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Designer Diary: Pinball Showdown, or Quarter Up!

Diane Sauer
United States
Hamilton Square
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Pinball Showdown is a game that had a long and varied road before it reached its final destination. This is due in large part to my love of pinball and the fact that I've run a business restoring vintage pinball machines for almost fifteen years. As I mentioned in my designer diary for Conspiracy!, integrating theme into gameplay is extremely important to me. This being a pinball game made that truer than ever — but I'm getting ahead of myself here and should back up to talk about my history with pinball.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were basically two places that kids would hang out year round: malls and arcades. Pretty much every mall had at least one arcade in it, so that was really convenient. Additionally, having grown up in New Jersey, I spent many a summer visiting the boardwalks of Asbury Park, Seaside Heights, and Wildwood — all of which were loaded to the gills with arcades. Spending all this time in arcades, I played a lot of video games, but even more pinball machines. There was and still is something about pinball that, for me at least, transcends arcade video games. No matter how great or how much fun a video game was, it would inevitably become repetitive and predictable. That never happens with pinball. You can play a pinball machine a thousand times, and something new will happen on the thousand-and-first play that you have never encountered before.

Ball One

When Shoot Again Games started, a pinball game was (perhaps not surprisingly) always on the idea list as something that I had to do. I'd been thinking about it for a long time, well before I started the company. When I seriously started working on an idea for a pinball-themed game, the most obvious thought I had was that players would be playing pinball machines and attempting to get the highest score. I did not feel that basing the game on a particular pinball machine was a good way to go since that would have required licensing, so I thought that instead it would be neat if the players "built" the pinball playfield before they played a game on it. This meant breaking play down into two games with the first being a mini-pregame. This was a concept I had seen before, namely in the Avalon Hill Dune expansion Spice Harvest, which I thought was clever.

I kicked this idea around for quite a while, but could never get it to make the leap to full prototype. The reason, I think, is that many pinball machines have similar basic layouts — e.g., shooter lane on the right, "in lanes" of some sort at the top, slings down near the flippers, etc. — which made the idea very limiting since I wanted any playfield players might come up with to make sense. Thus, this idea faded away, although I did ultimately kind of use the idea of having playfield devices separate rather than part of a complete pinball playfield.

Ball Two

For the second attempt, I went in an entirely different direction by having the players each run their own arcade in a town with the goal of running the most successful and popular arcade. Being familiar with the workings of arcades in addition to running a vending route, I already had a good idea of what needed to be in the game. Also, I was lucky in that the guys who did the electronic board repair for my pinball business had worked for an arcade distributor that also did arcade board repair since the late 1970s. Whenever I had a question about the details of how something was done back then, I could just ask them.

This second game, which I named "Arcade Wars!", made it the prototype stage. The play mechanisms that I settled on involved each player starting with a hole-in-the-wall-sized arcade that could hold up to five pinball machines or video games. In addition, each player received a legacy or "classic" game of some type, be it a Skeeball machine or an old electromechanical gun game. These games never went away and always made a small set amount of money. The first player would get the lowest paying of these with the last getting the best to help mitigate the advantage of going first.

The game was broken into nine — yes, nine! — phases. Players would have to pay salaries and rent, visit the distributor to purchase new machines, bribe the hotshots (players so good they had a following) to come to your arcade, and do other things like upgrade to a bigger and better location. The meat of the game, though, was the various pinball machines that each turn you could assign players to from the limited patron pool. The more players you had on a machine, the faster players would lose interest in the game, which would cause its income to drop as players moved on to newer games. Eventually, the profit a game could make would drop so low that you would want to replace it. The player interest mechanism worked by rolling a die and adding the number of players to the result. If the sum exceeded the number printed on that particular game, the machine would drop in interest and be rotated one turn to the left to show the reduced income number.

"Arcade Wars!" was an engine-building game, and to that end it worked quite well, even garnering a few fans in my gaming group. For me, though, there were several issues with it. First and foremost, it did not "feel" like pinball. Second, it was too much of a simulation for my liking and, finally, it would be very costly to make: tiles for the pinball machines, dice for the interest checks, money, a board, tokens for players, cards — well, you get the picture. Another big issue was that the game took way too long, in my opinion. When all of these problems were considered, it spelled doom for this game. Some of my game group still mention "Arcade Wars!" and I think that being where I am now as a designer I could drastically streamline it and that there might just be a decent game in there.

Ball Three

The third game, which used large parts of "Arcade Wars!", had you running a pinball palace starting in the 1970s and ending in the 1980s with the arcade video game boom. The game was to last twelve turns, with each turn being a year in time. The biggest change was rather than having nine phases, I made it a worker placement type of game in which you would position your employees where you wanted them. Want to buy new games? Place a meeple at the distributor. Want to keep the bullies out of your arcade? Place one as security at your location's security room, and so on. This sped the game up quite a bit and upped the fun factor while reducing the simulation feeling I had with "Arcade Wars!" Still, at the end of the day, it just did not have that pinball feeling that was so very important to me, so I scrapped it.


A couple of years went by with no movement on a pinball game, though it was always rolling around in the back of my mind. I was getting hung up on wanting players to have a more intimate interaction with a pinball machine, but of course one big issue is that people play pinball one player at a time.

Then a few weeks before UNPUB 6 I woke up with one of those rare, seemingly out of the blue strikes of inspiration: You are the pinball.

Paired with that inspiration came a good idea of how the game would work, solving the one-player-at-a-time issue because I envisioned the game taking place during multi-ball (a mode in a pinball machine when two or more balls are in play at one time). I was so inspired that I spent the day hammering out the rules and making the prototype so that by the time my husband Nick got home I had it ready for us to play. After playing a few times, it was clear that I was on to something. Being this close to the UNPUB convention, it was too late to add what I was then calling "Pinball Wizard" to the convention book; still, I was excited to finally have a path forward, so I moved ahead anyways.

To make the game playable by others in a few weeks, I felt I needed something better than the crappy black-and-white, no art text cards I had cobbled together. I'm sure that none of you have ever looked for clip art of pinball machine parts, which is a good thing because you would not find much. A pop bumper or flipper sketch, sure, there are some of those, but there was no way I was going to find playfield devices like ramps, scoop holes, or drop targets. The obvious solution was to go through my photo archives of pinball machines that I had restored and use pictures from there. After all, not only did I take before-and-after photos of the pinball machines I worked on, but I also took reference pictures in order to make game reassembly easy. (This cuts down on having "extra" parts when I'm done assembling a pinball machine.)

I rushed the new prototype cards through Gamecrafter so that they arrived in time for the convention. Nick and I were invited to a pre-Unpub event run by Doug Levandowski (designer of Gothic Doctor and You're Fired!) where I was able to get in a couple of plays with other game designers. This was invaluable as by then I had added two more things to the game: first, combination cards that reward you for completing two specific playfield devices, and second, a special advantage for each player's pinball. We dropped special player pinball powers almost immediately, but the combo cards were well received. These also solved the problem with there being clearly better playfield devices than others due to their scores. The lower scoring playfield devices were more frequently represented on the combo cards, and the combos that these lower scoring devices were part of awarded more bonus points.

At Unpub 6, I simply hung a flyer on the table promoting "Pinball Wizard" and we had groups wanting to play it right away. After the first day, those groups must have spread the word because we had people coming up repeatedly asking whether ours was the table with the pinball game and whether they could try it out. We got a ton of great feedback, which lead to further tweaks but no major changes. Not too long after this convention, I wrote this overview of how Pinball Showdown plays:

During Pinball Showdown, players compete to score playfield devices by using their limited supply of control to direct their pinball, but players also have to consider their pinball's speed as each device has a minimum speed requirement needed to score it. Players have only twenty tokens that represent both control and speed, flipping back and forth between the two. On top of all that, players try to outmaneuver each other in order to score sweet combination bonuses and time things so that when "Wizard Mode" kicks in, they are poised to score the most valuable playfield devices.
A couple of things to note about this overview. First, it originally said something like this: "both speed and reserve are used to help steer your pinball...". This is one of those things that points out how a minor change in wording can make everything fall into place. I replaced the word "reserve" with "control" after rolling it around in my head for a month, and once I did, BAM!, it was perfect on every level and made the game so much easier to explain. Speed is a requirement to complete a playfield device, while control is spent to steer towards it. Put another way, the faster you go, the less control you have over where you are heading.

Second, Wizard Mode worked much differently at that stage than in the final version. It always allowed for double scoring when it was active, but originally Wizard Mode would activate only after a certain number of combos were completed and it would last only for one turn. Some playtesters felt it was not dynamic enough and I agreed. The solution was to make Wizard Mode turn on after every completed combination and allow it to remain on if another combo was completed or if any one pinball was moving twelve or faster. (Basically it was bouncing around enough to keep the mode going.) This added another level to the game as players would work to trigger Wizard Mode when their pinball was set up to complete a high scoring card during the next round since it would score double.

With so much of my focus on pinball theme and feel, you might wonder how much of that ended up in the finished Pinball Showdown. A ton. I made sure that each playfield device reflected its real world counterpart. Pop bumpers increased your pinball's speed, hitting a stand-up target deceased it a little, and scoop holes set your pinball's speed to a certain number. Completing certain devices gave additional bonuses like, for example, having four drop targets in your score pile counting as sinking an entire target bank and awarding 5,000 bonus points. The prototype game used an actual vintage pop bumper cap as the first player marker and I had that exact one illustrated for the final game. I even ended up using my photography of the games that I had restored as the "art" for the game cards and for the front of the box. I'd always intended to hire an artist to do art, but the photos were universally praised. Overall, I feel I achieved my goal of making a game that is not only good on its own, but also is infused with my love for pinball.

Pinball Showdown is already in Kickstarter backers' hands and will be officially released at the 2017 Origins Game Fair.

Extra Ball

From the get-go, people assumed that Pinball Showdown would be called "Pinball Wizard" and for obvious reasons the name was perfect. People associate the name with the song from the movie Tommy, but the term existed before that and was popularized on a classic T-shirt that featured a wizard zapping a pinball machine. I really like that art and thought it would be perfect for the box cover and inclusion in the game.

After some digging around, I located the person who owned the rights to the art and he had his lawyer call me to discuss terms. They had previously licensed it for things like retro T-shirt reprints and wall hangings for game rooms. He described the terms, which were something like $2,000 up front, plus 10% of gross sales. This struck me as a little crazy for the usage I had in mind and I said so, though in a nice way. He countered by noting that the T-shirt and wall-hanging people paid that amount. I pointed out that if you remove the art from a T-shirt you end up with a blank T-shirt and that the same is true for the wall hanging, but removing one piece of art from my game left a fully functioning game about pinball. What he said next blew me away: "Well, people license Spiderman for games and that sells a lot of games."

At this point, my mind is trying to process his comparison of a piece of art that appeared on a T-shirt in the early 1970s to a character who has had a comic book running since 1963 that has spawned additional comic titles, animated series, and many movies. Spiderman has been on everything from toys to Underoos. This was not going to work out. I thanked him for his time, then went off to come up with a new name to avoid any possible legal entanglements.

I brainstormed several names with my husband Nick, and we really liked the name "Silverball Showdown". Being fans of the game Vegas Showdown, we liked this being a bit of shout-out to that game. "Silverball" is a common pinball phrase (again think of "The Who" song), but after talking to a bunch of people we found that most people under 35 had no clue what silverball referred to. Sigh. Thus, I settled on Pinball Showdown.
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