Tournament formats – an overview

Revised 2022-04-05
There are many different systems for organizing tournaments, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Here, we provide a very basic introduction to the subject. If you are hungry for more, the Wikipedia article on tournament systems is a good place to start.

It can be quite a task to organize a tournament when there are many teams, or the format is complex. Fortunately for help we now have tournament software for PCs. See also our page of pre-calculated Round Robin schedules.


Basic types of tournaments

Tournament are usually characterized by the number of players on the teams and the way that the teams are created. Regarding the number of players, the basic formats are:

  • Singles – one player per team. French: tête-à-tête (head-to-head)
  • Doubles – two players per team. French: doublette
  • Triples – three players per team. French: triplette

Regarding the way teams are created, the basic formats are:

  • select — In a select tournament teams of two (or three) players enter, stay together, and compete as a team for the entire tournament.
  • mêlée — In a mêlée tournament individual players enter and at the start of the competition are grouped into teams using some random selection method. The teams stay together for the entire tournament.
  • panaché — In a panaché tournament individual players are randomly assigned to two-person teams, and after each game the teams are randomly reorganized so that in each game each player plays with a different partner. (For more information, see the discussion of panaché tournaments, below).
  • Vauclusienne — In a Vauclusienne tournament all of the teams play with 6 boules, but a team may consist of one, two, or three players.

Some tournaments restrict the participants by gender, age, or experience.

  • Men’s – all players on a team are men
  • Women’s – all players on a team are women
  • Mixed – each team has at least one man and one woman
  • Juniors – usually children age 17 and under.
  • Seniors – players older than 18
  • Veterans – players older than a specified age, typically 60
  • Espoirs – young adults between the ages of 18 and 23
  • Masters – players with a record of skillful play

Re: age brackets— see THIS.

Re: masters tournaments— Each year about 30 national and international competitions are used as qualifiers for the annual French Masters de Pétanque. Players accumulate “Masters qualification” points in these tournaments. At the end of the season, the top 3 players in this ranking are named captain of team and choose their teammates among the others ranked in the top 24. The teams then participate in the Masters of Pétanque of the following year.

Tournament formats

There are many different tournament formats, i.e. ways to determine which teams play which teams. Some of the most common are:

Competitions are often divided into two stages: qualifying rounds and finals. The qualifying rounds are used to rank competitors by skill level (so that they can be seeded appropriately during the final rounds) and to eliminate some competitors (in order to reduce the number of competitors to a manageable number for the final round). Qualifying rounds are often in a swiss system or poules format, while final rounds are usually single-elimination.

Panaché tournaments
First of all, let’s get the spelling right. The word that we want ends with an accented épanaché. The French word panaché (ending with an accented é) means “mixed”, “variegated”, “motley”— une salade panachée is a mixed salad. The French word panache (ending with an unaccented e) means a plume (like a feather plume) and by extension: flair, style. The picture at the bottom of this page shows a “panache tournament”.

A panaché tournament is sometimes called a “super melée” or an “individual melée”. As with a melée, individual players are randomly assigned to teams of two or three players, but after each game the teams are randomly reorganized so that in each game each player plays with a different partner. Ideally each team is composed of two players, but if there is an odd number of competitors some of the teams may be composed of three players. (Another method for creating teams is to divide competitors into two groups: shooters and pointers. Teams are created using an algorithm that randomly pairs pointers with shooters.)

After each game, the teams report the results of the game (the scores of the two teams) to the control table. Based on those results, each player is given (a) one “win” if their team won the game; (b) a number of “differential points” (the number of points by which their team won or lost the game); and (c) a number of “scored points” (the number of points that their team scored in the game). For example, if Team A wins by 6 points with a final score of 13-7, then:

  • Each player on Team A adds one win; players on Team B add zero wins.
  • Each player on Team A adds 6 differential points; players on Team B add negative 6 (-6) differential points.
  • Each player on Team A adds 13 scored points; players on Team B add 7 scored points.

At the end of the competition, players are ranked according to (a) their total wins, (b) their total differential points, and (c) their total scored points.

Panaché tournaments can be played either as stand-alone tournaments or as a qualifying round to identify the top 4 or 8 players, who are then grouped into doubles teams and play a single-elimination competition to determine the tournament winners. Other variations are of course possible.

Single-elimination tournament

The simplest way to organize a tournament is as a single elimination, aka “knockout” or “sudden death”. The basic idea here is that winners play winners, and losers are immediately eliminated from the competition. The results are recorded in the familiar tree-shaped diagram.

If the competing teams are paired-up at random, it is possible that the two best teams will meet in the first round of the competition, with the result that the second-best team is eliminated in its first game. To avoid this problem, the competing teams need to be “seeded” or ranked before the start of the competition. If the teams are seeded, then the matchups can be arranged so that the teams that are seeded most highly will not meet each other before the final rounds of the competition. There are various ways to do the seeding. One way is for the tournament to include a preliminary stage called “the qualifiers” or “qualifying rounds” whose primary purpose is to produce the seeding.

Many players travel to tournaments for the opportunity to play against a new set of opponents. To accomodate such players it is really undesirable to use a format in which three-quarters of the participants have been knocked out of competition by the end of the second round. For such players, a better alternative to a single-elimination tournament is a double-elimination tournament.

Double-elimination tournament

Some tournaments (such as the Petanque Amelia Island Open) include a “consolation” competition. In such tournaments, the winners of the first-round games go on to play in the main competition (the concours). The losers become the first-round teams in a “consolation” (consolante, or repechage) tournament. Thereafter, the main competition and the consolante are played, as it were, in separate and parallel universes. As teams are knocked out of the main competition, they move over and join the consolante. In some tournaments, two victors are declared at the end of the competition— the winner of the concours and the winner of the consolante. In other tournaments, the winner of the concours and the winner of the consolante play one final game against each other for the tournament championship.

Here is a diagram of game structure of a tournament with a consolante contest. It is from the Redwood Empire Boules Club Ledford House Bastille Day 2012 tournament. I’ve marked it with red arrows to show how the losers of games in the main competition move over to the consolante and play the winners of previous games in the consolante. After both sides of the tournament have been played, the winner of the main competition plays the winner of the consolante for the tournament championship.

Round Robin

In a round-robin tournament, each competing team plays every other team, and no team ever plays the same team twice. To play a full Round Robin requires one fewer number of rounds than the number of teams. (That is, if there are 8 teams, a full Round Robin requires 7 rounds.) It is surprisingly difficult to calculate the team matchups for a round robin tournament. For that reason, there are a number of web sites that will calculate the matchups for you, or offer pre-calculated matchups for tournaments of different sizes. See our page of pre-calculated Round Robin schedules.

After the tournament, teams are ranked by number of wins, then by point differentials, then by total points scored.

A full Round Robin tournament format is not feasible for a competition in which there is a large number of competing teams. This is why many tournaments use a Snake format or a Swiss System format, rather than a full Round Robin.

Snake (a partial Round Robin)

For a partial Round Robin, you can simply play as many rounds as you wish. If you don’t have a set of pre-calculated matchups, it is easy to create one using a “Snake” format. The Snake format is basically an “odds and evens” format— odd-numbered teams play even-numbered teams.

To start, count the teams and assign them numeric identifiers. If we have 8 teams, the teams’ numeric identifiers are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Setting up the first round is easy. We lay out the odd-numbered teams across the first row. This is a header row, and will stay the same for all of the rounds of the competition.

Then, on the row for Round 1, we lay out the even numbers so that in Round 1: team 1 plays team 2; 3 plays 4; 5 plays 6; 7 plays 8.

Then for each subsequent round—

  • Each odd-numbered team plays the next greater even number. So team 1 first plays team 2, then team 4, then team 6, then team 8.
  • Each even-numbered team plays the next smaller odd number. So team 8 first plays team 7, then team 5, then team 3, then team 1.

You can see the pattern that this creates.

Sometime, when trying to find your next opponent, you run out of numbers. When that happens, you simply “wrap around” to find your opponent.

  • When an odd-numbered team runs out of even-numbered opponents, it “wraps around” and plays the first even number. So team 3, after playing team 4, plays team 6, then team 8, and then wraps around to play the first even number, 2.
  • When an even-numbered team runs out of odd-numbered opponents, it “wraps around” and plays the last odd number.

The Swiss System

A Swiss System tournament is a round-robin-style tournament that has been modified to make it usable with a large number of competitors. In a Swiss System tournament, instead of each competitor playing every other competitor, each competitor plays only other competitors that have won a similar number of games. The matchups can’t be calculated in advance because the matchups for every round (except the first) depend on the results of the games in the preceeding round. The basic idea is simple, but (especially for large competitions) the processes for scoring and pairing up competitors can be complicated. Tournament organizers often use a computer program to help run a Swiss System tournament. For more information on the Swiss System, see our Swiss System page.

Poules aka “barrage”

Large tournaments are often structured in three stages: swiss system, poules, and finals. The first stage is played using the swiss system to reduce the number of competing teams to (for example) 16, and to seed those teams. Poules are then used to reduce the number of competing teams to 8. The 8 teams that were qualified during the poules then go on to play in the single-elimination finals round.

In a poules format the competing teams are divided into groups called poules. Each poule contains 4 teams. The composition of the poules is based on the seeding of the teams. The first poule, for example, consists of the teams seeded 1, 9, 8, and 16.

The teams in each poule play two or three games. In the first round, team A plays team C, and team B plays team D, in the order in which they were seeded. In the second round, the winners play winners and losers play losers. After the second round, there will be one team with 2 wins, one team with no wins, and two teams with 1 win each. The team with 2 wins is qualified to go on to the finals. The team with no wins is disqualified. The other two teams (with 1 win each) go on to play a third game called the barrage. The winner of the barrage is qualified for the finals; the loser is disqualified.

League play

Note that as of April 2022, the English version of Article 5 of the FIPJP rules still incorrectly translates “poules” as “leagues”.

A “league” is a group of teams. The teams make arrangements to play each other in a series of games that are played over a period of several weeks or months (a “season”). Typically the teams in a league have something in common— they are all drawn from a specific club or state or province or country. The National League of American baseball, for example, is composed of 15 teams from different American cities— Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc.

  • Pre-season activities involve setting up the schedule of games. A season usually provides enough time for every team in the league to play every other team, so the schedule of games is usually based on a Round-Robin format.
  • At the end of the season, the results of the games are totaled and the teams are ranked. The rankings are used to determine a winner for the season, or to pick teams to compete in a final play-off competition.

The term “league” can also be used to describe a tournament format organized around multiple small round-robin competitions (similar in some ways to poules). For more information, see the Wikipedia article on sports league.

A Vauclusienne tournament

In a Vauclusine tournament, all of the teams play with 6 boules, but a team may consist of one, two, or three players. So in some games you may very well end up with a team of three players playing a team of only two players, or even a team consisting of a single player. Or three vs. two. Or two vs. one.

An old-fashioned panache tournament

This is what a “panache tournament” looks like. The knights are bedecked with magnificent spreads of feathers atop their helmets. These plumes, known as panaches, were common 16th-century tournament wear. Feathers indicated status, wealth, the colors of one’s family, and much more. For more information, see see THIS interesting story.


2 thoughts on “Tournament formats – an overview

  1. In England the melee is quite popular and differs slightly from your description. Any number of players can be accommodated (except 7) and the draw is made usually with numbered cards. No. 1 plays with No. 2 against No. 3 and No. 4 and so on. If there are odd numbers there may be a triple but never more than 3 triples. So everyone who turns up gets a game. A spreadsheet can be developed (or downloaded from our website) which lists each combination of players. You can also allocate a piste for each team to play on (1,2,3,4 play on piste 1 then 5,6,7,8 on piste 2 etc) which helps players find their partners.

    The crucial difference is that at the beginning of the next round teams are re-drawn so it’s unlikely you will play with the same player again. Individuals record their own score with the organiser and after a number of rounds a winner emerges. If a player arrives late or leaves early the system still works. With a small number of rounds there is often a surprise winner. Over 3 rounds and the cream rises to the top.

    There are also systems which guarantee that a player will never play with or against the same player over a number of rounds.

    • That sounds like what we call a panaché tournament. I have revised the page over the years, and a panaché tournament might not have been described here at the time you left this comment. In any case, thanks for the comment and this useful information.

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