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How To Play Bocce Ball: Rules and Game Guide

Throughout Europe, bocce ball is a sport enjoyed by the young and old alike and is not an uncommon sight at parks in bustling cities, at popular beaches, or even on cobblestone streets in quaint neighborhoods. In the U.S., it’s a game occasionally seen at Italian bistros or associated with onboard cruise ship activities. This perception, however, could soon change.

Bocce (bah-chee) ball is one of the oldest games played with round objects and may be the second-most popular ball game in the world, after soccer. It can be played in a one-on-one format or can pit teams of up to four players against each other. Bocce ball can be played on almost any flat surface.

In many ways, bocce ball is the perfect game for today’s modern society. It’s portable – all the equipment you need can fit inside a gym bag. It can be organized with a few phone calls (or text messages), and it only needs a few people to be played. Continue reading to find out the rules of bocce ball and how to play the game.

Bocce Ball – A Little Background

In the simplest of terms, bocce ball is a game that rewards physical skill when it is combined with mental strategy. The word bocce is the plural form of the Italian word boccia, which means “ball.” Today’s game is most closely associated with Italy, and its history is indisputably long and rich, with notable historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei having enjoyed this sport. 

Bocce ball owes to its popularity to the ancient Roman Empire. Historical records show that around 264 B.C. Roman soldiers passed the time by throwing larger rocks toward a smaller, previously cast “leader” stone to see which would land the closest.

It is theorized that strategizing during game-play kept soldiers’ minds sharp, which carried over to the battlefield.

Some historians claim that bocce ball originated in Greece around 600 B.C., while others believe that way back in 5,200 B.C., the ancient Egyptians played a game similar to bocce ball. Regardless of when bocce ball in its current form was truly invented, its status as one of the oldest games played with balls is indisputable. (Source: Italian Sons and Daughters of America)

The arrival of bocce ball in the U.S. can be attributed to Italian immigrants who brought their beloved game with them from Italy.

There are several bocce ball clubs and associations from coast to coast, and there are organizations that take the sport very seriously, adhering to official European rules concerning the court, the balls, and the way the game is played. There are even bocce ball referees for some contests.

Here’s some footage from a real bocce ball tournament that took place in North Carolina.

The Object of the Game

Each game of bocce ball is a race by one player or team to score a pre-determined number of points before the opposing player or team. Here are a few basic starters before getting into greater detail of play and the actual rules of the game:

  • Bocce games played in the U.S. are usually played up to 12 points, although the number can vary by mutual agreement of the participants or as necessitated by time constraints. Typically (under U.S. bocce ball rules), the final game of a match is played to 15 points. 
  • Players or teams earn points by placing one or more of their balls closer to a specially designated marker ball than the other players or teams. 
  • The game is made more intriguing by the fact that players are allowed to bump or knock the marker ball, their opponent’s ball, or even their own ball when it is their turn to throw. 
  • Bocce ball in-game strategy includes not only trying to get your team’s balls closer to the marker ball but also preventing your opponents from doing so.

The following rules are set forth by the United States Bocce Federation (USBF) for open rules play.

Although these rules adhere to the same spirit of play as their European counterparts, such as the Confederazione Boccistica Internazionale and the Federation International de Boules, they are considerably more relaxed in regulating certain aspects of the game, such as playing surface, court size, and technicalities of gameplay.

How Bocce Ball is Played

The game of bocce ball is a fairly straightforward affair, and the rules governing the equipment, the court, and gameplay can be learned quickly. For many people, the easiest and quickest way to pick up the game is to play it, preferably under the guidance of someone who has played it before.

The Bocce Ball Teams

Regardless of the number of players, there are two opposing teams in bocce ball. Teams typically consist of one, two, or four players per team.

  • Singles match – Each player throws all four bocce balls.
  • Doubles match – Each player per team throws two bocce balls.
  • Foursomes match – Each player per team throws one bocce ball.

Local bocce ball clubs and leagues frequently enforce modified rules to speed up play or to address potential safety concerns. 

Recently, an adaptation has been made to allow for games between teams made up of three players. In such an instance, each player per team throws two balls (six balls per team total), meaning that there are a total of 12 bocce balls in play, plus the pallino.

The Game Balls

The game of bocce ball is played with two types of balls:

  • The marker ball, which is known as the “pallino” or “jack.” There is one pallino in bocce ball, and it serves as the target toward which the teams try to place their respective balls in the closest proximity.

The most common size for the pallino in U.S. bocce ball play is just under 2 inches in diameter (50 mm), and composite plastic materials like those used in the manufacture of bowling balls and billiard balls are typically used. Pallino specifications are not nearly as strictly regulated as bocce balls.

  • The bocce balls, of which there are a total of eight with four balls assigned to each team. Bocce balls are significantly larger than the pallino, with a lot more heft for rolling on the ground, and in some cases, throwing in the air. Since these are the most important element of the game, bocce ball sizes and weights are regulated, with specifications varying on the country or region.

In the U.S., regulation bocce balls must be 4.2 inches in diameter (107 mm) and weigh just a fraction over two pounds (920 grams). Like the pallino, bocce balls are also made from hard plastic composite materials (some are made from metal, such as brass).

For obvious reasons, the two sets of bocce balls used by the opposing teams must be different colors or patterns to distinguish them from each other easily. In certain tournaments and contests, house bocce balls provided by event organizers must be used.

The bocce ball set you use to play with makes a big difference in how the balls perform. It’s not recommended to buy cheap bocce ball sets if you plan on playing a competitive game. Check out our What Makes A Quality Bocce Ball Set article for more info and help finding a set that works for you.

The Bocce Ball Court

While one of the most appealing aspects of bocce ball is its ability to be played almost anywhere, there are specific dimensions for the court when playing in regulated or officiated circumstances, such as tournament play.

Officially, a bocce ball court is rectangular and should measure 86.92 feet (26.5 meters) in length and 13.12 feet (4 meters) in width. In many cases, however, space limitations do not permit a full-size court, so a 76-foot court is frequently used instead.

The court should have a defined perimeter to mark the outermost boundaries, and there are several key line-markings within the bocce ball court:

  • The center line splits the court into two halves (visualize the 50-yard line in football).
  • On each side of the court is a foul line that serves as an internal boundary for players to bowl or launch their bocce balls. For visualization purposes, imagine the end zones on a football field. The goal line of each end zone is the foul line on a bocce ball court, with the players throwing toward the pallino, which is in the field of play. 

Each foul line is marked 13 feet in from the end of the court and drawn parallel to the center line; this gives the players 13 feet of run-up to throw their bocce balls. (On a 76-foot long court, the foul lines will be drawn about six feet in from the ends of the court toward the center line).

Official rules permit players to step on the foul line when releasing their throw. Thus, even if a player’s heel is on the foul line when the ball is released from their hand, it is a valid throw. 

If, however, a player’s foot lands completely beyond the foul line (toward the bocce ball court), and releases the ball, that ball is disqualified and must be removed from the court. 

The Bocce Ball Court Playing Surface

The playing surfaces that the U.S. bocce ball rules permit are more relaxed compared to international (European) standards. While tournament-level bocce ball matches are played on surfaces consisting of crushed stone (in some cases blended with oyster shells) or clay, most recreational courts will have dirt, carpet, turf, or even concrete surfaces.

Other Bocce Ball Court Features

Permanent bocce ball courts will have the outer perimeter marked by wooden planks (or concrete curbs) that jut out from the ground by a few inches. These raised boundary walls allow bocce balls and even the pallino, to be bounced or banked off them, whether intended or as the result of an errant throw.

Regulation bocce ball courts will have a wooden or rubber-coated plank at the back of each end of the court. Known as “backboards,” these are designed to prevent balls from flying off the court either as the result of an overly forceful throw or the impact of one ball against another.

For more info on bocce court construction, check out our How To Build A Bocce Ball Court article for a step by step guide.

Here’s a quick summary video to show you what’s involved with building your own court.

Initiating Bocce Ball Play

Once the two opposing teams have been assembled and the bocce balls assigned, a coin flip usually determines which team begins play. Bocce ball games are made up of rounds during which both teams throw all their bocce balls, but only one team earns points. 

These rounds are called frames, and each game will consist of as many frames as needed for one team to reach the pre-determined number of points that wins the game.

Play begins when the team that has the honor throws out the pallino to set the target for that frame. The pallino must cross the center line and be more than 12 inches from the back end of the court. If the first thrower of the pallino fails to land it in a valid spot, the pallino throw is forfeited, and the opposing team gets an opportunity to begin play.

All bocce balls must cross the center line to remain on the court (otherwise, they are removed).

Once the pallino is on the court, the same player that threw the pallino will throw out the first bocce ball. The overall objective is to get one’s bocce ball the closest to the pallino, and the first bocce ball thrown out sets the bar for subsequently thrown balls.

Continuing Play and Earning Points

With the pallino and the first bocce ball now on the court, the opposing team will have four opportunities to land a bocce ball inside the opposing team’s ball, closer to the pallino. The team with the closest ball to the pallino is referred to as the “IN” (or “inside”) team, while the team with bocce balls further from the pallino is referred to as the “OUT” (or “outside”) team.

The OUT team will continue throwing their bocce balls until they either:

  • Successfully place a ball inside their opponent’s ball (at which point it is the other team’s turn to throw their bocce balls) -OR-
  • They have thrown all of their bocce balls and have none remaining (in which case the team with bocce balls remaining will throw theirs).

Ending a Frame and Tallying Points

Once all bocce balls have been thrown, the ball closest to the pallino for each team is identified, and a determination is made as to which is further away.

For example, Team A’s closest bocce ball to the pallino is two feet away; Team B’s closest bocce ball to the pallino is one foot away. Team B will win the frame because its best ball is closer to the pallino than Team A’s best ball.

Then, the next step is tallying how many points it has earned.

  • If Team B has only one ball inside of Team A’s best ball, then it will earn one point for the frame. 
  • If, however, it has two balls inside of Team A’s best ball, then it will earn two points, and if it has three balls inside, then three points are earned for the frame. 
  • Conceivably, a team can earn up to four points in a frame.
  • If both teams best balls are equally distant from the pallino, then the frame ends in a scoreless tie (no points are awarded).

The team that wins a frame throws out the pallino to begin the next frame. The competition proceeds in this manner until one team earns enough points to win the game. Typically, in a match, once a game is won, the teams move to the other end of the court to resume play.

(Source: United States Bocce Federation – Open Rules)

Bocce Ball – Key Playing Techniques and Strategies

For bocce ball enthusiasts, some various techniques and strategies can be utilized to improve play. For instance, there are several throwing methods used to place one’s bocce balls in closer proximity to the pallino or to knock the opponent’s balls away from the pallino (even bumping the pallino is allowed).

Some bocce ball techniques and strategies:

Pointing shot

This is the standard underhanded bowling-style throw by which the bocce ball is rolled toward the pallino to get it as close as possible. This is suitable when there is a free and clear path to the pallino. 

This technique is also used as part of a larger strategy to position a bocce ball to block the opponent’s path to the pallino or as part of an elaborate set-up where a subsequently thrown ball will bump a bocce ball closer to the pallino.

Hitting shot

Hitting shots are sometimes referred to as “raffa,” “spock,” or “smash” shots. The intent behind this throwing technique is:

  • To apply more force to the underhanded throw
  • To bump and move an opponent’s ball
  • To dislodge or break-up a disadvantageous arrangement of bocce balls on the court
  • To re-locate the pallino to a more favorable position. 

Another similar throw is known as a “volo” (which means flight in Italian), where the bocce ball is thrown up in the air with the intent to land on another ball and move it forcibly to another position on the court.

For player safety reasons and to protect the court surface, this type of shot is often prohibited by local game rules.

Banking shot

On bocce ball courts that have sideboards or curbs, a banking shot can be utilized for creative shot-making to work around balls obstructing a clear path to the pallino. A perfectly executed banking shot can be performed with great precision and should exit the bank at the same angle at which it was entered.

The Final Frame

With straightforward and easy-to-apply rules and minimal equipment required, bocce ball is the perfect game for people on the go, and it is surprising that more people in the U.S. have not picked up this sport. 

While its history may go as far back as when the pyramids in Egypt were being built, it is the bright future of bocce ball that is worth watching and keeping an eye on.

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