Boules (French pronunciation: [bul]) is a collective name for a wide range of games in which the objective is to throw or roll heavy balls (called boules in France, and bocce in Italy) as close as possible to a small target ball. Curling has a very similar logic but is not usually classified as a boules game.
Boules-type games are traditional and popular in France, Italy, Malta and Croatia, and are also popular in some former French colonies. Boules games are often played in open spaces (town squares and parks) in villages and towns. Dedicated playing areas for boules-type games are typically large, level, rectangular courts made of flattened earth, gravel, or crushed stone, enclosed in wooden rails or back boards.
In the south of France, the word boules is also often used as a synonym for pétanque.
Boules games may be sub-divided into two categories based on typical throwing technique:
- games where the balls are rolled (for example, bocce)
- games where the balls are thrown (for example, pétanque, bocce volo)
Boules games may also be subdivided into two other categories based on typical throwing technique:
- games where there is a "run up" to the throw (for example, boule lyonnaise, bocce volo)
- games where there is no "run up" to the throw (for example, pétanque)
Alternatively, boules games may be subdivided into categories based on the structure and material of the ball:
- games where the balls are solid and made out of wood, or a wood-like plastic, composite, or epoxy resin similar to billiard balls (for example, bocce)
- games where the balls are hollow and made out of metal, typically steel or bronze (for example, pétanque, bocce volo)
- games where the balls are stuffed and made out of leather or some similar soft material (boccia, "soft pétanque")
Alternatively, boules games may be subdivided into categories based on the shape of the ball:
- games where the balls are spherical (most boules games)
- games where the balls are not spherical, but have a shape bias designed to cause the ball to travel a curved path (bowls)
There may be other variations as well, for instance in the way the ball is launched, in the dimensions of the playing area, whether obstacles (such as trees) are considered in-bounds or out-of-bounds, and whether it is legal to play balls off of enclosing boards or obstacles.
- Balls are typically thrown underhand (as in softball) rather than overhand (as in baseball). In games where the balls are rolled, the delivery is typically done with the palm of the hand up, whereas in games where the balls are thrown, the delivery is typically done palm down. A palm-down delivery can give a thrown ball backspin, which helps to keep it from rolling away from the spot to which it has been thrown.
- Bocce, a rolling game, is played on a smooth, prepared court with markers and sideboards; the sideboards are a recognized part of the game and shots may be bounced off of the sideboards. In contrast, pétanque, a throwing game, can be played on almost any relatively flat, unprepared outdoor surface. Sideboards are not a recognized part of the game — although an out-of-play line (or "dead boule line") is.
Finally, some boules games (bocce, pétanque) began as variations of earlier games, deliberately created and designed to accommodate the needs of players with physical disabilities.
Such variations produce a wide variety of boules-type games played all over the world.
- "Boule" is a French word for "ball".
- "Boccia" (plural: bocce) is an Italian word for "ball"
- "Volo" (roughly, "flying" or "in flight") is derived from the Italian verb “volare,” meaning “to fly”
- The small wooden target ball is usually called "the jack" in English, "le but" (target) or "cochonnet" (piglet) in French, or "pallino" (little ball) in Italian.
In Italian bocce, balls may be thrown in three ways: punto, raffa and volo.
- A punto shot or puntata is the way of pointing a ball by rolling the ball as close as possible to the pallino (cochonnet, jack).
- A raffa or raffata shot is the way of knocking an opponent's ball away that is very close to the pallino by rolling very fast. The player is allowed to make a run of two to four steps before he delivers his ball.
- A volo shot is the way of hitting an opponent's ball that is very close to the pallino by throwing through the air and hitting directly the opponent's boule (or the pallino), with the restriction that the ball may first strike the ground within 50 cm of the target.
There is a wide variation in the size and materials of the balls used in boules-type games.
Originally, in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the balls were probably made of stone.
Gallic tribes, which were introduced to boules by the Romans, used wooden boules. In the 1800s in France, boules were typically made of a very hard wood, boxwood root.
In the mid-1800s techniques were developed for the mass production of iron nails. Following this technological improvement, boxwood balls studded with nails (boules cloutées) were introduced in an effort to improve the durability of the balls. This eventually lead to the development of balls that were completely covered in nails, creating a ball that appeared almost to be made of metal.
By the 1920s, the growing popularity of boules in France created a demand that could not be satisfied using the available supplies of natural boxwood root, which were beginning to disappear. Paul Courtieu and Vincent Miles had the idea of manufacturing a ball made entirely of metal. Avoiding steel-based alloys (which were too hard and rust-prone) they developed an alloy based on aluminum and bronze, and (in 1923) patented a metal ball made of two welded-together hemispheres. A year later, in 1924, they filed a patent for a ball that was cast in a single piece -- La Boule intégrale. Louis Tarchier and Jean Blanc are generally credited with developing, around 1925, the process by which virtually all metal boules are manufactured today -- steel blanks are pressed into hollow hemispheres which are then soldered together and machined to make a hollow steel boule.
Today, some boules sports (e.g. bocce) still use wooden (or epoxy composite) balls, while others (e.g. pétanque) use metal balls. The wooden balls used in bocce tend to be bigger than the smaller metal balls used in pétanque.
The same game can be known by different names in different languages and locations or the same name can be used for different local variations of a game.
The category of boules games includes
- bocce is the ancestral sport of most boules games. It is a rolling game using wooden balls and a run-up throwing technique.
- Boules, otherwise known as Pétanque, is perhaps the sport that is closest to the hearts of the French 
- bocce volo is a throwing game using metal balls and a rather complicated run-up.
- boccia is a form of bocce adapted for players who are confined to wheel chairs.
- bolas criollas is a bocce-like game played in Venezuela
- bowls or "lawn bowls" is a British game similar to bocce
- jeu provençal or boule lyonnaise, similar to bocce volo
- pétanque originally evolved from jeu provençal as an adaptation for a player with a disability affecting the legs. However, it quickly became popular among able-bodied players. It is a throwing game using metal balls, but there is no run-up. Players' feet must remain firmly on the ground.
- punto, raffa, volo (note that this is a single name consisting of three comma-separated words) is a type of bocce governed by the Italian CBI Confederazione Boccistica Internazionale
International boules organizations
The Confédération Mondiale des Sports de Boules - CMSB - was created (on December 21, 1985 in Monaco) by three international boules organizations for the purpose of lobbying the Olympic committee to make boules sports part of the summer Olympics. To date, its efforts have been unsuccessful. The organizations were:
- CBI Confederazione Boccistica Internazionale (raffa)
- FIB Fédération Internationale de Boules (Boule Lyonnaise)
- FIPJP Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal (pétanque)