The sole object of the game was to take the ball to the church of one's home parish using any means possible; however the game was not usually completed with a "goal", as the majority of the opposing players usually gave up when the ball was moved sufficiently inside a team's parish as to render a win for the opposing parish unlikely. Sometimes darkness intervened before a conclusion. Other games were played on Traeth Mawr (Big Beach) at the mouth of the Nevern River, with the "Newport end" and the "Nevern end" of the beach serving as the "goals".
So far as we know, no rules were ever written down for the game of Cnapan, but they were known anyway to the players. Each team would have "sturdy gamesmen" who would have been the equivalent of the forwards in modern rugby, and then others who were elusive and fleet of foot, equivalent to modern threequarters. There were extended and chaotic scrummages, which would only be stopped at the cry of "Heddwch!" ("Peace!") to avoid injury and so that the game could be restarted and moved along. The restarts involved hurling the ball high into the air, presumably to be caught in a sort of lineout. Labourers and peasants played on foot, but members of the gentry played on horseback. Injuries were therefore common, and deaths sometimes occurred during the Cnapan contests. But despite this, when games were organised, there might be up to a thousand men in each team (as is described in the extract below).
"This game is called and not unfitly as shall be showed, the game is thought to be of great antiquity and is as followeth. The ancient Britons being naturally a warlike nation did no doubt for the exercise of their youth in time of peace and to avoid idleness devise games of activity where each man might show his natural prowess and agility, as some for strength of the body by wrestling, lifting of heavy burdens, others for the arm as in casting the bar, sledge, stone, or hurling the bawl or ball, others that excelled in swiftness of foot, to win the praise therein by running, and surely for the exercise of the parts aforesaid this cnapan was prudently invented, had the same continued without abuse thereof. For in it, beside the exercise of the bodily strength, it is not without resemblance of warlike providence, as shall be hereafter declared, and first before I describe you the play, I will let you know that this cnapan happens and falls out m be by two means. The one is a settled or standing cnapan the date and place being known and yearly haunted and observed : of these cnapan days in Pembrokeshire there were wont to be five in number, the first at Bury sands between the parishes of Nevern and Newport upon Shrove Tuesday yearly; the second at Portheinon, on Eastcr Monday, between the parishes of Meline and Eglwyswrw; the third on low Easterday at Pwll-du in Penbedw between the parishes Penrhydd and Penbedw; the fourth and fifth were wont to be at St. Meigans in Cemais between Cemais men of the one party, and Emlyn men, and the men of Cardiganshire with them of the other party, the first upon Ascension Day, the other upon Corpus Christi day, 'and these two last were the great and main places, far exceeding any of the former in multitude of people for at these places there have oftentimes been esteemed two thousand foot beside horsemen...
...About one or two of the clock afternoon begins the play, in this sort, after a cry made both parties draw to into some plain, all first stripped bare saving a light pair of breeches, bare-headed, bare-bodied, bare legs and feet. . : for if he leave but his shirt on his back in the fury of the game, it is most commonly torn to pieces and I have also seen some long-lock gallants, trimly trimmed at this game not by clipping but by pulling their hair and beards.
The foot company thus meeting, there is a round ball prepared of a reasonable quantity so as a man may hold it in his hand and no more, this ball is of some massy wood as box, yew, crab or holly tree and should be boiled in tallow for m make it slippery and hard to hold. This ball is called cnapan and is by one of the company hurling bolt upright into the air, and at the fall he that catches it hurls it towards the country he plays for, for goal or appointed place there is none neither needs any, for the play is not given over until the cnapan be so far carried that there is no hope to return it back that night, for the carrying of it a mile or two miles from the first place is no losing of the honour so it be still followed by the company and the play still maintained, it is oftentimes seen the chase to follow two miles and more. . . It is a strange sight to see a thousand or fifteen hundred naked men to concur together in a cluster in following the an as the same is hurled backward and forward..."
Despite the game's discontinuation, the legacy of the game can be seen in some places where it was previously played -- an example being the "Cnapan Hotel" in Newport, Pembrokeshire.