The following are the results of a game design challenge to design games which have the biggest discrepency between their apparent usefulness and their actual ability to teach sills.
If you’ve checked out the HEMA Games Archive you’d have noticed there are a lot of games to choose from. So, mainly as a training exercise for myself, I’ve tried to produce a set of 6 games that cover the most important aspects of fencing. Obviously this is an impossible task, but I think these will cover as many bases as possible for a well-rounded fighter.
1 – Direct Attack w/ Eyes Closed
This is a variation of the Direct Attack, with some tweaks to make it more broadly applicable. In the standard Direct Attack, both attacker (A) and defender (B) would be stationary with the attacker choosing when to instigate. To try and build on the variability of the original Direct Attack, we will have the attacker standing with their eyes closed and the defender slowly moving back and forth along the line of attack. (ie moving through the potential starting locations for a normal Direct Attack depending on who’s winning/losing more.)
At some point the coach on the sidelines will yell “Go”, at which point the attacker will open their eyes and try to hit, and the defender will try to not get hit by either parrying or moving backwards, whichever variant you specify.
This is an improvement on the range of skills developed by the original Direct Attack because it addresses a fundamental weakness: that the attacker gets to choose when to initiate and thus they know exactly what they want to do. Now the attacker still has to throw the very best attack they can manage, but they have to be ready to do it at any time.
2 – Parries
Both attacker and defender are known at the start of the game, but the attacker is not allowed to attack until instructed. They both move around facing each other (you’ll need a small ring for them to circle or else the defender just gets boxed in at the end of a piste) and changing guards, looking for the most advantageous position.
The coach stands off to the side in a position visible to both fighters (either they are moving or the fighters are limited enough in movement they can always see the coach). At some point the coach will yell and signal an opening.
At this point the attacker must attack this opening before the defender can cover it. Depending on the relative skill levels, the coach can position themselves so that the attacker or defender has a better view of them.
The function of this game is to break people out of their normal attacking patterns and be ready to attack any opening the moment it becomes apparent. Likewise the defender needs to be ready to deal with unexpected attacks and in a position to respond to everything.
3 – Distance
To do this you need a whole chest of weapons, or things that you could pretend are weapons (for reasons that will be made clear). It functions similarly to the classic distance drill of “move around and try to stay in the same measure”, but this time they each have a different goal.
To start, both fighters extend their weapons out to longpoint and measure up so their tips are half way between the cross and the pommel. (Or make equivalent marks if using polearms or other non-cruciform hilt swords). The swords are then withdrawn and the free movement phase starts.
One fencer is the Cross and the other is the Pommel. At some point in the free movement the coach will yell “hold” and they must stop in place. The weapons will be extended and if the points of the swords are closer to the cross than the pommel the Cross wins, and if they are closer to the pommel the Pommel wins.
Because there is no one ‘true’ distance to learn in fencing we never want to repeat the game the same way multiple times. Thus we swap weapons for every run. This makes good use of Differential Learning to give the fighters the best possible understanding of distance management, as well as how to adapt based on the circumstances.
Note: there is one additional rule. The natural tendency is for Pommel to just run away as fast as they can, and Cross to just rush in as fast as they can. This is remedied by the addition of alternate win conditions in case someone gets greedy. If the pommel fencer can jump forward and tag the cross fencer they win, which keeps the Cross from trying to just constantly run in. If the cross fighter yells “call” and takes a step back and the pommel fighter can’t respond with a strike in a single step to hit them then the cross fighter yells. So you have to get to the right distance, but go too far and you lose.
(it just felt a little weird to write about the pommel fencer not being the one running in.)
4 – Grappling
Both fencers start with their swords bound, crossguards shoved together. The coach yells “go” and grappling begins. Each exchange is scored according to the criteria:
- Force stalemate – Lighter fighter gets 1 pt
- Bind their weapon, get yours free – 2 pts
- Standing throw – 3 pts
- Disarm – 5 pts
Because the scoring criteria all require you to get in there and fight, the game forces development of core grappling skills while simultaneously acknowledging that the lighter fighter is at a disadvantage and may be better off just seeing if they can stall for time.
5 – Winding Fuhlen
Both fighters start in retracted longpoint and are allowed to move freely. Whichever of the two extends their arms first becomes the Attacker, and the other the Defender. (Note: extending your arms to the side to parry when you flinch also makes you the attacker) Once the attacker is established they have 5 seconds to hit the defender without losing sword contact. (It also means that you can’t be flinchy and extend without a deliberate plan, lest you break blade contact immediately after extending).
This approach to winding and fuhlen development takes into account that you can’t just start in the bind, it always has play leading up to it. In this, the play of who is going to be the Attacker and who is going to be the Defender is central to how the bind will develop. If you are too aggressive, you’re definitely going to get locked out and fail. But if you are too passive, you’re going to let them set up an aggressive blade-taking as the opening action and you’ll have to defend from a very bad initial bind.
Note: the game says the Attacker can’t leave. If the Defender pulls the sword away and they get hit then they lose for being dumb.
6 – Chaining Attacks
To train chaining attacks (multiple nachschlag if you will), it’s important to learn to do it in an “eyes open” way. People usually move towards the opening that feels the most natural to cut to, rather than being systematic and/or trying to figure out where the defender doesn’t want them to go.
This has an Attacker and Defender setup. The Defender has the One True Opening that they aren’t allowed to parry, but the Attacker does not know which it is. Once the Attacker initiates they can follow up with as many attacks as possible until either:
- They hit
- Measure is broken
- They get tied up in close (no grappling allowed)
The Defender should always try to parry the first attack, even if it is the OTO (One True Opening). However, if an attack is repeated to the same opening, they would not parry as normal in this game.
This is all about trying to find the right attack for the situation, rather than as many attacks as possible or the fastest attack you can do.
While no six games could ever be considered a complete training program, this list appears to cover the fundamentals. And of course in this hypothetical 6-games-only scenario the games would exist alongside regular sparring.After all, nothing can replace lots of fighting, and preferably with new faces and new experiences.
In reality you’re not going to be forced to limit a training program to six games, and at the end of the day it’s just a thought experiment. But even if you don’t end up using any of this, I would encourage you to think about how you can best distill down the ‘core’ of what you are doing. And how do you best structure training activities that best meet that, rather than just copying what you’ve been taught in the past.