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How to Play Croquet: “A Curious Ancient Pastime”

When you think of croquet, what images pop into your mind?

Do you imagine older players, all of whom are dressed in white from head to toe, and similarly dressed fans seated under the cover of a pavilion, enjoying finger sandwiches and champagne spritzers? 

While in some circles, croquet does continue to have a lingering stench of elitism, today’s croquet is much more proletarian in nature than that.

Croquet, especially as it is played in the US, is a challenging sport that emphasizes finesse and strategy over brute strength.

Anyone, regardless of age or gender, can enjoy playing. That is the reason why croquet is slowing building a base of new players. 

Now is the time to give the sport a shot. And you can use this primer to learn how to play croquet, and get your friends hooked on this “curious ancient pastime”. 

How to Play Croquet (American-Style)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like most traditional games with histories stretching back over 400 years, there are many variations when it comes to sport.

This article describes how to play American-style, or Six Wicket American croquet.

American-Style croquet is, at its heart, a race game. Players, individually or in teams, try to maneuver balls through a series of wickets, or hoops, in a particular sequence before being the first to strike their balls against the center stake. 

Due to its popularity in the US and the ease of finding other players, American-style croquet is a good variety of the game to dip your toe into the world of croquet.

Once you acquire the necessary skills and strategies of the sport, transitioning to a different version of the game isn’t too difficult. 

The Equipment to Play Croquet

You can find a huge range of croquet sets from plastic sets that cost less than 50 bucks and are made for children to high-end sets costing thousands.

A decent backyard croquet set may cost you a few hundred. When you choose a croquet set, look for one which contains the following:

  • Four mallets. You will need one mallet per player.
  • Four croquet balls. One side uses a blue and a black ball; the other side uses a red and an orange ball.
  • Six wickets. Many croquet sets come with nine wickets to allow you to play other varieties of the game, but for American-style croquet, you only need six.
  • A center stake. You may find a set with two stakes necessary for other croquet games. 
  • Four clips; one each of blue, red, black, and yellow.
  • Four corner stakes or flags (optional). These are used to mark out the court boundaries and secure boundary line.
  • A deadboard (optional). A deadboard helps to keep track of a ball’s deadness on another.

Setting Up the Six Wicket American Court

The first time you step onto a regulation-sized playing field, or court, for American-style croquet, you might be surprised at the dimensions.

A full-sized court measures 105′ long by 84′ wide and can be intimidating to new players. Inexperienced players or those who do not have the space requirements for a regulations court may find shrinking down the size beneficial.

Choose a size that works for you, but you will still need to while to retain the five by four ratio of a full-sized court.

Reducing the dimensions of the court to 50′ by 40′ is a popular choice, especially when playing on grass higher than the preferred 1/4 of an inch in length. 

Set Up Your Croquet Court

It is critical to the gameplay that you clearly delineate the boundaries of the court. You can use any suitable field marking paint or stakes and boundary line.

If your set includes numbered corner stakes or flags, place the number 1 at the bottom-left of the court, number 2 in the upper-left, number 3 in the upper-right corner, and finally, number four in the lower-right.

The numbers help players to remember which direction they should be playing. 

Once you lay down the boundaries, and the corner stakes or flags are in the correct locations, you are ready to place the center stake. As you can imagine, the center stake is in the exact center of the court. 

Now you can put in the wickets. One wicket goes in each corner of the court, precisely one unit from each of the two closest boundary lines. This means that if you are playing on a 50′ by 40′ court, all corner wickets are set 10′ from boundary lines.

The two wickets in the center are lined up with the center stake vertically and are put in one unit away. Starting at the lower-left corner and moving clockwise, the wickets are numbered one through four.

The wicket under the center stake is numbered five, and the one above the stake is six. 

After setting up the court, it should look like this.

Beginning the Game

With the court ready, you can start playing. 

As mentioned above, Six Wicket American Croquet is a race. One side uses the blue and black balls, while the other side uses the red and orange balls.

The game may be played as either singles or doubles. In singles, each of the two players uses two balls. In doubles, each player uses a single ball, but two players on a team. 

One of the most essential aspects of Six Wicket American croquet is that the play must always be in the same order: blue, red, black, and then yellow.

If you are ever confused about the order, all you need to do is look at the center stake. The order of play is shown in colored bands from top to bottom. 

To start the game, the players decide teams and who will use the blue ball. This may be done through mutual agreement or by some other method.

The player using the blue will place the ball one mallet length in front of the first wicket. At this point, play may start. 

The Progression of Play in Six Wicket American Croquet

Proceeding in the established order of blue, red, black, and then yellow, each player attempts to strike her ball using the end of the mallet in such a way to drive the ball through the first wicket.

Each player starts with a single stroke but can earn bonus strokes by accomplishing different actions.

Players can earn bonus strokes by:

  • Passing through a wicket. Players who hit their ball through the proper wicket going the correct direction will earn one bonus stroke. To qualify as going through a wicket, no part of the ball must be visible on the playing of the wicket when viewed from the side. Therefore, a ball is deemed to pass through a wicket even when the tail-end is partial under the wicket. 
  • Hitting another ball. A player earns two bonus strokes by hitting another live ball with his own. This ball may belong to either his side or the opposing side. The first bonus shot is called a croquet shot. A player takes a croquet shot by picking up the striking ball and placing it in such a way that touches the ball that was struck. Then the player hits his ball in such a way that causes both balls to move. Unlike other croquet games, players are not allowed to prevent their ball from moving by holding it down in any way. After the croquet shot, the player then receives a bonus continuation shot that he plays normally. 

An important concept to understand in Six Wicket American Croquet is deadness.

When a ball hits another ball, the striking ball is considered dead on the target ball. That means the striking player is unable to strike the same ball again until the striking ball is cleared.

A ball is cleared when it passes through a wicket. You may also choose one ball to clear when the opposing side passes through the seventh wicket. 

Six Wicket American Croquet is unique in the fact that it is the only croquet game where deadness carries over for multiple turns until it is cleared.

To make it easier for players to remember, most use a deadboard which you may want to consider purchasing. 

To help a player remember which wicket is next, once a player makes a wicket, she will place her ball colored clip on the next target wicket.

The first time around, clips go on the top of the wicket. During the return trip, clips go on the side of the wicket. The player will then continue trying to make wickets in order. A turn ends when a player runs out of strokes. 

Any player who makes wickets one through six in order then must then run the same wickets in the order of two, one, four, three, six, five.

Once it makes all 12 wickets, it becomes a rover ball.

A rover ball has unique abilities. It may hit any other ball. Once it hits a ball, it becomes dead to that ball as usual. But unlike other balls, a rover ball must hit two different balls before it can clear itself.

Rover balls can clear itself by passing through any wicket in any direction. A rover ball is removed from play if it makes contact with the center stake. 

>> Also worth checking out: How to play Bocce Ball

Winning the Game

The winner is the first side that strikes the center stake with both of the balls it controls. 

Penalties

Breaking the rules of the game means suffering a penalty.

Each of the following penalties results in the striker ending the turn and replacing the balls where they were previously:

  • Going out of bounds. A ball is out of bounds if more than half of it is over the boundary. If a striker knocks his own ball out of bounds or if he hits another ball out of bounds for any reason, the ball is replaced inbounds one mallet head from where it went out.
  • Hitting a ball you are dead on. The exception is if the ball obstructed the target wicket for two consecutive turns. 
  • Crushing the ball against the wicket or stake. If at any time the striker’s mallet and a wicket or stake are touching the ball at the same time, it is considered ‘crushing the ball.’ 
  • Playing the wrong ball. This applies even if your side controls the ball. 

A player who commits the following two fouls must reset the balls, but will not lose her turn.

  • Playing out turn. This only refers to playing your ball at the wrong time. 
  • Playing the ball in the wrong direction. All wickets must be made in a particular direction to count, and you may not pass through a wicket to get to the other side. 

Six Wicket American Croquet is a wonderful game to try, most players find it can be a little confusing at first.

To better understand the game, it is an excellent idea to visit a local croquet club.

Many communities have public croquet courts you can use.

You can find a croquet club in your area, along with a lot more information on this exciting game at the United States Croquet Association’s website

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