What is an obstacle?

revised 2022-03-18

This post has been updated to reflect the 2020 rules revisions. The 2020 rules about placing the circle and jack are discussed HERE.


The FIPJP rules use many terms without defining them. The worst offender in this regard is the word “obstacle”. “What is an obstacle?” is probably the most-frequently-asked question about the rules. So… What is an obstacle?

In the FIPJP rules, “obstacle” is not a technical term. It is an ordinary word that means, roughly, “something that interferes with the normal course of some activity or process.” The relevant activity or process must be inferred from the context. The context differs from rule to rule.

In most places in the rules, the word “obstacle” simply means “something”. In Article 19, an “obstacle” is something that causes a boule to bounce back in-bounds. In Article 25, an “obstacle” is something that gets in the way of measurement.

Article 10 says that a player may not pick up or push down an “obstacle” on the terrain. This poor choice of words has led many players to use the word “obstacle” when they should say “feature of the terrain”. The next time you visit Ask the Umpire and see a question that ends with the words “or is it simply an obstacle?” you can be sure that what the questioner meant was “or is it simply a feature of the terrain?”

As I’ve said, in most places in the rules, the word “obstacle” simply means “something”. There are, however, two cases where this is not true— two kinds of obstacles that require special discussion. They are throwing obstacles (obstacles around the circle) and pointing obstacles (obstacles around the jack).



THROWING OBSTACLES — obstacles around the circle

Article 6 (on placing the circle) and Article 7 (on throwing the jack) say that no “obstacle” can be closer than 1 meter from the circle. This rule is designed to insure that there is an obstacle-free zone around the circle, so that it is possible for a player to throw a boule with a normal throwing form, and do it safely. So a good definition of a throwing obstacle is—

  • a feature of the playing area
  • that is less than 1 meter from the circle
  • and might interfere with a player’s normal throwing form.

The most common kind of throwing obstacle are objects that might interfere with a player’s backswing. Trees, telephone poles, trash receptacles, walls, and crowd-control barriers count as throwing obstacles if they are too close to the circle. The category of “throwing obstacles” also includes features of the terrain that might interfere with a player’s footing. A patch of ground that is too irregular for a player to stand with a solid footing, a patch of slippery mud, a puddle of rainwater— all of these count as throwing obstacles.

Circles and jacks in other games are not technically “obstacles”, but the rules do specify that the circle must be placed at least 1.5m from a circle or a jack in another game.


POINTING OBSTACLES — obstacles around the jack

Article 7 says that after the jack has been thrown or placed, no “obstacle” can be closer than 50cm from the jack. This rule is designed to insure that there is an obstacle-free zone around the jack, so that it is physically possible for a player to point a boule close to the jack. So a good definition of a pointing obstacle is—

  • a feature of the playing area
  • that is less than 50cm from the jack
  • and prevents a boule from occupying the space that it occupies (because no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time).

Typical examples of pointing obstacles include— a tree or tree root; a telephone pole or lamp-post; a fire hydrant; a wall, a concrete curb or sidewalk. The notion of a pointing obstacle is vague, so there may be objects or terrain conditions (a large clump of pampas grass? a large rock? a patch of muddy ground?) about which players and/or the umpire need to make an ad hoc decision— Shall we consider it a pointing obstacle?

According to the 2020 FIPJP rules, the end dead-ball lines of an oblong terrain are in effect pointing obstacles, so a thrown or placed jack must be at least 50cm from any end (but not side) dead-ball line.

Circles and jacks in other games are not technically “obstacles”, but the rules do specify that the (thrown or placed) jack must be at least 1.5m from a circle or a jack in another game.


For more about the concept of an obstacle-free zone, see our post on A different way to think about obstacles.



There are a number of frequently-asked questions (FAQs) about obstacles.

Is a wooden surround a throwing obstacle? It might interfere with the backswing of a squat pointer.
Over the last few years, international umpire Mike Pegg has changed his position on this question. At one time he held that a wooden surround is not a throwing obstacle, because a squat pointer can always stand, rather than squat, when pointing. Then he held that that a surround that is higher than 25cm is a throwing obstacle because “at this height or higher it may impede a player”. As of January 2021 his position seems to be that— As a general rule, a player crouching or standing in the circle must be able to swing their arm backwards without touching anything. If they cannot, then the item preventing this action would be considered an obstacle.

I agree. Players always should be able to use their normal throwing form, and be able to do so in safety. Normally a wooden surround is not considered to be a throwing obstacle, but if a squat pointer expresses concerns when the circle is less than a meter from a wooden surround, the surround should be considered to be a throwing obstacle and the circle should be moved away from it. See our post on Is a wooden sideboard a throwing obstacle?

Is a wooden surround a pointing obstacle?
Generally speaking, a wooden surround is not considered to be a pointing obstacle. There are two exceptions to that general rule. A wooden surround is considered to be a pointing obstacle (1) if the terrain has no boundary strings, or (2) if the wooden surround is less than 8cm outside of a dead-ball line. Why these two exceptions? Why 8cm? See our post on a different way to think about obstacles.

Are trees considered to be throwing or pointing obstacles?
YES. A tree trunk is both a throwing obstacle and a pointing obstacle.

Are tree roots considered to be throwing or pointing obstacles?
Generally speaking: NO. They are considered to be features of the terrain, like rocks. There is no clear-cut rule however— in some cases it would be reasonable for the two teams to agree to consider a really large root a pointing obstacle.

Article 19 says that a boule is dead if it goes out-of-bounds, hits an “obstacle”, and bounces back onto the terrain. Are things above the ground “obstacles”? If a thrown (or hit) boule or jack hits something above the terrain, is it dead?
The answer is NO, it is not dead. The issue here has nothing to do with what counts as being an obstacle. It is about what counts as being out-of-bounds. The REAL question here is— “Are objects above the terrain out-of-bounds?” And to that question the answer is NO.

Think of the dead-ball lines as invisible walls that the dead-ball lines on the ground project up into the sky. If a ball stays inside those invisible walls— if it stays directly above the terrain— it stays in-bounds. That means that if a boule or a jack hits an overhanging tree branch, a low-hanging light fixture, or a boulodrome ceiling, and drops down onto the terrain without going through one of those invisible walls, it is still alive. The photograph (below) shows an outdoor boulodrome in Seaside, Florida. Note the low-hanging light fixtures. Most of the light fixtures are in-bounds and are therefore normal features of the terrain, just as rocks on the terrain are normal features of the terrain. If a boule hits one of those light fixtures and drops onto the terrain, the light fixture may be damaged but the boule will still be alive.

seaside_terrain_with_overhead_lights

Is there really any difference between a throwing obstacle and a pointing obstacle? Aren’t they all just “obstacles”?
Some things (e.g. a wall) can be an obstacle to both throwing and pointing, but that’s not true of all obstacles. In this photograph the jack is located less than half a meter from a large tree root. The root is big enough to constitute a pointing obstacle but not big enough to constitute a throwing obstacle. (Boules have been placed on the ground to give a sense of scale.)

In this photograph (below) the jack is located more than half a meter from the trunk of a mesquite tree, so the tree trunk isn’t a pointing obstacle. But at the start of the next mene the low branch, which is only about 4 feet above the jack, would make it impossible for a player to stand upright in a circle placed around the jack. That makes the tree branch a throwing obstacle— at the start of the next mene the circle must be moved a meter away from the branch.

Here is a similar situation. The rail fence isn’t a pointing obstacle; it is possible to point to within half a meter of the jack in any direction. But at the start of the next mene it will be a throwing obstacle— the circle must be moved a meter away from the fence.
petanque_throwing_obstacle_rail_fence