Games serve as a fantastic way to connect with others, enjoy healthy competition, and challenge ourselves mentally and physically. Indoor games such as Monopoly and chess, as well as outdoor yard games such as cornhole, are beloved pastimes in the United States, but people in other countries play different games to spend time with friends and family. Here are eight fun games from around the world you might not know.
Pétanque, which roughly translates to “fixed feet” in French, is a yard game similar to bocce ball in that players toss balls as close as possible to a target. Also known as boules, the game requires two to six players on two teams to play on a court or packed dirt. With their feet firmly planted inside an 18-inch circle on the ground, players take turns tossing metal balls at a wooden target ball called a cochonnet, bouchon, or jack. The goal is to get your team’s balls closer to the jack than your opponents’ balls, which is how you earn points to win the game. The 18-inch circle and jack are moved between each round.
Frenchman Jules Lenoir invented pétanque in the quaint port town of La Ciotat, near Marseille, around 1907, after debilitating rheumatism prevented him from playing more active yard games. Coincidentally, a few years later, another Frenchman invented an anise-flavored liqueur called pastis that he marketed at pétanque tournaments, including a large event in Marseille in 1961. Today, pétanque and pastis are forever linked, and you can attend a much larger version of that same tournament — the Mondial à Pétanque.
Aunt Sally (England)
You’ll need to head to a pub or fairground in the Cotswolds, a group of villages nestled in the rolling hills of southern England, to play the game “Aunt Sally.” This unusual pastime involves players throwing 18-inch-long sticks or batons at a head-shaped dolly (an object similar to a bowling pin) perched on an iron spike. The game’s exact origins are unknown, but a few accounts of it date to the 17th century. Later, during the 19th century, players used a figurine head of an old maid with one or more clay tobacco pipes stuck in her mouth. This version was typically played at horse races and fairs.
In this variation of Aunt Sally, players threw the sticks to knock the pipe loose, but in later versions, the objective changed to knocking the head off without hitting the iron spike. It’s a little unclear why players chose the figure of an old woman’s head, but “Aunt Sally” was a derogatory term for political figures who were easy targets for insults or criticism. Today, pubs in the Cotswolds have leagues and teams who play Aunt Sally tournaments, including the Aunt Sally World Championships held at the annual Charlbury Beer Festival in Charlbury, West Oxfordshire.
Mahjong, also spelled mah-jongg, is a complex game where four players sit around a table and try to match a series of engraved tiles about the size and shape of traditional dominoes. The objective is to obtain a specific set of 14 tiles by strategically choosing and discarding them (similar to the card game known as rummy). Mahjong originated in the mid-19th century in southern China as a gambling game, but it eventually became popular in both Europe and the U.S.
An Americanized version of mahjong became quite the fad during the 1920s. The game’s popularity eventually faded, but Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans continued to play mahjong as a means to remain connected to their heritage and forge communal bonds. In the late 1930s, American Jewish women also embraced the game, especially as they moved out of cities and into suburban areas and needed a way to connect. In 1937, many Jewish women played an instrumental role in establishing the National Mah Jongg League in New York City. Mahjong remains popular in China and the U.S.
Komandinis Slidinėjimas (Lithuania)
If you’re looking for an outdoor team-building game, it doesn’t get much better than komandinis slidinėjimas, which means “team skiing” in Lithuanian. You won’t find this event at the Winter Olympics, but it is hilarious entertainment. To play the game, participants need long, narrow wooden boards, some rope or straps, and a grassy surface.
Players use the rope or straps to create “skis” with two to 10 footholds on each board. Players on two teams slip their feet into the “straps” and must walk in unison to move the “skis.” The team that moves the fastest to the finish line wins. Variations of the game, such as moving sideways or backward, add to the fun. Lithuanians of all ages have enjoyed this game in local parks for a long time, although its origins are unknown.
If hurtling a large round of aged pecorino cheese as far as you can from a wound string sounds fun, then ruzzola (also known as ruzzolone) is a game worth playing. Ancient paintings inside Tarquinian tombs depict Etruscans playing the game, but the modern version of the pastime uses a wooden discus about 12 inches wide instead of a hard cheese round. Typically, two players or teams of two or more will compete and take turns sending a nine-pound roll of cheese or discus along a predetermined path, similar to a relay. The winner is the team that uses the fewest throws to complete the “treppi,” a course with obstacles, hills, and curves.
Ruzzola has fallen in and out of favor with local authorities over the ages because it typically involves gambling and risk of injury. However, the game is still popular throughout Italy, with tournaments and events regulated by the Italian Federation of Traditional Sports and Games. Nocera Umbra, a medieval town, recently hosted a national ruzzola competition.
Spanish for lottery, lotería originated in Italy during the 15th century, but made its way to Spain and then Mexico around 1770. Lotería is a game of chance similar to bingo, in which players use a gridded tabla (board) and mark off squares when they match whatever the announcer calls out. However, in lotería, colorful illustrations fill the game board squares instead of the numbers and letters found in bingo. Another difference between the two games is that instead of pulling numbers from a rotating bingo drum, the announcer uses a deck of 54 cards with matching illustrations.
Often, the announcer will introduce the drawn cards with an improvised poem or phrase, which adds to the merriment. Announcers frequently adjust their humor depending on the crowd, ranging from family-friendly to bawdy and risqué. As with bingo, the first player to mark off a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal row wins by calling out “Lotería!” Players can buy at-home versions of the game, and many Spanish teachers use it to help students practice the language.
Five Hundred (Australia and New Zealand)
Five hundred is another game that originated in one country but gained popularity elsewhere. In this case, five hundred was invented in the U.S., but made its way to Australia and New Zealand in 1904. Five hundred is a trick-taking card game similar to euchre, hearts, spades, and bridge, and gained its name because the first players to reach 500 points win. Typically, four players play in pairs with partners sitting opposite each other and each pair uses a 43-card deck.
You can use a standard 52-card deck in the game by removing the red 2 and 3 cards and the black 2, 3, and 4 cards, and keeping one joker card. Australian five hundred decks depict a kookaburra instead of a joker figure on the joker card (the highest card in the game). The game involves rounds of bidding and scoring. Five hundred was named Australia’s official national card game, and the game is equally popular in New Zealand.
Partner Dominoes (The Caribbean)
Walk past any bar, café, or park in the Caribbean, and you’ll likely witness teams of avid domino players shouting, jumping up and down, and slamming down the rigid rectangles. It may sound like a brawl is about to erupt, but in most cases, it’s just a friendly game of partner dominoes. Locals typically refer to the domino pieces as “bones” and often enjoy a cold beer or cocktail while they play.
In partner dominoes, two teams of two players use a double-six domino set, and each player receives a hand of seven dominoes. Partners can’t see each other’s hands; however, partners who play together frequently often become masters at figuring out other players’ hands and which domino their partner will play, so they can play accordingly. A team wins a point when a player plays all their tiles or has the lowest total of dots remaining if no one can empty their hands. The coveted goal is to earn six points in a row for a brag-worthy score of six-love, but the first team to reach six points wins. Domino tournaments are very common in the Caribbean, with teams traveling between islands to compete.