Closed and Open Games

Is there any pair of terms more popular in coaching than “open” and “closed”? Just in common use in my HEMA circles, we have “eyes open” and “eyes closed” (after Zbigniew Czajkowski); “open loop” and “closed loop” (confusingly, “eyes open” == “closed loop”); and “open double” and “closed double” from Longpoint’s rules. And I’m sure I could come up with more by thinking for longer. So obviously the thing to do is introduce a new closed vs open dichotomy.

Regardless, I’ve found this is a useful distinction when thinking about using games in training. It’s particularly helpful with class planning, where a good default model is something like: warmup; open game; closed game; open game again; free sparring. The open game introduces fencers to a part of the fencing problem space, then the closed game helps them focus on solving the problem through repeated exposure, and returning to the open game gives them the space to learn how to set up the new patterns they’ve discovered.

Closed games are tightly constrained, generally with a focus on a specific situation or movement. The prototypical example is probably Direct Attack, where the only variable is “when” and everything else about the setup is fixed. Closed games don’t need to be this specific, but generally they will tightly constrain the fencers to particular roles or patterns. This makes them very good at learning to ‘convert’ a situation – how do I attack so that I can hit past the parry of a ready opponent? How do I trick my opponent into attacking when I can easily parry?

Open games are much less constrained, generally only limiting the fencers in some ways and allowing them much more freedom to pick their actions and tactics. A good example of an open game is Sabre March, where the roles are prescribed but the fencers have substantial freedom in how they’ll try to score and what they can do to set up their winning situations. This tends to make them more representative of the fencing environment, but with the cost of allowing fencers to remain set in their ways or avoid uncomfortable situations that might push them to learn.

As with every binary classification, this is an oversimplification. Games can sit in the middle, and sometimes a good game will necessarily be somewhere between the two extremes. But I find a useful question to ask yourself when designing is “which of these patterns is more in line line with my goals for the game?”. If you’re looking to provide a specific focus on a single movement pattern, maybe you don’t need your game to be wide open with a hundred tactical options.