Everything You Need to Know About Playing Capture the Flag

Looking for an outdoor game that’s great for groups—one that you can play just about anywhere, at any time? Divide up into teams and get ready for a rousing game of capture the flag! This game is one of tactics and strategy, and no two games are ever the same—especially if you make your own rules.

Originally called “flag raiding.” capture the flag is a flag game that dates back to the early 1900s. It was eventually re-named “capture the flag” in a 1920s manual of gameplay rules, published by the Boy Scouts of America. Since then, capture the flag (CTF) has become a wildly popular game played at summer camp, in paintball and airsoft tournaments, at scouting retreats and around the world.

Here’s a look at everything you need to play capture the flag: rules, gameplay, scoring and variations of the game you can try out for yourself.

Establishing Territories

Every game of capture the flag begins the same way: dividing up into teams and establishing territories. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to have a minimum of three players on each team and a maximum of eight. Fewer than three players and the game will be over too quickly; more than eight and it can get too hectic. The game requires a minimum of two teams, and it’s smart to wear something to differentiate team members, like a red or blue bandana/t-shirts or color-coded LED bracelets.

Once you’ve divided up into teams, you need to establish the parameters of your playing area and divide the field into territories based on the number of teams. Two teams, two territories. Three teams, three territories. And so on. Capture the flag can be played indoors or outdoors, and the nature of the playing field will depend on the setting.

  • Indoor playing fields are well-defined, which makes games easier to control. They typically include gymnasiums or adventure parks. These fast-paced games typically revolve less around stealth and more around strategy and agility.
  • Outdoor playing fields allow for more possibilities. Choose a playing field with unique terrain and obstructions: a large park or a forested area. Just make sure you define in-bounds and out-of-bounds areas specifically, to prevent cheating.

Once you’ve divided teams and established territories, both teams go to their sides and have five minutes to hide flags and get into position. After five minutes, teams can begin the attempt to cross into enemy territory, retrieve the flag and bring it back to their base.

Placing and Fortifying Your Team’s Flag

Placing your flag takes strategy. The idea is that you’ll be able to hide your flag within your own territory and defend it from capturers. According to original rules, you must place your flag within 200 paces of the territory’s dividing line. However, in most modern games, you can place the flag anywhere inside your territory.

The flag can be partially hidden, but must be fully visible from at least one angle. And, once placed, you cannot move your flag except to bring it back to its original spot if you take it back from a capturer.

Depending on the number of people you’re playing with, you can also fortify your flag: leave someone behind to guard it. Keep in mind that this means one less person on your team is working to capture the opponent’s flag. There are also some rules that prohibit flag guarding within a certain proximity of the flag.

Capturing the Other Team’s Flag

The name of the game is “capture the flag,” and that’s exactly what your objective is! To capture the other team’s flag, you need to successfully sneak into enemy territory, grab their flag and bring it back to your own, without getting tagged in the process. It’s harder than it sounds!

If, as you’re sneaking into the other team’s territory, you get tagged by an opposing player, you’re “dead.” Depending on the variation of capture the flag you’re playing, this can mean one of several things:

  • You sit down where you’re tagged and are out of the game until the round is over.
  • You go to a designated “jail” and wait two minutes before reentering the game.
  • You go to a designated “jail” and wait there until a team member rescues you.
  • You go back to a designated starting point in your base and can immediately start again.

If you make it all the way to an enemy flag and grab it, you’ll need to carry it all the way back to your base. If, along the way, you’re tagged, two things happen:

  • First, you’re dead and you need to start over according to the rules you’re playing by.
  • Second, the flag drops at the point where you were tagged.

Once dropped, either team can pick up the flag and carry it back to their base. The team that owns the flag must take it back to its original hiding spot if they pick it up. However, there are also versions of the game that preserve capture progress—meaning a team can’t return the flag to its original spot and must leave it where it stands.

If one team gets the opposing team’s flag all the way back to their base, that team wins!

Capture the Flag Rules and Regulations

There’s a lot going on in a game of capture the flag. Teams must work together to sneak into the opposing team’s territory, locate their flag, pick it up and bring it back to their base—all while protecting their flag and avoiding getting tagged by the enemy. Along the way, it’s important that everyone plays by the same rules.

Some of the most ubiquitous rules across all CTF variations include:

  • No talking or communicating once you’re tagged
  • Capturers must hold the flag visibly as they carry it
  • All game action must happen within the defined playing field (in-bounds)
  • Players must go directly back to their flag once they’ve seized the opponent’s flag
  • Flags must be fully visible and not obstructed or enclosed
  • Games last for a predetermined period of time (depending on game size)

Since most games don’t have referees, it’s important for all players to play on the honors system. Make sure everyone agrees on the rules before the game starts.

Variations on Capture the Flag

One of the most exciting things about capture the flag is that it’s a game with endless variations. You can play a version that best-suits the number of people playing, the location or the level of tact required. Here’s a look at some of the most popular versions of CTF:

  • In this fast-paced version of the game, anyone who’s tagged immediately switches teams. For example, if it’s five-on-five and someone gets tagged, the game becomes six-on-four. This gameplay style is best for shorter games.
  • Jail Break. This is a general game of capture the flag, with one caveat: if you’re tagged, you go to jail. Before the game starts, each team designates a “jail” at the center line of the playing field. If you’re tagged by the other team, you go to jail. The only way to get out and back into the game is to get tagged back in by a teammate.
  • Freeze Flag. This game is played exactly the same way as classic CTF, only players are frozen when tagged. They can be unfrozen by members of their team, but must remain motionless and soundless until they’re rescued.
  • Multi-flag CTF. As the name implies, this game involves several flags—usually three. The game ends when a team captures all the flags or when time runs out. Teams get a point for each flag captured, and the highest point total at the end of the game wins. These games tend to involve larger teams.
  • Players secretly draw cards to see if they’re on the Red Team or the Blue Team; however, there’s a “Blue Mole” and a “Red Mole” card. Players who draw these cards secretly play for the opposite team and attempt to sabotage the team they’re on. Beware, though: if a teammate suspects you’re the mole, they can tag you out of the game!
  • Toss-Style CTF. Usually played indoors, this variation allows players to throw the flag back and forth (usually a ball) in an attempt to move it quickly back to their base. The catch? If you’re holding the flag, you can’t move! And, if you drop it, the flag goes back to its original starting position.
  • Last Man Standing. In this elimination-style game, once you’re tagged, you’re out! This game encourages stealth and tact, making these games slower and more creative. It’s best-played with a large group, which lessens the damage of losing a team member.
  • Designated Survivor. In this take on classic CTF, each team designates one “flag carrier.” This is the only person who can capture the opposing team’s flag or return a flag to the original position. It adds an element of strategy to the game, since only one person can handle the flag.
  • Single Flag. In this exciting variation of the game, there’s only one flag, placed in “no man’s land.” Both teams try to capture the same flag and take it back to their base. It’s a whole-new take on the classic capture the flag premise!
  • Unknown Flags. Each team places the other team’s flag somewhere in their territory. Both teams start in the middle and need to first locate their own flag before trying to capture the enemy flag. If you make the enemy flag too easy to find and capture, you risk not being able to find your own!
  • Group Warfare. This variation involves more than two teams. The goal is to be the team with the most flags collected, which can mean forming alliances to knock other teams out of the game. Do what you can to be the last team standing!

There are virtually endless variations on capture the flag, which means you can also mix-and-match rules with each play style. For instance, you might incorporate freeze flag elements into a game with multiple flags, or use a jailhouse concept when playing single-flag CTF. You can even make up your own rules—so long as everyone agrees on them!

Get Ready to Play Capture the Flag!

The best part about capture the flag is that it’s a game anyone can learn to play, and it requires very little outside of two flags and your imagination. Whether you choose to play the standard version or want to spice it up with a great variation of the game, you’re sure to have tons of fun! Get your team together, plan your strategy and go capture that flag! Just be sure to protect your flag from the other team!

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