Sharp Practice! – Darkest Africa


…Darkest Africa?


…what’s this! Not a new set of rules!

It is indeed and for those that have been watching their development they may very well deliver a new spin for games in the Darkest Africa genre to complement Rifles & Spears as well off course for the period they’re intended for. To be fair, Lardy Rich has already identified the future expansion of Sharp Practice into the colonial period…so I’m jumping the gun a bit…but with good reason and off course with a much more focused point of view relating to armies in Africa.


So, why?

A good number of posts ago I talked about Death in the Dark Continent as a quality rule system for this period…and they are. However, the game very much is pitched at the small to mid sized battle and in fact has a relatively high figure count to get into, at least for tribal based armies…100+ figures. All of this is fine and I look forward to the new release of DITDC later on this year.

Now for those that have read the past few month’s posts I have been and still am developing a version of Muskets & Tomahawks (aka Rifles & Spears) for the Darkest Africa genre…as you have seen this has worked very well IMO and I am well pleased with the results. Rifles & Spears however is fundamentally a single figure based game with the emphasis on single figure movement and function within the system, not really units of figures, even though units are formed in that game. That off course, is one of the appeals of the game, particularly in the colonial period, but it delivers a different set of challenges and emphasis of purpose as a game system. Rifles & Spears offer something different to Sharp Practice though both games are doing similar things…why not both?

Sharp Practice, in the same vein as Death in the Dark Continent, is a unit based game..not single figure game, though it can look like one at times. Naturally enough it still has elements of single figure use as one would expect in a ‘mass skirmish’ system. The game system revolves around leaders pushing around units through the use of command initiative, units which act together and live and die in the game as a group…which in fact is the term used in the game.

So the upshot is that Rifles & Spears offers a very focused single figure character based game experience whilst Sharp Practice is aimed (at least to me) as being more representative of a small battle unit based game, though aspects of leader and character use are still part of the system. Really, Sharp Practice represents a middle position between Rifles & Spears and Death in the Dark Continent…a blend in styles of the two if you like and thus it brings something new to the table in the way the game scale is portrayed and plays.

On top of that many interesting and dynamic aspects of play are introduced that neither of the previous two game system delivers so it’s worthy of investigation to see how it works for the Colonial and more specifically Darkest Africa genre. Whilst these few posts focus on ideas for use in Darkest Africa there is much that Sharp Practice can be used for, one period being the Musket/Maori (New Zealand) Wars which have also been of interest too me for sometime…more on that in a later post.

So the bottom line, whilst I’m using both Rifles & Spears and Death in the Dark Continent quite happily, will be to use Sharp Practice in a sort of triumvirate of game systems to give maximum possible use of existing miniatures collections, potential opponents and enable the full spectrum of interesting gaming opportunities presented for this genre…we shall see…


So what makes Sharp Practice suitable for this period?

As it says on the lid, Sharp Practice is a set of wargames rules for large skirmishes in the era of blackpowder. Ostensibly the period finishes in 1865, which as the rules authors have discussed on other forums, proves a useful cut-off point because the tactics of the breechloader change things quite a bit after this time period when looking at conflict in Europe and beyond. This nicely ‘book-ends’ the system with the finish of the American Civil War and sets up any further use of the game when one starts talking about 19th century European warfare for a later edition or variant.

However, conflict in Darkest Africa in the late 19th century is more or less the story about anything other than tactical level advances and evolutions coupled with intricate tactics that would otherwise make the whole period out of bounds. The colonial period can easily be considered a continuation of the tactical use of existing weapons technologies and new and emerging ones from the earlier 18th century.

Specifically, the introduction of the machine gun as a defining weapon of the late 19th century along with off course the widespread use of breech loading and repeating rifles. The trusty smoothbore musket was still the most common weapon available in Africa at this time and certainly was used all the way up until the end of the century…so the colonial period really does fit the brief of “a set of wargames rules for large skirmishes in the era of blackpowder”.

As previously discussed in these pages, Darkest Africa as a genre really need only encompass the technologies of the 18th century as well as a few of the new weapons of the 19th century, be they smoothbore or rifled muskets, breechloading and/or repeating rifles and machine guns and off course artillery to more or less cover off all armies up to the turn of the century.

The other main defining feature of conflict for this genre are the many African tribes that rely on traditional styles off combat, blending spear, shield, musket and rifle in varying proportions with some even using artillery and machine guns. This provides one of the main drawcards to the period with a potent blend of new and old technologies used by the peoples of Africa and their colonial imperialist allies and enemies.

Fortunately Sharp Practice already encompasses all these weapons technologies in the core game system, barring the machine gun. The rules mechanics are such that the inclusion of machine guns is really not that hard to do and so with all the technological weapons accounted for we can get down to the specifics of how the game plays and handles both conventional European forces and tribal forces… fortunately, the rules already account for these troop types as well…so it’s looking good so far.

Whilst there may be very many ways to ‘skin the cat’ the truth is that the game itself really has all the components for immediate use for conflict Post 1865 in Africa. This is good as it means that we can use the existing game without having to change too much, at least for the period and theatre that we’re looking at, that being East Africa in the 1880s and 1890s. In fact, staying as true to the existing game systems will be the goal of this look at using Sharp Practice in the later colonial period.

So with some initial thoughts laid out let’s take a look at how we can use Sharp Practice to work in, adapt and reflect on the ideas and thoughts we’ve been discussing in these past couple of months, using the Masai and White Explorer/German colonial forces as our ‘proof of concept’ forces…all previous discussions being relevant and infact forming the basis for this ‘limited scope’ adaptation. This will prove useful as it more or less gives a toolbox of technologies used by all combatants in the period as well as dealing with aspects of tribal forces as well. So how are we going to tweak Sharp Practice for the high Victorian period?



Some Aspects of Sharp Practice that appeal to the Colonial gamer

For those that played the original Sharp Practice  they will understand the type of game it was. Largely a card driven game that used ‘Big Men’ to lead their units around the table. This was quite a novel feature back when it was originally released well over a decade ago. Since that time Two Fat Lardies have developed a number of game systems with probably their most dynamic and interesting take on representing the chaos of battlefield command and control being their World War Two Chain of Command system.

There are many aspects in Chain of Command that provide a good game as well as simulation experience. One of the key aspects of that system is the idea of troops deployment which involves what in effect are kind of spawn points on table. This quite cleverly models lines of communication and points of pre-battle deployment that speed up play and introduce elements of fog of war. This is a hallmark of the Chain of Command system and was one of its main innovations.

So to in Sharp Practice this system is used and the game is much better for it. It is done through the use of ‘deployment points’ and secondary deployment points which enable troops to be placed on table relative to those points dependent on the type or force posture and the inclusion of an ability to have these points be either fixed or movable. This elegant system alone introduces many aspects of the colonial experience of less manoeuvrable forces being out scouted by more nimble opponents, be they local African forces or indigenous white Africans such as the Boers. This aspect of Sharp Practice offers up many opportunities to reflect specific armies in a very interesting way really enhancing the game and enjoyment of play.

The other very good step forward was the adoption of a force morale system which is in effect a form of ‘army morale’ although it only actually represents the force morale of a small body of troops. This same system from Chain of Command is used in Sharp Practice and it is a very good way to both reflect the commitment of forces as well as bring the game to a timely and often satisfactory conclusion making it a much better overall gaming experience.

However, I think the cleverest innovation in the game is the introduction of the ‘flag command’ system i.e. a method by which a whole range of troop abilities can be reflected by the degree to which a number of specific tasks can be accomplished dependent on the draw of a random card or chit dependant on the quality, training, or natural abilities of the respective unit type. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say the new version of the rules encapsulate many of the low level decisions that small unit commanders make in the colonial period just as much as they would in the grand armies more typical of the black powder era.

There are many other small rules which also lend themselves well to make the game useful for the colonial period but probably too many to go into any details at least at this point. If we turn our attention specifically to the two armies that I’m looking at we will be able to touch on some of the aspects that make the rules particularly useful for reflecting warfare in East Africa in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Play the period, not the rules”…such is the design philosophy of TFL since its inception. So we shall apply this principle to designing appropriate rules for the actors in this period as this author perceives them to be reflected in Sharp Practice….


Next post we’ll look at the Masai for Sharp Practice.