Here in the south of France, Montpellier, I played a game called La Petanque. What I love about this game is the close attention a player must pay to the unpredictable surface of the play field. This intimacy with the lie of the land gives the game a very earthy rural feel, which runs deep in the French traditions of agriculture.
Petanque is an onomatopoeic name derived from the sound that the steel balls make when they hit each other, perhaps the most exciting element of the game.
The game is often played on a light gravel, clay or grass surface, called a petanque field and is usually situated in the centre square at the heart of every French village. The game is almost played every day of the year, but is especially common in summer and on Sundays. All ages can play this game, from 4 to 80 or more years old. With its central location and inclusive wide-ranging age group, petanque is a highly social game. In particular, the older members of a community will play this game on a warm summer Sunday, to compete, socialise and take a few drinks of pastis to pass the time.
Usually the game consists of 2 teams of 2 players, each player is armed with 3 hand sized steel balls (Boule). To begin the game a smaller wooden or cork centre ball, (Couchon) is thrown about 6-8 metres away from the players, after which each player attempts to throw 1 ball as close as possible to the centre ball. The closest ball and the 3 rd closest become team 1, the 2 nd and 4 th closest ball become team 2.
The players then start to compete in the 1 st round of the game. Player 1 of team 1 throws the centre ball to a location in the field and follows this up with a steel ball. Team 2 then attempts to throw a ball closer to the centre ball than team 1. This can be done in one of two ways.
1. Place the ball "pointer"
2. Hit a ball "tirer".
If a team fails to bring their ball closer to the centre ball, they continue to throw their balls until they have the closest ball or run out of balls to throw. When a team succeeds in having the closest ball the play switches to the other team. When all the balls have been thrown, the field of play is accessed to see how many points have been scored. Only the team with the closest ball wins points. The winning team earns 1 point for each ball that is closer than any of the opposing team's balls. The team can score between 1and 6 points maximum in a round. The teams play rounds continuously until one team reaches a total of 13 points or more, thus becoming the winner of the game.
It is often advantageous for players to place their balls in front of the centre ball. The opposing team will then be forced to hit this ball hard, to knock it to one side or as far back as possible. Hitting balls hard is a difficult skill to master and often results in failure. A team that is winning the round will often attempt to continue placing balls carefully as close to the centre ball and may help knock their own balls lightly to push them closer to the centre ball. The more balls a team has that are close to the centre ball the harder it is for the opposing team to knock them all out of the way or find space to place a ball close to the centre ball.
In some cases where the winning team have succeeded in placing all their balls closely to the centre, the losing team may attempt to strike at the centre ball, the hardest shot of the game, due to the small size of the centre ball. By dislodging the centre completely away from the opposing player's balls it is possible to completely turn the game around to the losing team's advantage.
Skilled players become so adept at hitting other balls that they can decide whether to hit the ball on the front face "boule devant" or rear face "boule d'argent" to the player. The later strike is particularly difficult.
There are 2 main skills that a player learns to master in petanque.
Throwing: The first is the ability to throw the ball. This is achieved by throwing the ball into the air at a variety of angles. Acute angles see the ball roll along the surface of the field more than obtuse angles. This throwing action may be coupled with a flick of the wrist or after touch of the fingers as the ball leaves the player's hand. These movements allow the player to give the ball lateral and/or vertical spin further affecting the way the ball will roll when it finally lands. The force that the player exerts behind the ball has a defining role in the distance the ball will carry during acute angles or stop dead in the field at obtuse angles.
Surface Evaluation: The second skill is to judge the characteristic topography across the play field. Petanque fields are not completely flat and smooth, but are littered with small corrugations or undulation of the ground, not to mention the odd leaf or small protruding piece of gravel that might crop up. These subtle imperfections in the field make for a far less predictable result from the throw of a ball and require players to make an instinctive relationship between their throw and the lie of the land. Skilled players can use the imperfections of the field to their advantage, allowing them to guide balls around or even jump other balls. This is perhaps the most exiting element of the game for master players who can display a flare for their sensitivity to the formation of the play field and all its imperfections.
The intimacy that a player must have with the surface of the field is perhaps the most interesting aspect of petanque. The close inspection and feel of the field brings the player very close to the texture of the ground making petanque a very earthy game and shows the French are true connoisseurs of land.