How to Play Tug-of-War

By James Holloway ; Updated October 03, 2017
Friends playing a game of tug-of-war.

The traditional game of tug-of-war is not only a contest of raw strength but also of timing and strategy. Two teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, hoping to drag their opponents a certain distance. Tug-of-war games can be informal competitions or played according to a strict set of rules.

Equipment Needed

The first thing you'll need to play tug-of-war is a rope. The Tug of War International Federation (TWIF) recommends that the rope be between four and five inches (100 and 125 mm) in circumference. It should be long enough for both teams to hold an end with plenty of room in the middle; the TWIF standard is 110 feet (33.5 meters), although few barbecue hosts are likely to have 110 feet of rope lying around. The rope must be strong enough not to break when pulled; serious injuries can result from a snapped rope. Players should wear outdoor shoes, which will stop them from slipping when pulling on the rope.

Choosing Teams

A regulation tug-of-war team consists of five or eight members. In an informal game, players may choose teams based on existing groups. For instance, one family might play against another, or children might play against parents. Alternatively, pick teams from among party guests. In either case, try to make sure that teams have equal numbers of members and that the size and strength of opponents aren't too imbalanced.

Setting Up

A tug-of-war game needs plenty of room, and works best on grass or another soft surface. Players can slip and fall, especially when one team loses, so try not to play on a hard surface. In some versions, a puddle or area of muddy ground in the middle is part of the game -- the losing team will be dragged into it. Set a marker behind each team's position; 13 feet is common, but you can adjust based on the available space. Once the team has passed this marker, it has won. You can also simply mark a center point and make a second marker the same distance away on each side of the rope; the winning team is the one that pulls the other team's mark across the center line.

Playing the Game

Once the two teams are in line, each holding their end of the rope, start the game. Each team pulls, trying to back up and drag the opposing team forward. This requires alternating bursts of pulling and holding firm against the other team's pulls. If the two teams are evenly matched, you may wish to declare a draw after a certain length of time has passed without either team dragging its opponents over the finish line.

Tug-of-War Strategy

Timing and simultaneous pulling are key to tug-of-war success. Unless the whole team gives a concerted effort, the chances of pulling the opponents are slim. To this end, many teams appoint one member as leader. However, the leader's signals can be heard by the opposing team; to get around this problem, a system of commands known only to team members can be helpful.

About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.