Pinball Mathlete

The question is, will there be more-cades?

When it comes to modern roll-and-write games, one of the system’s most effective tools is the possibility of a shared roll between players. It’s the sharing that matters. Chance still dictates your opportunities. The roll may even be “unfair.” But because it’s shared alike, everybody is on equal footing. At least, until players apply the roll in different ways and begin reaping the effects.

Super-Skill Pinball uses the same trick. Two dice are rolled and everybody makes do with the same results. But two things set it apart. One, it was designed by Geoff Engelstein, the guy who formalized the idea of input and output luck in board games. No surprise that it’s brimming with clever applications of chance. And two, because, again, it was designed by Engelstein, it feels way more like pinball than it has any right to.

I spared you the yawning, all-consuming CLOWN FACE OF DOOM

Right in time for Halloween, the first table is a haunted carnival.

Let me give you an example of both points at the same time.

In Super-Skill Pinball, your options begin wide open but will soon narrow. That’s also the norm in roll-and-write games. Early on, every roll is likely to hit something, spilling out points and bonuses and even more points. The format couldn’t be simpler, at least if you’re playing Carniball, the first of four tables. Each table is divided into stacked zones. In Carniball, that’s Ferris Wheel cars up top, bumpers that rebound the ball back and forth between themselves, drop targets that award some ongoing bonus when you knock down all of a set, and flippers dividing the rest of the table from the bottomless pit that intends to swallow your ball.

So you roll those two dice. From the results, you pick one number and hit a matching target, moving one of the game’s little silver half-balls down to show what you’ve most recently struck. You can’t just hit anything you like; the golden rule is that unless something is letting you stick around in the same zone — say, bumpers — your ball always falls at least one zone. So if you recently smacked into the Ferris Wheel, you’ll need to fall to the bumpers, or even past them to the drop targets, or even past those to the flippers. Flippers, meanwhile, blast you back up to the top of the table, with the caveat that your right and left flippers are color-coded. As with real pinball, they tend to deliver you to different targets.

Here’s the rub. Whenever you hit something, it gets crossed out. Sometimes this isn’t a big deal. Drop targets, for example, are usually easy to fulfill, and when they’re all knocked down they immediately stand up again, an eraser’s stroke away from absorbing another hit. But that’s uncommon. Most of the time, hitting a target takes it out of play for a while. Sometimes even for the rest of that round. A flipper only has so many slots you can use. Only so many flips before your simulated wrists tire and the ball inevitably hurtles down the middle. Only so many times you can bounce back to the top of the table before your options run out.

Or sometimes your options run out prematurely. Maybe it’s late in the round, and only a roll of 4 will let you hit the flipper. The dice show 3 and 6. What’s a pinball wizard to do? Engelstein has your back. Three times per play, you can choose to nudge the table. You take the rolled 3, transform it into a 4, and write down the difference. For everybody who failed kindergarten math, that’s a 1. Now you’ve hit the flipper! Congratulations! Maybe now you’ll earn that big bonus you were shooting for! Except your longevity depends on the next roll. If the difference between the rolled pair is fewer than the number you jotted down, the table seizes up and your ball is lost.

In other words, dreaded doubles might be your undoing.

Trace this, b-words! he screamed, right before the corp hovercar landed on his head

Most of the tables feature a minigame on the backglass.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is purely from the standpoint of chance. Engelstein being Engelstein, he’s taken an example of input luck, hollowed it out without losing even a gram of its weightiness, and packed it with all the highwire tension of output luck. What’s the difference? Well, most of the game’s rolls provide options. They’re how you start your turn. You roll, then you see what you can do with that roll. Input luck. When you nudge the table, that same shared roll is imbued with additional meaning. Everything hinges on your very own win-or-lose, make-or-break, whoop-or-scream outcome. That’s output luck. And Engelstein folds them together like he wrote the book on game design. Which he didn’t. He wrote a book on game design. Because there’s more than one book about designing games. That would be one heck of an underrepresented market otherwise.

The other way to look at nudging is that, hey, this is what pinball players do. When the ball is sliding along an unfavorable path, a nudge can make all the difference. When careening toward an outlane, even rougher tilts start to seem appealing. You’re about to lose your ball anyway. Why not yank that machine’s front leg off the floor and pray the sensor doesn’t cut in?

This attention to detail is found in every corner of Super-Skill Pinball, especially when it comes to the game’s tables. The neon-soaked Cyberhack sees you running a press-your-luck hacking minigame on the backglass. True to its cyberpunk roots, every roll spits out increasing tiers of points, but the difference also marks time toward corporate hunters tracing your location. You can log off at any time to bank what you’ve earned, but those scoring tiers ramp up so quickly that it’s always tempting to stick around for one more roll — and possibly lose everything in the process. It’s not only about chance, but also preparation, and clever players will find themselves chasing perks to negate particularly bad rolls. Disco Fever also uses a minigame, although this time it effectively forces you to play two tables at once. The minigame’s table is tiny, fast, and requires tricky shots on the main table to stay active. It’s a juggling act, forcing you to use both of each roll’s dice to make sure you’re stayin’ alive.

But none of the tables compete with the humiliation I felt when playing Dragonslayer, an RPG/pinball hybrid that sees you leveling up a spellbook and attempting to raid a dragon’s hoard. While I struggled to get a handle on the table, one of my friends soon mastered a pattern that filled his spellbook with all sorts of useful conjurations. It wasn’t long before he was modifying rolls with spells like Grow and Shrink, summoning die-altering skill shots in the form of Toad and Imp Familiars, raising the dead to keep his ball in play, and sneaking into the hoard for absolutely disgusting wads of points. He was still going ten minutes after my last ball clattered out.

Also wondering why disco was a thing.

Dance Fever is about playing two tables simultaneously.

That last detail is the one hitch with Super-Skill Pinball, although I’m at a loss for a solution. Not only is it sometimes pokey, each roll beholden to whomever is currently making a tough call over their pick of target, but it’s also possible to lose your ball long before the round is over. These are hiccups, but they’re all the more noticeable for the game’s otherwise steady pace, like a scratch in the middle of a speedy recording.

That aside, this is exactly what I want from a roll-and-write. Rather than turning up the complexity, Engelstein focuses on what works: a shared decision space that soon peels apart into a dozen different directions, a constant barrage of decisions that seem binary until they reveal calamitous consequences, and nigh-perfect feedback between the game’s ideas and its actualization of them. Short of feeling the weight of the machine under your hands, this is as close as a board game gets to the real thing.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on October 13, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I’m excited for this one way more than I thought I would be when I first heard about it, but it’s what I’ve wanted from a roll and write for so long but never really found, and who would’ve thought pinball would make a good theme for a turn-based game, but having read the rules in anticipation, it surprisingly does.

    I’m still more interested in Mr Engelstein’s other upcoming offering I’m waiting on, Versailles, but this one is more exciting as it will hit the table a lot more because, at its heart, it’s a solo game, and one that would work well as a couples game (I feel the higher player counts might be where the different player times becomes more pronounced, but if I finish before my partner I can just go and make a cup of tea or start setting up the next game or something 😅). I just need to get her past the blurb: “so it’s a game about pinball in which you tick off boxes in numerical order”, she’ll roll her eyes so far they might get stuck in her head and never see again

  2. Alexandre Limoges

    I think this game is very clever, but in the end, it’s just too long for what it is and there’s no way of making it shorter unless you play less balls (but that presents its issues too re: general balance of the power ups). With several players, the fact that a player could play 20-30 minutes when everyone is done, while actually having achieved victory already, is another issue.
    Very close. Interesting. Fun. But a near miss for me.

    • Twenty to thirty minutes?! What did you do, only use flippers?

      • Alexandre Limoges

        It can happen, Dan, between players being rather unlucky and those being very efficient. We were playing the PnP version with friends and someone lost their first ball rather early, then things got better for 2nd and 3rd balls, but not that much. At the other end of the spectrum, I got to go into the mini-game twice, each time with several hacks and stayed there for very long. I was also rather lucky and stayed on the board for a long time with the 3 balls. Player 1 finished 10 minutes before B, B 5 minutes before C, C, 10 minutes before me or something like this. Not unusual. All our games had spreads between 5 to 30 minutes between the first to fall and the last to fail, depending on the the table. Scores were also vastly different.

        We also tried this with a larger group online with Heavy Cardboard and as you can guess, with about 20 players, the spread was even much larger.

      • Alexandre Limoges

        Now, maybe I do exaggerate a bit with 30 minutes, but 20-25 happened, and not just once. Definitely a longer wait than Everdell on average, and it did not help that contrary to Everdell, the player on the board at the end, if he or she stays there for 10+ minutes, has won the game for sure already. Still, I have a great time with this game, it’s fun, but we play 2 balls, not 3, even with the consequences on overall balance.

      • Huh! Well, there you have it. We’ve had some delays, but more in the ten-minute range. And our scores are usually fairly close.

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