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Tuesday Tips: Introducing Space Disc, A Socially Distanced Game

Space Disc fundamentally removes the riskiest element of ultimate.

Photo: Pepper Williams.

Tuesday Tips are presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

This article was written by Pepper Williams, the inventor of Space Disc.

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have a thriving masters/grandmasters/great-grandmasters ultimate community. We’ve had a pickup game literally every Sunday for the past 10 years or so, where we average as many as 40 players in the summers and almost always have 7s even in the dark and wet days of the Pacific Northwest winter.

Until COVID-19, of course. While those of us who play in the Sunday game may not be exactly a high-risk group for coronavirus, we’re also not exactly low-risk either. Additionally, many of us have spouses and/or other family members we have to think about, people who may be less risk-tolerant than the typical ultimate player. So a few weeks before the state of Oregon formally shut down in March 2020, we decided we weren’t comfortable calling weekly games anymore.

Once Portland’s County (Multnomah) started getting close to “Phase 1” of Oregon’s reopening plan in late May, people started talking about getting together to throw and maybe run some drills, and I started thinking about what might make people feel comfortable actually playing ultimate again. The problem, of course, is that we’re still not supposed to be getting within six feet of one another, and the basic goal of “normal” ultimate is to race other people to the same spot in order to catch the disc. That means at worst making contact with another person, and at best coming in very close proximity. No matter what space-creating restrictions you might try to come up with and agree on, in normal ultimate, those restrictions are fighting against the fundamental point of the game.

So an idea formed in my head: what if we could come up with a game where everyone always occupies one spot on the field that no one else is allowed to come close to, and movement is allowed according to rules that are designed to keep us all separated? I started writing down rules, drew a field diagram, and sent the idea to a few people, who were semi-enthusiastic. We tried it the first Sunday Multnomah went to Phase 1, and the consensus was that it’s actually fun. Not as fun as real ultimate, to be sure, but genuinely fun, and a lot better than just running drills or playing Guts.

And it was something that we could actually feel good about doing, rather than sneaking out of the house and fibbing to our significant others about it. So was born the game we originally called “cone ultimate” (for obvious reasons that will become clear below) and we’re now calling “Space Disc” (because it spaces us out, get it?). We’ve played four times and revised the rules each time, and I think we’ve proved it out well enough now to start telling other people about it.

Space Disc field setup.

Here’s how the game is played in a nutshell: The field is covered with cones placed in a honeycomb1 pattern, where every cone is separated by about eight yards from every other cone. As in normal ultimate, offensive players throw the disc to each other and try to catch it in the end zone. But the big twist is that you must always catch (as well as throw) the disc from within three feet of a cone. You’re free to move without the disc at any time, but you can only move from the cone you’re on to an adjacent cone (so unless you’re on a sideline, you always have exactly six options to choose from). Furthermore, once you start moving toward another cone, you must continue to that cone.

Defensive players also have to move from cone to cone, though they’re given a little more leeway, as described below. If two people start moving toward the same cone, the first person to yell “mine” gets the cone, and the other person must immediately turn around and go back to the cone they came from (you cannot immediately switch directions and switch to to another cone). So the end result of all this is that we’re all forced to keep ourselves separated; the rules specifically prohibit people from entering each others’ spaces.

Here are some of the reasons why it’s fun:

Though you might think from the initial description that the game involves a lot of standing around, you actually end up moving almost as much as in ultimate. You have to be more careful and deliberate about where you move (that’s the whole point of the game), but you still have to get back and forth to the end zones as you play, and while you have to always move from one cone to one of the six adjacent cones, you don’t have to stop at each cone; you can run right through, either in a zig-zag pattern (which is pretty tiring), or on a straight diagonal line (see the field setup diagram for how this works).

While you have to have a body part within three feet of a cone when you catch the disc, that can be a different cone than the one you were at when the disc was thrown. You can even just throw up a huck and hope it comes down near enough to a cone for your teammate to catch it (watching people try to navigate between cones to make sure they’re close enough to one at the point they make the catch is one of the more comical aspects of the game).

For obvious reasons, the game rewards precision throwing. It’s quite satisfying to hit someone with a throw dead on their cone from several rows of cones away.

Playing defense is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. All the offensive players are going to have a free 8-yard-radius of space around them, so they’re all open to some extent. But if you put yourself in the right position you can at least make it harder for them to find someone, and the stall count is only five, so you can try to make the offense rush a throw that isn’t precise enough.

At least when you start playing, it’s enjoyable to try to figure out the rules, some of which, admittedly, are mostly there just for fun (because what self-respecting frisbee player doesn’t like arguing about rules?).

But most of all, it’s just fun to be out on a field running around — in a responsible, socially distant way — with the friends you’ve missed for the last four months.

The Full Rules

Note that the game is still evolving as we try new things out every week.  See the up-to-date “official” PDX Masters’ rules here.

Field Setup

  • The field can use standard ultimate field dimensions or smaller, depending on the number of players.
  • Distribute cones throughout the field, in a honeycomb-like pattern with “rows” every cone separated by a distance of approximately eight yards from the six cones surrounding it (detailed instructions).
  • The two rows on either end of the field are the end zones. Ideally, “shorty” cones should be used for the “field cones” and the back row of end zone cones, and the first row of each end zone should be marked with slightly taller cones.
  • For a full-size field, you’ll need 57 “shorty” cones and 10 “normal” cones.

Basic Game Flow

As in standard ultimate…

  • You can play with teams of up to seven players on a side.
  • One team is always playing offense and the other defense.
  • The offensive team scores by catching the disc in their end zone.
  • A turnover occurs any time the disc touches the ground.
  • When a turnover occurs, teams switch roles so that the team that was playing defense is now trying to score.

Here’s the twist: offensive players are only allowed to touch the disc if at least one of their feet is within a yard of a cone, and any cone can only be “occupied” by a single player. Therefore, all players should be at least eight yards away from each other at all times (see the field setup diagram, referenced above).

To Start the Game

  • As in ultimate, the game begins with a pull.
  • Each defensive player must start at one of the cones in the end zone they’re defending, and each offensive player must start at one of the cones in the opposite end zone.
  • The D player pulling the disc must be within three feet of a cone when they release the pull.
  • As soon as the pull is released, all players are free to move from cone to cone, as described below.
  • The game is make it, take it after the opening pull.

Stall Count

At the start of a point, or after an offensive player catches the disc, any defensive player can start a stall count. The offense has five seconds to throw. If the count reaches five, it’s a turnover.

Player Movement

Players are free to move at any time (unless they are the offensive player who currently possesses the disc, in which point they must maintain a pivot foot as in standard ultimate), but they must always move in a straight line from the cone they currently occupy to another cone, and once a player starts moving towards another cone, they cannot change direction to shift towards a different cone.

Players are further limited to moving only from the cone they currently occupy to one of the six cones nearest that cone. Furthermore, once an offensive player starts moving to another cone, they must proceed to that cone — that is, they can’t reverse course and go back to the cone they came from (unless they realize someone else is headed to the same cone; see below).

If an offensive player touches the disc when they are more than three feet away from a cone, that’s a turnover.

If offensive player A throws to offensive player B, B cannot immediately throw it back to A, unless A first moves to a different cone in the same row as B (or closer to the end zone than B). This means that you can’t “dump” back to the player who threw it to you. Similarly, once B has thrown laterally (in the same row of cones) to A, A can’t throw it back to B until B has moved forward at least one row.

Note that an offensive player only needs to be within three feet of the cone when the disc is caught; they may have been farther away when the disc was originally thrown. However (as noted above), offensive players cannot change direction or stop once they’ve started going from one cone to another (until they arrive at the cone their heading too; then they can move around within three feet of that cone). If the offensive player changes direction or stops, that’s a turnover.

Since the defense can’t really “mark” in this game, defensive players are given more leeway when moving from cone to cone: Defensive players can reverse direction if they wish — that is, after starting towards another cone, they can change their mind and go back to the previous cone (as long as it’s still unoccupied; see below).

Furthermore, if the cone immediately to the right or left of the cone defensive player A occupies is unoccupied, A can move into the space between those two cones. This gives A two advantages: first, they can rove anywhere between the two cones to try to make a D, and second, they “occupy” both cones, so no other player (either offensive or defensive) can move to either of them. As soon as A is back within 3 feet of one of the cones, they only occupy that cone, and another player can move to occupy the other one.

Despite these extra freedoms, note that, like offensive players, once a defensive player starts heading to another cone, they cannot veer off to a different cone.

Cone “occupation” is a big part of the game, especially around the end zone. To prevent the defense from simply “flooding the zone” to prevent the offense from scoring, the back row of cones in each end zone are only allowed to be occupied by offensive players.

Defensive players may “block off” a row (including the initial end-zone row) by positioning a player on every cone of the row (or, if they’re crafty, between every cone; see rule above). However, if offensive player A is on the outermost cone of a row and the outermost cone in the row front of them is occupied by a defensive player B, player A is allowed to “escape” outside the field of play, move upfield past B’s row (as well as any other occupied cone(s) on the sideline), and come back in to the next row farther upfield, as long as they stay at least three yards outside the outermost cone. (This is called the “Fish Out Of Water” rule, and players should yell “FISH” when they invoke it.) A can also Fish around an offensive player B, if B is themselves hemmed in by someone else.

An illegal movement by an offensive player (e.g. not moving directly toward one of the six closest cones to you, deliberately moving toward an occupied cone, or switching directions) results in a turnover.

If an illegal movement is made by a defensive player and a turnover results, the disc goes back to the thrower, even if the throw was not legally catchable by the offense.

Scoring

When the offense catches the disc in either row of their end zone, they score one point for each row of cones the scoring throw crossed.

With the standard configuration detailed in the diagram referenced above, this means you can score up to 13 points with one throw.

If your throw does not cross any rows (that is, if you throw from the row immediately outside the end zone, to a player in the first row of the end zone), you score zero points. However, the point is still over at this point, and the team that just “scored” has to pull to the other team, so avoid doing this!

When the offensive team catches the disc in the end zone (even if they don’t score any points; see above), count the number of points scored, then play pauses while the team that was just playing defense goes back to the other end zone to receive the next pull, as in normal ultimate.

Games can be played to any score. Remember that the average score will result in more than 1 point, so a Space Disc game to 15 might take about as long as a normal ultimate game to five (or it might be over after two scores!).

Since one of the primary goals of this whole rigamarole is to maintain physical separation, all players should make a good faith effort to avoid ending up at the same cone as someone else. If two players A and B do realize they’re heading towards the same cone, they should NOT attempt to both race to the cone. Instead:

The first player who started moving towards the cone gets the cone (call this person player A). (If there is any dispute about who left their previous cone first, the first player to call “mine” gets the cone.) Player B must immediately retreat to the cone they previously occupied (no switching direction to move to another cone!) Once player B has gotten back to the original cone, they can stay there or set off for a different cone.

If another player C has in the meantime started heading for the cone player B previously occupied, player B must go to the nearest unoccupied cone that’s farther backfield (away from the end zone the offense is currently progressing towards).

So if you hear someone else calling “mine,” immediately stop; if you want to argue after the fact that you actually left first, you can do so, but don’t risk a collision. In the case of any dispute about who called “mine” first, both players must return to their previously-occupied cone, and if the disc was thrown to the cone, send it back to the thrower.

Additional Rules and Clarifications

Only one upside-down throw (hammer, scoober, etc.) is allowed per possession (so use it wisely!)

“Skip throws” (throws that touch the ground, but are back in the air when caught) are allowed, but only if the thrower calls “SKIP” before the disc touches the ground.

When an offensive player catches the disc, they must have a body part within 3 feet of where a cone currently sits — not where the cone is “supposed” to be. So yes, this means that if you could manage to somehow kick a cone to where an errant disc is coming down, and then catch the disc, it would be a legal catch. (No touching cones with your hands though!)

This is so important that it’s worth emphasizing again: everyone must always be moving directly from one cone to another adjacent cone. It’s very tempting, especially when playing defense, to just move where you need to be to make the block (because that’s what we do in ultimate!), but unless you’ve planned things out so you’re moving from one cone to another adjacent, unoccupied cone, you can’t do it. If a player does make an illegal move, and that move results (or would have resulted) in two players getting too close to each other, the player who made the illegal move should be immediately heckled off the field for a sub. If no subs are available, the player should sit down on their butt and wait for 10 seconds.

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  1. honeycone? 

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