience a similar observation could be made of M&T2, but I don't think that criticism holds true in either case. A close examination of all the options available in say Sharp Practice show at least five ways that a unit might activate in any given turn:
  1. via a command initiative from a more senior leader than their own leader (when that senior leader's card is drawn). 
  2. by their own leader when their card is drawn. 
  3. the unit can be activated by cashing in two command cards or by using three command cards to activate their leader. 
  4. if none of the above have occurred they can activate on a single command card once the Tiffin card has been played (in other words at the end of the turn). 
Careful play and use of leaders is critical here and that makes sense given the design philosophy behind Sharp Practice.

Similarly M&T2 addresses that criticism with its own mechanics but in a slightly different way. Each game deck features a number of cards to activate a unit type. Depending on the quality of the unit type that number could vary between one and four cards of that type in the deck, therefore increasing the chance of activating units. As with SP there are the already mentioned command abilities that can be cashed in to activate a unit and then there is the Forward Boys card where officers can activate one unit within their command range. 

In this sense, from a pure game perspective, I think both offer players a number of ways to activate that mitigates against the luck of relying solely on the draw of cards from the deck. In addition they present players with command dilemmas within a dynamic framework of an unknown and variable turn length. Each system offers its share of friction without games degenerating into pure chaos and randomness. 

There is no guarantee you will receive the card you need to activate a unit type or a leader and in that sense there is no escaping the impact of battlefield friction. It's quite possible if the Tiffin card comes up in SP or the clock cards appear in M&T2 that the deck is reshuffled and the card/s you want are recycled back into the deck before you have a chance to play them. The command cards or the command abilities in both sets of rules provide a means to escape that potential paralysis and in so doing introduce an extra layer of decision making for players while keeping the flow of events from becoming predictable. 

I think both provide satisfactory game solutions, but the key issue from my perspective is to ask how well each reflects my understanding of the command and control issues of the period? When looked at that way then Sharp Practice would do that better.

Both SP and M&T2 use similar size units, with each numbering somewhere between six and twelve figures. The option exists to build a force using a points system or for players to construct them based on a historical situation. Unit types are assigned a number of characteristic that will define how they perform key actions and those are intended to reflect historical capability. In the case of Sharp Practice this is a key area where the command cards can also come into play, allowing players to choose where they might channel their leader’s energy to extract the most from a unit.

M&T2 takes a fairly traditional wargaming approach and assigns each unit type a rating for a number of characteristics such as firing or aggression (their ability in hand to hand combat). This requires players to roll this number or better to achieve a positive result when determining the outcome. 

SP takes a slightly different approach. The characteristics for each unit define a range of functions that relate to training and doctrine, like the ability to fire controlled volleys, or change formation rapidly. Some of these it may be able to carry out with relative ease, others require more control from their leaders and can only be carried out by expending command cards. For example if a unit has the 'Step Out' ability it may gain an additional movement action, however to do so requires the use of anything from 1 to 3 command cards depending on how well the unit is considered to be trained and able to undertake such an action. This is the sort of mechanic where you can see a historical parallel - in order to move a unit more quickly will require a concerted effort by officers and NCOs.

A player must decide where and how to use the limited number of command cards that may be available at any given time. This creates a very nuanced range of unit types and abilities as different units are often able to carry out similar actions but not necessarily all as easily as each other. The better trained units being more likely to carry out some actions than irregular troops, but in other instances the opposite occurs. This adds a distinct richness to the game based on historical differences.

While it's fair to say M&T2 includes some of this in the unit abilities it works at a much simpler level. Sometimes I feel they get it wrong completely, which brings me to a major issue I have with their interpretation of the period, one that I think is particularly significant when playing the AWI. 

I'm not sure the rules writers have understood the role of Light Infantry, particularly as used by the British. Nothing highlights that more than their 'Aggression' rating which is 7+, putting them lower than regular line infantry and much lower than grenadiers. While that strikes me as strange what is even more inexplicable is that it matches the Aggression rating for Militia, which is also 7+. This makes no sense to me. British light infantry were trained to be very aggressive and close with the bayonet, in complete contrast to militia who were often without bayonets and historically would rarely make a stand in hand to hand combat, let alone charge into it. Why M&T2 gives rebel militia the same close combat rating as British light infantry just doesn't fit with my understanding of the period. As a result, as written, the rules make it impossible to use the light infantry as they were historically. 

On the other hand, I do like what M&T2 tries to do with volley fire. The rules makes a distinction between a volley and normal musket and rifle fire, where great emphasis is put on the impact a volley has on a unit's morale. Essentially a volley fires to a range of 16" for the width of the unit firing and hits all units (enemy or friendly within this zone). While there is a 10% chance of a casualty (rising to 20% if the firing unit is in two lines deep) the main impact is on the target unit’s morale with a good chance a militia unit or similar will break or even rout off the table. This makes for a sudden and dramatic event where a well timed volley from a trained body of troops will sweep enemy units off the table and out of the game. 

I think this is an interesting way to demonstrate the effectiveness of trained fire on tribal, irregular and poorly trained militia. I’ve always thought that there’s something not quite right in Sharp Practice when a large group of ten militia can absorb more shock then a smaller group of eight regulars before breaking and so the ideas behind the volley rule in M&T2 would suggest one way of addressing that.

There is a good idea in here, although I don’t think it’s fully developed. This type of volley fire is restricted to units who have the ‘close order’ trait and are 'formed up'. In nearly all cases these are regular units and yet historically American militia had been capable of delivering powerful volleys themselves. One can think of Morgan's request to the militia prior to the battle at Cowpens to deliver 'two good fires' and then to fall back.

It's not to say it wouldn't be possible to make those changes to M&T2, it would be straightforward enough, but why should that be necessary?

In summary I found both rule sets offer very engaging and playable games with a host of interesting mechanics to keep players involved. What separates them is the way in which they handle their historical period and I think that talks to a very different design philosophy. When judged from that perspective I found M&T2 a far less satisfying experience than Sharp Practice. In the end I think the preference comes down to what you are looking for, is it more about the game or more about the history?


Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Second World War Russian armour in 20mm

Most of my Second World War 20mm collection for the European theatre focusses on the later stages of the war from late 1942 onwards and so that's reflected in the models and figures I own. The Russians are no different and though I do have a few of their earlier tanks, like this BT-7 in the picture below, for this post I'll focus on those that are likely to be seen in the later stages of the war.

In which case I suppose any talk of Russian tanks might as well start with the ubiquitous T-34. If you only ever have one Russian tank in your collection you probably can't go far wrong with one of these. The set from the Plastic Soldier Company includes three models but has two sets of turrets for each body so that you can make up the earlier T-34 with the 76mm gun or the later models with the 85mm gun. This is extremely handy, as in effect the set gives you six possible tank options. With that in mind I made up turrets for both models and can interchange them as I need.

Here's the 76mm version with a crew figure from AB.

While I have seen several of the later T34/85s, the earlier T34/76 are harder to come across. The one below is at the Musee des Blindes in Saumur.

Here is the later T34/85 version. Once again the crew figure is from AB.

There are plenty of these to be found in museums given they were still produced after the war and were used in the Arab/Israeli Wars, Korea and Vietnam, amongst others.

This one is in the Military Museum in Beijing.

This one below, a gift from the Soviet Union to Australia to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, is in the Army Museum in Bandiana, Australia.

Here's another on display in the Imperial War Museum, London.

And one at the Tank Museum, Bovington in England.

Last, but not least, there is also one in the impressive collection of the Canadian War Museum

I had an unmade kit of the old 1/76 Airfix version of the T34 and thought it would make the good base for a model of a wreck. It could be used as scatter terrain or in a campaign if we replay over a table where a tank has been destroyed. I scratch built the interior and you can follow that build in more detail in this post.

The KV1 was designed and manufactured around the same period as the T-34 and competed to be the main battle tank of the Red Army. Like the T-34 it carried the 76mm gun and had similar armour. It suffered from early mechanical issues and performance, although these were later resolved. The design was eventually dropped when the T-34 proved to be capable of doing all that the KV-1 could do but could be produced faster and cheaper. The KV design was not totally redundant and the chassis went on to be used for the later IS tanks.

This is the version from Pegasus Hobbies and much like the T-34 from PSC the set of two vehicles come with two variants of the turret. As both carry the 76mm gun these simply offer you variations on a theme. The crew figures are all from AB.

The tank museum at Bovington has one in almost perfect condition. It was sent to the UK during the war as an example of Russian tank design and has never seen service.

On the other hand this one at the tank museum at Saumur has seen much better days and the museum has chosen to display it in an appropriate setting.

The Russians used the KV chassis to mount a 152mm artillery gun in a large, slab sided turret to produce the KV2, a striking looking AFV that saw service in the early stages of the war in the East but had ceased manufacture by 1943. This is a plastic kit from Trumpeter. I'm not sure why but there's something I find attractive about the way it looks, perhaps because it is so menacing.

As mentioned, the IS series of tanks were based on the KV chassis and the IS-2 was to play a major role in the later stages of the war. With a powerful 122mm gun it was equipped as much to deal with German armour as it was to blast infantry out of defensive positions. This is a plastic kit from S-models with a crew figures from AB. I'm very impressed with the S-models kits, they strike a good balance between a quick build for gaming with a level of detail you might expect from a display model.

The Russians produced a number of light tanks that were built in automotive factories, the most common being the T-70, a diminutive tank when compared to the others. As the war progressed it suffered from the relatively ineffectual 45mm gun and its small size. In the end the Russians preferred to use lend-lease tanks to fulfil the light tank role rather than focus on developing a version of their own, with the British Valentine being particularly well liked. This T-70 is from the PSC plastic set and has a crew member from AB.


While the T-70 may not have been a huge success the modifications made to the chassis to lengthen it and add an extra road wheel formed the basis for the SU-76, a self propelled version of the Zis-3 gun that was designed as an infantry regiment support asset. These were produced in very large numbers, second only to the T-34, and provided infantry regiments with considerable additional mobile fire support as the war progressed. This is the plastic kit from UM Models out of Ukraine.

The T34 chassis was adapted to house a range of self propelled guns and tank destroyers. The SU-85 mounted the same 85mm gun as the T34/85. This kit is another from S-models.

The closest I've come to seeing a Russian self propelled gun is this SU-100 in Saumur. As with the SU-85 this uses the T34 chassis but in this case it has been adapted to carry the more powerful 100mm gun.

Where as the SU-85 and SU-100 were designed for an anti-tank role, the SU-122 housed a 122mm gun protected by sloped armour enabling it to provide powerful close range HE support or operate in a more stand-off artillery role. This is a plastic kit, also from UM Models, who make an excellent and extremely wide range of Soviet AFVs and vehicles.

The closest I have come to seeing one of these is this 122mm howitzer at the Cambodian War Museum, it's the same gun that was mounted in the the adapted T-34 chassis to make the SU-122. 

As the war in the East progressed the Germans resorted to creating fortress (festung) cities and the  Russians were confronted with defenders in reinforced urban positions. That required powerful close range HE support for the infantry calling for self propelled guns that not only carried a heavy gun but with thick enough armour to handle German anti-tank weapons.

The SU-152 used the KV chassis to carry a 152mm howitzer. I can't recall who makes this plastic kit, it might be Pegasus Hobbies.

Last, but not least, I have a BA-64 armoured car. These were produced in large numbers and this is a resin kit from the Milicast range with a crew member from AB.

I’m in the process of putting together a number of kits covering several of the British and US lend lease tanks and vehicles. I’ll combine them in a separate post that will include a few of the early war vehicles in the collection like this BA6 armoured car below from Pegasus Hobbies.