Where is “Defend the Wall”?

Defend The Wall, Definition: The defender is standing in a fixed location and cannot move or attack – their only action is to parry the attacker. The attacker, as the name suggests, feeds attacks to the defender. There is no defined end, it goes based on the time or number of attacks specified by the coach. The name comes from the practice of putting the defender’s back to the wall so they can’t back up. Which is a nice touch but not really necessary. (And can be damaging to the wall if they fling their sword behind them.)

Ever since Sean released the HEMA Game Archive, our most frequent question has been “But where is Defend the Wall?” This is one of the best known ‘sparring games’ in the HEMA community, and there are a number of variations of defend the wall in the archive – but no listing for the ‘canonical’ version. So why is that?

Before we answer, let’s review a few definitions:

  • Drill: A training activity where at least one party is either not trying or unable to win.
  • Game: A training activity where both parties have a way to win and are trying to do it.

Or more informally:

  • Game: a training activity where you’re trying to exploit the rules.

By these definitions, the classic Defend the Wall exercise is not a game. There isn’t really a win condition for either party: the attacker is throwing lots of attacks, but they’re not scored on the number of hits or the like. And the defender is trying to parry as much as possible, but there’s no loss for being hit. Neither party is truly playing ‘to win’ – and if either does, it tends to degenerate in unhelpful ways.

Meanwhile, if you look at a game like Measure Chicken, you can see how it keeps the same core Defend the Wall DNA, but it spins it into a truly winnable game that both fencers can play to win. Both fencers need to finely hone their sense of distance, understand when they should or shouldn’t try to parry, recognise if an attack is genuine and useful, etc.