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Game Design Workshop: Capture the Flag

Updated on June 9, 2011

The game workshops are meant to be a jumping-off point for your own creativity, not a cohesive detailed process from start to finish. I’ll establish the general ideas for the game, including the main mechanics and issues involved, and leave the details to you to fill in. After all, it’s your game. It should be the way you want.

So grab your kids, or your parents, or some friends, or some random strangers, grab the suggested materials below, and get designing! I promise it’ll be fun.

Suggested Materials

  • Paper and cardboard (we'll need a bit for the board and any cards)
  • Writing implements (pens, pencils, crayons, markers, etc)
  • Foam (sheets of foam are good for backing a board to make it sturdier, and foam shapes make nice markers and tokens)
  • Playing Pieces (as we'll see later, we'll need a lot of these. Little plastic toy soldiers will work just fine)
  • Dice (as many as you need)
  • Scissors and other cutting implements (do not use sharp cutting implements without adult supervision)


I thought it was time to do something a little different. The previous two workshops are both race games, so now it's time to delve into the conquest side of things.

"Battle" games are a popular type of game. Chess is the quintessential battle game with two players each trying to capture the other's king. Stratego is a variant of chess which offers another layer of strategy. Then you have games like Risk and Axis and Allies which bring whole armies into it and change the scope of the game. Other games, like the Commands and Colors series, take the wargame genre and place it on a board.

At their core, all of these games are the same. Each player is vying to complete an objective by removing the other player's pieces. They all differ in the way this is done, so offer very different playing experiences.

All of this is to say that making this type of game is easy and fun because once you strip it all down, this is a very simple type of game.


For the purposes of this workshop, the goal will be simply to capture the other player's flag. You can change the goal to other things as we get into it, but we should start off simple. Each player gets a "base," or a flag, and has to capture the other one.


While this game will give the players a high level of direct interaction, it is worth noting that a lot of strategy decisions can stem from this choice. Deciding to limit the players to indirect competition (laying traps and changing terrain, for example) can have a significant effect on the strategy required. We'll see this as we get into the details.


The whole point of the game is getting the flag. The theme will help us define how we get the flag. In this case, we'll have a paintball team going after it. All of our design decisions will revolve around helping or hindering our players while they try to get the enemy flag.


As noted above, the theme this time around is a paintball game. We'll put five or six members on the team and each player has to use his team to capture the other team's flag.

"Battle" games like this can be fun to design because the details can be almost limitless. Most battle games offer many different kinds of units to add to your army for all sorts of effects and strategy. The theme of the game serves to focus and limit the choices so you're able to put together a cohesive game.

You might think "paintball" is fairly limiting, but you'll be surprised with the variety you can come up with once we get to designing our paintball teams.


I consider all of the rules-making part of the building phase. Sometimes rules will be discovered as you physically make a part of the game, and sometimes rules will inspire you to make something for the game, so I lump it all in as the building portion of designing the game, because either way - with things or words - we’re putting together the nuts and bolts of the game.

There are three main areas we have to consider. We need a team, and we need a field for them to play in. But another major question is how do we determine what the team can do? Obviously, the members of the team can move and they can shoot their paintball guns. But are we going to use dice? Are we going to use cards? How do we determine how well they can move and shoot? Maybe they can do other stuff, too. The trick is to build a very simple system that can be used for everything we might want our paintball team to do.

The Battlefield

The board itself is probably the easiest thing to start with.

The battlefield is basically just a big grid. Grab a large sheet of graph or hex paper and you have a very serviceable board. I would suggest hex paper since it allows for more fluid movement. A board laid out in squares will work if you allow diagonal movement, but the six-sided hex spaces make more interesting situations during the game.

Highlight two areas, one at each end of the field, to be the starting locations. Our teams and flags will start in these areas.

We should also have some terrain to make things more interesting. We'll discuss terrain in more detail later on, but for now think about adding things like wooded areas and buildings. Terrain can serve both as cover for our paintball teams and ways to block off parts of the board to force the players into conflict.

Doing Stuff

Before we move on to the fun details of the paintball team and the role terrain will play, we should lay down some ground rules. How do we want to help our players do what they want to do? First, let's figure out what we need rules for.

Obviously, our team members have to be able to run around and shoot each other as well as capturing the flag. But how do we determine who goes in what order? How can we tell if the shots hit or miss? What happens when a team member gets shot? How, exactly, do the team members capture that flag, anyway?

Let's start from the last question and go in reverse order.

Capturing the Flag

There are really only two ways to capture the flag:

  • Land on it.
  • Bring it back to the starting area.

I'm going to keep my game simple and say that the flag is captured when any member of the enemy team enters its space. You could make the game more strategic (and longer) and say that you have to land on the enemy's flag to pick it up, and then bring it all the way back to your flag to win. Then you can build on that by allowing members to pass the flag between themselves. When the team member carrying a flag gets shot, he drops it. To pick it up, you have to land on it. To make things even more interesting, maybe you can't win unless your own flag is back in its starting position.

Like I said, I'm keeping my game simple, but there's a lot you can do to make your game much more interesting.

Getting Shot

There are plenty of penalties you can impose for getting shot:

  • Removal from the game (harsh)
  • Miss a turn (lenient), or miss many turns
  • Go back to the starting area (recommended)
  • Change teams for a number of turns
  • Move back a number of spaces

For my game, I'm going to impose a "three strikes" rule. The first time a team member gets shot, he misses a turn. The second time, he goes back to the starting area. The third time, he's out of the game.

Moving and Shooting

Let's keep things simple and let everyone move three spaces. You can alter that as you see fit (in fact, we will later), but three spaces should be a good number to keep the game moving without making things too fast.

For shooting, I'm going to use a six-sided die. Count how many spaces separate the two team members and try to roll that number or lower. That might seem a little too simple - and I actually think it is - but it's a good start. That's just one way to do it, though.

My arbitrary decision is that team members cannot shoot and then move. Shooting ends their turn, but they can move and then shoot.

Turn Order

This is the area where things can get a little complicated. There are many ways to determine who gets to go when, but I'll suggest just two simple choices.

The first choice is just moving the whole team at once. Each player takes a turn and moves and/or shoots with each team member.

The second choice brings up the concept of rounds. A round includes the turn for every team member. When all the team members have moved and/or shot, a new round begins. The players will take turns moving only one team member at a time. So I would move one of my guys, then you would move one of your guys, then I would move someone else, and so on until there's nobody left to move.

The Teams

So now we have a fully playable game. It might be a little basic, but hopefully it's fun. We've got all the rules we need, but it still might feel a little... empty.

Let's take a closer look at our paintball teams and make things a little more interesting.

The heart of any strategic battle game like this is the units on the battlefield. The more variety you have to choose from, the wider your strategy can be. A mix of units that have different strengths and weaknesses lets players explore different tactics and strategies.

So let's give our team of paintballers different strengths and weaknesses. Each team will have five members. Each team member will have two "stats," or representations of their abilities:

  • Speed - how fast they can move per turn.
  • To Hit - how difficult it is to hit them due to speed or stealth.
  • Accuracy - How good they are at shooting.

Keep the numbers low, but give each team member a different mix of numbers. While you're at it, you can design little reference cards with names and a picture to make things more thematic. If you're using the "three strike" rule, those cards are a good place to keep track of hits.

We can also give each team member a different weapon to make things even more exciting. A shotgun, for instance, that does two hits, or a sniper rifle that will let you shoot farther away. Put the weapons on their own cards and you can change who gets which weapon each game.

Advanced Moving and Shooting

Now that our paintball team is no longer all equal, we need to change the moving and shooting rules a little.

Moving is fine: Their speed is now the number of spaces they can move.

For Example

Bill is trying to shoot Joe. Joe has a To Hit of 2. Bill has an Accuracy of 4 (he's a great shot!). Joe is three spaces away. Normally, Bill would have to roll a three or lower to hit Joe, but because Bill's Accuracy gets added to the distance, Bill now has to roll a seven or lower. Pretty easy, huh? But remember, Joe gets to add 2 to the die roll, so Bill could potentially still miss if he rolls a 6.

Shooting, however, needs a bit of a tweak. You are still trying to roll equal to or less than the distance between you and the target. But now you add your target's To Hit number to your roll, and you add your Accuracy number to the distance.

Advanced Terrain

Remember how I said we'd discuss terrain later? Well, you can make terrain that not only blocks off some spaces, but you can make terrain that does stuff.

For instance, it's harder to shoot somebody in the woods, so if someone is in wooded terrain, he or she can get a bonus to their To Hit stat. Or maybe you have some swampy terrain that makes everyone move two spaces less.


Like any good creative work, you'll go through an editing phase once you've built it all. As you play, you'll figure out what works and what doesn't, and make any changes. Experiment as you go and don't be afraid to redo huge parts of your game.

Since we're doing this for fun, you don't have to worry too much about refining, but you'll find that you'll do it naturally, since you want the game to be the best it can be.

I'm not going to tell you what that is, since fun is subjective. You'll find out what you think is the most fun. That's the best thing about making your own game - it's guaranteed to be fun.

Go grab some stuff and get designing! And keep playing!

And please let me know what you come up with. I'd love to play your game!


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