Capture the Flag

By Stuart MacKenzie

Capture the Flag is to camp as apple pie is to America. It’s easy and fun--all you need are some flags, some cones, and, if you want to get fancy, some color-coded armbands. We here at YMCA Camp Ernst, however, think we have invented the perfect variation of this favorite game. Check it out.

Recreate Classic Struggles
Instead of playing the same old, tired game, the one that pits the blue team against the green team or the odd cabins against the even, we recreate a classic (or make-believe) struggle--smurfs versus leprechauns or Scotland versus England--in a battle for supremacy.

To make it work, write a back story and read it to the campers to get them psyched up. We make sure to include funny, fictitious details about the camp director, the team captains and camp history.

To pull it all together, we pick popular counselors to champion each side, and encourage them to plan ahead and go all out.

Scotland vs. England
Last summer our Scottish counselor encouraged his “army” by re-enacting the speech from the movie Brave Heart in full face-paint while bagpipes played over the speakers in the background. Not to be outdone, our English counselor led his English troops (the Redcoats) in a crazy version of “God Save the Queen”. Each side encouraged its counselors to dress the part--that meant kilts for the Scottish counselors and Union Jack flags/clothing for the English counselors.

By the time we actually got to game day, the camp was in a frenzy excited to find out once and for all who was really better--Scotland or England.

Battle of the Lunches
In another session, we stayed decidedly lowbrow (no higher purpose what-so-ever), and spent the week building to a battle to determine which lunch dish was best of all—grilled cheese or chicken patties.

The grilled cheese leader smeared yellow face paint over the arms and faces of his warriors while the chicken patties leaders slathered their crew with brown war paint. Two days before the game started, the leaders told the campers the back story and did everything they could to build the tension--daily announcements and antics all designed to keep the excitement level high.

Safe and Fair Games
Which brings me, roundabout, to the two words all counselors hate to hear, “They cheated!”

With all the work we’ve done to build the excitement and anticipation for the game, it’s no wonder campers hate to admit they’re losing or they lost.

To fight this phenomenon, we make sure to explain the rules (see sidebar) fully to the entire camp, establish clear boundaries, and designate counselors as boundary enforcers.

Other Considerations

Safe Spots
We like to “hide” the flags in a predisposed, safe spot. That way we can be sure that the teams do not hide the flag in an unfair or dangerous spot. We find that campers still feel like they are “finding” the flag, but the counselors already know where it will be. Also, we spray paint a 20-foot ring around the flag to cut down on the “You’re too close, you’re cheating!” The defenders must stay outside of the spray-painted area.

Jailer Lists
When a camper tags a member of the other team, he or she is sent to jail (we only have one jail). Every time someone comes to jail, we make sure they drink a cup of water and then perform something “strange and wonderful” (see ideas in sidebar) to get out. We give the counselors lists of fun, acceptable tasks campers can perform to get out, such as dance the “Macarena” or do a group “Chicken Dance.” If you are into that whole “character-building thing” like we are at Camp Ernst, consider making the prisoners give the person next to them an affirmation (to make it more fun, the affirmation cannot include the word “nice”). Then that person returns with a new affirmation about the person who was just complimented!

Additional Nursing Staff
We’ve also learned to provide our nurse with reinforcements because it seems Capture the Flag and bumps, bruises and scrapes go hand-in-hand, and our usual staff can be overwhelmed.

The Ultimate Game
If you want to go all-out, combine these tips into one, colossal game. We do that during the fourth week of camp, which is over the Fourth of July.

Here’s how we do it:

• Early in camp, we announce the teams.

• Daily news updates are announced at lunch.

o Paul Revere gives updates on the Redcoats’ distance from camp.

o King George III of England works to rally his Loyalists.

• On Thursday, we re-enact the Revolutionary War, Camp Ernst style. We even re-enact the Boston Tea party by throwing fake tea boxes into the lake.

• Finally, after listening to Revolutionary War music and setting up the game by reading the history (which is sympathetic to both sides and rallies both troops), the game starts … the Redcoats are red and American troops are blue.

o Counselors dressed as George Washington and King George wait at the jail for captured troops.

o Minor figures, such as Paul Revere and Sir William Howe, lead the campers in the field.

If you are an American and the British capture you, then you have to drink a cup of water and write an apology to the King. Campers wrote things such as, “I’m sorry for being American and really liking cheap tea!” or “I’m sorry my favorite colors are red, white and blue.” Of course, some campers would write, “I’m sorry, I think England smells like my armpits.”

The British troops who are caught have to apologize to George Washington and write things such as, “I’m sorry we prefer a monarchy” or “I’m sorry I call flashlights ‘torches.’”

The night ends with fireworks and music, and the whole game is a ton of fun! The best part is reading the funny apologies the next day.

Stuart MacKenzie is Program Coordinator at YMCA Camp Ernst in Burlington, Ky. He has been on Camp Ernst’s summer staff since 1999. He can be reached via e-mail at


Game Variations
OK, so maybe you aren’t as gung-ho about Capture the Flag as we are, but you’d like to change it a bit.

Here are some other variations:

Each camper gets two ping-pong balls (one side gets orange, the other white). The goal of the game is to throw your ping-pong balls into a ring on the other team’s side. If you get tagged on their side, you have to give them a ball and go to jail. If the other team throws your own ball in your own ring, it’s worth double.


  • Orange ping-pong balls

  • White ping-pong balls

  • Spray-painted targets

  • Paper

Wet Capture the Flag
Each camper gets a cup of water. The goal is to cross into enemy territory and make it into a 10-foot circle and pour the water in a bucket. The first team to fill up the other team’s bucket wins. (If you get tagged, you have to dump the water out and go to jail.)


  • Bucket

  • Water jugs

  • Spray-painted circle

4-Way Capture the Flag
Our neighbors at YMCA Camp Kern play 4-way Capture the Flag. You have four teams, all competing to get each other’s flags.


  • Two different-colored flags

  • Paint

  • Spray-painted circles

Possible Themes

• Dr. Phil vs. Oprah

• Hippies vs. the Man

• England vs. Scotland

• Punk Rockers vs. Hippies

• Smurfs vs. Leprechauns

• Chicken Patties vs. Grilled Cheese

• The American Colonies vs. England (on 4th of July)

• The Grinch vs. Santa

Jail Tips
To get out of jail, you must first drink one cup of water and then do one of the following:

• Dance the “Chicken Dance”

• Dance the “Macarena”

• Sing “I’m a Little Tea Pot”

• Dance an interpretive dance

• Recite Extreme Poetry

• Sing a Top 40 song

• Portray “Walk like an Egyptian”

• Give the person next to you three compliments (not about hair or being “”nice”)

• Do “The Robot”

• Dance a Russian folk dance

• Laugh for eight seconds

• Name a state capital

Camp Ernst Rules
1. The flag must be on the ground in the middle of the circle.
2. A camper must be the first person to touch the flag and bring it out of the circle. A counselor may carry the flag after that, but a camper must carry it across the middle line.
3. There must be a 20-foot radius around the flag without defenders in it. There can be a maximum of 10 people guarding the flag, and the defenders cannot be connected (holding hands, etc.) in any way.
4. If a camper gets tagged, he or she must go directly to the community jail on the memorial. There is only one jail.
5. If the flag is “captured” and the camper is tagged, the flag stays where it is dropped and cannot be moved by the defending team. A new 20-foot defender-free radius appears around the flag. When the flag is picked up, anyone inside the 20-foot circle can be tagged!