Tournament formats – an overview

[Revised: 2018-07-10]
There are many different systems for organizing tournaments, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Here, we provide only the most 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.

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:

  • In a select tournament teams of two (or three) players enter, stay together, and compete as a team for the entire tournament.
  • 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.
  • 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).

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

  • round-robin
  • snake
  • single elimination
  • double elimination
  • swiss system
  • poules, or barrage

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

A panaché tournament is sometimes called a “super melée” or an “individual melée”. (Note the accent on the final “é”. The French word panaché means “mixed”, “variegated”, “motley”; une salade panachée is a mixed salad. Not to be confused with panache, a plume and by extension: flair, style.) 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 offer to calculate the matchups for you, or offer pre-calculated matchups for tournaments of different sizes. For our page of pre-calculated matchups, visit our Round Robin schedules page.

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)

One way to play a partial round robin tournament is simply to play as many rounds of pre-calculated matchups as you wish. However, if you don’t have a set of pre-calculated matchups, the “snake” is an easy way to create the matchups. Start by separating the teams into two groups and arrange the teams in the two groups in two rows, with the even-numbered IDs facing the odd-numbered IDs. That gives the matchups for the first round. To find the matchups for subsequent rounds, slide the row of odd-numbered IDs along the row of even-numbered IDs, like a snake slithering along the ground.

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.


Large tournaments are often structured in three stages: swiss system, poules (or “barrage”), 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 composition of the poules are based on the seeding of the teams. The first poule, for example, consists of the teams seeded 1, 9, 8, and 16.) The 8 teams that were qualified during the poules then go on to play in the single-elimination finals round.

In a barrage or poules format the competing teams are divided into groups called poules. Each poule contains 4 teams. 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. At this point the team with 2 wins is qualified for the finals and 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

A “league” is a group of individual teams from the same community, town, or nation that play each other, usually in a round robin format, with games played on prearranged dates during a period of time called a “season”.

  • Pre-season activities involve registering teams and setting up the schedule of games.
  • The competition includes all of the games played during the season.
  • At the end of the season, the results of the individual games are totaled and used to determine an overall champion for the season.

The term “league” is also 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.

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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