Skittles or Nine Pins has long been played in the Inns of England. In general, players take turns to throw wooden balls down a lane at the end of which are several wooden skittles in an attempt to knock them all over.  There are a number of skittle games across England and there have been many more in the past.  It could be that the game came from Germany as one of the earliest references is to from Germany, in the 3rd or 4th century monks played a game with a kegel which was a club carried for self defence.  In the game, the kegel represented a sin or temptation and the monks would throw stones at it until they knocked it over.  The modern German term for skittles is Kegelen.

There are two 14th century manuscripts which show a game called club Kayles (from the French “quilles” or skittles) and which depict a skittles game in which one skittle is bigger, differently shaped, and in most cases positioned so as to be the most difficult to knock over.  The throwers, in the pictures, are about to launch a long club-like object at the skittles underarm.  The large skittle is presumably a king pin as featured in some of the modern versions of skittles.  The fact that the thrower is not using a ball is not at all unusual – the Skittles cousins, Aunt Sally, and various games played on a court in Northern Europe still uses a baton shaped stick to chuck at the doll and many modern skittles games throw a object called a “cheese” instead of a ball.  A cheese is any “lump” which is used to throw at the skittles and shapes can vary from barrel shaped to, well, cheese shaped, really.

It seems that for many centuries right through to the present day, there have always been a bunch of different skittles games being played. Information is sketchy until the 1700s but the game of Closh or Cloish frequently appears and later on the game of Loggats turns up. Joseph Strutt tells us that the skittles were often made from bones and in a play from 1860, one of the characters has the immortal line “I’ll cleave you from the skull to the twist and make nine skittles of thy bones”.

Some pictures of the 18th and 19th centuries show a player throwing or rolling the ball or cheese while standing right next to the pin diamond. This is usually not a mistake or an illustrative convenience; in fact many games allowed the players to first aim from distance and then take their final throw at point blank range. This last technique is called “tipping” and this form of the game may still be seen today in France. Come the early 1800s, Strutt lists the following five as the primary forms of the game:

  • Skittles
  • Nine Pins
  • Dutch Pins
  • Four Corners
  • Rolly Polly

It is interesting that skittles and nine pins were definitely different games at this time (1800). Nine-pins was played at an agreed distance and was a test to see who could knock down all the pins in the least number of throws. Skittles, by contrast, involved both throwing at distance and “tipping” (see above) and was simply scored by counting the pins toppled, the winner being the first to reach a certain total.

Western Alley Skittles is  the most popular and basic version of Alley Skittles wherein 9 skittles are arranged in a square at the end of an alley.  The alley is around 24 feet long and each turn starts with all the skittles standing and consists of three throws down the alley.  If all the pins are knocked down, then they are all reset.  So the maximum score in one turn is 27.