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(Yeah, right. Like anybody who spends his time pecking and clicking around the web would ever go near a croquet course, where there isn't a color monitor or mouse in sight.)
The biggest problems with recreational croquet are 1) the course layout, and 2) universal fuzziness on rules.
First, the course. I don't know how it got started, but everyone seems to have the same screwy idea about the layout. Everybody puts the 2 wickets nearest the post almost on top of each other, like a foot or so apart, and a foot or so from the post. It's practically a given that your first shot will go through both wickets. This is the way we all played at Granny's when we were kids, and it stuck, I guess.
What kind of challenge is that? The standard croquet course layout calls for 7 feet from the post to the 1st wicket and another 7 feet to the 2nd wicket. Here's the American course layout - the top half of it, anyway. The bottom half is simply a reflection of the top half around the center wicket.
post --> I . . 7 ft. /\ . . 7 ft. _ /\ 1 ft._ /\. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ./\ 14 ft. . 14 ft. . . . . 22 ft. . . . /\ (center wicket)
This proper wicket spacing makes it more of a sport right off the bat, and works well with the rules suggested below. The munchkin spacing of the first 2 wickets would create an absurdity, as you'll see. It also forces you to use the side of your mallet for the first shot, which is never allowed.
I don't mean to imply that your course has to adhere to this boring geometric pattern - try daring layouts that utilize the local topography and hazards.
Second, the rules. You're thinking (if anybody were reading this, which they're not), "Oh man, who's this guy think he is, making up rules for croquet?" Hey, don't blame me; I didn't invent this web thingy.
In my experience, everybody who plays seems to have different ideas on the rules, or are just plain unsure of them. In fact, there are a variety of tournament rules - singles and doubles, American and British. The rules that came with your set probably say something else again - although I doubt too many people can blame their confusion on conflicting official rules.
So here is a set of road-tested rules that have worked to perfection in lots of games with lots of people. Some of these rules might, in fact, be "official" - agreeing with one version or another - while others are original and logical innovations. I've lost track by now, and it's really immaterial.
Everybody knows that when you send your ball through the next wicket, you get an extra shot.
Driving your ball into another player's ball is called a roquet, and gets you two extra shots. Obviously, this is a very good thing for you. On every turn, you are fresh to roquet any of the other balls, but you may NOT roquet the same ball twice on the same turn without having advanced through a wicket in between roquets. In other words, going through a wicket immediately refreshes you to roquet all of the other balls. (If you illegally roquet the same ball a second time, both balls are returned to their original locations and your turn is over.)
When you roquet a player's ball you pick up your ball from wherever it stops and move it to within a mallet head's length (not mallet length) of the other ball. Get in the habit of always picking your ball up, even if it's just a few inches from the other ball, even if your immediate impression is that you like where it stopped. This will remind you that you may place it wherever you want within that radius. After you put your ball down, you have 2 strokes coming. There is much confusion as to what happens here. It's simple. For your first shot, you may set your ball down so that it does or does not touch the other ball. If you set your ball against the other, you may or may not choose to clamp your foot on your ball to keep it from going anywhere. (If you do clamp your foot on your ball, this shot is called a croquet.) Depending on whether you set your ball against the other, and whether you clamp it with your foot, your first stroke may drive just your ball; just the other ball (called a croquet); or both balls (what I call a "billiard" shot.) After that, the second stroke is just a normal one. (Understand that you can't hit the other ball again, according to the roquet rules above.)
Reread the previous paragraph carefully.
All of those options align themselves into three or four basic plans of action. One plan of action is to simply ignore the ball you hit and use the 2 strokes to move yourself on to, and hopefully through, the next wicket. The "billiard" shot (a "croquet" without the foot) is often used in an attempt to position your ball for the next wicket while simultaneously sending the other ball to the far side of that wicket so that you can hit it again after going through. The croquet shot is used in a similar way: if you are already satisfied that your ball is in a good position for making the wicket, croquet the other ball just past the wicket. Using a croquet just for the fun of "sending" somebody is not usually the best strategy, but consider it when there are a few balls in close proximity. You can croquet one ball into the shrubbery and use your second shot to roquet another nearby ball, giving you two more shots to work with.
Strokes never accumulate. If your ball goes through 2 wickets on one stroke, you only get the one extra stroke. (See how nonsensical the closely spaced first 2 wickets would be?) If you have 2 strokes coming by virtue of having roqueted another player's ball, and then with the first stroke you roquet yet another ball, you will have 2 strokes, not 3, coming. If your ball goes through a wicket and then roquets another ball, you will have 2 strokes, not 3.
When a variety of things happen on one stroke, as in some of the above examples, everything counts, BUT... you process only the last thing that happened. Suppose your ball strikes a ball and then goes through a wicket. The thing that you "process" is going through the wicket - thus you get one extra stroke. You do not process the roquet. (In this example some or all of the tournament rules would say that the wicket does not count. You would have to bring your ball back to the vicinity of the ball you roqueted and take 2 strokes.)
Suppose with one shot your ball roquets two balls. You process the second roquet. But the roquet on the first ball "counts"; you may not roquet it again on that turn until you advance through a wicket.
Here's my suggested rule for when a player's ball stops in a difficult or unplayable spot such as in a ditch or shrubbery or down an embankment. On his first play in the bad position, a player must "play it as it lies". On his following play, if he is still in a bad position, he may move his ball the minimum amount necessary that puts it back on the course and gives him a good, unencumbered swing, and he immediately takes his turn. The idea is that, if you knock somebody into an impossible spot, he only wastes one turn. If that sounds a little too easy-going for your kamikaze gang, you could agree that the act of carrying the ball to a playable spot counts as a turn; he must then wait till his next turn to strike the ball.
I personally recommend against a poison phase of the game. Once again, everybody has different ideas about poison rules. Plus, it's anticlimactic if not just plain silly. The net effect is generally to steal the victory away from the person who deserved it the most. When someone finishes the course and there's a lot of remaining croquet energy - heck, start a new game!
That's about it for a sensible and fun game of croquet. Just understand the "with and without foot" options on the first shot after a roquet; and remember: shots do not accumulate; process only the last thing that happened.
STOP PRESS!!! Here's a new rule for your consideration which I thought up in November 2008. It has worked wonderfully. The problem it addresses is stragglers, who are usually the weaker players in the gang. Being out of the running from almost the beginning of the game is no fun for anyone. On the other hand, going around the course more or less bunched up makes the game a lot more fun and exciting for everybody. Here's the brainstorm:
If, at the end of a player's turn, that player is in sole possession of last place, he gets a freebie shot.
Of course, he gets all the succeeding shots that he earns from the freebie. "Sole possession of last place" is determined by the number of wickets that a player has advanced through. All players working on the same wicket are considered to be tied.
If you play croquet regularly with a bunch of people and are curious about how everybody performs relative to each other over the course of a number of games, see my page which explains the average place statistic (APS).
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