Bagatelle: Free-Standing Table Games

Some History

Bagatelle Table

In France, some time around the reign of Louis XIV (1636-1715), someone designed a narrow oblong table - half the width of a billiard table. This new table featured a target area at one end and enabled play only from the end opposite the target end. From its beginnings sticks and balls were used as in standard billiards, but the targets were nine "pins" placed in a pattern at the far end of the table. Arches or wickets were used to increase the challenge. A player would have a turn, attempt to knock down the pins, and then the pins would be reset for the next player who tried to beat the score of the previous player. Eventually scooped out targeted areas replaced the arches and wickets. One "historian" speculated that resetting the pins each time delayed play of the game - taking away the arches, wickets, and pins and substituting holes as targets speeded up the game. It has been reported that this invention...

"...was designed to be a leveler of talents and to give opportunity to the casual player lacking the skill for pocket or carom billards."

Now at the time, Louis XIV gave one of his granddaughters a piece of land outside of Paris on which a small house was built. Initially the house was called Mademoiselle Pavillon. The house later became known as Castle Bagatelle. (The word bagatelle is a French word. Translated into English, it means "a trifle" or "small thing".) Later, Louis gave the house and land to his younger brother, Duke Arthur, who was an inveterate gambler who always found himself in financial difficulties. Winning big on a bet in 1777, Arthur built a bigger Castle Bagatelle, which included a salon du jeu (a game room) which featured the half-width billiard table. It is said that the game was named for the castle because Arthur's salon du jeu became very well-known in French gambling circles in the 18th century.

Bagatelle Table from Sweden

During the 19th century, many types of bagatelle games began to appear in France, in England, throughout Europe, and in North America as well. The photograph at the right is an example from Sweden.

Charles Dickens in the Pickwick Papers (1836-37) wrote that members of the Pickwick Club often relaxed at the bagatelle table in the Peacock Tavern! In an 1863 political cartoon Abraham Lincoln is pictured playing bagatelle using a cue and balls on a baize covered table with holes at the target end arranged in the shape of an ellipse. This type of stand-alone nine-hole bagatelle table remained a fixture in some British taverns, and the homes of the well-to-do into the 20th century. However, they lost out in favor of a newer modification - the Pinball Machine.

1886 PictureAs can be seen in this 1886 picture (left) from the Billiard Archive (Pittsburgh, Pa.), smaller table-top versions of bagatelle were produced in the late 19th century. To increase the challenge for the player on this smaller table, nails were added as barriers around the target holes. Then, instead of sticks to propel the balls (also reduced in size), a spring loaded plunger was added. Table-top bagatelle games of this type became popular children's games. Eventually these table top games evolved, and with the addition of mechanical devices (and legs) by the 1920s, became the modern Pinball Machine.

Closed Bagatelle Table

The Museum has two free standing bagatelle tables. Both were donations to the Collection. The design of bagatelle tables has not changed in about two hundred years - according to Gillows and Taylor of London, England - a maker and seller of bagatelle tables. One Museum owned table is very much like this sketch. It is made of stained and polished hardwood. The delicately fluted 18th century style legs are on small wheels. The rear set of legs are on a wooden track under the table, and thus, the rear legs can slide inward toward the front legs. The target side of the top can then be lifted and folded in half over the player side. A large brass dead bolt lock is at the player side, enabling the folded top to be locked to the bottom half. The bottom of the targeted side is finished wood. When closed, the table is about 5 feet long x 3 feet wide, and looks like a sideboard one might have in their dinning room or "study"! Prior to being donated to the Museum, this bagatelle table was part of the furnishings in a large, elaborate mansion.

The second bagatelle table in the collection is the type that one might find in a tavern or pub before the advent of "pinball". It too is made of stained hardwood and it folds in half and locks. The top only was donated to the Museum. Presumably, this top rested upon special "industrial strength" legs when it was in use. This "table" is slightly smaller than the free standing table.

Open Bagatelle TableBoth playing surfaces are covered with a thick, tightly woven, green felt, padded top. Normally, the felt is stretched on to a smooth hard wooden surface or sheet of slate which rests on the table base, but Museum personnel have not attempted to determine which type of surface is under the felt on these tables. The top holds the traditional nine indented wooden cups at the targeted end. There are two markings on the surface at the player end - a "center spot", and a "near spot". The tables come equipped with nine ivory balls - 1 black, 4 white, 4 red - and 4 cue sticks. An area on the side of the frame on the top is used to keep score by means of holes and pegs much the same as on a Cribbage Board.

How to Play and Keep Score

Two English language references that offer instructions for 19th century bagatelle table games are:

However, some early editions of Hoyle's Games offer instruction for playing table bagatelle.. (The Pub game books use Hoyle in part as a reference.) The following information then, has been "gleaned" from L. H. Dawson, Hoyle's Games Modernized, London: George Routledge and Sons, Limited, nd.

Since the title page of this older book in the Museum Archive does not indicate a publication date (nor an ISBN number) the "Preface" was examined in attempt to determine just how "modernized" the instructions were. Hoyle first published his book in 1742. In the preface Dawson writes:

There have been so many editions of "Hoyle", both in England and in America, since the death of its first compiler at the ripe old age of 97, in 1769, that it would be well-nigh impossible to say what the precise number of this one would be; but its immediate forbears are that published under the editorship of the well-know expert, Professor Hoffman, toward the close of the last century, and the revision of this which appeared in 1909, and to which Mr. Ernest Bergholt added certain Chapters in 1913...

Several games can be played on a bagatelle table. Players play in rotation. Variations in play have to do with the means for structuring the order of play, the number and use of the different colored balls, and the scoring pattern. Sometimes score is based upon the cup in which a ball is "sunk" - in other games it is based upon the color of the ball, or some variation there of. The following details about play of the game are "almost" in the words of Mr. Dawson, from the cited reference. We've attempted to clarify some of the details by adding additional information.

Bagatelle CupsBagatelle is played with nine ivory or composition balls on an oblong table from 6 to 10 feet long, and about one-fourth of this in width. At that end of the table - farthest from the player's end - are nine hemispherical holes or cups - one as a center, with the others in a circle around it. Each is numbered. Of the nine balls - one is black, four are white, and four are red. Whatever the diameter of the balls, the diameter of the cups must "exactly correspond with it".

The sides of the board are furnished with a continuous cushion at the upper end, forming a semi-circle concentric with the circle made by the cups. The upper edge of each side of the board is pierced with a double row of small holes, sixty in each row, arranged in groups of five. Inserting ivory pegs in these holes marks the score, each player uses one side of the board. "To score the number obtained, the player removes his hinder peg for the time being, and place it the required number of holes in front of the foremost peg."

Bagatelle CuesThe balls arc propelled, at the option of the player, either with a cue like a small billiard cue, or with the mace that consists of an oblong "shoe," or block of wood, slightly curved, attached to a long thin tapering handle. The cue is used as it is Billiards. The mace is bandied in a different manner. The shoe at its foot is placed in actual contact with the ball, the handle pointing over the right shoulder of the player, grasped about one third from the top, between the thumb and second and third fingers of the right hand. The ball is then pushed forward in the desired direction. "At best the mace is but a clumsy implement, and would never be used by anyone who had acquired even the most elementary skill in handling the cue."

Bagatelle Table SpotsTo start the game, the black ball is placed on the spot right below the cups. The first player, takes the remaining balls, places one of them on the spot at the player end, and impels that ball in the direction of the black ball. If it hits the black ball, the stroke is good, and another ball is played. The player continues till all of the eight balls have been played. If the first ball played misses the black, it is removed from the table (whether it falls into a hole or not), and the ball is lost to the player for that turn. Any succeeding balls are lost until the black ball is hit, after which the obligation to strike it ceases. If any ball is struck and driven back towards the player more than half-way down the board, it is in like manner removed. After the black ball is struck once, the player is no longer obliged to place a ball on the starting spot, but may place it at any point behind that spot.

The object of the player is to "hole" as many balls as possible, preferably in the cups bearing the higher numbers. The black ball counts double, and a good player will, therefore, endeavor to get this into the center hole. "This, is somewhat difficult, for, if struck directly towards the 9, it must pass over the 1, and is very likely to hole itself therein." A safer play is to strike a ball lightly on the right side so it drives towards the 8, and may be coaxed by a subsequent ball. When the black ball has found a resting-place, the efforts of the player are directed to placing the remaining balls to their best advantage. The approved methods of play for doing this, is to hole 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 - by striking a ball "off the cushion" into the desired hole. "The best mode of playing a given ball will, however, be greatly governed by the positions occupied by preceding balls."

"It frequently happens that a number of balls lie at distances less than their own diameter from the semicircular cushion at top. In such case, a ball sent slowly round the cushion will strike them all in succession, and. driving them towards the center, may hole one or more of them. If, on the other hand, the balls in question are more than their own diameter from the cushion, the ball sent in pursuit of them will run harmlessly around, and very probably be lost by over-passing the halfway line. Or, again, the balls may be lying close under the cushion, and the impact of the ball in play may simply drive them further around. If a ball lies on the brink of a hole, a discreet touch in the right place will cause it to drop therein. For such strokes as these Billiards may be studied with advantage".

"The game is usually 120 points. This number is not absolute. A player who first reaches it continues to play until the eight balls are exhausted. If the player is the second player, the game is then at an end, but if the player was the first to play, the second player is entitled to play eight balls also, and the player attaining the larger total is the winner. If, when the game is won, the loser has not turned the corner - i.e., begun to score on the downward journey, the game is a double, and if there were any stakes, the loser pays double accordingly. When four players take part, two play as partners against the two others, one of each side playing alternately the whole of the eight balls."

The Sans Egal Game is played by two persons, one taking the four white, and the other the four red balls. The black ball is placed as in the ordinary game, and the players each play one ball alternately. Each ball played must strike the black until the black is holed; if it fails to do so it is not removed from the board, but the player forfeits five points, and does not count the score made by that ball should it drop into a hole. The player who holes the black scores the value of the hole and that of each hole occupied by his own, whether holed by himself or by his opponent. The highest scorer with his four balls wins, unless it had been agreed that the game should be for a definite number of points, usually 25 or 31.

The Cannon Game is played by two players, with three balls only, one taking a white, and the other a red ball. Having decided who is to begin, the non-striker's ball is placed mid-way between the 5 and 9 holes, and the black ball on the usual spot. The player then strikes at the black, endeavoring to make a cannon on the adversary's ball. If the strike succeeds, a 2 is scored for the cannon, the number of the holes (if any) into which the struck ball or the opponent's ball has fallen, and double the number of any hole into which the black has fallen. In such cases, the player plays again, and continues to do so until unable to score. If a player fails to make the cannon, nothing is scored. If the player's ball or the black ball is holed - it is replaced on its proper spot. Either ball not holed remains in the position which it happens to occupy. The adversary's ball is placed on the further end of the board then, and the adversary plays in turn, and so on, till the agreed limit of the game is reached.

Last update February 26, 2010