Petanque And Bocce. Drinking Games For Adults

Although the term drinking game is synonymous with college activities such as beer pong, flip cup and the like, there was a time not long ago when a drinking game was a casual afternoon spent with friends, where drinking was (not so) merely incidental to the ‘athletic’ activities. Some people even believed that the drinking improved how one played these games! You chatted with friends, you had a few libations, and you competed, not to see who could drink the most, but to see who was most skilled at the actual game. Since nerves always seem to fray during games of skill, sipping a delicious, mildly intoxicating beverage while playing these games seemed like a natural addition.

Men Playing Bocce In NYC, 1975
via Edmund V. Gillon/MCNY

Two of the most famous of these classic drinking games, and our favorites, are pétanque and bocce. Both games are a form of boules, a game played with heavy balls, where the object of the game is to land your team’s balls as close to the jack, or little ball, as possible. There’s nothing quite like playing these games outside during a beautiful day, a glass of wine in hand, ribbing your competitors. When the teams are pretty good, or the drinks are flowing liberally, a bit of gambling adds to the fun.

While the modern games of pétanque and bocce can trace their origins far back to classical antiquity, we know them today on account of where the expanding Roman Empire’s armies spread. As a way to kill time between conquests, Roman soldiers took to playing a version of these games. The goal was to toss stone balls as close as possible to the small target that the opposing team threw out before the round began. What began as a great way to kill time grew into a kind of target practice, helping the soldiers improve their concentration.

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Petanque in Provence
via Johnnyjet

Wherever Rome’s armies went, the game traveled with them, developing and evolving throughout Europe. In France (Gaul), wooden balls were substituted for the original stone playing pieces (also where the Romans adopted oak barrels in place of clay amphorae…coincidence?). As time passed metal balls supplanted the wooden ones. But pétanque truly became pétanque at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the southeastern French region of Provence. For centuries, throwers had been allowed to take three steps to give themselves momentum before releasing the ball at the target. A man in Marseille, afflicted with rheumatism, was unable to take those steps – so he invented a rule that called for standing in one place before releasing the ball at its target. The modern game of pétanque was born.

While pétanque rarely spread beyond France and its colonies, Italian immigrants brought bocce with them as they settled across the globe, from Australia to the Americas. If you head to one of the few remaining  Italian immigrant neighborhoods today you’ll see why so many people are more familiar with bocce than pétanque, even though the games are quite similar.

A Rough Guide To Playing Bocce Or Pétanque:

To begin, a hard rectangular playing surface is measured out that is at least 90 feet long and 9 feet wide.

Bocce In The 30s
via Toni Frissell/Library of Congress

Both teams start at the same end of the rectangle, and a line is drawn in front of them. This line cannot be crossed when throwing. In pétanque the difference here is that throwers must stand inside a tight ring to throw. That ring moves to the spot the jack winds up for the next round. After this, a coin is tossed and the winning team has the right to toss out the jack. Ideally the jack should be thrown about 16 feet away from the other side of the court. The team that tossed the jack is then given the opportunity to throw their ball first. In both games, the point is to get your team’s balls as close to the jack (or cochonnet as the French call it) as possible.

Once the first toss has taken place, the other side has the opportunity to throw their ball. From then on, the side whose ball is farthest from the jack continues to throw, until they get closer or they use up their four balls. At that point, the other side tosses its remaining balls.

The team with the ball closest to the jack is the only team that can score points in a given frame. The scoring team receives one point for each of their balls that are closer to the jack than the closest ball of the other team.

Once scoring takes place, sides are swapped, and the team that scored the points in the previous round throws the jack in the next one. The length of a game can vary but it’s typically played to 7 or 13 points.

It is also worth mentioning that at any point, the opposing team can choose to use their turn to knock an opponent’s balls out of contention, or knock the jack itself, changing its location and the balls’ approximation to it. This action seems to really increase as the drinks flow.

While the French have historically enjoyed the liqueur Pastis while playing pétanque, we suggest that a glass of rosé makes for a fine substitute, seeing as the game truly came into its own in Provence. For bocce, we always romanticize playing the game while sipping on a nice Chianti.

No matter what you choose to call the game you decide to play, it’s a lovely excuse to spend time outside with friends, enjoy great conversation, make a friendly wager, and drink delicious beverages. Now that’s what we call an adult drinking game.

Header Image via hsing/flickr