Having spent last weekend at the family home of Imogen 'The Other Half' Dale, playing barefoot croquet on her wonderfully large lawn, I came away mulling over what makes this game, which I play four or five times a year, so satisfying. Here's what I came up with:
1. The core interaction is fun
Most games are built up from one or two base units of interaction: jumping in Mario, say, or shooting in Doom, or rotating a series of hat-shaped blocks in Hatris. These are what developers and poncey games writers like myself refer to as a game's verbs, and they're the beating heart of the game. They're what the player does, how they effect change on the game's world: Mario's jumps can squash goombas, for example, or knock power-ups out of blocks.
And rarely has a game been centred around an interaction as innately satisfying as croquet's: wielding a heavy wooden mallet that would make Thor proud, and using to smack brightly coloured balls into one another.
The comparison is perhaps unfair to games – no amount of force feedback can hope to match up to the thwack of wood meeting plastic, the slight shudder running up to the shoulder, watching a ball skitter away across the lawn – but it can certainly be emulated with something that feels as natural and pleasurable as steering Mario's jumps.
If croquet was just a case of hitting a series of balls at a series of gates, it would still be excellent fun. There's just enough skill involved, just enough risk/reward, and the most But the best games take their central one action and builds around it, adding a story, complexity of rules and/or an element of competition.
2. The rules are easy to learn – and pliable
Croquet has a clear goal – take your ball through six gates in order, hit a peg in the centre, win the game. It's so intuitive that, if handed the equipment and pushed onto a set-up lawn with no idea of how to play, you'd probably figure out something very close to the real game.
On top of this it layers a couple of simple rules to win an extra go – either by going through a gate or hitting another ball – which build on the risk/reward of taking a shot. Got it? You're ready to play.
...And so we did, for hours, until someone turned up who'd actually played croquet before, and it turned we hadn't been doing it properly. Actually, the game is to be played with two balls per team, which both have to make it through hoops and to the peg to win, and hitting another player's ball (whether your teammate's or an opponent's) actually lets you move your ball next to theirs, taking a shot which pushes them around the lawn, and then take your free shot.
Which is where tactics come in, and it starts to get really interesting.
3. Your decisions mean something
This skews the game's focus towards targeting other balls, and using them to advance your own around. The games' turns work on a team basis: Team A goes first, then Team B, and so on, but a team can choose which of its players will actually take the turn.
This is where the choices start: do you give the turn to a ball which has fallen behind, so it can catch up? Or do you make sure to get the leading ball through the next gate while it has a chance? Or do you give the turn to whoever is closest to your opponents, so you can sabotage their game?
Because the game is turn-based, with no time limit, you're encouraged to really chew these decisions over. Not just in your turn but beforehand, as the opponents line up their shots: what's he hoping to achieve with this? If he make it, where does that leave us? Then what's the best way to retaliate?
That means the other team's turn is as interesting as your own. You spend it watching closely and guessing. Praying quietly that they'll miss this key shot. Cursing loudly when they don't.
4. Cooperation feels good...
You and your teammate have to rely on each other. Not just because you'll both have to pass the finish line to win, but because you need to protect each other. The two players become interdependent, in a way I've rarely seen in games of Capture The Flag.
Ideally, a team's two balls will want to stay clustered as closely together as possible. A bad miss, or a great hit from an opponent, can push your ball far away from the next gate, slowing down both players,
This plays neatly into the decision-making process. It's not just a question of whether the lagging or leading ball should take this turn, but whether the leader could actually loop back, clip the other ball, push it forward, and then take the extra turn to push through ahead itself. Do you attempt a rescue mission, or just make your opponents aren't able to twist the knife any deeper on their turn?
5. ...but screwing friends over feels even better
Of course, you'll be doing your fair share of twisting that knife too.
Like many of my favourite games, croquet provides a safe space to be a real bastard to friends and loved ones. You're actively rewarded for knocking opponent's balls off course (and in the very best cases, off the course). Sabotaging carefully-laid plans is satisfying enough on its own, but it's often also the only way to get round corners, or set up a winning shot.
And honestly, it's not like you're going to need much encouragement. Let me show you why croquet is great:
Something lights up in the eyes of a friend on the other team as they realise they can win the game on the next shot. You can practically see the sepia-toned fantasy playing out in their imagination – with one perfect hit, they push both balls to the peg, their teammate hoists them up in the air, a hero's reward... Of course you're going to take that away from them.
You push their teammate's ball out of the way, using it to reposition yourself and swing round for the next shot. Suddenly they see it, and you watch that light drain from their eyes as they utter a barely audible no – you're setting up to smack their ball into the bushes. It's going to destroy them.
And you wind up the mallet theatrically, savouring the evil grin and the first signs of tears in their eyes. You take the hit, and something's slightly off. The ball sails past theirs, and right to the edge of the lawn, leaving your teammate vulnerable and giving your opponents a clear shot at the peg. Game over, man.
The public don't know the truth about croquet – a game for toffs, something slow and twee and uninteresting – and perhaps that's for the best. Croquet is a game about revealing the darkness at the centre of your soul, and letting it play out on a sunny afternoon with a glass of gin, on a lawn littered with coloured balls.
Croquet is the king of all sports, and if you've never tried it, now's the time.
(If you're in London, you can try croquet out for free at Croquet East on Saturdays in Victoria Park.)