HEMA games

I've spoken about this before but I feel that one of the key pillars of successful swordsmanship is developing a good mental attitude. Being relaxed and adopting a playful mindset allows you apply your knowledge gained from study and drilling to successful sparring.

Like with strength or technique there is training you can do to develop this. Training for a good mental attitude is partly about training to reduce stress and reducing the likelihood that you will freeze under pressure. It is also partly about encouraging you to understand the linkages between techniques, how to apply the technique in different situations and how a technique fits into the bigger strategic picture.

So, what's a solution? Games.

Here's a list of some that I like to use with descriptions (I'll keep updating this list as I come up with new games):

Without swords

Slappy facey / tag - based on a childhood game from my upbringing in Scotland, slappy facey in it's natural form is literally walking up to someone without warning and slapping them in the face while shouting "slappy facey" usually followed by much hilarity. Translated into a fencing game "slappy facey" is just a version of tag (tig if you're from Scotland or New Zealand...) but where you designate a body part as the target (knee, shoulder or top of the head) and then you must tag other people with your hand while protecting your target.

Usually I run this as an all against all warm up with no point scoring because this means that after "hitting" your target you have to withdraw to avoid their counter attack. Generally it devolves into a great fast moving warm up with emphasis on spacial awareness (sneak attacks are the best) and ensuring that your attack actually lands (stance/posture) while defending against counter attacks.

Finger fencing - basically this is a tag based game but where you use two fingers to represent your sword. In this you can only score with the two fingers of your right hand (or left obviously if you're left handed). You can usually score by touching anywhere on the body with this game but you can designate target area to up the skill level.

You can run this as all against all for warm up or as 1 - 1 for more fencing style game. A variation on this is to use a glove in lieu of an actual weapon, thereby slapping your opponent with the glove to count a hit. This is a great game because you can run it with very free and easy with minimal protection.

Maintaining measure game - probably a standard with variations throughout all HEMA clubs, this is the one I use: two fencers face off and find measure by extending their arm and touching the other person's chest. Once they are in measure one person moves off and the other tries to follow maintaining the measure. At some point the instructor calls out "halt" and they check their measure, if the "follower" has been successful then they should still be in measure. You can liven this up by upping the speed and introducing an spacial awareness element by suggesting that the person leading tries to maneuver the follower into objects such as other fencers or walls.

Obviously a good game for developing a sense of measure, it also helps people to internalise their footwork.

Maintaining measure game 2 -  variation from Martin Fabian where the patient takes a random step forward/backwards/none and the agent steps to either gain or loose measure to deliver a strike (cut or thrust depending on the drill) within the correct measure.

Long measure game - two people face off out of measure, with Agent and Patient roles. The Patient moves around randomly, when the Agent believes they are in Long Measure, i.e. they can strike with one step, they put their hand up. The Patient freezes and the agent steps to test this measure. They then swap roles.

The two step game – Agent can take any two steps to try and tag Patient. Patient can take as many steps as they want to withdraw. However after two steps it Agent and Patient immediately swap and now the roles are reversed. The only way to win the game is to ensure you (when Patient) are just out of measure so that when you become Agent you can immediately follow up and tag.

Hand-eye coordination game - using a tennis ball or a glove you pass the object backwards and forwards between two people. Steadily increase the difficulty.

Dodging drill - one person has their back to a wall, the other throws a small bouncing ball at them. The person being thrown at has to dodge the ball with as little body movement as possible, i.e. voiding their torso or leg, such that it bounces back to the thrower.

Drop glove - using the rules of the maintaining measure game both people move and maintain measure, however both people are holding a glove. Either person can choose to drop their glove, when they do the other person has to also drop their glove. The idea is the catch your opponents glove before it hits the ground. To win at this game you try to force your opponent into a position that you can easily catch their glove while making it difficult for them to catch yours. Good for measure, footwork and reaction.

Partner games

Fencing cricket - simple little game: throw a tennis ball and the other person has to hit it with their weapon. You can make it more complicated by having different colors of balls which you assign a different action, such as: yellow = vertical cut, blue = diagonal cut, green = horizontal cut.

Improves reflexes and also helps encourage accuracy, it's not as easy as you might think to hit even a tennis ball sized target. Of course to make it really difficult you can always add in thrusts.

Cudgels - I keep the rules for this simple. You use "safer" weapons such as foam swords, nylon wasters or Dussacks which means you generally need minimum protective gear. You find measure against your opponent while adopting a right foot forward stance. Once both players are "measured" then the back foot (the left) is now fixed. They can still move the right foot as much as they wish, which allows them to move out of measure. The only blow that counts is a head blow. Both parties go until a head blow is landed then the looser comes off and the winner stays on. I try and encourage a really fast turn around of participants.

This is good for working on middle work technique, working the openings, stance and leaning. Also it builds fitness and stamina but also benefits building a good mindset by getting people used to fencing under pressure and being hit on the mask.

Catch if you can - both participants will need sparring level of protection (Mask, gloves and padding) and I would recommend saver sparring weapons. You will also need a reasonable amount of space for this.

The idea is that the patient will do anything possible to avoid engagement, they will use all footwork possible to fall back to just out of measure (though they are not allowed to simply run away). The agent is trying to strike the patient and can use any technique to do so. The patient is allowed to parry but not counter attack (at this point) but is expected primarily to lean, slip and evade blows with body movement rather than sword contact. After a reasonable amount of time you swap roles.

The point of this game is that at some point in a real sparring match you want to go on the offensive against a retreating opponent. Often opponents will simply fall back before you rather than engage and very little drill or technique is actually useful in this situation. Having the ability to rapidly chase someone down and force them to engage or rapidly counter attack is a very useful skill.

"Samurai Showdown" taken from here. Both fighters will have masks and gloves. The fighters only use downward vertical strikes to the mask. The goal is to hit the opponent's mask with the weak of the blade. I've found it works best if you have one strike each and the only "parry" is to block your opponents strike with yours or counter-attack their strike.

Step 1 - Fighters walk at a normal pace towards each other and attempt to strike the mask.
Step 2 - Fighters rush each other, attempting to strike the mask.
Step 3 - Fighters are allowed to creep, going back and forth, until they think they are at a proper range to strike the mask.

Double time drill: Partners start at one end of the hall. Patient does big wide attacks at a slower than normal speed (cut or thrust), Agent parries or slips but tries to fit a parry & riposte into the big swings. Once they reach the other end of the hall they swap roles.

Complete the Square - based on Meyer's cutting diagram. This can be done at full or slow intensity so armour up accordingly. The basic idea is that you are doing normal sparring, stopping and acknowledging hits, however, the winner is the first person to get hits on all four of the openings. Once you've struck an opening, further hits to this opening stop and reset the bout but do not score. The simplest way to win is to score four hits, one after the other to each opening. However, the competition gets progressively harder as you have less scoring openings available to you and your opponent will more easily protect the remaining openings.

Luck of the draw - a variation on the complete the square game. In this one you have slips of paper with specific targets, either openings or body parts (such as head, arm, leg, thigh, torso etc). Each player in a bout draws a slip at random and can only score by hitting that target. If you hit other targets you still acknowledge the hits and reset but only striking your defined opening scores, until either player hits this the bout keeps going. Importantly, neither player should know what the others target is. 

Random weapon sparring - have a selection of "safer" weapons such as federschwert wooden/synthetic longswords, dussacks, plastic daggers, bucklers, light quarter staff etc. Have two contestants. Have them face away from each other and select random weapon combinations. At the command of "go" they turn, grab whichever weapons have been provided and spar. The first to a head blow wins. Immediately cycle the pair off and put a new pair up. The pair that have just come off get to select the random weapons for the new pair. Keep going until everyone is exhausted or bored.

Improves reflexes and adaptability. Encourages people to be creative while facing often radically different measures and protective capabilities. Helps people to relax in normal sparring.

Descending weapons game - by Richard Marsden and the Phoenix Society. Both opponents start with spears. The first to three clean hits descends to longsword . The loser keeps the same weapon they had in the prior round. The winner of a round descends from spear to longsword to single sword to dagger etc.

Odds and evens - Designate players as "odd" and "even" player. Partners then face off at long measure, they then tactically choose opposing guards and shift them continuously to get advantage. After 20-30 secs instructor shouts a number (either an odd or even number) the player

Blue Team / Red Team - as the odds and evens game, however each fencer is assigned a colour or number. When the instructor calls their number they can attack, the opposite side are only allowed to parry in defence.

Zombie - by Axel Pettersen. One person is the "Zombie" and they have a preprogrammed sequence of attacks and they can only do these. Eg zornhauw from both sides, then mittlehauw from both sides then unterhauw from both sides. The aim of the other person is to kill the zombie by hitting;
1. Arms, then withdraw without being hit.
2. Torso, then withdraw likewise.
3. Head, then withdraw.
Zombie can either be stationary or move forwards

Group games

The boarding game. By Richard Taylor - Two ‘ships’ denoted by gym benches parallel to each other. A third bench connects the two ships. Fighters start off in each ship then feed along the bench meeting an opponent in the middle. The first to take a hit ‘falls off’ and the winner can step forward as much as possible to engage the next. Winning occurs when one side gets into the other’s ship. This trains blade-and foot-work in a confined space and also rewards pushing forward.

Random attack and defend - everyone kit up and form a ring with one person in the ring. Assign each person around the ring a number. When that number is called they step in and perform one attack on the person in the ring. The person in the ring defends the attack. To up the ante you can get the defender to perform a counter attack and you can call multiple numbers to attack at once.

Okay for improving reflexes, adaptability and training them to react well in stressful situations. It's really, really good for improving spatial awareness encouraging people to think in 360 degrees.

"Voiding" Game - Inspired by a game from the Renaissance Sword Club and a variation on the above. The person in the middle of the ring closes their eyes and performs random cuts and steps while the people around the ring step in to either tap them on the shoulder or gently tap the openings.

Traversing Game - the basis for this one was from a class with Steaphen Fick. The agent leads and the patient follows, the agent can step in any direction in 360 degrees while the patient has to match to keep long measure. To test measure both agent and patient throw a cut at the same time as they finish each step, if the swords meet then measure is good and they keep stepping if the swords do not meet then the agent has won. Swap roles.

"Dance of the cobra" - four players form a square around an unarmed person, at measure where they need to step to strike. When the person in the middle comes into measure of any of the people around the square they can step in and strike. If the person stands in the middle they are in striking distance of everyone and they'll die. Instead the person in the middle as to keep steping from area to area to avoid blows, as they step out from one blow they will trigger another. They keep moving until eventually they get struck.

Pit Fighting Game - Great for building mental and physical stamina. Each player goes into the pit for a timed period of up to five 5 minutes. Opponents enter the pit one at a time and stay in until they are cleanly hit at which point the next person immediately steps in. Once the time period is up, a new pit fighter is selected and they get 5 minutes of sustained fighting against continuously fresh opponents. 

Loose play - it's also worth mentioning that any loose play is great when approached as a game and this is a great thing to do to encourage people to adopt a easy, relaxed mental attitude in sparring.

I like to build up the "game" by starting with an opening scenario and then adding "new rules." It's amazing how quickly you can build really complex scenarios that strongly resemble plays from the treatises. For example, it could look like this:

1. The opening scenario is that one person attacks through a guard in onset, the defender makes a response and then the attacker changes mid-stroke to counter the response. Once complete the attacker withdraws.
2. New rule: the defender can parry the attackers blow
3. New rule: the attacker can take a further action (they get two "attacks")
4. New rule: The defender can have a further parry (they get two parries)
5. New rule: after the first attack the defender counts to two and then can do anything they like. However they can't move. So the attacker has to hit and withdraw.

Against the wall - simple variation on loose play. In this, one player has to stand with their back to a wall. They can do this literally or metaphorically (i.e. they are simply not allowed to move their feet), what this means is they are not allowed to take any steps backwards.

The simplest version of this is that the defender is at the wall (i.e. no foot movement) but can make as much blade movement as they like. The attacker is allowed as much foot movement as they like but is only allowed one attack. More complicated versions allow the attacker more blade actions and perhaps the defender a lunge or step. 

This is a really good exercise as it removes the option for defending with measure and forces the person against the wall to defend by bladework. It's also good for training a lot of people in a small space. 


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