Types of CTF challenges

Written by:
Vandana Verma Sehgal
Vandana Verma Sehgal
0 mins read

Capture the Flag (CTF) challenges in cybersecurity often come in various types, each designed to test different sets of hacking/security-evading skills. The evolution of CTFs has been a dynamic journey from simple text-based challenges to complex, multifaceted events that test a wide range of cybersecurity skills. If you’re just getting started with CTF’s, check out our beginners guide.

The evolution of CTFs

CTFs started like a game of digital hide-and-seek, with text-based mazes and simple flags. Nostalgic now, but groundbreaking at the time! In the mid-90s, Hollywood's spotlight turned toward hacking, and suddenly, CTFs were the ultimate battleground for every aspiring cyber-hero. 

CTFs gained popularity in the '90s as hacking culture entered mainstream media. With the dot-com boom/bubble, CTFs became crucial training grounds for cybersecurity professionals tasked with protecting burgeoning online businesses. The advent of social media introduced new Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) challenges, while the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing expanded the landscape even further. 

More recently, virtual and augmented reality have added new dimensions to CTFs, making them more immersive and interactive. Today, CTFs offer a diverse range of challenges, from binary exploitation to steganography, reflecting the broad spectrum of skills required in modern cybersecurity. As technology continues to evolve, CTFs are likely to adapt and expand as we uncover new cybersecurity risks. 

How to choose your first CTF

Gauge your skills before diving in. You wouldn't take on Everest without some hill hikes first, right? Do you like tackling standalone puzzles, or does the thought of live attack-and-defense action get your pulse racing? 

Then you also have to think about team size. CTFs can be complex, so sometimes it's better to tackle them with a team. But if you prefer working from home in your pajamas, look for CTFs that allow individual participation. And if shaking hands and rubbing elbows (or swapping USB drives) is more your thing, look for in-person events. 

Finally, know your stamina. Some CTFs last a few hours, others can go on for days and others take less than an hour.  

The right CTF should feel like home, with a welcoming community and helpful moderators. Check out reviews and maybe even watch some YouTube walkthroughs so you know what you're getting into. And be sure to choose a CTF that promises to leave you more skilled at the end. It's not just about the winning — it's about getting better! Check out our article on the top CTF platforms for more information.

Types of CTF challenges

There are a few main types of CTF competitions to be aware of as you look for your first event. The most common style is "jeopardy" CTFs. These work like the game show, with competitors solving standalone challenges divided into categories. You can tackle challenges in any order and accumulate points for correct flags. This individual format is great for beginners.

Another format is "attack-defense" CTFs. These involve teams attacking and defending network infrastructure in a live environment. The attacking teams try to infiltrate vulnerable machines to steal flags, while the defending teams try to secure the services and infrastructure. These events require more specialized skills and teamwork.

There are also "mixed" CTFs that combine jeopardy-style challenges with some elements of real-time attack and defense. While fun, these may be too advanced for your very first CTF.

Let's take a deeper look at the types…


In this style, challenges are categorized into different domains like web exploitation, binary exploitation, cryptography, etc. Each challenge yields a flag, which can be submitted for points.

Web exploitation

Challenges in this category often involve exploiting vulnerabilities in web applications to retrieve flags. Web exploitation tasks can be more like puzzles than real-world security issues.

Binary exploitation

In binary exploitation challenges, players exploit vulnerabilities in binary programs. This often requires deep knowledge of assembly language, buffer overflows, and similar topics. In binary exploitation, it's often "assembly or bust," making the learning curve steep for newcomers.


Cryptographic challenges require understanding cryptographic algorithms and finding ways to decrypt or break them. Cryptography challenges can sometimes feel more like math homework than hacking.


Participants may need to extract information from provided files, logs, or disk images.

Reverse engineering

Involves analyzing compiled binaries to understand their functionality and retrieve a flag.


Challenges in this category often involve sniffing packets, exploiting network protocols, etc.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

Participants use publicly available information to solve puzzles or find flags.

Read our article on CTF strategies and techniques to find out how you should approach these different challenge types.

Wrapping up with CTF resources

Whether you're a total n00b or Sherlock Homedrive, CTFs have a place for every type of enthusiast! Different CTFs will have their unique blend of challenges, and some will focus on specialized skills like IoT security, mobile application hacking, or even social engineering.

CTFs have grown from geeky games into complex ecosystems that train and test skills critical to cybersecurity today. They're not just weekend activities but career-building platforms that give real-world experience and even job opportunities.  Here are some great resources for getting started and leveling up:

  • Snyk's CTF 101: Check out this hands-on, virtual workshop to learn how to solve CTF challenges, including pwn and web. After the workshop, you'll have the security skills and experience to compete in CTFs.

  • Snyk Learn: Offers tons of free lessonscourses in cybersecurity.

  • CTF Time: A resource to find upcoming CTFs to participate in.

  • Hack The Box: An online platform that lets you test your penetration testing skills.

  • Books: "The Web Application Hacker's Handbook" and "Hacking: The Art of Exploitation" are must-reads for aspiring hackers.

  • DEF CON CTF: The granddaddy of them all. Solving these challenges is the hacker equivalent of winning the Olympics.

  • PicoCTF: Aimed at high school and college students, this competition has introduced thousands to cybersecurity.

  • Google CTF: When one of the tech giants hosts a CTF, you know it's got to be good — and tough!

Next in the series

CTF platforms & practice

Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions are a popular way for cybersecurity enthusiasts, students, and professionals to test and expand their skills in a gamified environment. Over the years, several platforms have emerged that offer CTF challenges and practice environments. 

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