Why I Have Never Finished a Game of Sharp Practice

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.

Command cards in action

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.

95th rifles on the prowl

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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7 thoughts to “Why I Have Never Finished a Game of Sharp Practice”

  1. Yes, but easier than Chain of Command…some of the rules in both games are interesting, bit not necessarily always clear

    I enjoy the (very much game changing) random events that happen in Sharp Practice…

    Out of interest, how many points have you tried in each game

    1. If I remember correctly, we played with less than 50 points per side. The random events certainly can be interesting, but in our games they rarely had any notable impact.

  2. SP gives the players lots of decisions and that can seem overwhelming at first to a new player. There is definitely a learning curve in working out how to get the best out of your troops. When is it better to try and operate as more flexible groups but recognizing your troops are now harder to control? Or when to use formations which are easier to command and potentially enhance your firepower? But are more unwieldy to move. Add the cards that allow you to boost your abilities and it can seem a little overwhelming. But persevere. It took me 3-4 games to start to get a handle on what not only I could do, but what actually was sensible to do! Often there’s only a couple of sensible options but it takes a bit of experience to know what these are. Honestly it feels like you have to learn how to command your troops, not just move blocks of figures around.

    And this depth is one of the greatest strengths of the rules. The depth of game play means you will keep coming back to play SP again and again. Add into the differences in period and you’ve even more depth. A FIW game will play very different to a Napoleonic game (more single groups, more close combat) which plays very different to ACW ( the increased range of those rifled muskets versus smoothbore muskets is a bit of a shock and makes manoeuvring out of range much more difficult).

    The core rules aren’t complex (after a couple of games you’ll have the firing and effect rules in your head). But there are lots of decisions to be made which as I said can seem like the game is complex.

    This really is my favorite game, period! There are lots a virtual games available now. Take a look at the Virtual Lard community on Discord where you will find a great community. Virtual Lard is also an virtual game day which sees about 20 Lard games run in a day (many being SP) and a great way for someone new to the rules to play with an experienced game host on-line.

    I’d also be happy to run a couple of virtual games for you and your group to help you get over that initial learning “hump”. Honestly once the penny drops you’ll never look back!

    Drop me a message if you’d like to set up a game.

    Hope this helps. John

  3. I read through the rules but gave up, the normal Lardies lack of clarity, poor writing and poor organisation are in full effect. Their rules are OK to play if someone already knows them, but hellish to try to learn yourself from scratch.

    As you mention one lack in Lardies rules is the lack of consistency across rules mechanisms which makes the rules appear arbitrary and illogical and occasionally incoherent.

    1. I find this mind-boggling, because I’ve learned Chain of Command, Sharp Practice, Dux Britanniarum, Bag the Hun, and Infamy Infamy pretty much from scratch (because I tend to be the guy that introduces new rule sets to my gaming group). I’ve never had a problem comprehending them. They are not always the most concisely written (Chain of Command’s extremely loose usage of the word “unit” can cause some confusion, for example), but the central game-play mechanics are usually pretty simple once you grasp what it is they’re trying to do. Sharp Practice is fantastic at recreating the feel of commanding scattered bodies of troops in an era before automatic weapons and radio communication, of the difficulties of coordinating maneuver, and of the vagaries of command and control when the only qualifications of one of your “officers” might be that he’s the nephew of someone important. I definitely second John Savage’s recommendation of checking out Virtual Lard, it’s a fantastic community and a great way to learn games.

      1. To be honest, my problem isn’t learning the game myself, it’s teaching the game to people who haven’t read the rules or watched a video.

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