There are two main forms of croquet played in the UK, Association Croquet and Golf Croquet. The introduction below focuses on Association Croquet which is the more popular version of the game. The description may seem a little complex on first reading, but all will quickly come clear once you have had some experience on the lawn.


Association Croquet: An Introduction for Innocent Bystanders

By Rod Williams. Reproduced from the SCA Handbook by kind permission of the author and the SCA.

Snooker on grass?

The modern game of Association Croquet has many similarities to snooker, and indeed has sometimes been referred to as snooker on grass. The most obvious thing it shares with snooker is the idea of striking a ball so that it hits another ball to make it to go to a particular place. But it also shares some of the less obvious things, like the concepts of a break, in which more than one point is scored in a turn, and safety shots, in which a player will simply try to make things difficult for the opponent rather than try something difficult himself.

One of the hardest things for an aspiring snooker player is to compile a break of more than a few points; the better the player, the larger the break he will be able to put together.

Croquet is different; although compiling a decent-sized break is not easy, a good club player will be able to score a significant break if the balls are well set up. The player’s difficulty is getting the balls set up into a good position in the first place; the better the player, the more likely he is to set up the balls for a break from a difficult position.

Hoop Sequence in Croquet

It's worth noting here that, although the largest break under normal circumstances is 12 (one ball through its course of 12 hoops — see the diagram), this is likely to need 80 or more strokes to do.

But first let's get a few basic ideas together.

The object of Association Croquet

The object of croquet is to put your balls through the hoops in a particular order and then hit the centre peg with them before your opponent does so with his balls (see diagram). The winner scores 26 points (one for each ball through its course of 12 hoops and one for hitting it onto the centre peg). The loser scores anything from 0 to 25.

One player has the red and yellow balls and the other the blue and black. The players take turns to play, as in snooker, with the "out player" sitting on the sidelines waiting for the opponent to finish either by making a mistake or by playing a safety shot.

At the start of a turn a player may play whichever of his two balls he likes. A turn consists basically of one shot, but just as in snooker, a player can earn extra shots. In snooker there is only one way to do this (by potting a ball of the right colour) but in croquet there are two quite different ways of earning extra strokes: by hitting your ball through its hoop or by making your ball hit one of the others — a "roquet" (more about roquets later). Running the correct hoop entitles the player to one extra stroke and also scores a point: making a roquet earns two extra strokes but no points. There isn't much margin for error in running a hoop: the space between the uprights is only Vs" more than the diameter of the ball. So you have to be pretty close to a hoop before you can be sure of running it. How do you get in front of a hoop? This is where the "roquet" and "croquet" shots come in.

Roquets and Croquets

A "roquet" is made when a player makes his ball hit one of the others; he earns two extra strokes by making a roquet: a "croquet" stroke and a "continuation" stroke.

When he has made a roquet the player picks up the ball he is playing (let's say it is red) and puts it down again in contact with the ball he has roqueted (for example blue) wherever it has come to rest. He follows this with a "croquet" stroke in which he again hits red with his mallet, moving both it and blue. In a roquet, it doesn't much matter where the player's ball (red) goes after it hits the other ball, since it is going to be picked up and placed in contact with the other ball (blue). But in the croquet stroke it does matter, because the next stroke is going to be played from where it finishes up. A good player will often try to roquet a ball to a particular spot on the lawn if he can, so that he is taking croquet from the best place. A croquet stroke must be played with the two balls in contact and both balls must be made to move. A good player will also use the croquet stroke to try and put both the balls to particular spots on the lawn. For instance, he might try to put the ball he is striking (red) straight in front of its hoop so that he can run it in the next stroke, or he might try to put it close to another ball so that he will be able to make another roquet. He might try to put the croqueted ball (blue) somewhere where it will come in useful later if his break-building plans work out (see below).

He then takes one further shot, called a "continuation" stroke.

If in the continuation stroke the player manages to make red run its hoop he scores a point and earns an extra stroke. If he is not in a position to do that, he may roquet another ball (yellow or black in this example) and take croquet from it. He would then follow this with another continuation shot, which itself may be a hoop-running attempt or yet another roquet.

However, a player cannot go on like this roqueting ball after ball forever, because he is not allowed to roquet the same ball again until either he has run his hoop or his opponent has had a turn, which will happen if he misses a ball or fails to get his hoop.

Break Play

Good players are capable of making breaks in which they run several hoops, or even all 12 of them for one ball, in one turn. They do this by using both roquet and croquet strokes to place the other balls (not just their own) in the best strategic positions. That is, in places on the lawn that will make later shots in that turn much easier.

It is possible to play a break using only your own two balls (red roquets yellow, takes croquet to land red in front of its hoop, runs hoop, roquets yellow again, croquets to land in front of red's next hoop, runs it, roquets yellow, etc.). This requires an enormous amount of skill, however, and usually quite a lot of luck as well, and it is soon likely to result in failure (missing a roquet or failing a hoop). This may let the opponent in to score.

It is much easier to play a high-scoring break if all four balls are being used (how it's done is left as an exercise to the reader!) but this has to be balanced against the risk that if it fails it gives the opponent a much easier chance of a high-scoring break for himself.

A good player will usually go out of his way to bring the opponent's balls into the break, because the benefits of having all four balls in the break will usually outweigh the risks.

Strategy

Because of this balancing of risks, a game of croquet may have periods of purely defensive manoeuvring involving only a few strokes, by both sides, while each is trying to gain some positional advantage before risking an attack to try to set up a break which brings the opponent's balls into play. The attacker has to balance the likelihood of his success in first setting up, and then completing, a break, against the possibility of leaving the opponent an "easy" break if he fails. Also, if he doesn't attack first, the opponent may do so and score a break himself. Or the opponent may fail in his own attempt to set up a break.... One of the players will eventually decide to attack and, if successful, will compile a useful lead. If not, however, he will usually have given his opponent a good position for him to score several points.

The Finish

The game finishes when a player hits both his balls on to the centre peg after running all the hoops with both balls.

In snooker, once one player has a big enough lead the game is virtually over and further play is pointless. In croquet a game is never over until the final peg-out; many a game has been lost because a player failed to hit the peg in his final stroke, while the opponent had yet to score.

In theory, the game is usually finished by:

1. Taking one ball through its last hoop or hoops (probably while making a break) and "laying up" for the other ball to score its remaining hoops. That is, you leave yourself easy break chances for the second ball, but make sure your opponent only has difficult long shots.

2. The opponent then, you hope, misses the difficult shot you have left for him (you must leave him a shot; you can't hide all the balls behind hoops).

3. You then play a break for your second ball (using all the other balls to make your break easier if possible) through all its remaining hoops, finally roqueting your other ball close to the peg, croqueting it onto the peg (and out of the game) and finally, with your remaining continuation stroke, hit your ball onto the peg to score your 26th point and win the game.

In reality life is not usually so kind, and part of the fascination of croquet is working out how to recover from a mess you have got yourself into by playing a poor stroke (maybe you only just ran through the hoop, not giving yourself a chance of the shot you hoped would follow), or the mess your opponent has put you in (maybe by leaving your two balls "snookered" by a hoop).

Choices always have to be made: "If I miss this shot, what will my opponent be able to do with it? Will he score a big break? Should I take a different shot?" or "Should I play a safety shot and try to set things up again a few turns later?" And there is very often the "Oh, dear! I didn't think he would do that!" or even more exasperating, "Damn! Why didn't I think of that?"

Variations on a Theme

There are several different versions of association croquet:

In Doubles each player of a side plays just one of the balls: the opponents' strategy is generally to force the weaker player to take the difficult turns.

In Handicap games the weaker player takes a certain number of free turns, based on the difference between the players' handicaps. These free turns can be taken at any time when he would normally leave the lawn to let the opponent on. They can be used to recover from disasters like a missed roquet or a missed hoop or they can be used more tactically in setting up a break from a difficult position. The handicap system in croquet works very well.

Another variant of the game is Short Croquet. The major differences between Association Croquet and Short Croquet are:

1. It is played on a half-size lawn. This makes the positional strokes much easier.

2. Only the first circuit of six hoops is completed by each ball before the peg point is scored. This means the total number of points scored by the winner is 14 (6 hoops for each of his two balls plus 2 peg points). This makes the game much shorter.

Golf Croquet is altogether a much simpler game, in which there is no such thing as a croquet stroke or a continuation stroke. Tactics in this game involve blocking the way to the hoop and knocking the opponent's balls out of the way. Also, unlike Association Croquet the balls are played in the same order all the time.

Is croquet complicated?

Association Croquet only seems complicated because to begin with there is a lot to remember. But it is only really necessary to remember the order of the hoops and the order in which the strokes are made. Just remember R-C-C (roquet - croquet - continuation). Thereafter it is all a question of knowing that players are either making a break or trying to set one up; like most games it is easier to watch other people doing it than to do it yourself to begin with.

You would not be expected to be able to go out and play croquet after reading this, but hopefully it has given you something of the flavour of Association Croquet, and what fascinates those who play it.