In the early 14th century, a French game called barres came into vogue among the children. It was a game of tag, with several barriers (bars) declared as safe spaces. Children would dart from bar to bar, tagging each other out along the way. This game was such a nuisance to the nobility of the time that they passed an act of Parliament forbidding it, at least near Westminster Palace.
Not that kids have ever cared much for draconian laws. The game persisted, with the name degrading over a couple of centuries to simply Base. Many variants on this type of tag arose, but one of the most popular was Prisoner’s Base. After dividing into two teams, the basic idea was to run across a field and back to home without being caught, or to rescue team members from an enemy base and return them home.
Later, the game changed form again, and became more about running around a designated set of bases. Eventually, someone added a ball into the mix, and the game known as Rounders was born, named for having to run ’round the bases. Another name, of course, was base ball, though it would take still more evolution to become the game we know today.
But for now, let’s back up to the earlier game of Prisoner’s Base. Ideal with large groups, first divide into two teams and find a large open area to run in. Determine the boundaries for the game, and designate two areas as each team’s home base. While within this zone, players are safe and cannot be pursued. Some distance out, designate two areas to be each team’s prison, with each prison in front of the opposing team’s home base. As an idea, books from the mid-1800s suggest at least 20 paces as the distance between home bases, and the distance out to the prisons.
Each team starts out completely in their home base – make sure there’s plenty of room. Pick a team to start. That team sends a runner out. The runner must run all the way out across their prison (so diagonally over the field), cross it, and then run back to home, where they will be safe.
Meanwhile, the second team sends out one runner to tag the first team’s runner. If successful, the catcher escorts the prisoner to the prison for their team (diagonal to the prisoner’s home).
To rescue a team member, a runner must go to the prison without being caught, tag one (and only one) teammate, and can then escort them back home without being targets on the way. A group of prisoners on the same team can even form a chain out onto the field, as long as at least one is in prison, but they can still only be released one at a time. The goal is to catch all of the enemy team.
Now here’s the tricky part. Let’s say our first two runners were Red1, followed by Blue1 to chase. At this point, Red2 enters the field to try and tag Blue1. Now Blue2 comes out, and can tag either of the Reds, but is not a valid target for either of them.
You see, new runners can only tag enemies who are already on the field, but not anyone who comes after them, unless they first go home and then come back out. As you can imagine, this results in a great deal of chaos as each runner has to remember who they can and can’t tag, between later runners and safe ones escorting prisoners to prison or home.
In the past, this was partly solved by each team having a Captain who only left their home base if absolutely necessary, but mainly shouted out directions to their team. This is not strictly required, but someone with a good memory can help to play without accidentally breaking the rules.
Given that the goal is to capture the entire enemy team, but prisoners will constantly be getting freed, the game usually ended when everyone was too tired to keep playing. It’s one of the most complicated forms of tag, but if you’ve got a large group of kids and you want to introduce organized play, it’s a great option to run off a lot of energy.