Capture the Flag: Rules & Variations

Instructor: John Hamilton

John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

In this lesson we discuss the rules of the game Capture the Flag, along with some popular variations, including the newer urban version featuring the use of cellphones and other digital devices.

Rules of the Game

Capture the Flag (CTF) is a popular outdoor (or rarely indoor) game often played at events such as summer camp, in which the object is to venture into enemy territory and seize the opposing team's flag. It is a battle of wits between two teams as the members strategize and use their powers of observation, and it requires endurance as well.

Many versions of the game are played and each camp seems to have its own set of rules. However, in 1947 the Scoutmaster's Handbook published an often followed traditional set of rules. The only equipment required, other than lots of pairs of comfortable walking shoes, are two signal flags. The playing area, usually a combination of woods and fields, is divided up into roughly two equal halves. Each team places a flag somewhere on their respective properties. The flags can be hidden, but must be within 200 steps of the center line.

Often the two halves are divided by a well-known trail or stream. While players can move about as they please on their own side, if they happen to venture into the other team's territory they may be captured. A captured player must go to the guard house, often known as jail, where he must remain unless a fellow teammate comes and frees him. The teammate can not free multiple persons at one time.

A team wins if it carries the flag back home first. If the pre-established time limit runs out, the team that has captured the most prisoners is declared the winner.

Get out of Jail Variations

As mentioned before a player can only get out of jail (the guard house) if tagged by a helpful teammate. The problem that lies herein is that, like in gym class, the good athletes tend to excel while the less athletic students are stuck in jail and bored for most of the game. This is where the counselors can get creative and keep the game inclusive by involving everyone. These changes often tend to speed up slow games as well.

One variation is for the counselors at some point to shout jail break and free all the prisoners. The freed students could then go back to their home side, or could be required to sneak back through enemy territory.

Other Variations

Adding Moles to the Game

Do you remember that television show The Mole, where one person was secretly sort of a traitor? Before the game starts, students can draw cards. One person from each team, unbeknownst to everyone else, will secretly be playing for the other team and can sabotage the team they are supposed to be helping.

Adding Additional Flags

Another way for the game to be more inclusive is by the supplementing of additional flags. These extra flags can even be assigned some sort of points value. If the time limit is reached without a clear winner, instead of counting prisoners to determine a winner, the total points of the captured flags can yield a winning team.

Adding Additional Teams

While the original 1947 version stipulated a battle between two teams, it is certainly possible to play the game with three or more squads vying against one another. This tends to diffuse some of the tension that can build up when only two teams are playing, as the competitions can become quite heated.


In a challenge two players face off in a head-to-head situation. At the counselor's signal they both try to pull each other across the boundary line, with the loser going to jail. Since these can be bitter, the counselors should have both players shake hands afterwards.

Costumes and Makeup

Many people now like to add elements of fun and whimsy to Capture the Flag by donning costumes or putting on makeup. Face painting has also become a trend among some of the players. Some squads will wear matching uniforms of some sort, or games can be divided up between players wearing certain colored shirts.

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