Fencer vs Fighter: A Case Study on How Adding More Options Can Make You Worse

This is an interesting case that has come to light over the past several months for me, which involves two games: Soviet Foil Drill (SFD), and Fencer vs Fighter (FvF). 


One side has a sword and the other doesn’t, sword side tries to land a hit to the head, if they hit they win, if they miss the non-sword side wins.


Both sides have a sword, the attacking side must land a hit above the belt, if they hit they win and if they miss, the defending side wins. The defending side may also win by touching the attacker’s shoulder no more than one step after making blade contact.

Essentially, FvF is the same thing as SFD, but with an extra option for the defender – they may now also score by making blade contact (usually via parry) and touching the shoulder. The idea behind this is that now the attacking side must think about whether or not they want to fully commit to their attack, whereas in SFD there is no downside to fully committing every time. It also adds an “attacking” option for the defender, who can try to enter and initiate their own blade contact.

The expected result is that, since the games are essentially the same but with an extra method of scoring for defense in FvF, defense should do better in FvF than SFD. However, in practice that is not what happened. From the beginning, it felt like FvF was harder for defense. Over the summer of 2022, we spent a few weeks taking data on games – we would record how many successful reps each side achieved whenever we played an asymmetric game (we had every group do an equal number of reps on each side to account for skill disparity). Out of 160 reps of SFD, the result was 91 (57%) for attacker, 69 (43%) for defender, and out of 110 reps of FvF, the result was 66 (60%) for attacker, 44 (40%) for defender. 

So it was not just our imaginations, the defender did actually tend to have a better time in SFD than FvF. How do we explain this discrepancy? How does giving someone more options make them perform worse? I have an idea for why this may be, and I think it may represent a microcosm of fencing as a whole. 

We can start with the oversimplified idea that the parry is a bad option. Well it’s not bad bad, but it’s just usually not the best. The parry is hard to do, and there are a lot of things that can go wrong with it. There are two modes of failure: you can parry unsuccessfully and get hit, and you can succeed in parrying but fail to touch your opponent’s shoulder. If the attacker knows the defender will parry, they can avoid it by throwing a strike with less commitment (which then opens them up to being voided), or they can throw a deep indirect cut to a hard to parry place such as the left flank. 

The clear immediate solution to this seems to be to ignore the cut and just play it like SFD. This does work, but fencers tend not to do this – why? Probably because the tool of parrying exists. It is explained prominently in the description of the game, and contributes to the game’s uniqueness. By not using the parry, it feels like you are not playing the game correctly. It’s uncomfortable and feels wrong, you are compelled to try to use the parry, to figure out how to win the game “correctly” by taking advantage of all of your tools. 

So let’s take a step back then, and try to figure out the best way to win this game given the tools that we have available. We are not going to force ourselves to do any particular move because we feel like we should, we just want to increase our win rate. The first move should be obvious – drop the parry completely, keep the sword out of the way and play the game purely like SFD. The increased target area will widen the distance a little bit, but once you adjust for the distance you should be able to increase your win rate to match the SFD win rate. Where do we go from there? Well, now that you are playing SFD, you will notice something about the attacker, which is that their attacks are now all highly committed, which was the reason Sean Franklin came up with the FvF game in the first place. So now that the opponent has forgotten about the parry and is committing to all of their attacks, you can use the parry to “steal” a point that the attacker otherwise would have scored if it were SFD by beating your distance. In this way, you may be able to score better on defense in FvF than on SFD. 

The thing about the parry is it’s not actually bad, it’s just bad if you use it all the time. We have a word for things like that in sports and martial arts, a low percentage move. It sounds obvious now after going through it in detail, but all moves require their proper context, and some are just not good to do all the time. If you are trying to get a particular move to work and not having much success, maybe the answer is simply using it less. 

The other lesson I think that comes out of this situation is how you form a plan around your available options. If you, as defender, go into each exchange with a 50/50 chance that you are going to go for the parry or try to avoid, then you’re probably not going to be successful, the attacker will control the match, bait out your option, and use their advantages to win. The situation will be similar if you try to decide in the moment which of the two you want to do. In this case, you may be assigning more weight to one option or the other than it deserves, in this case probably disproportionately favoring the parry. If, on the other hand, you make one option your main plan and the other your backup plan, it works a little bit better. In this case, avoiding is the plan, and parrying is the backup plan, only to be done if you know you are about to be hit. I believe this is reflected in fencing as well – it’s better to have a plan and a backup plan for a scenario than it is to have two equal options that you try to decide on in the moment.