The muted thump of pétanque balls landing on sandy courts, punctuated by the clack of two hitting, is my ideal soundtrack to a summer evening in Paris. So when I was walking up the Canal Saint-Martin in June with a French friend, I was surprised to notice that the heavy metal sets of pétanque were being outnumbered by sleeker, wooden pins, strewn across the ground. The game’s called Mölkky, my friend told me, and though it’s originally from Finland, it’s become popular, especially among young Parisians. “On Mondays, my older co-workers joke that I must’ve spent my weekend playing Mölkky and drinking beer on the Canal, and I just look at them and say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I did,’” he laughed.
Part of the appeal of Mölkky over pétanque, he explained, is the material of the set itself. Though the crate of pins takes up more physical space than a bag of pétanque balls, it’s much lighter to carry around the city, since they’re made of wood and not metal. But the real reason to play this lawn game is — duh — because it’s fun, as I quickly learned when I bought my own set off of Amazon when I came back to the United States — a cross between bowling, billiards, and blackjack with a mix of strategy, skill, and luck.
You arrange the 12 numbered pins in a diamond on the ground, like bowling. Then, from about ten feet away, you take the throwing skittle (yes, that is the technical term for the round, wooden peg without a number) and toss it underhand, toward the diamond. You earn points depending on the number of pins that hit the ground. When more than one pin falls, your score is the number of fallen pins, but if you just hit one pin, you earn the number on the pin. So to earn five points, either you knock down five pins in one toss, or you take out the one pin with the number five etched on top.
The scoring itself is blackjack-like in its strictness. The first player to get to 50 points wins, and it has to be exactly 50 points. If you accidentally score more, by knocking down one too many pins or taking out one with a higher point value than you need, then you drop back down to 25. And like billiards, you start the next player’s turn where the last one ended, by standing the numbered pins upright, exactly where they landed. That means every round has a different layout of pins each time you throw.
Despite all these nuances, the game goes by pretty quickly — each round takes only about 15 minutes — and the learning curve isn’t too steep for first-time players. However, it’s still slow-paced enough to drink a beer and chat with your friend while you play, which is really the main reason to play any lawn game, whether or not it’s cool in France.
This Chinese toy is easier to kick around than a hacky sack, but is a solid option for those looking for a game that’s a little more active. As writer Alex Ronan explains, “Cheap, low-impact, and straightforward, it’s easy to take with me anywhere.”
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