Revenge of the Pinball Nerds
Last year’s Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade by math nerd Geoff Engelstein was a probabilities superstructure. What first seemed simple — picking which of two random numbers your pinball would hit next — was in fact a long con of ever-deepening regrets. But in a good way. It was a take-backer’s nightmare, a niggling reminder that the human brain has proved inferior to a rodent’s at assessing basic likelihoods. It also felt weirdly like real pinball.
Engelstein’s second stab at the system, Ramp It Up!, is better than the original in every regard. So instead of describing Super-Skill Pinball at its most elemental, let’s take a look at those four new tables.
When I sat down last night to teach my wife how to play Ramp It Up!, I emitted one of those silent groans that maybe wasn’t as silent as I’d intended. “What is it?” Summer asked, glancing around the room for a baby escaped from her crib. “Oh, nothing,” I replied. “Just dreading playing the intro table again.”
The point of comparison for Gofer Gold, of course, is Carniball, the opening table of 4-Cade and the free print-and-play that introduced the Super-Skill Pinball to the world. It’s the table without frills, without too many bells and whistles. The beginner’s table. The boring one.
Except here’s the thing — even after a handful of plays, Gofer Gold hasn’t faded to dishwater gray. Oh, it isn’t as thrilling as the remaining three of this set’s offerings. But it bests Carniball by virtue of doing what this system does so well. Namely, providing at least two avenues for raking in the big points, and then letting players determine how to prioritize them.
In this case, the switcheroo is found on the backglass, which hosts its own flipper that can launch the ball through a loop and back again, or over onto a set of increasing bonuses and down onto the table, possibly filling in enough “scoops” to earn a tidy windfall. In other words, where Carniball only used its backglass to keep score, Gofer Gold has it introduce the most important lesson a beginner’s table could possibly teach: that sometimes points are a distraction from a second, even greater trove of points.
Naturally, the other basics are taught as well. Skill shots and nudges for altering a bad roll, when to activate certain bonuses to maximize your output, bumpers for delaying a commitment to the table’s more interesting possibilities. Apart from its Lucifer-eyed animatronics, Gofer Gold is an intro table I don’t mind replaying… as much.
High Roller Heist
Like many roll-and-write games, what makes Super-Skill Pinball so interesting is the way it splits from a shared set of inputs into wildly different potentialities, like a dry-erase explanation of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. There’s an unassuming fractality to its process. Every time you fill in a space, you’re not only filling it in for points now — you’re blocking it off for the future.
High Roller Heist puts that fractality into its sharpest focus. As the protagonist of your own Ocean’s Eleven casino heist, your goal is to bust into three separate motherlodes on the backglass. There’s the casino, the easiest to access, where you play slots for rapid trickles of points; the vault, blocked off by a code and filled with a few high-value targets; and the mint, where stacked gold bars are worth insane amounts of points if you can stick around long enough to pile them up.
In fine heist-flick fashion, though, there are complications. The first is your crew. To pilfer the most from those locked areas, you’ll need demolitionists and acrobats and fences, all of whom can be unlocked on the table’s main floor. But High Roller Heist only gives you two balls instead of the usual three. Spend too much time planning the perfect heist and you’ll never get around to executing it.
And then there’s the guard. At certain points, he rotates between his donut booth and those three scoring areas. Get caught in his area and you’re busted back to the floor, wasting precious time and flipper hits.
This is the table that had me going Oh! There’s more to Super-Skill! Many of 4-Cade’s tables included minigames, but they tended to feel sectioned-off from the main table. More than any of those, High Roller Heist feels incorporated. Whole. And it forces players to consider their hits more precisely than ever before.
Right when I thought Ramp It Up! had reached peak experimental, it gave me Pin Pals. Like every table, it’s possible to solo this one, but that misses out on what makes it so intriguing. Because Pin Pals is a team game, and it works best when you can pit two pairs against each other.
It’s a straightforward table for the most part. The big wrinkle is that many of your bonuses are awarded to your partner. Skill shots? Yep. Drop-shot bonuses like multiball? Those too. There’s even a new mechanism, the “bam bonus,” where the next shot with either your partner’s red or yellow flipper scores double. Because you don’t want to waste a bam bonus on doubling one wimpy point, it becomes necessary to coordinate. And that’s before we put you in THE CAGE. That’s where the table’s bumpers are, and you score double when both teammates are wrasslin’ in there at the same time.
What I love about Pin Pals is that it puts the focus squarely on the show you’re putting on with your partner. Its scoring opportunities are modest. At least until you have multiball and a chair bonus. The result is a game of communication as much as a game about probabilities and reacting on the fly. It’s my favorite table yet.
The refrain I keep hearing about Super-Skill Pinball is that it “really feels like pinball.” In a limited fashion, of course. When I play pinball, am I assessing probabilities? Not so much. Mostly I’m trying to not soil myself.
Top Speed is the table that gets closest to real pinball, because it’s the first table that I’ve lost because the ball was moving so fast that I couldn’t hit it.
Unlike every other table, with their targets that stick to the customary digits of a six-sided die, Top Speed goes all the way up to nine. Now, you might be wondering to yourself how you’re going to hit a seven, eight, or nine with a d6. The answer is the speedometer. On the table’s midpoint there are two scoops that either pump the gas or the brakes. The former increases your speed, while the latter — look, you know how a car works. From that moment forward, your speed is added to the roll. A six becomes a seven. If you’re hurtling along at mach speed, it becomes a nine.
For Top Speed’s highest scores, you have to go fast. To stay on the table, you can’t keep going fast all the time. You’re effectively shifting gears. Sometimes the ball gets away from you. Other times you’ll drop into a lower gear at exactly the right moment to stay in the race.
Bottom line: in the same fashion as the other tables in Ramp It Up!, Top Speed is a mathy thrill. It’s a bit faster than the tables of 4-Cade. It’s more adventurous. Will it persuade anyone who didn’t get along with the original set? I doubt it. But for me, it’s a reminder of what made 4-Cade so good — and better yet, shows how much more this system has to offer.
A complimentary copy was provided.