How to Play Capture the Flag

children won capture the flag game

Inspired by the centuries-old tradition of seizing your enemy’s banner to win, Capture the Flag is one of the most popular backyard games. Whether you want to have a fun weekend with friends or spend a day at the beach with family, it is the perfect way to kick back and enjoy. 

Capture the Flag also offers an excellent opportunity for roleplay. For an hour or so, you can forget about day-to-day affairs and become a monarch defending your territory or a hostile country aiming for world domination. 

Either way, the basics of the game will stay the same. And today, we’re explaining them to you. 

An Overview of the Game

We’ll start by going over the basics of Capture the Flag. The details will come later; this is just to give you an idea of what to expect because there are several versions of this game. And depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer to which one is the best. 

There are four mostly universal aspects to it. First, each team gets a home base and a jail. They’re all similarly sized and equidistant from one another. 

Second, each team gets a flag. Before the game starts, one player hides it somewhere on their territory. 

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Image Via Wikimedia Commons

Third, the game’s objective is to find the other team’s flags and bring them back to your territory. You have to find the right balance between attacking and defending. If you spend too much time and effort getting someone else’s Flag, you might just lose your own. 

Lastly, once you enter your opponent’s territory, they can tag you. Then you’re taken to jail and have to stay there until your team members free you. 

Some games don’t have jails. Instead, if you get tagged, you’re out of the game. This version of the game isn’t very common because it means some people have to sit out of the fun. But you may still come across players who follow this rule. 

The Equipment

The second step in learning how to play Capture the Flag is getting the right equipment. Familiarize yourself with it, so there aren’t any surprises when the match starts. 

The most important things you’ll need are flags. Each team gets one; you need at least two teams. Anything from a frisbee to a DIY shirt on a stick can count as a flag. Try to use something bright and colorful. 

You’ll also need a jail. If you’re playing on grass, you can draw on the ground with a stick. Alternatively, you can use a hula hoop or rope to mark off a specific area. 

Finally, use any marker to divide the playing field. Choose a material depending on how big your area is. Rope or chalk are most commonly used. 

Setting Up

Now, let’s get into setting up the game. There are various steps to this, and it’s essential to do all of them. 

Choose An Area

You’ll have the most fun playing Capture the Flag in the outdoors. The bigger, the better. Pick an area with obstacles like trees, rocks, benches, and bushes. This will give you a lot of hiding spots for the Flag. 

When different states fought battles, their armies would always protect the flag bearer. It was a symbol of their power and strength. While you can’t guard your Flag with a sword or cannon, you can protect it by hiding it well and continue the tradition. 

Explore the area with all the players. Everyone should know the lay of the land so that they don’t get lost or lose track of where their territory ends and the others’ starts. It also allows teams to make defense and offense strategies. 

Prepare The Area

Divide the chosen area into sections. If you have two teams, mark a rectangle and halve it. For three teams, try a triangle, and for four teams, use a square. The lines will mark the boundaries between territories. 

When choosing territories, try to do it so that each team gets a similar number of obstacles. This places everyone on the same playing field, and no one has an unfair advantage by having more hiding spots. 

Then mark jails. Ideally, it should be in the same section of each territory.

Hide The Flags

Choose a time limit depending on how big your playing area is and allow each team to hide their Flag. They can place it anywhere on their side. And while it can be mostly out of sight, some part needs to be visible. This is why the flags need to be brightly colored. 

Once the game starts, you CAN NOT move the Flag!

Get Team Outfits

capture the flag different team outfit
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Image Via Flickr

Get team outfits if you’re playing with more than four people. Differentiating players in the middle of a game will be difficult. And any confusion can cost someone the game. 

You can use any method to differentiate between teams. For example, one team could wear blue clothes, and the other wears yellow. Or one team could wear bandanas, and the other can tie a cloth on their wrist. 

Playing The Game

Make Teams

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Image Via Flickr

Evenly divide all available players into teams. Most commonly, Capture the Flag is played with two teams. You can increase this number if you have a lot of people. But you can usually keep up to 20 members per team without it being too chaotic. 

There are a few ways you can choose who goes onto which team. 


Write down everyone’s names on pieces of paper. Make sure you can’t see the text from the other side, and then fold them. Grab a bowl, put them in, and mix the notes. Take out half of them; this is the first team. All the pieces left inside contain the names of the second team’s members. 

Team Leaders

Choose two people from your group to be team leaders. Then toss a coin to decide who picks a member for their team first. Once they have chosen a player, the other team leader has to choose someone from the remaining players. 

Keep going back and forth between both until there is no one left. This process is definitely fun, but you run the risk of someone getting upset because they weren’t picked until later on. 


It’s always fun to play themed games. For example, you could try parents vs. kids or singles vs. couples if you’re in a group with more singles. Remember that the division should always be numerically even. A few more people on one team are okay, but the difference can’t be too significant, or one side will be set up for failure. 

Therefore, it’s essential to pick a theme that allows for as equal a division as possible.


The last way to make teams is by balancing attributes like ages or fitness levels. This will give you the fairest game. 

General Rules for Capture the Flag

Once you’re officially ready to get started with the game, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. The rules ensure you have a fair game and healthy competition. 

Everyone starts from a neutral location.

All players should be in one area when the game is starting. You can strategize with team members and decide who runs to the opponent’s territory to look for their Flag and who stays back once the whistle is blown. Until then, everyone starts from the same point. 

Think of it like a race. Everyone has the same goal and has to begin from the same starting line. It’s the only way to have a fair game and make sure no one has an unfair advantage. 

Don’t stand too close to the Flag. 

The game isn’t fun if everyone just stands around their Flag and guards it. Therefore, it’s important to set a rule stopping people from doing so. For example, you can disallow being more than 10 feet from your own Flag unless there is a player from the opposing team near it. 

Pre-determine rules for how to leave jail. 

Jail is an integral part of Capture the Flag, and so you must clarify how it works before the game starts. Choose one of two ways on how to leave jail. First, a member of your team needs to come into enemy territory and tag you. Or second, you have to perform a task like five pushups or singing a song. 

Both work fine; choose whichever is more fun for you and the other players.

Safety within own territory. 

You can not be tagged if you’re in your territory. And everyone must remember this. Many other similar yard games don’t have safe spaces, so reminding players of this universal Capture the Flag rule is always great.

Gather all/majority of the flags.

Decide when the game ends. It can either be when a team gets all the flags or if you’re playing in more than three teams when a team gets most of the flags. 


When playing in a large game with several teams, alliances can make Capture the Flag more interesting. You can partner with other teams to fight a common enemy. Then find the perfect moment to turn back on your alliance and attack each other because there is only one winner. 

How To Win Capture the Flag

capture the flag blue team
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Image Via Flickr

Winning Capture the Flag is only possible if you can find the right balance between defense and offense. You can’t focus too much on getting your opponent’s flags and leave yours unguarded. But you also can’t stick to your own territory. 

Strategize with your team and determine each player’s strengths. Do you have someone who is very fast? Maybe they should venture into enemy territory and look for the Flag. What about a player with excellent observation skills? They can keep an eye on your enemy and warn those defending your territory if they cross over the boundary. 

Also, make sure you always have someone defending your territory. Don’t send everyone out of the home territory, or you’ll have no defense.

And if you’re playing a game where the only way to get out of jail is a “tag” by other team members, make one player responsible for making sure they can’t get out. If an opponent comes near, tag them immediately and have them join their friend in jail. 

Rules You Can Change

As you probably guessed, you have a lot of wiggle room in how you play Capture the Flag. While the basics are the same, there are quite a few rules that you can change. All you need to do is declare them before the game starts. 

This room for personalization is a big part of why the game is a big hit. Depending on where you’re playing and who you’re playing with, you may want to change a few things. And that is okay. 

Let’s talk about how you can make this game your own:

  • Can a player free everyone from jail? Or do they only have the power to free one?
  • Do they have to go back to their territory and then come back to free the rest? 
  • Do you want to have more than one Flag per team? And can a team move their Flag once the game has started? If so, should you use a ball or frisbee because it’ll be easy to pass around? This is a controversial change, but definitely something you can discuss with your friends. 
  • One of my favorite variations is when all the team members in jail are allowed to join hands and make a break for freedom and return to their own area.  Watching 5 kids try to hold hands as they sprint for freedom is hilarious!


Capture the Flag is a fun game and can last anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour. It can have one flag or two, two teams or four teams, and jail or no jail. The secret to organizing the best game is finding the best rules. 

While it may sound odd because rules are supposed to be universal and permanent, this simply isn’t the case in Capture the Flag. There are a few basics that don’t change. But beyond that, you get to decide the details. Just announce them at the start, so there isn’t any confusion or confrontation. Happy flag hunting!

children won capture the flag game
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