Outdoor Dexterity Games: Tossing and Turning on the Lawn


While my focus in most of my articles is on tabletop games, with the advent of summer comes the desire to play outside. There are many such games and activities, but the games of interest here are ones that involve rolling or tossing objects at another/other object(s). I think for most in the US, this is associated with Horseshoes or Bocce, but there are several variations on this theme – more than I realized – that are popular primarily based on the country or region of origin. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Round 1:  The Games

The basis of these games originated in the ancient world, but there are many variations on the basic mechanic of tossing or rolling an object at a target. They can be categorized many ways; the type of object, whether it is tossed or rolled, the type of target, etc. A table of some of the distinguishing factors in components, mechanisms, and scoring for several popular games is provided at the end of this post.

Round 2: Common Mechanics and Mechanisms

All of these games can be reduced to the common mechanic of tossing or rolling an object at a target. They differ in the implementation of the mechanic and the scoring method. As shown in the table, there are strong similarities in the physical implementations.

Round 3: Just for Fun

Now these are just simple games that families play for fun at picnics or on lazy summer evenings, right? On a recent trip to France I was introduced to the passion of Petanque players. They have leagues and clubs dedicated to the game and are very competitive. I would equate this to bowling alley leagues in the US. The game can be casual or competitive with equal enjoyment. Certainly, a skilled player will trounce a novice, but mixing players of varied skills can still be fun.

Round 4: Back to the Tabletop

So how does this experience and these games relate to tabletop games? What can be learned from their popularity that applies to tabletop game design?


Obviously, there is the whole category of tabletop games that rely on dexterity with flicking usually replacing rolling or tossing. Personally, the lawn games will old my attention and will be more enjoyable. Maybe it is the lazy walk between rounds…

So beyond the obvious, what else is there?

Tactility and Sensational

Beyond require dexterous moves by the players, these games provide satisfying sensations; touch, sight, and sound.

  1. The feel of the object in hand and especially as it leaves the hand.
  2. The sight of the object on its trajectory to the target.
  3. The sound of a good shot – the ring of the stake in horseshoes, the crack of the skittles or balls as they strike each other.

Casual and Competitive

Some of these games are essentially casual activities, but some can be quite competitive as well. Certainly there are some individuals for whom everything is a competition. I am not talking about them, but about the average gamer who can equally enjoy a party game that has no scoring and a highly competitive strategy game, depending on the situation. At the table, many traditional card games seem to fit this model also, but the list of hobby games might be relatively short. Racing and betting games might be the most common to dynamically shift from casual to competitive. Codenames comes to mind as a party game that can be played either way. This attribute could be desirable in a game design and one to watch for.

What makes a game able to satisfy across this spectrum? I suspect it is the answer is at the heart of the mechanisms:

  1. They are very simple – easy to understand and to execute in a basic way.
  2. A player can get better at them over many plays.
  3. There are subtle or nuanced moves or actions that allow players to continue to get better.


These games are all essentially direct competitions, but most include the option for partners or teams to compete against each other. Again, traditional card games usually have a similar appeal. In team or partner play, it is generally necessary to pit comparably skilled players against each other – with each team having one relative expert and one relative novice.

The ability for partners to get better at a game together and to learn each other’s habits is particularly interesting to me and something that is nagging me in game design. Though, I think that traditional card games offer a much greater experience in this respect than the lawn games. In the case of the lawn games, the partners are usually acting independently and cannot affect the other’s performance. I expect to look into the “partners mechanic” in a future article.

Instantaneous and Obvious Scoring

Although, it isn’t uncommon to need a measurement in proximity-based games, scoring is usually obvious. In particular, the progression of the score and what one needs to do to meet or exceed the other player is obvious.

Denying Points

Generally, these games have a prominent aspect of being able to deny the other player or team of points – usually by knocking their bit out of scoring range. This often introduces the question and quandary – do I try to take to make points for myself or take points away from the other team or am I good enough to do both?

Although, this can seem cutthroat at the tabletop, it is expected in these games. I suspect that someone who really hates getting knocked back, will still have a problem, but there is something about these games that makes getting denied points more tolerable. Perhaps it is the associated difficulty – a good denial shot is a thing of beauty even when it hurts.

End Game

These games are indeed a great way to spend a summer evening or to liven up a picnic. They also can provide some ideas that might be leveraged in tabletop game design.

Flavor Text

As I was walking through Lyon, France on a sunny weekend afternoon, I noticed a couple different groups playing Molkky. I had never seen it before, but I ordered it as soon as I had returned home to the US. My wife, children, friends, and I have enjoyed it greatly in the evenings as a way to get out of the house and enjoy each other’s company. It is competitive enough to hold interest, but casual enough to play a quick match or five after dinner. We immediately house-ruled it though – removing the player elimination aspect.

Your Turn

Do you enjoy outdoor dexterity/lawn games? Which ones? Do you play them purely for fun or also competitively? What tabletop games do you play both casually and competitively? What about these games makes this possible?

Game History/Popularity Players The Bit The Target Surface Scoring Casual / Competitive Wikipedia Link
Year* Country Played Qty Object Action Object Placement Material Shape Method To Win
Lawn Bowls ~1200 England Canada, Australia 2 teams of 1-2 4 ea Bowls (weight biased balls) Bowl Jack (small ball) Roll Grass, Turf Lane, Level or Curved to Center Line Proximity To Points or Points after Set "Ends" (rounds) Competitive https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowls
Bocce/Bocci ~1800 Italy Europe, Australia, North & South America 2 teams of 1-4 4 per team Ball, metal or plastic Bowl Boccino (small ball) Roll/Toss Natural Soil, Asphalt Long, Rectangular Court Proximity To Set Points Ranges https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bocce
Horseshoes ~1900 England USA 2 teams of 1-2 2 per team Horseshoe Toss 2 Stakes (metal) Set at Start Sand, Gravel, Grass Level w/ 2 Separated Square "Pits" Proximity To 21 Points Ranges https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoes
Cornhole ~1900 England Europe, USA 2 teams of 1-2 3 per team Weighted Bag (cloth filled with corn or beans) Toss Slanted Platform w/ Hole Set at Start Anywhere Level w/ 2 Separated Platforms Proximity To 21 Points Casual https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornhole
Petanque 1910 France Europe, historical French Colonies 2 teams of  1-3 3 ea Ball, metal Toss Cochonnet (small ball) Toss Sand, Gravel Level, Rectangular Court Proximity To Set Points Ranges https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9tanque
Kubb (Viking Chess) 1911 Sweden Europe, USA 2 teams of 1-6 3 ea Baton, wood Toss Kubbs (wooden blocks) Set at Start Grass Level, Rectangular Court Knock Down Knock down all, then King kubb Ranges https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kubb
Washer Pitching ~1920 USA Europe, USA 2 teams of 1-2   Large Washer (metal) Toss Platform w/ Hole Set at Start Anywhere Level w/ 2 Separated Platforms Proximity To 21 Points Casual https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washer_pitching
Lawn Darts** ~1950 USA North America 2 teams of 1-2 2 per team Large Dart (metal-tipped plastic plumbata) Toss 2 Rings Set at Start Grass Level w/ 2 Separated Rings Proximity To 21 Points Casual https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawn_darts
Kyykka (Finnish Skittles) 1951 Finland Nordic Countries, Russia 2 teams of 1,4 4 Bat, wood Toss Skittles (wooden cylinders) Set at Start Gravel Level, Rectangular Court Knock Down Points after 2 Rounds Ranges https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_skittles
Molkky 1996 Finland Europe, Australia, USA, Japan 2+ 1 Baton, wood Toss Pins (wooden cylinders) Set at Start Grass, Gravel Level, Rectangular Court Knock Down To 50 Points Ranges https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%B6lkky

* Games that involved tossing stones, coins, balls, etc. toward a target date back to 5000 BC. These are approximate dates for the specific form or rule set.

** Maybe it was the post WWII optimism of 1950’s US, but tossing large metal-tipped darts into the air to stick in the ground in a small ring across the lawn where your little sister is standing nearby seems like such an obviously bad idea. (But we had many bad ideas for games that took off – like attaching two large glass balls onto a string and crashing them together at high speed in front of your face – clackers.) Despite the obvious danger – they were certainly dangerous the way we played – these were a hit for a few summers before there were enough injuries to change their construction to something less dangerous (and far less interesting).