I’ve lived in London for ten years; I’ve done urban exploration, squatted, been in riots, been to countless punk shows, but I’ve never had as much fun as I did last night. Last night I finally got to play capture the flag for the first time; a game I’ve been wanting to play since I first read about it in American zines a few years ago.
(For those who don’t know the game, or at least the alternative version of the game, it takes place in a section of the city with two teams. The teams each have a flag and a jail. The goal is to steal the opponents flag, whilst keeping yours. If you get caught trying to steal the flag you get put in jail. There’s more details of the rules here)
Standing outside Liverpool street station I was beginning to regret showing up. The game had been publicly announced a week before the G20 protests were to happen in exactly the same spot. Perhaps they thought it was a ruse rather than a game so the City police were out in force with a couple of evidence gatherers wandering around pointing cameras at anyone dressed in black.
The teams gather at the start of the game
I shouldn’t have worried though, the police – though a few stayed for the rest of the night – started to melt away soon after the rules of the game were explained and the teams split roughly in two.
Bandanas were passed out: red and black teams; lines drawn, and maps given to everyone.
Bandanas were passed out: red and black teams; lines drawn, and maps given to everyone. Our black team, of about 60, streamed through the backstreets of the Square Mile confusing and surprising city workers out for an evening drink.
A jail and space for the flag were decided on. Chalk circles drawn around the two and we’re off. The team isn’t organised enough to come up with a strategy, or if it is my friend and I have caught the competitive bug so badly that we don’t notice it. We just want to run headlong into enemy territory.
Five minutes later and eight of us are hidden behind pillars working out what on earth to do next. I’m not sure any of us have played the game before. We don’t know where the flag is, or much about the geography of the space. We creep forward along the main road trying to act nonchalantly.
< Sneaking into enemy territory
We decide on headlong attack. We’re rumbled almost instantly; thankfully we’re far enough a way to make a getaway and regroup. Under the Gherkin (a large skyscraper in the Square Mile) a few of us try a more subtle approach to see if we can at least find the flag.
Spotted! Racing backwards I end up in a dead end street. I try rushing my captor but I’m firmly tagged. As he escorts me by the arm I almost forget it is a game, it feels so close to a real arrest that I almost try and de-arrest myself. Remembering it’s a game I introduce myself and try and have a fun conversation trying to second guess where their flag is.
Not that it’ll do me any good languishing in jail. 15 others from my team are stuck there too; all had tried a headlong attack and got caught. Clearly subtlety is the name of the game.
A City cop comes over to the jail, “Okay, here’s the update. The black team have the flag and are running back to your side,” Whoops go up…
Just as I’m getting my breath back a City cop comes over to the jail, “Okay, here’s the update. The black team have the flag and are running back to your side,” Whoops go up, “But the red team also just grabbed your flag and were trying to make a dash for it”, our grins turn to fixtures of concern, “But don’t worry about it they were caught almost straight away.” And with that he wanders off. “Jokes!” laughs one of my other arrestees as others text our location to team mates.
And then it comes: the jailbreak! I’m still not sure how she slipped through, but tagging us out we all make a dash for it. Chaos ensues: I should have used my time in jail to at least look at a map! Within two minutes I’m down another dead end being captured again. But not long in jail this time, breaking out we disappear in the right direction back beyond the Gherkin.
We split up, and myself and another woman decide to take a subtle approach. Acting as tourists we slip along the far side of the playing area to behind the court where they’re holding the flag. A group of tourists on the Jack the Ripper trail act as the perfect cover. Seconds later other team mates try a head-on assault distracting the guards and allowing me to reach the flag. I scoop it up and sprint off. But not only am I heading in the wrong direction towards two red team members the flag is also double the length I expected it to be. I thankfully get caught before I send myself flying through the air tripping on the fabric!
Back in jail. But this time it’s half time that saves me. Wandering back to no-man’s land it’s still a 0-0 draw.
Trapped in jail!
After a twenty minute break the two teams swapped ends and in the black team the offensive swaps with defensive. The rules have changed slightly this time too. In the first half you could just be tagged out and had to go to jail, this time you have to be physically escorted. So every person nicked takes one of their opponents out of the game for as long as it takes to get to the jail.
The black offensive team decided to mix up the strategy and attack en-masse in the hope of at least a few of them making it through. The only problem being it left us with a scrappy defense. Thankfully the red team didn’t try the same tactic because otherwise we wouldn’t have stood a chance.
But 20 minutes later it doesn’t bode well the message percolates back to the defence team, ‘All 20 of the offence are trapped’. Damn! The only chance is a suicide attempt at a jail break. Five of us head off with fixed details of the situation. The jail’s at a junction below some stairs if one of us can make it down the stairs and passed the guards we’re all free. But I don’t make it down the stairs and passed their guards!
I’m slightly embarrassed to discover there’s only two other people in the jail when I’m escorted there.
But I hear the cheer in the distance and know we’ve won.
But suddenly the red’s jail is overrun with my other blacks, we’re free. And in the distance the cry goes up, “We’ve got the flag”. We charge headlong through the cobbled alley towards our team mates as they stream past with their prize. Up past Tower 43; through the underpass, across no-man’s land, back into our territory – is he really going to make it all the way back to our base? By this point I’m crumpled over 300 minutes short gasping for breath, ankles aching, and back stiff. But I hear the cheer in the distance and know we’ve won. There’s only three minutes left on the clock and we’re one-nil up; with our flag safe in our territory.
As I cycle away I contemplate about how we just liberated a tiny corner of this city for a tiny parcel of time. A dead area of commerce and law witnessed for two fleeting hours gasping lungs, peels of laughter, and a mad competition. But most important my competitive itch had been scratched, we’d won! Who cares about anything else?
I had the time of my life. Here’s hoping this becomes a regular event in the city!