With 2020 coming to a close it’s time to have a look back and realize: ‘oh dear, what am I doing with my life’. That’s normal. But this year in particular forced some changes in our gaming behavior on us.
With a global pandemic still raging on I have to say that games I played this year with another person across a table have been few.
What to do?
As you read, I opted for solo games a lot this year. In April I got invited to partake in an online campaign of Dungeons and Dragons played via Discord. That works swimmingly. We’ve been playing pretty much every other week since; good stuff. Kriegsspiel-style games also work great via Discord or similar software (as TooFatLardies and others have shown in an impressive manner), or even just by e-mail. People have been doing that for many decades. Even I have from time to time.
With miniature wargaming things get a bit trickier obviously. A few months ago Cpt.Shandy had partaken in a game of Sharp Practice at Virtual Lard and was quite impressed with how well it played. Naturally, he was eager to share his learnings and set up his own table for virtual wargaming.
Martin, who I played Rangers of Shadowdeep with already, among other things, and I volunteered for a test run of Cpt.Shandy’s virtual gaming table. We met in a Discord channel and were presented with a two-camera setup.
The roles, as well as our briefing, area map and general infos, were mailed to us two days earlier. The scenario is based on a smaller action at New Bridge, which took place on May 24th 1862. Martin took the role of the Confederate defenders (5th Louisiana) under Col.Theodore Hunt, I got to command the Union force (4th Michigan) under Col.Dwight Woodbury who were to cross the river and take the Confederate camp. Among others, my force features a certain young Lt. George A. Custer. Historically, his performance at this action made higher-ups take note of this young officer and laid the groundwork for his legendary career later on.
If you’d like to read more about this specific action, details about the scenario and the historical outcome you can read the excellent companion piece to this gamey article here: https://www.stauchendiciler.com/
Written by Cpt.Shandy himself, who knows his way around a civil war of the American flavour.
The rules used of course are Sharp Practice by Too Fat Lardies. The figures, as usual, are all from Cpt.Shandy’s 15mm collection. the broken bridge you see crossing the river was just finished the night before.
I won’t go into too much detail concerning the game itself and more focus on the experience of online play. Here’s how it goes: Cpt.Shandy runs the whole thing, draws cards, moves figures, and so on. Martin and I give orders and roll the dice. For us both it’s been a while since our last game of Sharp Practice, so in the beginning there were some rules questions, but as the game went on things went smoother and smoother.
The Confederate camp is located on the left side of the river, my own deployment point on the right side. Early on, Martin deploys a line of three groups of infantry, I in turn deploy two groups in open column.
Unbeknownst to my opponent I got a hidden deployment point way down the river as well, depicting Custer’s cunning flanking move. My plan was to deploy a smaller portion of my force at my deployment point, lure the enemy in a bit and then deploy the main part of my force from the hidden deployment point and march as quickly as possible into the enemy’s flank.
I did not expect the Confederates to be so aggressive though. Within two more turns the bridge is corked up (the woods block line of sight) with two more groups of infantry and Confederate skirmishers cross the river. I see myself forced to deploy my own skirmishers (under Custer’s command).
After some firing back and forth they get the better of the Confederate skirmishers, who withdraw to the other side of the river again.
All well and good, but now the enemy’s main line crosses he river and goes straight towards Custer and his boys! They decide to sit and take a few more shots at the enemy skirmishers. I was hoping to make the few remaining skirmishers rout, take out their leader (2nd Lt. Adolph Steinmark) to reduce the enemy force morale. The firing barely does any damage, and in hindsight, Custer and his skirmishers should have gotten out of there much quicker. They take a salvo from the enemy line, suffer several casualties and a lot of shock.
The aggressive behavior of the opposition, as well as several command cards at the ready, forced me to deploy my four remaining units along with Col. Woodbury and his Sergeant at the regular deployment point. Hidden deployment point and tactical cunning be damned. The 4th Michigan let loose a crashing volley, doing much damage to the enemy line as well as to Custer and his poor skirmishers, who get out of there as fast as they can due to surplus shock:
The Confederate formation breaks up, some men retreat into the river, but overall they hold. My own line is too caught up in firing to follow up and exploit this first strike.
I try to send Rose’s two infantry groups forward to finally kill off these skirmishers or in some way generate more pressure, but they’re met with a horrifying salvo by the two fresh Confederate groups at the destroyed bridge and are sent back behind the woods. Meanwhile the shaken Confederate line makes it back across the river in relatively good order. Their officers immediately start whipping the line back into shape. I do the same at my flanks (Custer’s remaining skirmishers and Rose’s infantry).
Finally Woodbury manages to drive his bluecoats on to the river bank to engage the enemy once more. In a slightly cocky move I insist in forming a neat line right at the river bank so during the next activation they would have plenty of actions to present and fire for extra effect. The enemy is back in shape and quicker to act, my guys are met with a big old salvo and take a lot of losses. Seeing his local superiority in numbers (albeit slight), Martin forms up his remaining two infantry groups along with the line to form a big firing line along the river.
The Confederates got initiative and a big old Schwerpunkt on their side and the game essentially grinds down to a slugfest across the river. At this point we decide to end the game, the umpire crowns the Confederates as winners, because a Union river crossing seems unlikely at this point.
A fun game, because it’s Sharp Practice, and that’s always fun. I made a mistake here and there, and maybe the situation of getting in a crashing volley was a bit too tempting than it was worth, but oh well.
Now for the gaming experience. It certainly was interesting. A few pros and cons of playing over Discord:
– For players it’s not as easy to keep an overview or to estimate distances. Multiple cameras can help with the former though and over time you develop ‘an eye’ for the distances.
– It lessens the social aspect a bit.
– Everything takes longer.
– Technology is finicky, takes some trial and error. Also: It’s really not easy getting reasonably priced webcams these days.
+ Well, it’s better than not playing at all, right?
+ The physical detachment actually gives the game a slightly different feel. Almost ‘more realistic’, especially if we’re talking about larger games. When my firing line went to ‘uncontrolled fire’ and wouldn’t move up to the river I the feeling of ‘what are they doing over there? I told them to advance!’ is even stronger than when being physically present. With the figures right in front of you you still have the reassuring feeling that you could just pick up these pieces and move them. The only thing forbidding you from doing this are the rules. But through a webcam the feeling is much more ‘real’ because there just is no way you could get these guys to do what you want them to do right now. It’s more like you’re sitting on a hill, looking at your formations through a spyglass.
+ There are some thing you can pull off with digital play which you can’t if everybody is present physically. Via direct messages the umpire can give players little notes, and so on. There is a lot of potential there for stuff like information being shared with just one side, and so on. Imagine reducing a player’s field of view in some way by putting something on the webcam’s lense, mess with the flow of information, and so on. Of course this goes beyond the scope of Sharp Practice and goes much more in a Kriegsspiel or even simulation direction, but there are some interesting options there.
+ It gives you a way to play toy soldiers with people around the world. That is pretty amazing.
I’m rather convinced that there are things tabletop wargames do well and there are things computer games do well. I don’t think that either could replace the other, because they do different things. Computers calculate events in real-time and represent them in pretty much any way you like. That to me makes them great for simulating specific situations.
Miniature wargames just look nice and feel good. People like having something in hand. Feeling the texture of the basing stuff, the weight of the figures, and simply the look of figures on a table, plus the direct interaction with like-minded people. A computer game can’t do that. Since the pandemic started, games like Tabletop Simulator and similar software experienced a surge in popularity. I never felt compelled to use that software. I’d rather play a boardgame or a miniature wargame on a table and a computer game on a computer. I don’t find the look particularly appealing and feels a bit like a “next best thing if actual playing is impossible”.
Well, with discord games it’s the next-to-the-next-best-thing really. I have to point out though that I might just be a bit weird in that regard. Actually, any piece of opinion I post on here should be taken with this possibility taken into account.
I think that the choice of rules to use is pretty crucial to how well the game works. Games which use area movement, squares or hexes of course work better, since free-form movement is something quite tricky to pull off if you can’t just grab the figures and put them where you want them to be put. However, the way movement works in Sharp Practice is rather well suited for this way of play. Players indicate where they want the unit to move, then they roll to see how far the figures get to move. This is a very useful mode of movement if you can’t move the figures yourself.
As an example of what a computer game can do which you can’t do on a tabletop I’d like to mention a game I dipped into here and there which goes by the name of Squad. I won’t go into too much detail, but this game (50v50 players, online multi-player) depicts fictitious modern-day engagements between regular military forces. It’s got a relatively strong simulatory bent and heavily relies on communication between squad members and especially leaders, constantly feeding and receiving info from the squad to the higher-ups. It’s a frantic affair; very impressive stuff. Impossible to depict on a tabletop this way, but enlightening when it comes to as to why the little toy soldiers don’t immediately do as we order them to.
It’s just different things, both of which there is space for.
Will playing tabletop wargames over Discord be the main way I play games in the future? I sure hope it’s not. But it’s cool to have this new option, which by now we know works. It’s also an interesting option for playtesting scenarios, rules, etc. and allows people on the internet to participate in games. I have seen several people on Twitter put up a picture of a tactical situation on their gaming table and let others decide what they think should be done. There’s a lot of fun to be had.
So yeah, thanks to Cpt.Shandy for working out the scenario, preparing all the documents and the destroyed bridge and for running the game, thanks to Martin for the game and for throwing my well laid out plans into disarray. It was a fun game and a very interesting new gaming experience.