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Sarah Fowler, Foosball Fiend

A graphic designer and freelance writer, Sarah is a foosball fanatic with a wealth of knowledge about game tables that she can share to her readers

Foosball Rules: How Does One Play?

You might not think foosball is that complicated: and you’re right, to an extent. But as with any game that has some kind of tournament scene, a lot of rules spring up to make competitions more fair and to eliminate strategies which might be deemed “cheap”, or unhealthy for the game.

Even if you don’t intend to play tournament level foosball, knowing the rules is helpful. If nothing else, it gives you a good sense for how the game is supposed to be played to keep things fair, so you don’t alienate any of your friends with certain tactics. Plus, aside from it decent way to burn calories, you might always change your mind and decide to become a foosball pro; you don’t want to have to unlearn a bunch of bad habits, right?

So, a quick rundown of the rules that govern the game of foosball.

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Before Play Begins

There’s a bit of an extensive process for determining a few things before play even starts. You kick things off with a coin flip. The winner of the coin flip now gets two choices.

They can either choose to be the first person to serve the ball, or they can choose which side of the table they want to play on. The other person reserves the right of the opposite choice (so if you serve, they get to pick sides).

If you’re playing at coin operated tables, the winner of the coin flip also needs to pay for the first game (though the cost then alternates afterward).

Serving Rules

The person who gained the right to serve first, of course, starts off the first serve.

Serving always starts through the serving hole; you can’t just toss the ball into the field. You are allowed to manipulate the ball however you wish as you’re serving (like putting a certain spin on the ball), but no part of your hand can remain inside the area once the ball hits the field. Otherwise, even if a part of your finger is still in, the serve is illegal.

Once the ball hits the field, it’s fair game, and can now be hit; you can’t just start whacking it out of the air.

Keep in mind you essentially need the other players permission to start serving. You can signify that you’re ready by tapping the ball on the side of the table, and they can tell you whether they’re ready or not. Though if they’re standing there with their hands on the handles and you tap the ball, you’re good to go; they can’t stall for time sneakily like that.

If you violate any of these rules, you get a do-over, but only once. Any subsequent fouls means the ball is turned over to the other team.

On subsequent turns, serving privilege goes to the last person who was scored on. In multi-game matches, this applies for the previous losing team as well.

Scoring Rules


Any ball that goes into the opposing teams goal scores a point, as simple as that for the most part. This counts even if the ball goes into the goal but then rebounds out of it, or even out of the table.

All points need to be tallied on the score markers. You may potentially go back and mark previous scores that you forgot to tally up…but the opposing team needs to agree that you did, in fact, score. You’re essentially leaving your scoring privilege in the hands of the enemy at this point, so I wouldn’t rely on it.

The alternate fix for the manual scoring issue is to use top rated foosball tables with automatic score boards. Really, the best way to go when playing tournament foosball is to use the right tables. They are durable and easy to clean and maintain.

Illegal Ball Rules

Sometimes the best method to enhance your skills is to know how to prevent yourself from fouling. There are several ways a ball can become illegal for scoring, and all of them rely on positioning.


The first is if the ball leaves the play area and impacts another surface for any reason. The play area here is defined as within the confines of the side walls, so if it lands on one of the top rails or something, it still counts as out, even if it drops back in. Keep in mind this only applies if it hits another surface; if it pops up and then drops into the play area again without touching anything, you’re good.

The other is if the ball becomes “dead”, defined as being completely motionless in an unreachable position. This usually occurs on the two-man rod in front of the goal.

If a ball becomes dead, a few things can happen.

If it’s near the goal, behind the two-man rod, it needs to be placed in a corner near the goal and allowed to roll out naturally before being in play once more. The team nearest the ball needs the assurance of the other team that they’re ready before doing so.

The ball then needs to be passed from one man to another, and brought to a stop for one full second (counted from the instant it hits the second man) before it’s back in play.

If the ball “dies” between the two-man rods, it is instead re-served by the original server of that ball.

Keep in mind you may not intentionally kill a ball to gain an advantage, or you may potentially forfeit the match.

Illegal Moves

For players to be ahead in points against their opponent, they need to always practice their shots making sure it goes through the goal legally. 

You’re not allowed to spin the rod, primarily. This is defined as the rod spinning more than 360 degrees without hitting a ball. If a goal is scored by a spin, it doesn’t count. If it doesn’t score, the opposing team can decide whether to continue play or re-serve.

You cannot jar the table by slamming the rods and shaking the table intentionally. This one is a bit subjective that is why referees needs to pay attention not only to the game but also to the players.

You’re also not allowed to distract your opponents in any way, including jarring, banging, making loud noises (even talking in particularly strict circumstances).

Finally, you cannot reach your hands into the play area at any time a ball is “alive”. This includes if it’s just spinning in place, but is unreachable.

There are a few more rules, but foosball guidelines that where highlighted are the primary relevant ones for most players.

Tom Erickson