Swordplay 2018 – the full report

I wanted to make this perfect. It will never happen, of course, but I wanted the first one to set a standard, at the least. A standard for what you should come to expect.

10 days after Swordplay 2018, I am ready.

The Place

The place yet again is Belgrade, Serbia. Why yet again? Well, this is my second Swordplay, I was here for the first international one in 2017. There is a reason for that, and hopefully you will know by the end of this.

You may think Belgrade is a typical Balkan capital, and in some ways, it is. But that doesn’t mean it is not a nice city. Big, definitely, some parts are not particularly colourful (especially in December), yep. But this city has a heart and it is a good one. It has cool places to visit (and our hosts offered guided tours for whoever wanted them), it has a vibe.

Yes, that is Belgrade, and no, it is not just a very glam photo.

There was hotel accommodation available, cheaply, but as always (and we were five guys), we got an AirBnB. 40 EUR for three nights, ten minutes from the Fair.

The special (or maybe not so special, for some Americans) thing with Swordplay it that it was a part yet again of the GamesCon event in the local Belgrade Fair. Huge place, and with more space for your fellow HEMAists this year than last. Also – crowds of nerds, geeks, and the like, who come in, watch people fence, learn about HEMA and more.

We had dressing rooms, an armoury where we could leave our stuff overnight (and good heating so all the sweat could evaporate), awesome rings and plenty of additional sparring space. Not to mention a huge gaming convention around us.

The People

Terca. That is it. Honestly, I do not know why they went with the third guard in Italian rapier. They are first in all our hearts. Disclaimer – I have been fencing with those guys since Optimus 2017 in Bucharest. I have visitied, they have visited (outside of Swordplay), we have travelled with them. I am not objective. They are great people, great fencers, and great hosts.

Terca – Škola istorijskog evropskog mačevanja is the biggest Serbian HEMA club, with over 90 members (hell, they might be breaking 100 now) and a serious commitment to our martial art. They train in rapier, side sword and longsword (Italian, Bolognese and German) and were founded by three guys – Stefan Stamenkovic, Zeljko Glumac and Dusan Kovijanic – just four and something years ago. Yeah.

Image may contain: 3 people
Željko Glumac, Dušan Kovijanić and Srefan Stamenkovic. I cannot yet find a photo of the three of them from the event. And yes, you cannot tell how tall they are, because they are pretty much the same height.

Three things you should know about Stefan, Zeljko and Dusan – they are freaking tall, they are awesome fencers, and they are great guys. But do not be mistaken – the myriad of their students judging, volunteering, fighting, or just being there in the crowd was enormous.

The Schedule

The event was a classic long weekend – one tourney’s pools on Friday, two other tourneys the next day, elims and finals on Sunday. Two light party nights, a third awesome one (which we all were too tired for, naturally).

Well, here was the schedule:

Everything was thought out. Every crisis was handled. At every point in time we were kept informed. Every question was answered. Every suggestion was heard. I cannot emphasize this enough. And this is not a matter of someone being nice or not. I have been to events where the nicest people have failed at some of those points, because they could not handle everything (which is normal). The guys from Terca did it all.

The Tourney(s)

I entered all three tourneys – rapier, side sword, longsword, all mixed steel. The rules are simple, in some cases even too much so, but work well with good judging.

The ruleset, which you can see here… was good. Hit to the head is 4 points, body, pommel strike, disarming and second ring out is 3, arms and legs are 2. All weapons, all attacks. The fight is one round of two and a half minutes in the pools and two rounds with 1 minute break of the same further on.

Doubles and afterblows are zero, and – imagine – there is no afterblow after a strike to the head. That was a great decision.

Doubles were punished in two ways – in pools, 4 doubles lead to a double defeat, for which both fighters get 0 points in their group score. And even a loss gives you 1 point (draw 2, win 3), so a double defeat can hurt you seriously. In elims, 4 doubles mean sudden death – whoever wins the next point, wins the match.

And one final key rule – I call it the knockout – whoever has a 7 point lead, wins. That means 2 blows to the head, one head and torso, one torso and two limbs, or 4 hits on the limbs end the match.

Yeah, I thought that was close too. Perhaps a bit too close – I beat a couple of opponents with only two blows. Last year it was a bit different, basically equating the knockout to 8 points, which I think is a better option.

Fighters are listening to the finer details of the ruleset.

Do not get me wrong – this adds an urgency, a need to defend yourself. It also quickens up very unbalanced fights and saves time. But I felt like some of the less experienced fighters did not get that much of a chance to test themselves – some matches were just too quick. So, I wish that they bump it up a little next year.

My only problem with this ruleset (aside from my usual objections which you will hear about someday soon) was the high scoring of rapier cuts to the torso. We simply do not see much cutting with rapier to the torso in sources – people wore doublets, and while rapiers CAN cut, ribs are also good armour against those (typically) relatively narrow blades. I simply do not think it is sensible to award 3 points for a cut to the ribs that might have at most drawn blood, and just two for a solid cut or thrust to the arm.

Scoring boards, live commentary, well-dressed judges… well, except Aleksander Ristic, who didn’t iron his shirt (and no, I do not have a photo, I am not that evil).

There were two active arenas: 20 fighters in rapier; 21 in side sword; 38 in longsword (from 7 countries and 10 clubs). Things for the first two weapons went fast. Longsword, as it usually is, was a bit slower. We had screens (with our photos on them, which we could send or have taken on the spot) with our scores, plenty of space around the big rings (which was one of the few problems I saw last year, but they fixed it), and plenty of snacks, water, and coffee, for some reason.

Just kidding – Terca had managed to not only get the typical HEMA sponsors – Sparring Gloves, SPES, PBT, the HEMA Shop, and others, but also TeleGroup, Henkel, and DonCafe, which served us free esspreso on site. Yeah. While I do not advise a lot of coffee for tourneys, being able to down a shot in the morning and afternoon during the breaks was awesome.

Judging

Oh, the dreaded judging. Well, yet again, Swordplay judging was the best I have seen, with one small exception.

First of all, there were 2 judges only – a main judge/referee and an assistant. That worked quite well.

One thing about Swordplay and the Balkans in general – here we do not take the super official sporty outlook that some other people have. Judges readily consult fighters, and many fights went really fast because of another local custom – calling blows on ourselves. Everyone does it. It helps judging and clearing up the situation immensely.

In fact, there were some fights where things were so clear and fighters so open about the slightly messier exchanges, that judges were there just to start and end the exchange and tell the scorekeepers the score.

And – imagine that – no judge felt like this damaged his authority. At the same time, no fighter felt like he’d been screwed.

Important note – naturally, the majority of the fighters were from Terca. I did not notice any favoritism. In fact, it was the opposite – sometimes judges were stricter with their own guys.

“We wanted our guest from abroad to know that we would not favorize our fighters”, 

said Dusan Kovijanic in an interview on Serbian TV after the event.
Yes, Dusan and Pavle (Terca’s assistant-instructor) went to daytime TV the next day.

There was, however, a noticeable drop in judging quality for the longsword pools. The reason was simple, and it is the same as with any other HEMA tourney – not enough judges and exhaustion. That was on Saturday, guys had already judged all the side sword pools, and the longsword pools were big. But while earlier, everyone was spot on with quality, in the second part of the longsword pools, the judges just got tired.

You know what the solution is? Help! Yep, when you want a tourney to be good and it is your brothers-in-arms organizing it, volunteer. For this reason, I have already offered to drop longsword next year and help with judging.

The Play

At the end of the day, a tourney is as good as the fighters in it. No, really, I appreciate the good organization, but if the fighters suck…

Well, they did not suck. Naturally, the tournament is beginner-friendly, and the pools will rarely be a challenge for very experienced fighters. But they were a good place to play around, test things, warm up and enjoy the fencing before the elims.

While there were plenty of first-timers (from my school as well; I brought two guys and they did quite well – one got to sidesword elims), Terca and the other local school do not have the attitude “suit the guy up and throw him in”. They do not rush their guys too quickly into tourneys and all of their fighters have solid foundations.

Naturally, there were some artifacts – suicidal longsword reared its ugly head, especially in elims, and saber-y rapier was a big part of that weapon’s tourney. But true rapier overcame that and Nikola Katic from Terca took the gold in the end, beating the sabery/sideswordy/arming swordy rapier wannabes. To be fair – I was amongst those guys, too (although I did not fence Nikola, I had the pleasure of sparring with him later). I simply do not train enough rapier and under pressure revert back to my arming sword ways.

The fights in the elims got progressively harder. At the end, I got a bronze in side sword, one of my guys – Viktor Kachovski – got silver in rapier, and I managed to get two Masters of Defence – their extra award, for the person who gets the least hits against them in the pools. There will be more footage coming soon, but here is the one fight I am most proud of – the semifinals against Stefan Stamenkovic, instructor from Terca and the eventual gold medalist. Yes, I lost:

Wait, wait, wait. This is the moment, I tell you – this tourney was almost the first that would’ve livestreamed the whole tournament live – groups, elims and finals. But some of the equipment was stolen the first day and rapier pools were not streamed.

Sidesword, longsword and finals were streamed, though, and you can watch them, still (sidesword is down due to some copyright issues with background music). With live commentary too!

Now, a sad story – besides the streaming equipment, three phones of participants were stolen as well. The organizers felt terrible about that and the theft (definitely done by an outsider) dropped the mood a bit. But I do not blame them, and I think this was the price to pay for such enormous exposure for HEMA. Literally thousands of people passed through every day. There was a TV crew and coverage of the tourney in local TV. That’s just how life goes. Also, Viktor’s phone was crap, really.

And on a brighter note, despite this being a tourney event (no seminars or workshops), there were at least 5 hours available to me (having fought in all three tourneys, not many did that) to spar with everyone I missed! That was awesome! Really, I like tourney fighting, but let us be honest – there is always more waiting than fighting. Two arenas were available for up to 4 pairs to play all the time. Had some great spars, and naturally, after going through 3 tourneys with no serious hits, I got heavy bruises and a smashed finger (nothing serious) in the spars.

All is good in HEMA when it ends with a hug.

Here are the final results:

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The Party

Fooooood. Fooooood. One thing you should know about Serbia – they have great food.

It is not about cuisine for me, although it probably will be for you – Bulgarian and Serbian cuisine are very similar. It is about product quality. Serbia is outside of the EU, so the regulations are not so strict… but also not that ridiculous. So that leads to the interesting point where high quality meat and vegetables are the same price as low to mid-quality Bulgarian food. And naturally, much cheaper than low quality EU food.

And you know, when you are fencing for 8 hours a day, food is important. Yes, our hosts from Terca brought us to great bars on the first two nights, but I knew I was fencing the next day, so I just went for one good craft beer. On the third day… well, some people left on Sunday afternoon, naturally, but whoever stayed had a great night out, battling exhaustion with alcohol.

Atmosphere, socialization – everything was just perfect. Like a few other places, Belgrade with Terca feels like a second home.

Back Home

But then you wake up…. At 11:30 a.m., you get in the car, drive home… And the event is over. Next time – 12 months from now. Damn.

Next year in December, do not look for me – I will be in Belgrade again.

Terca is one of the best HEMA clubs in the Balkans, and Swordplay is probably one of the best events of its size in Europe. It combines the best of HEMA – tourneys, sparring, great people, fun, socializing, all into one incredibly affordable package. I mean, for fuck’s sake, the whole event with all tourneys Is 70 EUR. That is ridiculous. They should charge more. No, really.

PS: For some reason there weren’t cvarci in our gift package this year (which had sweets, Swordplay badges and a small bottle of rakia). Google it and you will know my pain. Not that I cannot just get cvarci in Serbia, just… finding salted fried pork fat in a HEMA gift package is something special.

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