Bowls and boules are similar, but not as similar as they sound. One of the main differences in these two ball games is that the first is generally played on perfectly manicured lawns by people wearing crisp whites, and the second is played in the dust or on any old green surface by people in summer casuals, often with a drink in hand. Cut though the visual description and one is strict and quite formal: Olympic even, while the other is more summer garden party chic.
In practical terms it's also important to note that boules are metal, and bowls are something else.
The relaxed nature of boules means that there are many variations to the rules. You'll see people playing it all over France and Italy, in hundreds of small towns, and there are probably almost as many variants as the number of towns. But the basic principles of the most popular varieties are the same: you throw your boules and get them as close as possible to the smaller, wooden cochonnet - also called 'the jack', which is the first ball thrown - without touching it.
That's the aim of the game. And this is how it's played: Step One: There are usually only two teams in boules – so divide your group up accordingly. Most boules sets have eight boules, with markings on half and not on the other, and include the cochonnet. Boules weigh about 750gs each – that's just a warning to anyone thinking of ordering them though the post.
Step Two: Draw a circle on the ground with your toes so that it's clear where everyone will have to stand to throw. Make it about 50cms in diameter. Then flip a coin to see who's tossing the cochonnet. The winner then stands in the circle and throws (underarm – this is not bowling) the cochonnet. Ideally they'd throw it about 6-8 metres. Tip: It's easier to throw with bent knees.
Step Three: The cochonnet thrower also gets to throw the first boule – or someone from their team if you're playing in teams. You're supposed to stand in the circle with your feet together. And you can't move from the circle until your boule has stopped rolling.
Step Four: The next person to take their turn has the same aim: get as close to the cochonnet as possible without touching it. But as well as this they're also allowed to try and knock the opposition's boules out of the way, OR knock one of their own boules closer. This is a game of underhand tactics as well as of advanced hand-eye coordination and aim.
Step Five: This is where the rules seem to diverge. In some games people take it in turns to throw. But in some games the team with the closest boule doesn't have to throw again until the other team have supplanted them, or run out of boules.
Step Six: Whichever way you play it eventually all the boules will have been thrown, and it will be time to deal with the fallout. Obviously the player/s with the closest boule wins. But as well as getting a point for winning they're also awarded a point for every boule that's closer to the cochonnet than the opposing side's closest boule.
Step Seven: The number of points the winning player/s have gained are noted and everyone about faces and plays facing a different direction. The team who won the previous go get to draw the circle and throw the cochonnet.
Step Eight: The winning team is the first to make 13 points, or 15, or 21, depending on the version you're playing or how much light you have to play with. When it gets dark retire to the nearest bar, or indoors, and re-live the best moments of the afternoon over bottles of pastis or wine.
Best experienced wearing flat caps and rolled up trousers and sleeves or sun hats and floral dresses. To see how it's done properly, stroll the Canal St-Martin in Paris on a summer afternoon.