The Game of Pétanque

Boule W3C

W3C Note - 30 October 2001

This version:
Latest version:
W3C Sophia Team (staff link)
Daniel Dardailler, W3C


For the third W3C Team face-to-face meeting, held in southern France in November 2001, a set of Boules de Pétanque was offered to each Team member.

This W3C Note is intended to give the W3C Team some information about the game: where it comes from and how to play it.

Status of This Document

This document is a Note made available by the W3C Sophia Team for use originally by the rest of the W3C Team worldwide, and by anyone finding it useful. It is appropriate to use this Note as reference material when playing Pétanque with your W3C colleagues or friends. While the authors welcome comments on this document, be warned the authors will probably try bend the rules so that the French always win in international competitions (likely to happen anyway <confident smile>).

Also available by the same authors is a list of current W3C technical reports and publications.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Pétanque is a French (Provençal to be precise) outdoor game played by two opposing teams trying to throw boules (metallic spheres the size of an orange) as close as possible to a but (little wooden sphere the size of a plastic bottle cork, also called a cochonnet, meaning piglet).

1.1 The History of Pétanque

The game of pétanque was devised in 1910, in a charming little town between Marseille and Toulon called La Ciotat. In those days, the locals played the so-called jeu provençal, which is now much less popular than pétanque. The rules of the jeu provençal stipulate that, before throwing the boule, a player must gain momentum by taking one or two running steps.

It happened one day that one of the game's great figures, a certain Jules LeNoir, was confined to a wheelchair as a result of an accident. He was mortified, believing that this would deprive him of the pleasure of the game forever.

The other villagers, however, were so concerned for their friend that they voted to change the rules of the game so that he would not be disadvantaged. The new rules eliminated the running requirement; in pétanque, players must throw the boule from within a circle scratched in the dirt, without running steps. In the dialect of the region, it was said that one had to play "pieds tanqués" (feet stuck, pé tanca in Provencal), and so was born a new variant of the game.

It is to be noted that, to this day, this convention continues to permit physically disabled persons to excel at pétanque; wheelchairs are a very common sight at national and international pétanque championships. As with Web Accessibility, this is another example of the famous "curb cut" effect in action: the revised game proved more approachable to more people, seniors in particular, and consequently grew in popularity while the jeu provençal ceased to be practiced.

Pétanque is the most common variant of the jeu de boules, the collective name for many games involving boules and a but, that also includes the English bowls. Jeux de boules have been played in France in one form or another since the Romans introduced it. (Jeux de boules are, of course, very "I18N": the Romans got it from the Greeks, improving the game rather significantly by adding the but.) It lost some of its popularity after the Middle Ages, but continued to be played in Provence in the southeast of France. In the 20th century, the game again spread over France. Since World War II, pétanque has been steadily increasing in popularity in European and beyond as a summer recreational activity.

1.2 Why Pétanque is such a great leisure activity

Pétanque can also serve as a test for those couples planning to wed: if, while playing together, they can finish the game without screaming at each other (or worse, throwing boules at one another), then they can be confident that they are prepared for a long and happy life together <grin>.

2. Rules of the game, i.e., the Specification

Animation of a person throwing

2.1 Basic Rules

This section is normative

Teams. The game is always played by two teams, each team must have an equal number of players, ranging from 1 to 4 players. Each player plays with 2 to 3 boules. The maximum number of boules per team must never exceed 12, as a consequence, players in teams of 3 or 4 players must use only 2 boules.

Goal. The goal of the game is for each team to get the most boules closest to the but/cochon.

Play area. The Teams throw their boules in an open or closed roughly rectangular play area, delimited by an organizing committee or judge, that is approximately 4 meters by 15 meters. The play area should be flat, and reasonably free of fragile or valuable things, such as Porsche automobiles and small children.

Throwing area. Players throw their boules from within a circle (or half-circle) drawn on the ground, approximately 50cm in diameter. As play proceeds, the location of this circle within the play area changes. All players must have their feet inside the circle when it is their turn to throw a boule. When it is not their turn, the other players should enjoy a cold pastis (anisette-flavored liqueur popular in this part of France and in many other countries) and should avoid interfering with each other's throws. You must not touch a boule once it has been thrown in the play area. Pastis may be enjoyed outside of the context of pétanque, and should be consumed with moderation.

Game. Each game begins by drawing a throwing circle, then throwing the but approximately 6 to 10 meters away from the circle. For leisure activities, this rule may be bent to accommodate players' needs. The first player of Team A throws a boule as close to the but as possible; the boule may touch the but (indeed, that's ideal). The first player of Team B then throws a boule. Thereafter, which Team throws depends on which Team has the closest boule to the but: the Team that does not have the closest boule throws (and may have to throw several boules in a row), until either it places a boule closer to the but than a boule of the other Team, or until it runs out of boules. The order of players in a given Team does not matter, and a player may throw more than one boule in a row. The game ends when both Teams have run out of boules. The winning Team is the one with one or more boules closest to the but.

Match. A match (or, partie de boules) consists of any number of games required to reach a target score, usually 13 points. Points are determined as follows: for each game, the winning Team adds to its score the number of boules that are closer to the but than the closest opponent boule. Thus, if Team A's closest boules are 1 meter and 3 meters from the but, and Team B's closest boule is 5 meters from the but, Team A earns two points. See measurement below.

For more information, refer to Pétanque: The Basic Rules [RULES] or Wikipedia on Pétanque.

2.2 Measurements

Two images: one person measuring the distance between boule and but; one person holding boules behind his back.

While in many cases, Teams can determine which boule is closest to the but without much argument, occasionally it becomes necessary to call upon the consensus-building talents of the participants. This usually takes the form of a measuring device, which may be as precise as a measuring tape or even a laser pointer, or as informal as the length of a shoe (carefully not touching any boule, or that would be a disaster).

2.3 Tireurs and Pointeurs

It is not only common for a thrown boule to strike another already in the play area, it is often desirable as a means of displacing the boule of an opponent. Indeed, there are two ways to reach the goal of having a boule close to the but: place one close to the but, or displace the boule of an opponent. These two approaches are embodied in two pétanque roles called the tireur (one skilled in trowing fast and knocking boules out of place) and the pointeur (one skilled in slow positioning a boule nearest to the but, potentially touching others). Teams should consist of at least one pointeur and one tireur, as they tend to complement one another.

Before starting a shoot, the player whose turn it is to play SHOULD debate with his/her team whether (French verbs) pointer or tirer is in order. Players MAY debate heavily on that question.

See this page on throwing Techniques (in French, with images) for more details.

2.4 Fanny's rule

Drawing of a guy kiss a picture

A pétanque loser suffering the indignation of the "baiser Fanny".

There is this one special rule that one should not forget when engaging in a partie de boules: If the losing Team has scored zero points (i.e., the final score is 13 - 0), the players on the losing Team must do a "baiser Fanny", which means "kiss Fanny's ass".

There are various ways to implement this rule: losers may be required to kiss a picture of Fanny (see image) or a little sculpture. There are, of course, other implementations possible...

2.5 Conforming boules

This section is normative

more boules

A picture of some old and modern boules.

A conforming set of pétanque boules must be certified by the French Pétanque Fédération and must have the following characteristics:

A personal mark (player's name or initials, logos) may be engraved if this does not change the fabrication conformance. For our W3C team meeting, we bought conformant triplettes from OBut and had WWW.W3.ORG engraved on them, as shown in the picture at the top.

3. Glossary

A boule is a ball made of metal. It can be conformant (see definition above) and used in competition or for leisure or it can be used only for recreational use (and doesn't have to be conformant, and can even be in wood, or in plastic; in fact, a non conformant Boule doesn't even have to be a ball).
A but is a small wooden (or else) ball, its diameter must be no less than 25mm and no more than 35mm, it may be colored. Another word for but is cochonnet, which means "piglet".
An anisette liquor to enjoy with moderation after playing boules.


Whoever has commented on this Note from the Sophia team as well as Ian.


Pétanque: The Basic Rules, from Pétanque America, available at http://petam.com/petanque.htm.