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.
  • A panaché tournament is sometimes called 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 two-person teams, but after each game the teams are randomly reorganized so that in each game each player plays with a different partner. Individual players carry their own individual scores with them. (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

One method for creating panaché doublette (two-person) teams is to divide participants into two groups: shooters and pointers. Shooters and pointers are assigned random numbers and teams are formed at the start of each game according to an officially predetermined list of pairs of numbers that pair a shooter and a pointer. (If there is an odd number of participants, one of the teams plays with three people.)

Another method is not to divide players into pointers and shooters, but simply to assign each player a random number. Teams are formed at the start of each game according to an officially predetermined list of pairs of numbers.

For each game individual players accumulate (a) one major point if their team won the game, (b) as many minor points (differential points) as the number of points by which their team won or lost the game, and (c) scored points as the number of points that they scored in the game. Example: Team A wins 13-7. Each player on Team A accumulates one major point for the win, 6 (13-7=6) minor points, and 13 scored points. Players on Team B accumulate zero major points, -6 (negative 6) minor points, and 7 scored points. In time-limited games, draws are possible, so players also need to record the number of draws.

At the end of the competition, players are ranked according to (a) their total number of major points, then (b) total number of wins+draws, then (c) total number of minor points, then (d) total points scored. Tournament winners are declared based on those rankings.

Panaché tournaments can be played in a variety of formats. One typical way is for a predetermined number of time-limited games to be played, after which tournament rankings are declared. Another way is to play a fixed number of qualifying time-limited games, after which the #1 and #2 players compete as a team against the #3 and #4 players in a final game for the tournament championship. 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. Click HERE to view a larger version.how_a_consolante_works

Round Robin

In a round-robin tournament, each competing team plays every other team, and no team ever plays the same team twice. The teams are then ranked by number of wins, then by point differentials, then by total points scored. Such a tournament format is obviously not feasible for a competition in which there is a large number of competing teams.


A snake tournament consists of a random subset of the games that would be played in a round-robin tournament. The teams are randomly assigned numbers. In the first round odd-numbered teams play even-numbered teams— 1 vs 2; 3 vs 4, 5 vs 6, etc. In the next round, the list of even numbers is moved relative to the odd numbers (by one or more numbers), generating new matchups— 1 vs 4; 3 vs 6; 5 vs 2, etc. And so on for as many rounds as desired.

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. For more detailed 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.

Post a comment, or send us a message

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.