Lawn games on Mackinac Island: How to play bocce ball

Mackinac Island in many ways looks just as it did in the late 1800s. Just as there were no automobiles then, there are no cars on Mackinac Island now. Just as soldiers manned Fort Mackinac then, costumed interpreters on Mackinac Island manage the historic stronghold now. And just as guests enjoyed leisurely lawn games at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel then, they spend relaxing afternoons playing those same games at the stately resort now.

One classic lawn game that was popular in the late 19th century and remains a favorite pastime of Mackinac Island visitors today is bocce ball. While bocce at the highest levels is played on regulation courts with specific dimensions, the open spaces of grass outside Mission Point Resort and Grand Hotel, in Marquette Park at the foot of Fort Mackinac, on Windermere Point near the ferry docks and in Mackinac Island’s Woodlands Activity Center are ideal for casual games.

Bocce is a great game for a laid-back afternoon because you don’t have to be an amazing athlete or furious competitor to be successful and have fun. Bocce is a team game that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. It’s no wonder that forms of bocce have been played for thousands of years!

In fact, there’s evidence that bocce was played in ancient Egypt and that it later became popular in the Roman Empire. Bocce as it is played today was formalized in Italy and brought to America by Italian immigrants in the 19th century, around the time that Mackinac Island was evolving into a tourist destination.

Now that you have a little bocce background, here’s a rundown on how to play the game:

Bocce ball is a popular leisure activity on Mackinac Island and is played at both Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort.

Bocce Ball Basics on Mackinac Island

  • Bocce games involve two teams of one to four players each. That means as many as eight people can play at once. Perfect for a fun afternoon with friends and family!


  • Each team gets four colored balls that are about 4 inches in diameter. The goal of the game is to score points by tossing the larger colored balls underhanded at a smaller white ball on the ground.


  • One team starts the game by tossing the smaller white ball called a pallino, or jack, out into the lawn. That team then bowls its first ball, rolling or bouncing it toward the jack. Then the other team bowls its first ball. All tosses must be underhanded.


  • At this point, whichever team’s ball is the “out ball,” or the one not nearest the jack, goes next. That continues until each team has bowled all four of its balls. It’s possible that one team bowls all four of its balls before the other team bowls its second ball.


  • An interesting wrinkle to bocce strategy is that it’s okay to bowl a ball in such a way that it knocks the opposing team’s balls farther away from the jack. It’s also okay to knock the jack itself into a new position.


  • Once each team has bowled all four of its balls, the round, or frame, is over. The team with the “in ball” nearest the jack is the only team to win any points in the frame. That team gets one point for the “in ball” and additional points for any other balls that also are nearer the jack than the opposing team’s nearest ball. It’s possible to win as many as four points in a frame if all four of one team’s balls are nearer the jack than any of the other team’s balls. (In some versions of bocce, a team also wins a bonus point at the end of a frame for a “kiss,” which is when a ball is touching the jack.)


  • After one frame is completed, the team that just scored tosses the jack elsewhere on the lawn to start another frame and the process starts over. The game ends when either team accumulates a pre-determined number of points, usually 12 or 16.


Other Lawn Games on Mackinac Island: Croquet

Perhaps even more popular on Mackinac Island than bocce ball is croquet, a classic lawn game that began centuries ago in Europe. A common variation of the game played in America involves two stakes and nine wickets. Players use a mallet to strike their ball from a starting stake through several wickets to a turning stake, then back through more wickets to the starting stake. The first player or team to pass through each wicket in the correct direction and hit each stake is the winner.

When playing croquet, each player strikes their ball one time per turn – unless they hit it through a wicket, which gives them a bonus strike, or they hit another player’s ball, which gives them two bonus strikes. One option for a bonus strike after hitting another player’s ball is to put your ball next to theirs and then hit your ball while stepping on it with your foot. Your own ball will stay put, but the force of the strike will send the opponent’s ball off course.

Resort guests at either Mission Point or Grand Hotel can get free croquet or bocce ball equipment on a first-come-first-served basis.

A man with his arm around a woman smiles back at the camera while holding croquet mallets on Mackinac Island

Cornhole on Mackinac Island

Cornhole might not have the lengthy history of croquet and bocce ball, but it has become perhaps the most popular lawn game in America in the 21st century. You can find cornhole boards at Grand Hotel, Mission Point and other locations. Mackinac Island even hosts a cornhole tournament each year as part of the annual Lilac Festival in June.

Cornhole is often played as a team game with partners situated at opposite boards placed about 25 to 30 feet apart. Players take turns throwing bean bags from one board to the other, scoring one point for each bag that sticks on the board and three points for each bag that goes through a hole in the board.

Games often are played with cancellation scoring, meaning that if Team A scores 5 points on a turn and Team B scores 3 points, the net score for Team A on that turn is 2 points. Cornhole games are typically played to 21, and the first team to reach or exceed that number is the winner. However, it’s also popular to require that a team has to score exactly 21 points to win and that if they go over 21 on any throw, their score reverts back to 13.

A young boy tosses a bean bag as a father looks on during a cornhole tournament on Mackinac Island

The next time you visit Mackinac Island, stroll on over to the Grand Hotel Tea Garden or the manicured game lawn at Mission Point Resort where resort guests enjoy complimentary equipment and non-guests may play for a small fee. Or, pack your own equipment and play in the open spaces of Marquette Park or Windermere Point.


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