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How Pinball Machines Work

The "Casino Frenzy" button enables the Super Jackpot.
The "Casino Frenzy" button enables the Super Jackpot.
Photo courtesy Martin Wiest

­Scoring in pinball games is a mystery to most amateur pinball players, whose basic goal is simply to keep the ball from going down the drain. The pinball exp­ert however, is after much more.

Your current score is kept on the dot matrix display located at the base on the backglass. This display is the center point of all scoring options and profiles. In most newer games, this display guides you, though animations or words, as to which ramps to shoot or which targets to hit in order to score the most points.

The experienced pinball player is able to score the most points through combination shots. These shots consist of a specific sequence of moves that activates a jackpot or some other scoring mechanism -- the specifics vary with the different themes of the pinball machines.

In the High Roller pinball machine, a particular combination shot activates a poker-like game that provides the opportunity to score more points. The first objective is to hit the four poker targets. Once all four targets are hit, you are prompted both on the display and by a lighted sign on the table to shoot the right ramp to play poker. In playing an interactive poker game on the display, you have the opportunity to win millions of points.

The poker game is only one of the games on the table, and each one is a complete game unto itself. When all the games are played and won, a special mode called "Casino Frenzy" is activated. Known as a "Wizard Award" in pinball circles, the big points are scored in this mode. Four balls are put into play, and the point values for all the targets increase. Depending on which targets you hit during this multi-ball period, you may win the Super Jackpot, which is the largest single allotment of points you can win during the game.

All pinball games use a similar method in awarding points, with slight variations. Some machines may only have one or two smaller games, with the emphasis on keeping the ball in play; others, like High Roller, put the emphasis on making specific shots in a specific sequence. Hitting individual bumpers and targets scores some points, but without making combination shots you won't be making the high-score list.


Before your last ball, you usually see a screen flash up on the display saying something like "Replay Value: 30 million." This means that if you reach this point total, you receive a free game. Free games are few and far between -- most modern machines are set so that only about the top 10 percent of scores is above the replay-value score. One clue that you've won a free game is a loud noise that sounds like something banging against the side of the pinball machine from inside. This is just a signal to you (and to everyone around you) that you get to play again. After you win your first replay, the machine sets the next replay value to 150 percent of the first in order to make it harder for you to keep playing for free.


One other way to win a free game is by simple luck. All pinball machines have a match feature built in, whereby a multiple of 10 (00 though 90) is selected at random. If these digits match the last two digits of your score, you have "matched" and you win a free game! On most machines, your chance of "matching" is seven percent or less.


One pinball component that most players have come into contact with is the tilt sensor. The tilt sensor is there to make sure players don't cheat -- at least not too much, anyway. By shaking the machine, a player is able to influence how the ball travels down the playfield and score more points in the process. A skilled player knows exactly how much he is able to shake the machine without setting off the tilt sensor. The sensor consists of a metal ring with a cone-shaped pendulum bob hanging through the center of it. Normally, the bob hangs so that none of it is touching the ring.

The tilt mechanism keeps you from shaking the machine excessively.
The tilt mechanism keeps you from shaking the machine excessively.

As the machine is shaken, the bob comes closer to the edges of the conductive ring. Once the bob touches the ring, a current is transferred and a tilt is registered. Depending on the machine, you might immediately lose your ball, or you might only get warned. Most newer machines give you two warnings before all the flippers stop working and your ball goes down the drain.

There are also devices that look for slam tilts. A slam tilt is a heavy abuse of the game, usually in the form of someone picking the machine up or kicking the front end very hard. Registering one of these immediately ends the game.