The Basics of Bagatelle: Game overview and ways to play

If you’re looking to add some traditional fun to your billiards room or game night, check out the game of Bagatelle.

What do pinball, pachinko, and skee-ball all have in common? They can trace their origins back to 18th century France and the invention of the game Bagatelle!

As mini-putt is to traditional golf, so is Bagatelle to pocket billiards (aka pool).

A  game in the same spirit as outdoor party favorites like lawn bowling, bocce and croquet, Bagatelle was intended to be played indoors, so that fans of those games could continue the good times even in cases of inclement weather.

But you don’t need to be a croquet master to play Bagatelle. All you need to do is read on!

The Basics

Bagatelle Table
Credit: John Mclumpha @ Flickr

The first thing to know about playing Bagatelle is that your play area will vary depending on what version of the game you’re playing. Traditional Bagatelle is played on a full sized Bagatelle table, which is a modified version of a pool or billiards table.

Bell Bagatelle boards, on the other hand, are generally much smaller, roughly the size of a typical board game, and come in wood, plastic, or some combination thereof. But no matter which version you’re playing, the general rules of scoring work the same.

In a game of Bagatelle, each player is given nine balls. It is each player’s goal to get those balls into the holes at the other end of the table, which requires getting them past obstacles in the form of small pegs. (Sounds a lot like bumper pool, doesn’t it?)

Some variants have fixed pegs while others do not, and some versions use pool cues while some are much smaller, but every version shares that one basic core system.

If you’re wondering which version of Bagatelle is best for you, don’t worry: all of the versions will be explained in greater detail below.

But no matter what version you decide on, whether large scale or small, the goal of this game remains the same: take turns hitting the balls into the holes to score points!

The Bagatelle Table

In many ways, a full sized Bagatelle table is similar to a standard pool table. They are both generally wood construction, with cloth walls also known as bumpers or cushions. But that’s that’s where the similarities end!

For one thing, many (but not all) Bagatelle tables are at an incline, in order to facilitate the balls rolling back towards the shooting end of the table.

A Bagatelle table is between two to three feet wide, and six to ten feet in length. But where a pool table has a rectangular play area, a Bagatelle table is rounded on one end, with one semi-circular side and one square side.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Both a pool table and a Bagatelle table have pockets, but where a pool table has six pockets in the corners and the midpoints of both long sides, a Bagatelle table has nine holes dispersed throughout its circular end.

When playing Bagatelle or any of its variants, players should stand at the square end of the table and shoot towards the rounded end.

A Game With History

Dating all the way back to 1777 and the reign of French King Louis XVI, Bagatelle is named for the Chateau Bagatelle, where the aristocracy often convened to party. At just one such shindig, thrown for the King by his brother, Bagatelle was played for the very first time.

The dimensions of a standard Bagatelle table, narrower and longer than most standard pool tables, make sense when taken in the context of billiards as they were played in 18th century France. Back then, pool tables were narrower, with wood or metal pegs on one end.

A Little Game of Bagatelle, The Met, Public Domain Collection

In those days, pool was played by shooting from one end of the table, trying to knock over wooden pins on the other side, much like bowling. But as resetting the pins started to become a chore (the modern bowling alley would sadly not be invented for quite some time yet!), players instead opted to fix the pins to the table and add holes among the pegs for players to aim for.

Bagatelle quickly became popular in France, and when French soldiers came to America to fight the British in the American Revolution, they brought the game with them. It didn’t take long before the game was just as popular in the new world as it was in the old!

As it spread throughout the rest of the globe, many variations began to crop up, inspiring games like pachinko, pinball, skee ball, and more.

Another traditional bar game you might like: Crokinole: An ovierview of a classic Canadian table-top game

Ways to Play Bagatelle

Victorian Bagatelle: the true Bagatelle experience

The most common full-sized version of Bagatelle is referred to as traditional or Victorian style. This variant is played with a pool cue and eight white or red balls. The ninth ball, in black, is placed in the center at the rounded end of the table.

Players take turns shooting all eight of the balls towards the rounded end of the Bagatelle table. The first shot must be taken from the ‘front spot’, a center point close to the rear of the table that is generally indicated on the table itself.

If the first shot does not strike the black ball in the center, it is removed from the table and does not score any points. Once the black ball has been struck once, shots no longer need to strike any other balls in order to score points, and can be taken from any spot behind the front spot.

For this variant of Bagatelle, the holes will often be numbered, and getting a ball into the hole results in an equivalent number of points for the shooter.

The higher scoring spots are often hidden among the densest clusters of pegs. Good aim isn’t enough in Bagatelle, you also need  good luck!

The black ball in the center acts as a doubler, making the highest possible score for one turn 54 points. A game of Victorian Bagatelle is played to 120 points total, but if one player reaches it first, the other can still win!

If player A gets to 120 points, player B is still allowed to take a turn of their own. If they can reach a higher score than their opponent on this turn, they win instead!

Sans Egal: a faster-paced, more competitive variant

French for ‘without equal’, this variant on traditional Bagatelle gives one player four red balls and the other four white ones. As in Victorian Bagatelle, players take turn shooting for the numbered holes at the other end of the table, but in Sans Egal, players alternate shooting one ball at a time.

A failure to strike the black ball in the center cup results in a penalty of five points and a removal of the shot ball from the play area. If it fell into a hole, those points are forfeit as well.

To really make things more interesting, striking an opponent’s ball in such a way that it falls into a hole results in those points going to that player. That means that sometimes you will take a turn that does more for your opponent than it does for you!

Play continues until both players have shot all four of their balls. To make the game last longer, a multi-round version can be played to a predetermined point total.

Northern Bagatelle: the competitive party-friendly version

This Bagatelle variant plays in some ways like Victorian Bagatelle, with each player shooting all eight balls on their turn. But this version places an emphasis on precision over luck.

In Northern rules, every shot must be taken from the front spot, and in order to be counted, it must strike the black ball before going in a cup or striking any other balls. If it does not, it is removed from the table.

If the black ball is no longer in play, then all shots must strike another white ball instead. If there are no white balls in play either, the ball has to strike a wall.

This version is considered more of a party game than Victorian Bagatelle, and is often played by teams.

Southern Bagatelle: where precision is king

This version is typically played to a score of 121 on a larger table with side pockets, with seven white balls and two red ones.

The red balls begin on the table, and much like the black ball in traditional Bagatelle, shots must strike one of these red balls first in order to be counted. Once the red balls are no longer in play, shots must strike another white ball, or if there are no white balls on the board, then it must strike a wall.

In southern style Bagatelle, players must call their shots before taking them, letting other players know what they are aiming for before they take the shot. If they fail to call their shot, or fail to strike the appropriate ball when taking their shot, they are penalized five points and the ball is removed from the table until the next turn.

In this version, sinking a ball into the side pockets counts for ten points, and sinking any shot with the red ball counts double.

Bell Bagatelle: a pocket-sized precursor to pinball

This fun-sized variant of Bagatelle is a much more affordable version for those without access to a pool table, played on a small wooden or plastic game board with pegs, usually nails, placed throughout.

A direct precursor to pachinko and pinball, the launching mechanism for Bell Bagatelle will be instantly familiar to any pinball wizards, while the scoring system will be instantly obvious to pachinko fans.

Bell Bagatelle generally uses the standard rules of Bagatelle, with players taking turns shooting all of the balls before recording their scores for the round. The bell at the center of the board takes the place of the black ball in the center of a Bagatelle table, and is sometimes used as a doubler.

Mississippi Bagatelle: Where billiards meets croquet

In this southern-fried version of Bagatelle, rather than having holes, the table features a series of small numbered arches bisecting the play area.

The numbers on the arches correspond to the numbers of the holes in traditional Bagatelle, and serve a similar function when it comes to scoring.

In this variant, players take turns shooting nine balls up the table and through the arches. In order for a shot to count, it needs to strike a wall before passing through an arch.

If it does not strike a wall before passing through one of the arches, the points are added instead to the scores of the player’s opponent(s), and the ball is removed from the table until the next turn.

On the other hand, if a shot bounces off of a wall but doesn’t pass through an arch, subsequent shots can push it through an arch and the points will be counted. Once all players have shot nine balls each, point totals are added and a winner is decided.

Trou Madame: Add some luck to Mississippi style Bagatelle

Via Wikimedia Commons

This version is a variant on Mississippi Bagatelle, and is played much the same way except for one change.

In Trou Madame, once a ball passes through an arch, if it falls into one of the cups, those points are added to the point total as well.

This makes for higher scores, but is also introduces an element of randomness and luck, so if you’re looking for a pure test of skill, consider sticking to Mississippi style.

Whether you’re playing on a pocket-sized play board or a custom-crafted, full-sized table, Bagatelle is a game that requires both skill and luck. That combination of randomness and control has made it a worldwide phenomenon, and is exactly why it would make the perfect addition to your next game night!

Top Image via: Wikimedia Commons

About Bar Games 101

Bar Games 101 is a website devoted to helping you learn about the best games to play with your friends. From classic bar games like pool and darts, to the treasure trove of tabletop games available today, we review the games, research the rules, and uncover helpful tips and strategies.

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