The game of croquet is played by two sides, as singles or doubles, on a court measuring 28 x 35 yards with four coloured balls weighing 1 lb each. One side plays the blue and black balls, the other side red and yellow, the player striking one or other ball with a mallet. In doubles, the two partners on either side play with different balls. There are six hoops and a winning peg. The clearance between ball and hoop is only one eighth or sixteenth of an inch, so aim is critical.
There are two main varieties of the game, Association Croquet and Golf Croquet, with different sets of rules. They are commonly abbreviated as 'AC' and 'GC'.
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Association Croquet is the more complex game. The winner is the side that first propels both its balls through the six hoops, first clockwise, then counter-clockwise, in a prescribed order, and finally onto the peg.
The two sides play alternate turns, each turn being played with one or other ball at the player's (or players') discretion. When the striker's ball 'roquets' (hits) another ball, he or she places it in contact with the roqueted ball and plays it again so that both balls move. This is called the 'croquet' stroke. Extra strokes are also allowed on 'running' a hoop and on completing a croquet stroke, so a turn may consist of several strokes (a 'break'), the striker scoring up to 13 'hoop points' with his or her own ball. Points may also be scored for the striker's partner ball and for an opponent's ball by 'peeling' the other ball through its next hoop in order.
The striker's turn ends when he or she fails to run a hoop or otherwise forfeits his or her entitlement to proceed further, or chooses to end his or her 'innings' (turn) with a defensive 'leave'.
At the start of a game the four balls are played into court from anywhere along two alternative 'baulk' lines at either end of the court. At the start of every turn thereafter the striker's ball is played from where it lies. Exceptionally, however, the striker may 'lift' his or her ball and play it from baulk if the peg or any hoop lies in a straight line between it and every other ball. And, when the game is played according to Advanced Laws, the incoming player may also play from baulk if the outgoing player has advanced his or her ball beyond a certain hoop.
A full game typically takes quite a while to complete - 3 hours per game is not uncommon.
See Croquet Explained for a more detailed description of how to play Association Croquet. You can also find a discussion of tactics for all levels of player from beginner to expert on the Oxford Croquet website.
All players in member clubs of the Croquet Association receive handicaps regulated by an Automatic Handicapping System. In handicap play, the weaker side receives 'bisques' which entitle it to extra turns so as to create an even contest.
Played at whatever level, Association Croquet demands both physical skill and tactical awareness. As in billiards or snooker, the player's every stroke has to be finely measured to achieve its desired effect; and, as in chess or golf, every turn must be calculated to secure maximum competitive advantage. The popular notion that players simply spend their time trying to despatch their opponent's balls off the lawn is entirely wrong - in fact the opposite is actually more true, as all the balls are needed in play to build a good break.
You can find more information about the game and a full set of the official Laws of Association Croquet on the Croquet Association website.
Golf Croquet is the easier game to learn, so it is often the first choice for beginners. The players take single strokes in rotation and contest each hoop in order, proceeding from hoop to hoop as each hoop is run. The winner is the first side to run seven hoops. The laws are quite simple, the games quite short, and every stroke presents a tactical challenge.
Black and blue balls play against red and yellow with only one ball having to pass through the hoop to score a point, before moving onto the next hoop. All players remain on the court at all times throughout the game. It is just as important to prevent your opponents from scoring a hoop! The more this intriguing game is played the more you realise the logistics, deviousness and forward thinking there is to it.
You can find more information about the game and a full set of the official Laws of Golf Croquet on the Croquet Association website.