Folk Game: Standoff

Nicklas, Ricky, Brandon, and others play a game on Standoff. Nicklas is already eliminated, Ricky shoots the sky, and Brandon shoots himself. (Photo by tigershungry).


Time to teach another one of my favorite folk/playground games!

Standoff is a simple game for two or more players – ideally a group of 5 to 10 people. It’s kind of like Rock-Paper-Scissors meets John Woo action flick.

I learned the game back in college, through my then-roommate John Shedletsky. The game and its variants go by many different names, but “Standoff” is the name that I use these days. In this post, I’m going to explain several variations of the game, including my own favorite version.


Standoff – Version #1 (Recommended)

Players stand in a circle, facing each other. The game plays out as a series of rounds.

Before each round, each player pantomimes a gun with one hand, placing it in an imaginary holster by their waist.

Then, on the count of three, all players simultaneously act out one of three choices:

1. Shoot an opponent – point your imaginary gun at an opponent of your choice
2. Shoot yourself – point your imaginary gun at yourself, touching your temple
3. Shoot nobody – point your imaginary gun at the sky

Players then hold their pose while they collectively figure out who has been shot.

Shooting an opponent kills that opponent… unless they are shooting themselves. In that case, your attacking shot is reflected and you die. Note that shooting yourself reflects all bullets fired at you, so you could potentially kill a whole slew of attackers.

If you shoot yourself but nobody aims at you, you actually end up shooting yourself and you die. Note that you do survive if you reflected any attackers.

If two players aim at one another, both players die. Note that it is also possible to die in a whole circular chain of people shooting one another.

Finally, shooting the air serves as a kind of conservative move, played if you think all your opponents might try to shoot themselves.

Any players who were killed are eliminated from the game, and the remaining players continue to the next round. The game continues until only one player remains. That player is the winner. Also note that it’s possible for all players to die, in which case there are no winners!

As with most folk games, performative embellishments are encouraged for maximum fun. For example, my friends and I often pretend to reload our imaginary guns before each round, with the appropriate gesture and sound effect and everything.

Even within this particular version, there are a few modifications you might want to try. In my own personal favorite variation, each player gets two guns, one on each hand. After all, it feels way more badass to wield dual pistols! In this mode, you can either aim both weapons at the same target, or point them at different targets. We typically play that two guns beats one gun – both when firing at one another, and when firing at someone who is shooting themselves. Obviously, though, you could tweak these particulars to your own liking. Another way to play the double pistol variant is to simply make each player lose one of their guns each time they are hit. Effectively, this means that each player has two lives (though they become less powerful after losing a life).


Standoff – Version #2 (sometimes called “James Bond”)

This version of the game works similarly – players stand in a circle and try to be the last player standing. However, the three actions you can take differ in this version:

1. Shoot – point your imaginary guns at an opponent of your choice
2. Reload – holster your two guns by you waist
3. Block – place your two arms in an x-shape across your chest

Note that in this version, you almost always play with dual pistols, because you’ll have to use both of your arms anyway for the block gesture. However, in the standard version, you can’t direct your guns at different targets or actions.

In this version, each gun can only hold one bullet. That’s why the reload action exists – you have to reload before you can shoot again. Players themselves are responsible for remembering who is loaded and who isn’t.

Blocking, as is probably obvious, successfully deflects an attack. However, blocking does not reflect an attack, like shooting yourself does in Version #1 (see above).

The key decision in this version is gambling on when to reload. This choice is especially foregrounded when only two players remain, one loaded and the other not. The loaded player only wants to shoot when they think the unloaded player will reload.

(EDIT: indie dev Alan Hazelden points out that, from a game theoretical point of view, this version of the game can “deadlock” in a stalemate. If two players remain, and only one is loaded, the unloaded player shouldn’t ever reload until the loaded player shoots. In practice, most players want to avoid this situation, and will still chance a reload just for the fun of it. Nevertheless, it is true that more “serious” players may refuse to budge. The bazooka mod I mention in the next paragraph does suggest one possible fix, and I’m sure there are many other creative solutions!)

As in Variation #1, there are lots of possible variations here. My friend Tim Garbos taught me one variation where reloading your gun three times gets you a bazooka! A bazooka can shoot through a block, but is beaten by a (faster) regular bullet. In this variation, part of the challenge is to keep track of your opponents’ reload counts.


Comparing Version #1 and Version #2

As I see it, a big disadvantage of Version #2 is having to remember who is loaded and who isn’t. In the chaos of battle, it can be easy to forget – even your own status! On the flip side, one might argue that this is an advantage – that keeping track of the current game “state” is one of the intended challenges of the game.

A main disadvantage of Version #1 is the lack of narrative plausibility. That is to say, why does shooting yourself reflect bullets? It doesn’t really make sense, and some players get hung up on that lack of coherence. Then again, I would argue that the strange game logic is actually an advantage. My friend Dick Hogg (of Honeyslug fame) put it best:

I actually like the wrongthink of it. […] It makes no sense but it has the authentic feeling of weird warped logic that you get in kids games, playground games etc.

Another key selling point of Version #1 is that shooting yourself feels fun. Even just physically, holding up your finger to your temple makes the gambit seem all the gutsier, as if you were playing Russian Roulette or something.

However, the point is ultimately to find a particular ruleset that you (and your friends) like best. Try improvising your own modifications! And let me know if you invent any particularly good ones.



1. Special thanks to Dick Hogg and Ricky Haggett for nudging me to finally post these rules.

2. Boardgame aficionados may note that Standoff is somewhat similar to the commercial game Ca$h ‘n Gun$. Indeed, you can actually see Ca$h ‘n Gun$ on the table in the photo at the top of this post. Though I love Standoff, Ca$h ‘n Gun$ is certainly worth playing too. One of the selling points of Ca$h ‘n Gun$ is that it comes with six foam guns. Those kinds of props make a huge difference – the physicality of holding a toy gun does make the game more fun. Moreover, Ca$h ‘n Gun$ features some more complex rules (i.e. special roles).


4 Responses to Folk Game: Standoff

  1. Disclaimer: I have only ever played version 2. Thanks to George Buckenham (@v21) for teaching me originally!

    We keep track of state by having each hand either in a fist (unloaded) or a pretend gun (loaded).

    On further thinking, the stalemate actually occurs when both players are loaded, not when one player is loaded and the other is not as I originally suggested. Either both players fire and kill each other, or one player fires and the other blocks (giving the blocking player the advantage), or both players block and nothing changes.

    Unfortunately, I think the bazooka variant only creates a different stalemate. (Maybe a less likely one?)

    Some variants coming up:

    * Two hands = two guns. You can fire both in the same turn, or use them separately to get two firing goes before having to reload.

    * With two guns, you can have the rule that you can only reload one gun at a time. Takes longer to get fully loaded, makes firing only one gun per turn more useful.

    * With the above rules, we tried having guns overheat and kill you if you had both guns loaded for three consecutive turns (i.e. blocking three times in a row with both guns loaded).

    * Without the hand = gun rule, you can reload as many times as you like, each giving you one extra bullet. You have to keep track of your ammo.

    * I haven’t played with the bazooka variant, but I played one game with one-reload-at-a-time plus the rule that firing both guns at the same player got past a block. This made for an un-fun early game however — if there’s too many active players it feels random/unfair to be blocking but still get killed.

    * With George and a few others, came up with a weird zombie variant:

    – If killed, you must spend at least one turn dead
    – After that turn, you may as your action awaken
    – If awakened, you may as your action lunge at any living player (or just stand where you are, moaning for brains)
    – If shot while lunging, you die again (but can reawaken after one turn)
    – If you lunge at someone who is blocking, you are stunned for a turn

    I think originally we had it so that zombies could only attack adjacent players, but forget how we defined adjacent. Possibly you can only lunge in one direction or the other, and you attack the first living player in that direction around the circle. I guess players are then shooting in a direction as opposed to at specific zombies. More playtesting required!

  2. j says:

    The bullets aren’t reflected. The person aiming the gun at a suicider decides not to shoot to suicider, lowers the gun out of disgust, and the bluffing suicider now gets a free shot.

  3. Belgand says:

    Kind of interesting, but it feels too much like Rock-Paper-Scissors for me. A classic Mexican standoff isn’t so much about the guessing as it is here, it’s more about the creation and expansion of tension. While the initial aiming happens quickly, it’s the standoff that results where most of the game should be occurring… before someone triggers the conflict.

    Perhaps a version where you only ever aim at someone else… but the goal is to be the last person standing. It then becomes about negotiation and shifting alliances before the final trigger.

    Here’s how, off the top of my head, I’d handle it:

    Everyone forms a circle and turns around so they are facing “out” (you could close your eyes, but this version feels both more thematic and more resistant to cheating). A countdown is made and, at the conclusion, everyone turns and aims at another player. Players are then free to discuss the situation, cajole other players, and try to make deals and form alliances. At any time, however, a player may fire by shouting out something appropriate (“bang” just sounds ridiculously childish, come up with your own rules, but make sure everyone knows them in advance). At this time the choices are locked and everyone who was being aimed at is out.

    It clearly requires work and I think some sort of team system would really make it shine (if members of more than one team are left alive a new round starts), but it would need a lot of tweaking. In particular if not using a team system it could devolve to the point of having two players left alive which would ideally mean that both lose. The team version also allows characters to perform heroic sacrifices (perhaps the whole team wins so long as one member lives?), but this could interfere with shifting alliances and betraying your teammates to win (which should totally be an element).