Playing the game
Pétanque is played by two, four or six people in two teams, or players can compete as individuals in casual play. In the singles and doubles games each player has three boules; in triples they have only two. A coin is tossed to decide which side goes first. The starting team draws a circle on the ground which is 35-50 centimetres in diameter: all players must throw their boules from within this circle, with both feet remaining on the ground. The first player throws the jack 6–10 metres away; it must be at least one metre from the boundary.
Order of play
The player who threw the jack then throws their first boule. A player from the opposing team then makes a throw. Play continues with the team that is not closest to the jack having to continue throwing until they either land a boule closer to the jack than their opponents or run out of boules.
If the closest boules from each team are an equal distance from the jack, then the team that played last plays again. If the boules are still equidistant then the teams play alternately until the position changes. If the boules are still equidistant at the end of the game then no points are scored by either team.
The game continues with a player from the team that won the previous end drawing a new circle around where the jack finished and throwing the jack for a new end.
Play ends, and points may be scored when both teams have no more boules, or when the jack is knocked out of play. The winning team receives one point for each boule that it has closer to the jack than the best-placed boule of the opposition.
If the jack is knocked out of play, no team scores unless only one team has boules left to play. In this case the team with boules receives one point for each that they have to play.
The first team to reach 13 points wins.
- A boule hitting a boundary is dead and is removed from that end.
- On a court or piste marked with strings, a boule is dead if it completely crosses the string.
- The circle can be moved back in the line of the previous end if there is not room to play a 10 metre end.
- The boule can be thrown at any height or even rolled depending on the terrain.
- Boules are thrown underarm, usually with the palm of the hand downwards which allows backspin to be put on the boule giving greater control.
- Each team should have suitable measuring equipment. In most cases a tape measure is adequate but callipers or other measuring devices may be needed.
Boules must be made of metal. Competition boules must meet the following specifications:
- bear engravings indicating the manufacturer’s name and the weight of the boule.
- have a diameter between 70.5 and 80 mm.
- have a weight between 650 and 800 g.
- not be filled with sand or lead, or be tampered with in any way
In addition, a boule may bear an engraving of the player’s first name or initials.
Choice of boule
The diameter of the boule is chosen based on the size of the player’s hand. The weight and hardness of the boule depends on the player’s preference and playing style. “Pointers” tend to choose heavier and harder boules, while “shooters” often select lighter and softer boules.
These boules do not meet competition standards but are often used for “backyard” games. They are designed to suit all ages and sexes, and can be made of metal, plastic or wood (for play on a beach, for instance).
Competition jacks must meet the following specifications:
- made of wood or of synthetic material
- carry the maker’s mark and have secured confirmation by the F.I.P.J.P. that they comply exactly with the relevant specification.
- have a diameter of 30mm (tolerance + or – 1mm).
A flat, open space where pétanque is played is called a terrain.
Any relatively flat, open space can be used as a terrain. In France, terrains are frequently natural terrains, typically the village square, areas in parks, etc. Sandy beaches are not suitable, although light plastic boules are sometimes used to adapt the game for the beach. The terrain may be irregular and interrupted by obstacles such as trees, and the surface is likely to be uneven, with some areas hard and smooth and others rough and stony. It is for this reason that pétanque is a throwing game, rather than a rolling game like bocce or bowling.
If a terrain is large enough, it may be divided into marked-off areas called pistes so that separate games may be carried on simultaneously on the same terrain. A typical piste is marked off (permanently or temporarily) using nails and string, and is square or rectangular in shape. For tournament play a piste is a rectangle at least 4 metres wide and 15 metres long.
When an area is constructed specifically as a terrain, the playing surface is typically loose gravel, decomposed granite, brick grog or crushed sea shell. There is no requirement for backboards or sideboards (as in bocce), but dedicated terrains are often enclosed in boards or some other structural barrier.
Pétanque terminology varies across languages and countries and the distinction between terrain and piste is sometimes blurred. For piste, the FIPJP International Rules use the French word terrain, which the FPUSA translates as the English word court and some British versions translate as lane.
Some pétanque proponents object to the use of the word court because they feel that it suggests something false and derogatory, namely that routine neighbourhood play requires the construction of an expensive dedicated facility (a pétanque court) in the same way that bocce does. As the Pétanque America website puts it:
Actually the word “court” is a misnomer. We use it here because many people search for that term. Pétanque is by nature a game one can play without a setup, sort of like frisbee.
A successful pétanque team has players who are skilled at shooting as well as players who only point. For obvious reasons, the pointer or pointers play first – the shooter or shooters are held in reserve in case the opponents place well. In placing, a boule in front of the jack has much higher value than one at the same distance behind the jack, because intentional or accidental pushing of a front boule generally improves its position. At every play after the very first boule has been placed, the team whose turn it is must decide whether to point or shoot. Factors that count in that decision include:
- How close to the jack the opponents’ best boule is,
- The state of the terrain (an expert pointer can practically guarantee to place within about 15 cm if the terrain is well tended, not so if it’s rocky or uneven), and
- How many boules each team has yet to play.
A team captain, in an idealized game, requires his pointer to place a boule reasonably close in approach to the jack (paradoxically, in competition, the first pointer sometimes aims not to get so close to the jack that the opponents will inevitably shoot their boule immediately). They then visualize an imaginary circle with the jack as its centre and the jack-boule distance as radius and defend that circle by any legitimate means.
Glossary of special terms
Like any sport, petanque has its own special vocabulary. The following are a list of common phrases with explanations.
- To have the point
- To have one or more boules placed closer to the jack than those of the opponent(s).
- The phrase “We’re holding” or “They’re holding” is another way of expressing the above situation regarding having the point.
- To throw one’s boule with the intent of stopping near the jack (also known as placing).
- To throw one’s boule at one of the opponent’s boules to knock it out of play. This is often done when the opponent has pointed his/her boule very close to the jack.
- To throw one’s boule in a high arc so that when it lands it only rolls minimally.
- A special feat in which the shooter knocks the opponent’s boule out while leaving his boule at or very near the point of impact (pronounced car-o).
- To fanny (mettre fanny in French)
- To beat one’s opponents 13 to 0. The figure of a bare-bottomed lass named Fanny is ubiquitous in Provence wherever pétanque is played. It is traditional that when a player loses 13 to 0 it is said that “il est fanny” (he’s fanny) or “il a fait fanny” (he made fanny), and that he has to kiss the bottom of a girl called Fanny. Since there is rarely an obliging Fanny’s behind handy, there is usually a substitute picture, woodcarving or pottery so that Fanny’s bottom is available. More often, the team which made “fanny” has to offer a beverage to the winning team (see the French popular expression “Fanny paie à boire !“).
- To do the bec (faire le bec, meaning “to give a light kiss”)
- Targeting one of your boules already in play and knocking it toward the jack.
- To technical fanny
- To beat one’s opponents by scoring 13 consecutive points without the opposition scoring anymore but having already scored. For example a team could score 12 points and the opposition could then score all 13 points and win the game with a technical fanny.
- Game on the ground
- A situation in which one team has finished throwing all of its boules and “has the point”. When “the game is on the ground” for a team, that team will win the game unless their opponents, who still have boules to throw, are able to change the situation.