Croquet is typically a friendly game, a backyard competition, a diversion to be pulled out after burgers and before volleyball. But once one player's ball bumps into another's, it's time to whack those mallets.
Technically, the object of the game is to be the first player to work a heavy, orange-size ball through a course of nine wickets -- curved hoops placed in the ground. But when one player's ball hits another's, the first player has two options: Take two "free" shots to advance farther through the course, or -- and almost everyone chooses "or" -- plant your ball against the opponent's ball and smash it into the neighbor's yard. There's no other game where the attack is quite so personal, so vicious, and so darn appealing.
It's a game played at a less serious level than, say, football, and people in a wide age range can take a swing at it. All you need is a lawn, at least two players, and a croquet set. With interest in the game increasing, it's easier than ever to find croquet sets in home centers, sports stores, and home catalogs.
Only the pros, who play with six wickets and follow strict international rules, take the game extremely seriously. For others, the rules are mostly up to the players. Backyard players decide each game's level of seriousness -- or wackiness. So warm up the grill, invite over the neighbors, and let the smashing begin.
Croquet, originally a sheepherder's game, has been honored by kings, absolutely adored by 1920s literary sets, and scorned by Dennis the Menace. Here's a quick take on croquet through the ages.
Starched white clothes follow the unbendable rules of the six-wicket international game. But the nine-wicket, backyard-and-barbecue version can be adapted to fit most any lawn or group of players. Feel free to change the boundaries and the placement of the wickets, or to use lawn flamingoes instead of mallets. Although you can play on almost any terrain, freshly mowed grass is easiest. Here's a quick list of basic croquet rules for the backyard crowd.