Breaks are the building blocks of effective croquet. Playing a break - which refers to scoring multiple points in a single turn - is the most efficient way to win, and most turns that you play will involve some sort of attempt at establishing one. For each additional ball involved in a break, it makes playing the break exponentially easier.
To assist in understanding break concepts, it's firstly important to understand some terminology
Before we look at the different types of break, it is first important to cover one key aspect that makes all breaks easier to play - that is, running hoops with control.
Running hoops under control, i.e. running a hoop to a specific point on the lawn to allow a rush in an advantageous direction, is the single biggest factor in playing controlled breaks. By running hoops with control, it means that you will essentially be able to choose where on the lawn you want to play your croquet strokes from. To run hoops with control requires 2 things:
In order to ensure that you are running short, straight hoops instead of long, angled hoops, your pioneer balls must be placed accurately; on the other hand, in order to place your pioneer balls accurately you must run your hoops with good control. This may seem to you like a Catch 22-type scenario, and you would be right; but we must start somewhere, and so my advice is to first learn how to run short, straight hoops with good control, and then work backwards from there.
If you are practising running short, straight hoops but still are lacking control, then it is likely due to an issue with your technique. As discussed in the Technique section, you should strike the ball with a smooth, unhurried swing in order to achieve the best result. It is especially true for hoop running where the margins for error are small. A smooth, unhurried strike of a ball can often make up for a small misjudgement in aiming - this is because a smooth strike will impart natural topspin onto the ball which can help to run a hoop which otherwise may fail.
Let us now move on to breaks...
This consists only of the striker's ball and the pilot/reception ball and is, by far, the hardest break to play. Even very strong players struggle to make more than a few hoops in a turn when playing a 2-ball break
As you can see, this break is very difficult to play as it allows almost no room for error. Every rush has to be played accurately, and every hoop shot must be well controlled to keep gaining a rush on the reception ball in the direction of your next hoop. Whenever presented with a 2-ball break you should look to convert it to a 3-ball or 4-ball break at the earliest opportunity.
This consists of the striker's ball, a pilot/reception ball and a pioneer ball. Significantly easier to play than the 2-ball break because of the addition of a third ball, which can be used as a pioneer at your current hoop + 1.
Good players may be able to play a 3-ball break through all the hoops in one turn. Playing this break still requires a good amount of control to play well, as running hoops with control will avoid having to play difficult croquet strokes. It is very easy for a well-controlled 3-ball break to spiral out of control quickly due to one poor croquet stroke.
In the example animation above, blue roquets black and croquets it towards H2 as a pioneer while approaching the yellow pilot ball at H1. After hoop 1 is scored, blue rushes yellow up the court and then croquets it to hoop 3 as a pioneer, approaching the black pilot ball at hoop 2 with blue. After roqueting black, approaching and then scoring hoop 2, black will preferably be rushed slightly north-east and croqueted to hoop 4 as the pioneer, while approaching the yellow pilot ball at hoop 3. You can probably see a pattern starting to emerge here - after scoring your hoop, you roquet the reception ball, croquet it to your current hoop + 1 and then roquet your pilot ball (which was previously your pioneer) and score your current hoop. This pattern is repeated across all 12 hoops. The best players will ensure they run the hoops under control to obtain rushes in an advantageous direction, and then play those rushes to a spot that makes their croquet stroke easier.
The court is a rectangle in shape. The four outside hoops also form a rectangle and in order to keep your break easily under control, it is advisable to keep all the pioneers within this inner rectangle. If a ball is sent a few yards past the invisible line formed by the inner rectangle, then later in the turn a good croquet stroke will need to be played in order to gain a rush on that ball back to good position in front of a given hoop - if no rush is obtained then it will result in a long and speculative hoop approach and will often result in a failed hoop and a failed break.
With most pioneers in a 3-ball break, you should be aiming to send them as close as possible (without going too far past) the hoops - this is because a close pioneer is a good pioneer, and even if you don’t get a rush out of your current hoop in the direction of the next hoop, a croquet stroke of some kind is still possible, to send out a pioneer while approaching the pilot at the next hoop. However one exception to this is with the 1-back pioneer - in the example below, a 1-back pioneer has been sent close to the hoop and hoop 6 has just been scored with no rush - now you are in a difficult position of being unable to send out a 2-back pioneer while maintaining close position on the 1-back pilot.
There are two mitigations that can be used to try and avoid this situation - if your pioneer at 1-back is close to the hoop, then you can attempt to get an easterly rush out of hoop 6 so that your croquet stroke loading 2-back can be played from a position that gives enough room to get both balls near enough to their ideal positions. Alternatively you can attempt to send the 1-back pioneer south of the hoop in the first place - about 4-5 feet south is good - so that if you do not get a rush out of hoop 6 you are still able to play a croquet stroke loading 2-back and approaching the 1-back pilot from a position that is close-by.
This consists of the striker's ball, the pilot/reception ball, pioneer ball and pivot ball - by far the easiest break to play due to the addition of a fourth ball, meaning your break can have both a pioneer ball and a pivot ball.
Everyone should strive to have all 4 balls available in the break as soon as safely possible. Having all four balls available to the break means that no difficult strokes need ever be played. Running hoops with control can help, but the consequences for not doing so are far less severe with the 4-ball break due to the pivot ball always being in an easily-accessible position near the mid-court. It is also possible to recover a break after a poor croquet stroke by temporarily repurposing the pivot ball as a pioneer if necessary.
The above animation shows a 4-ball break where yellow is used as the pivot ball throughout the break.
As you become more familiar and competent of the repeating pattern involved in breaks, you will realise that in order to play a 4-ball break well requires no particularly difficult strokes at all. Having a fourth ball available in the break is a great luxury, meaning that you can deviate from the usual pattern if and when the need arises. The key shots that determine the success of your break are likely to be the accuracy of your croquet strokes to send out pioneers. A good pioneer at your next hoop means you need only get close enough to roquet it and you will be guaranteed to be approaching your hoop from a short distance away. With this in mind there are a few tricks or shortcuts that can be considered when playing a 4-ball break that can ultimately make your break easier.
Looking at a 3-ball break compared to a 4-ball break, you will see that there is relatively little margin for error when sending out your pioneers. If you play a bad croquet stroke and the pioneer goes 5-yards too far or too short of your intended destination, then you are required to start playing a series of good strokes to get the break back under control, and run the serious risk of breaking down. With the addition of a fourth ball (i.e. a 4-ball break), your croquet strokes to send out the pioneers in the first place are usually significantly easier because they will usually be played as stop shots or drives (the easiest types of croquet stroke), and you don't need to be nearly as accurate with your placement of the striker's ball when approaching the pivot ball. However, it is of course still common to play a poor croquet stroke and end up with a pioneer that is poorly placed. Because you have a fourth ball available, you can redeploy the pivot ball temporarily as a second (and hopefully better) pioneer. Let's look at an example of this where blue is just running H1 with a perfect break laid out, and sends the reception ball as a bad pioneer to H3:
As you can see, blue sent the H3 pioneer (black) much too far, ending closer to C3 than H3. But after playing the bad shot and reassessing the court situation, blue roquets the pivot (red) and sends that also to H3 while approaching the ball waiting near H2. After making H2, blue croquets a pioneer to H4 while approaching the poorly-placed (original) H3 pioneer and then redeploys that to the centre of the court as the new pivot ball. After blue ran H2, it may also have legitimately chosen instead to send the H2 reception ball as the new pivot while approaching the black near C3 and then sending black to H4 as the pioneer. With 4 balls on the lawn, there a various ways and opportunities to swap them around if needed.
The early 2-back pioneer is a pioneer sent to 2-back after making H5. This is the most common "shortcut", and is part of most good players' standard 4-ball break. This diverges from the normal play that you might expect of running H5 and then roqueting the reception ball and croqueting it towards 1-back. The reason for the popularity of the early 2-back pioneer is because H5 is in such close proximity to 2-back and it is much easier to have an accurate pioneer at 2-back if you are sending it there from somewhere near H5 than if you had to send it there from somewhere near H6 (as would be the case following a standard 4-ball break pattern). Another good reason is due to the relative closeness of your next 2 hoops - H6 and 1-back - these hoops are both fairly close to H5 and to one another, and so the prospect of leaving a ball "behind" at 2-back after H5 and continuing without a pivot ball for the next 2 hoops is less risky, given the relatively small distances involved.
In the animation, as you can see, before running H5, blue ensures that the pivot ball (red) is placed somewhere slightly north-west of H5 instead of near the peg, and when blue runs H5 and roquets black (its partner ball), it croquets black to 2-back at this point, gaining a rush on the pivot up the court. As you can see, by using this method, blue has avoided two large croquet strokes (sending pioneer to 1-back from near H5 and sending pioneer to 2-back from near H6) and instead replaces them with much smaller and easier strokes.
Having stated the merits of an early 2-back pioneer, it is not always the best approach. You should always be reassessing the best percentage plays throughout your break, and if for example your H6 pioneer is poor - if it is closer to the peg than H6, or is north of H6 - then it is probably a better idea to carry on with the normal break pattern instead of having an early 2-back pioneer. No matter how good your 2-back pioneer is, you won't make 2-back if you don't make H6! Other things to consider are the court conditions - if the court is fast, you may not want to have an early pioneer because it will have the effect of removing a ball from your immediate break. If the ground is particularly fast or uneven around H6 or 1-back and you have left a ball "behind" at 2-back already, then you have no option to send a backup pioneer to 1-back if the first one is not very good. A rule of thumb is that if your break is at all uncertain, keep all the balls immediately accessible to your break.
It is also quite possible to have an early H6 pioneer for the same reasons outlined above for the early 2-back pioneer. If your break is under control before making H3, and you have a good pioneer at H4, then you can consider making H3 and croqueting the reception ball to H6 while gaining a rush on the pivot down the court. The same basis for having an early 2-back pioneer holds true in this case - a series of smaller strokes which can result in more accurate pioneers. However the benefits of the early H6 pioneer are smaller than for the early 2-back pioneer - if your break is under control, my advice is to send the H3 reception ball to H5 as a pioneer as per the standard pattern, unless there is a compelling reason to have a particular ball as a pioneer at H6.
Everything so far has talked about a break that is either already in progress, or perfectly laid out. However in a real game, you will hardly ever start a break from such a simple position. Learning how to read the ball positions and dig out a break is a very important part of playing croquet successfully. In most cases, if possible, you should be looking to load a pioneer to your next hoop before, or while, gaining a rush to your current hoop.
While sometimes this is just not possible, if you have a choice between a long rush straight to your hoop or a long rush to another ball, it is often a better idea to rush to the other ball. Granted, this is something of a generalisation, but let's look at an example of this below, where blue has a straight rush to H1 on black, with yellow south of the peg, and slightly in-lawn from the west boundary. Red is of no use as it is in C4.
In the animation you can see that, while blue does have a rush pointing at H1, it has chosen instead to play a cut rush on black, towards the yellow ball. By doing so, it not only benefits from having a good pioneer at H2 before H1 is scored, but also can end up playing the rush to H1 on yellow, which in itself is closer to H1 than black was at the start of the turn, and hence should be a shorter and easier rush.
Realistically, you will frequently be presented with scenarios where, at the start of your turn, you have a dolly rush on partner to your hoop, but there are no pioneers or particularly useful balls elsewhere on the court. In these circumstances it's often best to make your current hoop without setting out a pioneer first, but before you play any shots at all, you should already be planning on how you will go about establishing your break. Have a look at the below scenario and think about what blue might do. After making H1, blue needs to make H2, so it should look for ways to establish a pioneer at H3 and get a rush to H2.
Note in the solution that blue takes its dolly rush to H1, and deliberately plays to obtain a rush on black to a spot south-east of red after scoring the hoop. Rushing to that spot enables black to be croqueted as a pioneer to H3 while gaining a rush on red to yellow. At the start of the turn, blue identified that yellow was, by far, the closest ball to H2, and so it was careful to try and convert yellow into its H2 pilot ball. In order to do so, blue made sure to try and gather the most distant ball (red) into the break as quickly as possible.
Consider, instead, if when blue croqueted black to H3, it chose to try and obtain a rush on red towards H2 - the fundamental flaws inherent in that line of play are that:
Now consider if, instead, blue scored H1 and then rushed black close to yellow. Blue will probably succeed in getting a good rush to H2, however the flaws in this line of play are that:
A frequently-mentioned best practice in croquet is to "always shoot at the back ball". What this means is, if the opponent balls are together, with one ball on the yardline and the other slightly in court, then when you hit-in and take off to their balls, in most cases you should roquet the yardline ball first, even if it is a slightly longer roquet for you. The reason for this is that you will no doubt be wanting a rush somewhere into the court, and so by roqueting the ball that is closer to the yardline first, you will be taking croquet from a spot that is closer to spot you want to play the next rush from. You also have more room to croquet a ball into the court than you would have if you had roqueted the in-lawn ball first, which will assist in your attempted break. In the example below, blue has just hit in with a long roquet on black, and takes off to the opponent balls near C2. Blue is sure to roquet the back ball (yellow) first, both to aid in getting a good rush to H1 and to have a better pioneer at H2.
If your attempted break pickup involves lots of long rushes, you may want to be more conservative about where you put the balls, just in case you do not end up getting a hoop-running position at your hoop. Take the following example where blue (for H1) is going to have to play a very long rush towards hoop 1 in order to have a break in this turn. Rushing to your hoop from such a distance is no guarantee of a good hoop position at all, and so you may rightly conclude that you don't want to put partner ball in the middle of the court, and instead leave it close to a boundary to go back "home" to just in case.
As you can see in the animation, after initially rushing black behind yellow, blue chooses to take off and get a good rush on yellow towards red, deliberately leaving black close to the east boundary. It could have instead chosen to play a stop shot to put black towards the middle of the court. This would have been optimal if blue was confident of making its hoop in this turn - for example if blue was for H2 and had a handy ball (red) close-by to its hoop.
As it turned out, when blue failed to gain hoop running position at H1 a few strokes later, it was able to retreat back to black again with its final shot, and retain the innings. If black had been in the middle of the court, the only way for blue to join black again would be to lag blue near to it, mid-court. This not only greatly shortens red or yellow's attempted roquet at blue and black, meaning that the opponent is more likely to hit, but it also makes red and yellow's shot safer and makes blue & black's break pickup much more difficult - a miss from red or yellow through blue & black in mid-court would finish on a distant boundary far from blue & black, and consequently make blue's next break pickup all the more difficult with one fewer ball at its disposal. When picking up a break, you should always be assessing your chances of success - as seen in the example, sometimes there is a place for caution.