This page contains a brief summary of basic quiz bowl gameplay. However, many variations on these rules exist, and you should make sure you know which one a given tournament is using. Common rulesets include the ACF, NAQT, and PACE rules.
A quiz bowl match is played between two teams, usually comprised of four players each (shorthanded teams are generally allowed; see “Substitutions” for more detail). Players are given lockout buzzers, which allow the moderator to identify the first player to buzz.
There are two main types of questions: tossups and bonuses. Tossups are read to both teams, and players answer by buzzing in. A bonus question consists of three parts and is read to a team after one of their players successfully answers a tossup.
Each game consists of two halves, which may be timed or untimed depending on the tournament. In a timed game (most common with NAQT rules), each half is usually 9 or 10 minutes long, depending on the tournament. Each half of an untimed game consists of 10 tossups, as well as any bonuses read.
A tossup question consists of a series of individual clues, going from hard to easy, all of which point to the same answer (see our article on pyramidality for more detail). This allows players who are more knowledgeable about a subject to answer early.
Players answer by buzzing in (while the question is still being read). During the reading of a tossup, players are not allowed to communicate with each other verbally or via writing. However, players may raise their buzzers or gesture (this is usually done when a player wishes to inform their teammates that they have an idea, but aren’t ready to buzz).
A player may buzz at any time during the reading of a tossup. After buzzing, the player has 5 seconds to answer (2 seconds on NAQT rules). Players need not wait to be recognized before beginning their answer.
If the player is correct, they receive 10 points and their team is given a bonus question. At many tournaments, if a player buzzes before a marked point in the question, they are awarded 15 points (or possibly 20, depending on the rules) instead of the usual 10. This is called a “power.” Some packets, such as those produced by ACF, do not have powers.
If the player is incorrect (or fails to give an answer in the allotted time), their teammates may not buzz for the remainder of the question. In addition, 5 points are deducted from their team’s score. This is known as a “neg.” However, this penalty does not apply if the moderator has finished reading the question or if the other team has already buzzed. Some tournaments, most notably the PACE NSC, have no negs.
In some cases, a player’s answer is partially correct, but not specific enough (for example, a player may answer “Roosevelt” without specifying Theodore or Franklin). In this case, the moderator will prompt the player for more information.
A bonus questions is read to the team that correctly answers the preceding tossup—the opposing team may not answer. Each bonus consist of 3 parts, worth 10 points each. No penalties are given for incorrect answers. All parts of a bonus are related to the same subject; this tests players on the depth of their knowledge.
All parts of a bonus are read sequentially. Players may confer, but must answer each part within 5 seconds after the moderator finishes reading it. The moderator will prompt the team for an answer after 4 seconds if none has been given. Any player can answer; the moderator must take the first answer that is clearly directed at them.
Some tournaments, most notably the NSC, have “bounce-back” bonuses. This means that if one team gets a bonus part wrong, the other team is given an opportunity to answer it.
Bonuses in a packet are usually read sequentially, and are not tied to specific tossups. For example, if nobody correctly answers tossup 1, the team that gets tossup 2 would still be read bonus 1.
The method used to break a tie depends on the tournament. Many use “sudden-death” tiebreakers, where tossups are read sequentially and the first change in the score determines the winner. In tournaments played on NAQT rules, 3 tossups are read without bonuses. If a tie still remains, it is broken by sudden-death tossups.
Although a team may have more than four players on its roster, no more than four may play at the same time (this applies to tournament play; it is counterproductive to enforce this rule at practices).
Players can generally be substituted between games, at halftime, and before a tiebreaker. At many tournaments, teams are allowed a single timeout per game, during which substitutions can be made.