The boule advantage

[updated 2021-12-21]
To understand petanque at the strategic level, you need to understand the concept of “the boule advantage”.

The basic idea is simple — the team with the most unplayed boules “has the boule advantage”. If your team has two unplayed boules, and my team has four, then my team has the boule advantage.

Digging a bit deeper

It is possible to provide a precise definition of the boule advantage.

If a team gains the point every time it throws, we will say that the team plays perfectly. (Note that it doesn’t make any difference how the team gains the point. They can out-point the opposition, or shoot away an opposition boule that is holding the point, or shoot the jack. The important thing is that they never require more than one throw to gain the point.)

At any point during a mene, a team has the boule advantage if, assuming that it plays perfectly from that point forward, that team will play the last boule in the mene.

At the start of a mene, the second team to play always has the boule advantage. You can often see this in world-championship games. Team A points the first boule, and Team B shoots it with their own first boule. Team A points their next boule and Team B shoots it with their next boule. Point. Shoot. Point. Shoot. The teams alternate gaining the point until Team A points their last boule. This leaves Team B to play the last boule of the mene. They shoot or point with their last boule and often win the mène.

In short, if you think of a mène as a conversation, then the team with the boule advantage is the team that gets to “have the last word” in that conversation.

Among world-class players, the “point, shoot, point, shoot” pattern is so predictable that often the best way to follow the game is to watch for cases in which a team fails to play perfectly and requires two or more throws to gain the point. The real drama in a world-championship game is in the shot that just barely misses, and the pointing throw that doesn’t quite gain the point. Such failures turn over the boule advantage to the opposing team.  At this level of play, losing the boule advantage can mean losing the mène.

To point? or to shoot? Some strategic considerations

Suppose that your team has two pointers and one shooter. The opponents throw the jack and point a very nice first boule… it is close to the jack and is going to be very hard to out-point. What do you do?

  • Should you ask your shooter to try to shoot it?
  • But… it is very early in the mene, and the opposing team still has five boules. Should you point, and save your shooter for an emergency?

This is petanque’s classic question — to point, or to shoot?  If you decide to point, you may end up with another classic situation— your team ends up throwing all of its boules, trying to out-point the opponents’ opening boule. After you’ve done it, you realize that you’ve lost the boule advantage big time. The opposing team still has five boules that it can play without fear of any response from your team. And you realize in retrospect that you should have used your shooter to try to shoot that opening boule.

If this happens to you, here’s how you should think about the situation.

  • Your team started with the boule advantage.  You might have kept the boule advantage if you had brought out your shooter and shot the opposing team’s opening boule. Even if it took your shooter more than one attempt, it would have been worth it to get rid of that dangerous opening boule.
     
  • In deciding not to shoot, you not only lost the advantage, you gave the advantage to your opponents, to the tune of five boules. With a boule advantage that big, they are almost certainly going to score several points and win the mene.

The moral of this story is that one of your highest priorities should be NOT to lose the boule advantage. And that can sometimes mean using your shooter very early in the mene.

The Forgotten Boule and the Boule Advantage

Suppose that there are a lot of boules on the ground. Your team has the point, so you ask the opponents if they have any unplayed boules. They look around and then say “No, we’re out”.  So you play your last boule.  As you’re walking to the head to count your points, one of the opposing players says “Ooops! I made a mistake. I still have one boule left!”  What should you do?

You can say “It was an honest mistake. Go ahead. Play your last boule.” But giving away your team’s boule advantage in this way would be a big mistake. With their last “forgotten” boule, your opponents can do all sorts of mischief and win the mene. So a good general rule is that a forgotten boule— even in friendly play— cannot be played. See our discussion of dealing with a forgotten boule.


4 thoughts on “The boule advantage

  1. I’m sure that most club players (like myself) would keep a mental tally in their head of how many boules have been played by their own team and their opponents – It’s just basic math.

    If team ‘A’ mistakenly says ‘We’re out of boules’, it could be interpreted that team ‘B’ have played out of turn, thinking they have played the last boule of the mène.

  2. Two comments on the original post
    (updated for the 2020 renumbering of the FIPJP rules)

    Gary Jones
    Feb 9, 2015

    I think an umpire might very well allow the playing of the “forgotten” boule. Not only that, but the umpire might also declare dead the last boule played by the team that had the point as it was played contrary to the rules at which time Article 24 applies. A team has the obligation to KNOW whose turn it is to play BEFORE it plays.

    Jules Lenoir
    February 27, 2015

    Hi Gary, I’m glad that you called me on this point, because it gives me a reason to issue a disclaimer that I perhaps should have included in the post.

    For others reading this post, I first want to note that the question “How should a situation involving a forgotten boule be handled?” is one that comes up regularly on online petanque forums. Now the disclaimer— Gary is absolutely correct. The usual/standard opinion/answer is the one that Gary has described.

    My personal opinion is that the standard answer is wrong. Here’s why.

    I think it is important to distinguish between two situations that are superficially similar, but fundamentally quite different.

    There is one kind of situation that I will call an “overlooked boule” situation. It can happen like this. Albert, a player from team A, throws boule A5 and gains the point. He looks around and doesn’t see that team B has any unplayed boules. Without asking team B if they are out of boules, he judges that team B is out of boules and throws his last boule, A6. Then team B protests. They still had one boule left, a boule that Albert had somehow overlooked.

    An “overlooked boule” situation should be handled just the way that Gary described (above). Boule A6 is a “boule played out of turn” and the provisions of Article 24 apply. Team B [not the umpire] can invoke the advantage rule, and they may choose that A6 is declared dead and (if possible) everything moved by A6 is put back in its original place.

    There is a another, different kind of situation. It is what I called a “forgotten boule” situation in my post, and it should be handled as described in my post. It can happen like this. Arthur, a player from team A, throws boule A5 and gains the point. He looks around and doesn’t see any unplayed boules. He asks team B if they are out of boules. Team B says “Yes, we’re out .” So Arthur throws his last boule, A6. Then someone on team B realizes/remembers that he still has one unplayed boule.

    In such a situation, team A should have the option of invoking the advantage rule and declaring team B’s forgotten boule to be dead. Here’s why.

    In this situation, team B is clearly the party at fault. By asking team B if they were out of boules, Arthur fulfilled his team’s obligation to know (or at least, to make a reasonable attempt to find out) whose turn it is to play. Team B has the same obligation — to know whose turn it is to play— before refusing to play. And in this case Team B FAILED to fulfill that obligation.

    Here (as in so many other cases) we must use reasoning by analogy when interpreting the FIPJP rules. It is widely accepted that a boule played out-of-turn is subject to the advantage rule specified in Article 24. By analogy, we can also say that a boule NOT played WHEN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN PLAYED is subject to the same rule. If a team is given an opportunity to play when it is their turn, and (for whatever reason) they refuse to do so, then their unplayed boule is subject to the advantage rule specified in Article 24. The opposing team may choose to declare the forgotten boule to be dead.

  3. A comment on the original post

    Richard B
    March 9, 2015

    This is an interesting point here, and I understand your distinction between the two circumstances. I have been on the receiving end of circumstance two. A player placed one of her boules outside the wood surround. We played through the end, and my partner asked if they were out of boules. They said yes, so my partner pointed in with her last boule to win the end by two points. The player then discovered her last boule and carreau’d the closest boule to win the end. As a compromise we agreed to call the end null and start again. Ironically it was the first end and we won the game 13-0.

    The other experience was in a rare bad tempered game. The opposition declined to answer if they were out of boules, claiming that they were not under any compulsion to do so! I simply counted the boules on ground, remembering the dead boule, and I discovered they had one boule left which they were keeping in their pocket. Since then I concentrate and always know exactly how many boules the opposition have left at any point in the end.

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