What do munching on a baguette, learning ballet and playing the board game Mille Bornes (A Thousand Milestones) all have in common?
They’re all keys to getting to know French culture.
Experiencing this beloved and multifaceted country requires that we eat like the French, sing and dance like the French and certainly play like the French!
This can include board games, card games and outdoor games—they can all help enhance your experience of learning French.
Luckily for you, there are lots of great French games out there and playing them with exchange partners, fellow learners or native friends is a really fun way to learn about the language and culture at the same time.
In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the best traditional games that have truly become an essential part of French culture.
You’re probably eager to start playing, but first, let’s take a quick glance at why playing French games is a great way to learn and practice French.
What Do Traditional French Games Have to Offer Learners?
Games that have been passed down over many years can tell us a lot about a culture. Through playing French games, you’ll learn about how the French enjoy spending time, the ways in which they connect with friends and family and what things they consider important enough to continue to share with each new generation.
Also, while playing certain traditional games doesn’t necessarily always teach you French intrinsically, they’re loads of fun and will give you plenty of opportunities for practicing the language if you commit to speaking in French for the duration of the game.
What’s more, in addition to speaking French while playing, you’ll definitely pick up French words and phrases associated with the game, such as ways of referring to certain scores or terminology specific to each pastime.
Plus, playing is a great way to relax your mind and have fun with learning. You can do this any time of day, with friends or by yourself, when you’re learning with FluentU.
With all that in mind, it’s time to call out your friends and start enjoying the following popular French games!
Traditional French Games: 5 Cool Ways to Play and Study Hard
Pétanque is a very famous and popular outdoor French game that you’ll see played in almost every French city garden and park at almost any time of day!
This game comes from La Ciotat, a small town in Provence, where it was invented in 1907.
All you need to play is one small ball and eight larger balls (usually made out of metal).
The rules are very simple, with players dividing into two teams and then choosing someone to throw the small ball, known as the jack.
After the jack is in play, teams take turns throwing the larger balls, trying to get as close as possible to the jack.
Pétanque is played in several rounds, and at the end of each one, teams get a point for each ball closer to the jack than those of their opponents.
Players can knock the other team’s balls away from the jack, complicating things a bit, as you’ll never know who will win until the very last ball has been thrown.
No French game list is complete without pétanque, and you’re sure to look like a real Frenchie if you’re seen playing it!
Everyone associates escargot with the French, and perhaps rightly so, as their infatuation with snails goes far beyond eating the delicacy!
Believe it or not, escargot is also a French variation of hopscotch that probably dates back to ancient times.
However, instead of drawing a traditional linear path with chalk, the French draw—you guessed it—a snail!
The snail is then divided into 15-20 squares and players take turns hopping on one foot to the center while avoiding stepping on any lines or opponents’ squares.
If you step on a square or line that you’re not supposed to, then you lose a turn.
If, however, you reach the center, you’re able to claim a square of your choosing by putting your initials inside of it.
As you can imagine, the more squares that are claimed, the more difficult it becomes to get to the center.
The winner is the player with the most squares once all of them have been claimed or it has become impossible to hop to the center.
You can’t get more classic French than escargot, and it’s certainly a great opportunity to practice your French numbers!
Jeu de la barbichette (Game of the Goatee)
Jeu de la barbichette is a very basic French game played quite often by French children and needing no materials whatsoever.
The game is played simply by sitting across from your opponent, looking him or her in the eyes and—the weirdest part of all—grabbing one another’s chin!
Yes, the French sometimes have a flair for the bizarre and jeu de la barbichette is played by continuously holding your opponent’s chin for the duration of the game—thus the name barbichette (goatee).
Both players sing a short song together, which can be found along with its English translation at mamalisa.com. I find this little French song a learning bonus as you’ll have to memorize it before you can play the game!
Once the song is finished, the first person to laugh or smile loses the game, and I must warn you that, traditionally, the reward for the winner is to have the opportunity to slap their opponent!
Children have played this game in schools and playgrounds all across France for many years, and there was even a national, televised tournament that took place this past year (2017) called La Barbichette Cup.
Les loups-garous de Thiercelieux (Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow)
This game, known by the French as loups-garous (werewolves) for short, was created by French authors Philippe des Pallières and Hervé Marly in 2001, has already become immensely popular and is sure to be a French favorite for generations to come. So it’s “traditional” in a more modern sense, but highly relevant to the culture.
Loups-garous is a role-playing game that you’re sure to play if you attend just about any French party, and which doesn’t require purchasing any materials.
The game, centered around a village contaminated with werewolves, can accommodate anywhere from 8 to 47 players.
The goal of the game differs depending on the character you’re given. That’s to say that the werewolves win if they kill all of the villagers and the villagers win if they discover and eliminate all of the werewolves.
Each game is led by a narrator, usually the party host, who must learn the rules inside and out and be both attentive and creative, as he or she will control the flow of the game.
As for the other players, there are cards you can buy, but most people simply write the names of the characters on pieces of paper and draw them randomly to decide who will be who.
Characters’ identities are kept a secret, and each person has certain rules regarding how they may play in order to kill villagers or discover who the werewolves are.
This French game is a must whether you’re hosting a dinner party or just out in the park with a group of friends, and it will definitely leave you with some new French vocabulary!
Bilboquet (Cup and Ball)
Many of us are familiar with toys consisting of a ball, cup and string where you have to catch the ball in the cup by using one hand to swing it.
Yet perhaps you didn’t know that this game is actually called le bilboquet and has been a traditional French game since the 1500s!
While you may not get a lot of opportunities for French practice if you just play this game by yourself at home, you can always play it with or around friends and, if nothing else, it’s an important cultural reference for you to learn about as a French student.
In fact, famous French author François Rabelais mentions the game in his well-known book, “La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel” (“The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel”), written in 1534.
Even King Henri III was known to constantly have le bilboquet in hand!
The game has evolved somewhat over the centuries, mostly in that people usually buy the balls and cups, rather than make them at home.
Additionally, you can now either choose a classic wooden bilboquet or play with any number of designs made to render the game more or less difficult.
Playing games is a fun and carefree way to practice your French and get in touch with French culture.
Traditional games can teach us a lot about how people find joy in life and the ways in which they share and connect with one another, so play on!
And one more thing...
If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.