What is Bocce Ball?

An Ancient Game Makes Its Way to Your Garden Party

kids playing bocce ball on lawn
Benny Mazur/Flickr/CC 2.0

Bocce, also known as Italian lawn bowling, is one of the most widely played games in the world and is one of the oldest lawn or yard games. Best known in Italy, where you may see a group of retired Sicilians gathered in a town square for a daily afternoon game, bocce has been gaining popularity in the United States and other locations. Its pros: the game is simple, can be played by people of all ages and skill levels, and you can use just about anything as a bocce court.

A Quick History of Bocce

Bocce's origins date back to 5000 BC, where evidence of Egyptian cave paintings depict Nile Delta boys playing something that resembles bocce (although who's to say it wasn't soccer, rugby, or something entirely different?). The game caught on with the Romans and Greeks during those early days, with the resourceful players substituting coconuts, melons, carved wood, and bound rags for bocce balls. At one time, bocce was popular with the social elite, the game of Emperors and Senators— like something you'd picture the Windsors wearing their plaids and letting loose (with the exception of Prince Harry, who sheds the plaid altogether when doing his take on letting loose). As Roman rule spread far and wide, bocce turned up in ancient Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and as far east as Persia.

Where to Play Bocce

Bocce can be played on a stretch of level ground—pavement, grass, gravel, hard-packed dirt (DG),a sidewalk, patio, deck, etc.

If you have a grass lawn, you can deeply mow a patch to create a bocce court. Wherever your chosen court, the surface should be level. While two people can play against each other, bocce is a great team game, simply form two teams with an even number of players -- usually eight (four on each team).

How to Play Bocce Ball

To get started, you will need a bocce set, which consists of:

  • One pallina (target smaller ball).
  • Eight larger bocce balls (four each of two different colors or patterns).
  • A tape measure, which isn't required but is handy to settle close calls.
  • A bocce court. Official bocce courts measure 76 feet long and 10 feet wide, but any similarly shaped space in your yard will suffice.

Begin the game with a coin toss. The winning team picks a player to pitch the pallina from a line at one end of the court. Ideally, the pallina should land about 30 feet from the pitch line, or in the center of the court. The same player throws or rolls a bocce ball as close as possible to the pallina. If you have good aim, you want that first ball to stop in front of the pallina.

Next, the opposing team rolls a bocce ball, aiming as close to the pallina, and hopefully knocking the other person's bocce out of the way or by hitting the pallina itself. If successful, the starting team is up again and tries to roll a bocce ball even closer to the pallina to "better the point." If the next player doesn't land the ball closer to the pallina, the next player on the team takes a turn, and it proceeds from there.

Scoring occurs at the end of each round (frame), with only one team (the one with the ball closest to the pallina) scoring points. A team earns one point for each ball that is closer to the pallina than the closest ball of the opposing team. If a ball touches the pallina, it's worth two points. If both teams' balls are equidistant from the pallina—nobody scores. Additional rounds are played until one team reaches a set point total. A total of 12 points works well for informal backyard game; choose a lower total score if you want the game to clip along (or those burgers might get burned on the grill).

Bocce's Famous Faces

Among those who have dabbled in bocce are:

  • George Washington
  • The infamous Fanny, a spectator who would expose her backside to the losers of a bocce match
  • Sir Francis Drake
  • Hippocrates
  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Queen Elizabeth
  • Galileo
  • Henry VIII (I know, imagine him substituting a wife's head for a missing bocce ball)

Also known as or associated with:

  • Petanque
  • Bowling
  • Lawn bowling

Sources: World Bocce League: http://worldbocce.org
Bocce Nation: http://boccenation.com