How Bocce Ball Works

Bocce ball is a game of skill and strategy for both serious athletes and amateur enthusiasts. See more sports pictures.

Few sports have a 5,000-year history and go really well with a shot of espresso or a glass of Campari. Bocce (pronounced bah-chee) ball is a game of skill and strategy for both serious athletes and amateur enthusiasts. It requires a certain degree of athleticism but is often depicted in film and advertising as a leisure activity for mature Italian men in New York City, Miami and Italy, of course, who roll the game's softball-sized balls while enjoying a drink with friends.

Also spelled boccie or bocci, and sometimes capitalized, bocce ball is an international game that can be played anywhere from a sandy side alley to a clay-soil or dirt park area to a paved court. Egyptians may have been the first to play an early form of bocce ball thousands of years ago, and from there it was likely picked up by the Greeks. They later shared it with the Italians, who formalized the rules and popularized the game. In Australia and the U.S., bocce ball is also considered the Italian form of lawn bowling, though the latter is a separate game usually played on grass with English rules [sources: Buckheit; Encyclopaedia Britannica; NYC Parks].


Although bocce ball is not an Olympic sport -- despite many petitions to have it included -- it has long been an official Special Olympics game. Players are challenged by the physical aspects of the game and gain confidence in using strategy, and the rules are straightforward and basic enough for coaches to communicate to special needs players at all levels. World championships in bocce ball or beach bocce ball also take place internationally.

Aside from special Olympians and those in Italian communities, bocce ball must be popular among many age groups in a range of places because it is considered the sport with the most participants after golf and soccer [source: Special Olympics]. Players in South America, the Balkans and Australia, among others, have their own names for the game of bocce and its balls. In most places it's played, however, people follow the Italian rules.


Bocce Ball Rules

One big score in the plus column for the game of bocce ball is how little space and how few sporting goods or equipment are needed to play. According to Bocce Standards Association and Encyclopaedia Britannica, typical court and equipment follow these guidelines:

  • bocce court (or campo): about 75 feet (23 meters) long by 8 to 12 feet (2.4 to 3.7 meters) wide with an 18-inch (45 centimeter) border at the end and 12-inch (30-centimeter) tall borders on the sides; length and width can vary per venue or competition and some play recreationally without any court at all
  • court surface: level; clay, sand or dirt, asphalt
  • bocce balls (the larger balls): eight bocce balls (four per team or side) measuring 4 to 5 inches (10- to 13-centimeters) in diameter, though a standard tournament ball is 4.2 inches (10.67 centimeters) in diameter; can be wood or composition resin balls for tournament play; metal and ceramic balls are options outside of competition
  • a pallino ball (the smaller ball): also called a boccino, jack, beebee or cue, measuring between 1.57 inches and 2.36 inches (40 to 60 millimeters) in diameter, with the international standard size set at 1.57 inches (40 millimeters) but not strictly required for tournament play; a 1.97-inch (50-millimeter) pallino is commonly used for play in the U.S.; typically made from very hard plastics or composite resin similar to a billiard ball
  • measuring devices: tape measures or specialized bocce cup measuring systems with a cup fitting over the balls and a measuring tape extending out
  • referee signals: flags, paddle boards or other visual markers to let players know which side is in play or can start play
  • court scrapers and brushes: must be used to distribute the loose dirt or sand and keep the playing area level

According to the rules of the game, bocce ball is played between individuals, with one player pitted against another, or between two teams, with two, three or four players on each team. Each player or team gets four bocce balls, and often one side will have red ones and the other green, though colors vary. A team of four players may have each of their colored balls marked with lines so each player can recognize his or her own ball.


Bocce Ball Scoring

Game play starts after a coin toss to determine who goes first. Team one starts by standing behind the foul line -- 10 feet (3.04 meters) from where the throwing end of the court starts -- and throwing the small pallino ball. This first player then throws again but with a bocce ball, trying to get it as close as possible to the pallino ball without hitting it. All throws are underhand.

Next, team two throws the bocce ball and, if they get it closer than team one's player, the next turn goes back to team one. If team two does not get as close to the pallino ball, the next player on that team throws, and then the next, until they either get closer than team one or they have thrown all four of their balls.


After all eight balls are on the court and play has ended, it's time to measure. Each individual's or team's ball that is closer to the pallino ball than its competitors earns one point. If there are two red balls closer to the small target ball than the four blue balls, the red side earns four points. No one scores if a ball from each team is at the same distance from the pallino ball; the equal distance cancels out the point [sources: Bocce Standards Association; Encyclopaedia Britannica; World Bocce League].

After tallying points another set starts. Sets repeat until a team or individual earns 12, 16 or 21 points. In tournament play, 12 or 16 points generally determine a winner, usually after three to five sets.

While all of this sounds easy enough, there are some tips to consider before blasting the opponent's ball away from the coveted pallino.


Bocce Ball Tips

Getting a bocce ball the closest distance to the pallino ball without touching it is the goal of the game.

If planning a game of bocce ball in the backyard or at the park with friends, following the basic rules and deciding on a point total is more than enough for enjoying set after set of play. When playing in a league or tournament, or with serious opponents, it's probably best to read up on all of the nuances and etiquette as well as the details, details, details of how to keep your balls in play the proper way.

A few tips for any type of play include:


  • Mind your feet: As with darts, bowling and archery, it is very important to play a pallino or bocce ball from behind the foul line or you'll incur a foot fault. Make it a habit to check your stance before putting a ball in play.
  • Watch your conduct: Bocce ball is a gentleman's game and whether a man or a woman, outbursts and trash-talking opposing players, referees or even fellow teammates can get you and your bocces bounced or reprimanded.
  • Call it: There are no secret huddles in bocce play. Rather, plans to play defensively and bank shots from side walls, for instance, should be announced. Check the rules for which plays need to be called out and when.
  • Watch the time: Although bocce ball is slower-paced as far as sports go, there are limits on how much time you have to make a play. Review the league or court rules for windows of play and count off time when your turn starts.

Whether you pick up a game set for your family or sign up for a local league, playing bocce ball is a fun way to be strategic and be outdoors with little planning or equipment hauling. It also has a great history of building in time to socialize between matches, maybe over a glass of vino or a coffee and cannoli.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • "History of Bocce." 2012. Aug. 3, 2012.
  • Bocce Standards Association (BSA). "Bocce Equipment: Standard Equipment." Nov. 8, 2010. (Aug. 5, 2012)
  • Bocce Standards Association (BSA). "Court Bocce Standard Rules for Leagues and Tournaments." 2009. (Aug. 5, 2012)
  • Buckheit, Mary. "Game On! Bocce Should Be an Olympic Sport." Aug. 15, 2008. (Aug. 3, 2012)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Boccie." 2012. (Aug. 3, 2012)
  • "Rules of Bocce." 2012. (Aug. 3, 2012)
  • New York City (NYC) Parks. "Bowling, Boules, and Bocce in Parks." 2012. (Aug. 5, 2012)
  • Special Olympics. "Bocce Rules, Protocol, and Etiquette." December 2005. (Aug. 3, 2012)
  • World Bocce League. "How to Play Bocce Ball." 2012. (Aug. 4, 2012)