Ground Billiards

compiled by Modar Neznanich

Note: The information below is a collection of data supplied by amateur researchers and
historical game enthusiasts from a wide variety of sources...many of which are not in agreement..

We highly recommend to those individuals interested in an in-depth, scholarly study of ancient
ball games to determine the correct history of such sports as paganica, chole, soule,
soule a la crosse, crosse, pall-mall and other such games, that they obtain a copy of
Golf Through The Ages: 600 Years of Golfing Art by Michael Flannery and Richard Leech
ISBN: 0974333212

In a nutshell, Golf Through The Ages is a 440 page iconography of European club and ball games,
with 364, mostly color illustrations (the earliest dating from 1120), with, in most instances, comprehensive
captions. The Selected Bibliography contains over 1000 titles in eight languages, most unknown in
the context of European ball games, dating back to Sire de Joinville's La Vie de Saint Louis.



Pall-Mall is modernly defined as a 17th century game in which a wood ball was struck with a mallet to drive it through an iron ring suspended at the end of an alley, on a post or in a tree.


Known as Paille-Maille in French and as Pall-Mall in English, the name of this game means "ball and mallet".  Like many games dating back in history, the exact origin of this game is difficult to determine. Ball and mallet games are mentioned as early as the 13th century in French texts. One of the earliest recorded versions of a ball and mallet sport was a game called Chole (sometimes also called Soule). It utilized bent sticks and balls made of leather, and seems to have been a kind of cross-country hockey game.

By the 15th century, a ball-and-mallet game is noted as being played in England. Few details are known other than wooden mallets are used to strike a boxwood ball that is about 12 inches in circumference toward a predetermined target marked on the ground. Some texts state the name of this game was "Pall Mall", others do not name it. 

These early ball-and-mallet games appear to have split into variations, each of which seems to have plausibly been the forerunner of later games.

One  variant seems to have developed into what would later become known as the 17th century (and later) version of Pall-Mall. Some sources think that the 17th century version of Pall-Mall is the ancestor to the game now known as golf.

Another variant of the ball-and-mallet games came to be known as "Jeu de le Maillet" and "Jeu de Mail". This game seems to have split into variations as well.  Some sources note this game as the beginnings of what would become known as croquet. Other sources state it would develop into the game known as golf. 

Yet other sources indicate that a variant of a ball-and-mallet game evolved into Billiards. Play of the game moved indoors to a wooden table with green cloth draped on it to simulate grass, and edges added to keep the balls in play. The balls were shoved rather than struck with wooden sticks called "maces" that looked very similar to modern hockey sticks with small blades. Originally there was a six-pocket table with a wicket (hoop) for the balls to pass through and a stake used as a target to hit before sending the balls into the pockets. These were removed from use in the 18th century, leaving only the pockets.

Another ball-and-mallet games, deriving the 13th century in the Netherlands area is "Spel Metten Colve" which literally translates as "game with clubs". Later this game would be known as "Het Kolven" and then as "Kolf". It shares a lot in common with the aforementioned games.

A stained glass window in England's Gloucester Cathedral, dating from the mid-fourteenth century, shows a figure wielding a stick in the middle of a distinctly golf-like backswing or high-powered croquet shot. Obviously it is a ball-and-mallet games of some sort. But which one? Some think it's a game called Cambuca.

From all the convoluted data and texts that exist, it is doubtful the full truth of the which games spawned which other games will ever be known...but it seems all of these games are at least cousins of each other..


The earliest English documented evidence is from the 1568 Cal. Scot. Papers - [Mary was playing at Seton] "richt oppinlie at the feildis with the palmall and goif".

Thomas Blount's Glossographia (1656) described it as “a game wherein a round bowle is with a mallet struck through a high arch of iron (standing at either end of an alley) which he that can do at the fewest blows, or at the number agreed on, wins."

The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys in a 1661 entry writes, 'To St. James's Park, where I saw the Duke of York playing at Pelemele, the first time that I over saw the sport.'  He also described the alley as of hard sand “dressed with powdered cockle-shells.”

"The game was played on a huge strip of land, in this case about 1000 yards long and so was more like golf than Croquet - players took great swings at the balls in an effort to hoof them as far along the pitch as possible. The object was to finish by hoicking the ball through a raised hoop using a different spoon-like tool which was adapted more for accuracy and less for power like a putter in the game of Golf. Although there were different variations knocking around across Europe, the earliest printed rules are from Lauthier in 1717." - James Masters, The Online Guide to Traditional Games

"Croquet is a very old game, widely known and practiced in France since the XI century under the name of 'jeu de mail'. Borrowed by the British around 1300, it was modified over the centuries: the Scots made golf out of it, the Irish turned it into croquet. Louis XIV, suffering from being unable to play mail during the winter, miniaturized it on an indoor table and laid the basis of billiards....." - Anthoine Ravez, Fédération Française de Croquet brochure

Paganica (aka Pila Paganica) is a ball-and-mallet game believed to have been brought to Britain in the 3rd century by the Roman Legions.

Cambuca is a ball-and-mallet game once popular in Britain and dated by various sources anywhere from the 12th to14th century. It is thought to be a later derivative of Paganica. The name is Latin for "crooked bow or stick".


GROUND BILLIARDS: One interpretation of Pall-Mall origins

While the 17th century version of Pall-Mall utilized a single suspended hoop, many folks believe that the ball-and-mallet games of the previous centuries which had a wide variety of play possibilities (including ones that used a series of hoops or rings that were set in the ground and which the balls were knocked through), were the beginnings of the 17th century Pall Mall. It is also thought that some bowling-type games, such as Bocce (dated back to Roman times) might have been the ancestor to such ball-and-mallet games.

The category of ball-and-mallet games which have players hitting the balls to a set target or through hoops is oft referred to as Ground Billiard games.  Exact rules on these games are few, especially concerning the early period versions. Additionally there were assuredly a wide variety in which these games were played.

A series of possible rules for one of these types of games was developed by various historic-game enthusiasts so that people could try the games, and thus bring an interest in subject to others. Presented here are the adopted rules (which should not be taken for the original rules).


Ground Billiards can be played using a modern croquet set. One merely uses six of the wickets, instead of the nine used in croquet. And the wickets will need to be marked, one in each of the six colors matching the balls.

The six colors for balls/wickets in the original game are never specified in sources, so while it is convenient to use a modern croquet set to play this game, a person could make their own set, using six colors of their own choosing. Most likely the original sets did not have the order of colors marked on the stakes and mallets. However, doing such makes it easier on players to remember which order they take turns in.


For the explanation of rules of this game, I have used some of the terms that have developed since its beginning, and are more commonly used in modern croquet, to help clarify meanings.

The object of the game is for a player to traverse the course, passing his/her ball through the wickets in the correct color order, striking the Midway Stake with his/her ball, then traversing the course back, passing his/her ball through the wickets in reverse color order and finally striking the Start/Finish Stake. The first player to do such wins, the second player to do such is second, and so forth.

To start, players choose which of the six available colors they wish to use. This may be done in any method deemed fair by the players. (Each player will bring his/her ball into play in the order of the colors on the stake: blue first, red second, black third, yellow fourth, green fifth and orange sixth.) Once each player has selected his color, they are given the corresponding ball and a wicket marked with their color.

Next, the course is set up. The Start/Finish Stake and the Midway Stake are placed at the ends of the playing field. There is no set distance. Recommended though is that 50' should be about minimum course length and 100' feet about maximum course length. For course width, 30' should be about minimum width and 50' about maximum width. Although rarely done in period, boundaries may be marked out via string or other method. Most usually, natural boundaries were established. After the stakes are placed, the players then set their wickets on the course.

Unlike its descendant, croquet, the game of Ground Billiards does not have a set lay-out for the wickets. The players may place their wicket anywhere on the course, at any angle. Hence, players may have to go toward the far end of the course to go through one wicket then come back to the other end for the next wicket, and so on. Each game of Ground Billiards thus becomes unique. Once the wickets are placed, play begins.

To begin play, the blue player sets his ball to either side of the Start/Finish Stake. He then strikes his ball (NOT THE STAKE), knocking it toward the first wicket he must pass through. This is then repeated by the red player, the black player, the yellow player, the green player and the orange player.

Players then take turns in order of their color. A turn consists of one stroke or hit upon a player's own ball, plus any additional bonus strokes earned.

The player must knock his/her ball through each wicket in the correct color order. This can be from either side of the wicket.

When you pass your ball through the correct wicket, you gain one bonus stroke.

If a ball passes through the wrong color wicket, there is no penalty, but the player CANNOT count that wicket as having been played through, and does NOT get a bonus stroke.

If an opponent knocks your ball through the proper wicket (the one you have to go through next), you are credited with having made it through the wicket, and may continue toward the next wicket (or stake), but you do not gain the extra stroke bonus.

Should a ball be caught for some reason in an unplayable position, that is to say, in a place where the ball cannot be struck with the mallet, then the ball may be moved one mallet-head-length to a position where it can be struck.

If a ball goes out of bounds (whether as a result of a player's own stroke or an opponent's croquet stroke) the ball may be brought back to the boundary, at the place it went out and put into play at that spot.


Bonus strokes are earned in three ways:

1. By passing through the proper color wicket (from either side of the wicket). This is called scoring wicket. The bonus is one extra stroke. It must be played from where the ball lies after the point is made.

2. By striking the Midway Stake with your ball, after having gone through all the wickets in color order. This is called scoring stake point. The bonus is one extra stroke. It must be played from where the ball lies after the point is made.

3. By striking the ball of an opponent with your ball. This is more modernly called a roquette, or roquet. If this occurs, the player of the striking ball has one of two options.

a) Take one extra stroke. (It must be played from where the ball lies after the point is made.) If the extra stroke hits an opponent's ball (the same one or a different one), another bonus stroke is gained. Hence, it is possible to earn several bonus strokes in a row.

b) Take a croquet stroke. This is done by moving your ball next to the opponent's ball you struck (any side). You then place your foot upon your ball (to prevent it from moving). Now you strike your ball very hard. The resulting force moves through your ball to the opponent's ball, sending the opponent's ball flying. (Be careful not to hit your foot!) IF YOU TAKE THE CROQUET STROKE, YOUR TURN NOW ENDS.. If you had gained additional bonus strokes, they are lost.

It is possible to gain several bonus strokes. If your ball strikes the balls of multiple opponents, you gain an extra stroke for each opponent ball struck. If your ball passes through a wicket (in the proper order) and also strikes opponent balls, you get a stroke for passing through the wicket plus a stroke for each ball struck. If your ball strikes the Midway Stake (in the proper order) and strikes opponent balls, you gain one stroke for hitting the stake and one stroke for each opponent ball hit.

All bonus strokes must be taken on your current turn (or lost because you took a croquet shot), before play advances to the next player. Bonus strokes CANNOT be saved for later use.


These rules may be ignored, used separately or in combination, as desired. They derive from game variations.

Play "Ground Billiards Partners" or "Ground Billiards Sides". With partners there are 3 teams of two colors (usually blue & yellow, red & green and black & orange). With sides there are 2 teams of three colors (usually blue, black & green and red, yellow & orange). In these variations, all members of a team must complete the course and hit the Finish Stake for a team to win.

A player may choose to become a "Rover". A Rover is a player who has completed all of the course except for striking the Finish Stake. A Rover may move anywhere on the course he/she wishes, as per the general rules, taking strokes on his/her turn, gaining bonus strokes as normal, and taking croquet shots as normal. At any time, the Rover can head toward the Finish Stake and hit it to finish/win. There is no real reason or motivation to utilize this rule in a standard Ground Billiards game, but if playing partners or sides, then this rule could become very handy.

Another variation requires special wickets. No special name can be found for this variation, but many refer to it as "Revolving Ground Billiards". One leg on each of the wickets is longer than the other. When the wickets are placed, just the longer leg is pushed into the ground. The shorter leg is kept free of the ground. The wicket is then spun around in the ground so that it "turns freely". The purpose of this version is that if the ball does not cleanly go through the wicket, the hoop will be spun, setting it in a new position. This makes for an interesting and challenging variation.

©1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Ron Knight
Baron Modar Neznanich, OPel
Permission to Print.


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