How to Play Pétanque

Pétanque, pronounced pay-tanque, is France’s favorite competitive activity (actually it’s probably tied for first with soccer, but regardless). It’s a game that anyone can play, requiring minimal athletic skill other than the ability to throw a ball.

Around Bastille Day, pétanque tournaments pop up everywhere. The French roll up their sleeves to play, and Americans roll up their sleeves because they’re getting hot sitting on the curb watching the French play a game of pétanque.

However, the fête nationale isn’t about sitting on the sidelines, it’s about (the anniversary celebration of) joining the fight for freedom. So it’s time Americans put down the ice cream, picked up a boule, and joined the fight for freedom to brag about beating French people in pétanque. Here are the rules of pétanque so you can enjoy le 14 juillet like the French.

Petanque set. Image: Athlete Shop
Petanque set. Image: Athlete Shop

Supplies

6 steel balls (les boules); 1 small wooden ball (le cochonnet, aka le bouchon); a 4m x 15m (13’ x 50’) space for playing (la piste), preferably sand but gravel, short grass, or dirt is fine

How to Play

  1. Divide into two teams (Team A and Team B). You can play in singles (tête-à-tête), doubles (doublette), or triples (triplette). In singles and doubles, each person gets three boules. In triples, each person gets two.
  1. Toss a coin to decide who goes first. You’ll say pile ou face?” (“Heads or tails?”) (Let’s say that Team A won the toss).
  1. Team A draws a circle in the sand (le rond). When it’s time to throw, each player must toss their boule while standing with both feet in le rond.
  1. From le rond, Team A throws the cochonnet onto la piste, usually around 20-30 feet away.
  1. The person from Team A who threw the cochonnet will then throw their boule as close as they can to the cochonnet. (Note: Do not roll your ball, this isn’t bocce.)
  1. Now Team B throws a boule, trying to land closer to the cochonnet than Team A. 
  1. If Team B got their boule closer to the cochonnet than Team A, then it’s Team A’s turn to throw again. If Team B didn’t get their boule closer, then Team B throws again. This pattern of the team with a boule furthest from the cochonnet throwing their boules continues until one or both teams have thrown all their boules. If only one team has thrown all their boules, then the other team continues throwing their boules until they’re out.

Scoring

Figure out which boule is closest to the cochonnet. If there’s no measuring tape, use something like a string or your foot. The team with the boule closest to the cochonnet gets one point, and then another point for every boule they have closer to the cochonnet than the opposing team’s closest boule to the cochonnet. petanque scoringThe team that won that match (la mène) gets to draw le rond and throw le cochonnet in the next mène.

The whole game (la partie) ends when a team has 13 points accumulated points from winning mènes. If a team wins 13-0, then they faire fanny. If a team loses 13-0, then they être fanny.

Technique

You can knock (tirer) the other team’s boule away with your boule, or you can toss your ball closer to the cochonnet instead of knocking the other team’s boule away (pointer). Together, these two techniques present the commonly asked question on the piste, “Tu tires ou tu pointes?”

Alfred Levitt, approx 1945
Alfred Levitt, approx 1945

The correct way to toss the boule is underhand. (Finally, a sport where underhand shots are acceptable!) A butchered explanation of the proper throwing form is to think about it like bowling with your palm facing down not up (but don’t start 10′ back from the piste and run toward it; there’s no running in pétanque). Stand with your feet together. Holding the boule downwards, draw your arm back behind you, then swing it forward for some momentum. Release the boule when it’s in front of you, about even with your armpit.

If you just throw the boule, it will roll off the piste, across the street, through the neighbor’s yard, onto the nearest highway ramp, and down the highway until it disappears into the horizon. (It’s a steel ball, these kinds of things happen.) To prevent this from occuring, flick your wrist a little when you release to get some backspin on the boule so it stops pretty close to where it lands. Disaster averted.