Even though the arrival of summer no longer corresponds to a long break from school/work for me, it still reminds me of the weeks spent at summer camp when I was growing up. In my elementary school years, one of my favorite games to play at camp was capture the flag (CTF). There’s something deeply compelling about the large scale of the game, and the teamwork and coordination required to win. After playing for many summers, however, I started to realize that there are some big problems with the mechanics of the “classic” version of CTF. Perhaps it was from playing more video/board games and looking at the summer camp staple from a game design perspective, but at some point I became convinced that there should be many ways to improve on the classic version of capture the flag.
“Classic” Capture the Flag
I imagine most people reading this are familiar with capture the flag, but there are enough variations that it is still worth defining what I consider the classic version and the rules for the majority of the games I played in. The game is played on a large open field divided in half, with each of the two teams taking one half of the field as their “home” side. Each team has a flag on their side that the other team is trying to retrieve and bring back to their own side. Successfully retrieving the flag earns your team a point (or wins the game outright, if you’re not playing for a fixed time). If you are tagged by an opposing player while on their side of the field, you go to a “jail” on the opponents’ side of the field. Players in jail are freed if a non-jailed player from their team tags the jailed players. The players in jail can form a chain by holding hands in order to stretch further from the jail spot to make it easier for teammates to free them. There is a “safe zone” around the flag spot, so that if you reach the flag, you can take a breather without being tagged before trying to run the flag back to your own side.
The fundamental issue I have with this standard version of capture the flag is that the optimal strategy is very defensive, and results in slow, war of attrition type game play. In any game of CTF, you need to distribute your resources (players) between offense (trying to capture the opposing flag or free your jailed players) and defense (protecting your flag and keeping opposing jailed players from being freed). Sending players to try to capture the flag is risky: either you succeed and win, or you fail and some of your players are jailed. If you have a lot of fast players, then you’re likely to succeed, but for balanced teams, the chance of success of any given attempt is pretty low. Thus, sending players on offense at the beginning of a round is generally a bad strategy. It is better to play defensively until you’ve jailed enough of the opposing players that their defenses are stretched thin and you have a higher chance of capturing their flag. Unfortunately, if both teams adopt this strategy, then CTF becomes a game of sitting around and waiting more than anything else, which is no fun for either team.
I haven’t played capture the flag since undergrad, so maybe my theory-crafting about it so many years later misses the mark of what it’s actually like to play, but in any case, all these years have given me the opportunity to come up with many variations on the classic game that address what I view as the fundamental flaw of the game.
Variations on Jail
Jail is probably the most problematic aspect of CTF, as it’s basically player elimination, one of the most infamous game design mechanics out there. Perhaps as a consequence of this, there are plenty of variations on the typical jail rules, and jail is the main aspect of the game where I’ve seen different rules actually implemented at summer camp. All the variations below are ways of making it easier to get out of jail, which discourages strategies that depend on keeping lots of opposing players in jail.
A simple variation, and one I considered adding as part of the classic rules since I think it is fairly common, is that jailed players who manage to tag an opposing player free their team. This discourages “jail guards” from staying too close to the jail, and gives jailed players something more to do, as when they are linked they can coil up and stretch out to try to catch opposing players off guard and tag them.
Another variation is to give jailed players an alternate task in order to release themselves. It could be something physical (do X pushups, do Y jumping jacks) or it could be something mental (solve a Rubik’s cube, solve a Sudoku puzzle). Assuming the players are capable of completing the assigned task, this puts a time limit on how long players will stay jailed, and give them something to do in the meantime.
An even simpler way of assuring that players don’t stay in jail for too long is to have regular “jailbreaks”, when all players are released from both jails. Short intervals (releasing players every 2 minutes) ensure that the game stays fast paced, as players will never spend too long in jail, while longer intervals (releasing players every 10 minutes) doesn’t change the game drastically, but guarantees that players won’t be in jail all afternoon.
The most dramatic change to the rules would be to get rid of jail altogether. The point of jail is to be a negative consequence for being tagged, but you don’t necessarily need a jail to achieve this. An example of an alternative is that rather than tagged players being jailed, tagged players must walk back to their own side (or maybe their own flag safe zone) with their hands on their head until they’re allowed to resume play. Getting rid of jail essentially eliminates downtime, so everyone gets to play for the entirety of the game, and there is little disincentive from sending players to try to capture the opposing flag.
Variations on Field of Play
While it’s not always an easy change to implement, one option that can help push the balance of play towards offense rather than defense is changing where the game is actually played. Rather than an open field, where everyone can see what’s going on and quickly respond to defend when their flag is being threatened, CTF can also be played in a forest or on a campus with buildings between the flags. Obstacles like trees and buildings give players something to hide behind, so there are opportunities to steal a flag through distraction and stealth, rather than just by running faster than the other players.
Another option, if you’re limited to playing on an open field, is to make the sides more complex than just a field cut in half (although you’d probably need a lot of cones/rope to mark the sides in this case). On the classic field, teams only need to worry about opponents coming from a single direction. But if the shape of the two home sides were interdigitated “L”s or “U”s, for example, then flag guards would need to worry about players coming from two or three directions, making the flag harder to guard and making capture attempts more likely to succeed.
Variations on the Flag
Another option for variation is to change the rules around the flag itself. In the classic version of the game, the flag can be handed off, but it can’t be thrown – if not due to the rules, then simply because flags are generally difficult to throw. If the flag is replaced by a ball or a frisbee, then allowing the flag to be thrown between teammates (as long as it doesn’t touch the ground) opens up new offensive strategies. In order to keep it possible to defend against the thrown flag, it’s probably prudent to disallow throws to or from safe zones. For example, you would need to step outside the safe zone around the flag to throw, and you couldn’t throw it to a teammate on your side of the field’s dividing line.
Another change that would open up the field of play would be to have multiple flags on each side. This would naturally make it harder for a team to defend all of its flags effectively, and you could additionally assign different point values to the different flags, which would add a layer of strategy to the game. For example, a flag that is close to the dividing line might be worth just 1 point, while a flag that is deep on the opponent’s side and doesn’t include a safe zone around it might be worth 5 points.
Variations on the Tag Method
Classic capture the flag is played with one hand touch, which means you just need to touch an opposing player with one hand (or really even just one finger) in order to get them out. A simple change to make it harder to defend and easier to capture the flag would be to use two hand touch, which requires you to tag an opposing player with both your hands simultaneously in order to get them out. In practice however, this variation might not work well, as I suspect it would lead to more arguments about whether or not someone was really tagged out (and classic CTF already has enough of those arguments).
Another variant is to use waist flags (like those used for flag football) that must be pulled in order to get a player out. In theory, this should make it more clear cut about whether a player was tagged out or not, but with the added possibilities of a player blocking their own flags with their hands or a flag falling out on its own, it’s unlikely that this method would eliminate accusations of cheating.