Bellinghamsters will do just about anything to make their exercise fun. On a recent Saturday, I met a group that does foam swordplay, widely known as “boffing.” Boffing is a thing just about everywhere, but not many people know about it.
Have you ever spotted the Saturday battles in Cornwall Park? Two boffing groups meet there regularly. I rode by on my bike one day and stopped to watch, and wait—was that my massage therapist holding a broadsword and whacking a man with a ponytail? At my next appointment, I asked her about it, and she invited me into this fun subculture.
Boffers use swords made from a PVC pipe shaft covered with craft foam and duct tape. (All materials are available at Bellingham Ace Hardware in Sehome Village, where there is a helpful display.) A regulation sword has the blade edge marked with duct tape to distinguish it from the flat; a hit with the flat doesn’t count in structured play.
The group I covered has more relaxed rules, and anything goes for weaponry, as long as it’s safely covered in foam. I saw a spear, shields, a throwing weapon (basically a Nerf ball covered in duct tape), short daggers, and traditional broadswords. Because medieval weapons had hand shields and those are hard to reproduce with foam, hits to the hands are not counted in play.
It’s difficult, but possible, to injure someone with a foam sword. Contact that causes pain is disqualified to discourage rough play. If you are hit on your leg, you must stiffen the leg and not run on it for the remainder of the fight. If you’re hit on the arm, you put that arm behind your back. Hits to the head, chest and crotch don’t count (again, to discourage rough play). If you lose both arms or legs, or are hit on the back, you’re “dead” and hold your weapon overhead for five seconds before you reactivate with a “fresh” body. Some players prefer to die theatrically by falling to the ground for their count of five.
Dylan, the first player to arrive on the day I was there, is a 20-year-old student who comes every Saturday. He maintains the group’s communication site and brings a variety of weapons for new players to use. He likes the exercise and the medieval fantasy aspect of the game, but mostly he comes for the community of friends. “We’re all nerds here,” he said. “This is a place where we can be ourselves.”
Cosplay is permitted, and some people come dressed as their favorite sci-fi characters, but costumes are constricting and most players prefer to wear themed t-shirts, if they dress up at all. Because I was there, they suited up in capes and pirate shirts that Karplusan, one of the players, had in a tub in the trunk of his car.
Karplusan has been boffing for over 20 years—more than half his life. He discovered it in high school in 1997, when a new kid from Texas introduced an Amtgard group. Amtgard is a formal LARPing society (Live Action Role Play), with costumes and character play. Karplusan brought Amtgard to WWU from 2000 to 2003. The group disbanded and reformed in 2005 as an informal CTF (Capture-the-Flag) group, in which teams battle for a flag. CTF games allow for more running and sneaking than traditional swordplay.
Like Dylan, Karplusan’s social life revolves around boffing. He likes being a long-term player because there’s “joy to be found” when new players develop their skills and get good at it. Dylan adds that boffing is “very inclusive,” as it’s a safe contact sport that can be adapted for people of all ages and abilities.
Skya Fisher, the aforementioned massage therapist, engaged with a young man of 17 in a fair fight. She enjoys boffing because it’s good upper body exercise that keeps her in shape for her demanding work. For several years, she cared for a disabled family member and the group allowed her a scheduled, predictable social activity at a time when getting out was difficult.
The group welcomed me warmly and invited me to join in a battle. I tried a variety of weapons and found them a little challenging to use, but their light weight sped up the learning curve. My background in martial arts training came back to me as I found my stance and guarded instinctively. My right leg got tapped quickly, but I lasted a few minutes before Skya jabbed my left and took me out. I laughed as I watched her engage with Karplusan, and when she got in close enough with her sword, she whipped out a throwing weapon from behind her shield and bopped him with it.
A little joyful silliness on a Saturday, what more can you ask for? The club welcomes new members. Just show up between noon and 4:00 p.m. on any Saturday, light rain or shine, at Cornwall Park on the large field near the main pavilion.