About a year ago, one of my gaming buddies and I decided to get into Napoleonic wargaming. We split a Black Powder Waterloo starter set and got to work painting the minis. While we enjoy the Black Powder rules, we found them to not be well suited for our 4′ x 6′ wargaming table (at least not with our 28mm minis). Transporting the large amounts of minis to the gaming shop we play at was also a hassle (especially when I need to take them on a crowded bus). Additionally, I feel that Black Powder benefits greatly from pre-game scenario preparation and is not well suited for casual pick-up games. When I heard about Sharp Practice, a large skirmish-scale gunpowder era wargame that doesn’t require large armies or a large table, I got very excited.
However, after attempting to play Sharp Practice on two seperate occassions, my excitement has turned to disappointment. Both times we tried playing, have ended up quitting halfway through in frustration. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Sharp Practice rules. Its mechanics make sense, its rules are not too complicated, and it is certainly capable of generating compelling narratives. As a miniature wargame version of historic adventure novels(like the Sharpe series from which it clearly takes inspiration), it is clearly a success. But there are a couple reasons why the game just hasn’t worked for us.
When I first read the Sharp Practice rulebook, I thought to myself, “Wow, this game makes a lot of sense. I bet it will be super easy to teach.” I soon found out that I was totally wrong. In my experience, Sharp Practice is actually quite difficult to teach, even to seasoned wargamers. During both games that I played, each with different opponents, I felt like I completely failed to teach the game well. To be honest, I don’t really know why I failed, but I think it might have something to do with the flow of the game and its underlying systems.
In each turn (or chapter, as is it called in the rules) of Sharp Practice, players flip over cards from a deck — activating leaders when their card is revealed. When a leader is activated, they have a certain number of command initiative points which they can use to give orders to groups of soldiers in their unit. When soldiers get activated, they can perform two actions, including move, shoot, reload, etc. This sounds very simple, and it is, however the problem comes when the game starts layering on extra rules. For example, flag cards can be used to temporarily increase the amount of orders that leaders can give, but they cannot be used to give actions to activated groups. Groups can be combined together to make formations, though moving into a formation doesn’t count as an activation. Movement into formation happens automatically in some circumstances and requires movement actions in others. Formations have to wheel to turn whereas single groups do not. Formations use a completely different line-of-fire rule than single groups. Though it may seem like these kind of rules are not too challenging to understand, I’ve found them to be very difficult to explain fully to new players.
I admit, it is completely possible that my teaching style is to blame. I prefer to teach the minimal amount of rules to a new player and then explain additional rules and exceptions while we play. However, I’ve found that this is almost impossible with Sharp Practice. It also doesn’t help that there is no quick reference sheet included in the game, and the ones I’ve found online have proved less helpful than I hoped. Black Powder’s QRS is basically only one single page (plus the break test chart on the back) and it is perfect for teaching the game. In my games, we used a four-page fan-made QRS that I found online and I still had to open the book frequently to check rules.
Several times during our last game, my friend exclaimed, “This game was really complicated!”. However, a few weeks earlier I had taught him Mortem et Gloriam, an ancients wargame which I think is comparable in complexity to Sharp Practice, without any issue. I think one main reason this is related to the consistency of their mechanics within the game as a whole. In MeG, single units and formations effectively function identically, whereas in Sharp Practice they are different. MeG has a card management mechanic like Sharp Practice, but it is focused entirely on the game’s command mechanics and cannot be used to boost combat or interupt the other player’s turn. Lastly, MeG has a very clear flow to its turns, which is easier to explain that Sharp Practice’s mix of random leader card pulls and flag card interuptions (I suppose I should also mention that my gaming buddies originally started by playing Warhammer games, and so in general, a phase-based system is much easier for them to digest).
So, after all these issues, do I think I will ever play Sharp Practice again? To be honest, I’d certainly love to. However, next time, when someone approaches me with interest in the game, I will probably lend them my rulebook and ask them to read through it fully before trying to teach them how to play. Also, I will try to find a better QRS next time as well (if anyone knows a good one, let me know!). That said, I have some other issues with some of the mechanics in Sharp Practice (though I haven’t played enough to make firm conclusions about them). Also, having to mark shock and wounds (we use group basing) for each group of soldiers can really clutter up our table. Still, I would definitely be willing to give it another shot.
Speaking of Too Fat Lardies, during the holidays I ordered a copy of Infamy, Infamy!, the latest ancients ruleset from them. However my recent experience with Sharp Practice has made me a bit worried. I am very intrigued by that game’s rules, especially its asymmetrical mechanics, but I feel like it may be even more difficult to teach.
Have you played Sharp Practice? Do you find it hard to teach new players? Let us know in the comments below!
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