The setup for a particular game in Division A at PAPA is not appropriate for the same game in Division C or the Juniors division. The correct setup for a particular game at Pinburgh with its match-play qualifying is not necessarily the correct setup for the same game at the Louisville Arcade Expo and its best game qualifying. Directors need to first understand the challenges and requirements of their own individual event and tailor the games to best fit their needs. Setting a game so easy that players can slide it across the floor and have their way with it is never correct. By the same token, making games play as difficult as possible with little thought given to why is also rarely the correct solution.
As a tournament director, you must weigh the difficulty of your games against the number of games available and the time you have allotted. The ideal situation is the middleground where games are considered “fair” and the tournament still runs on schedule. This middleground can prove elusive at first, but the more experience you acquire running events and the more you prepare, the more likely you are to recognize when a game is set up correctly for the situation.
Every game should be level in a tournament setting with no exceptions. It is also important to remember the playfield of all games should be leveled, not the glass! Playfields do not always sit flat inside of their cabinets, and in some instances twisted cabinets will cause the bottom and top of a playfield to lean in different directions entirely. In these rare circumstances, if a decision must be made, give a higher priority to the area surrounding the flippers.
For all games without twisted cabinets (the vast majority), the best way to level a game is to remove the glass and place a leveling tool directly on the playfield. Use your judgement to determine which inserts or sections of art are perpendicular to the playfield, and use those as your reference points. Always level the machine in multiple places to double-check your decisions.
Never consider a game level based solely on one piece of art or a single line of inserts. Trusting a single reference point will lead to problems!
Once you have finished with your leveling tool, take a ball out of the trough and roll it up and down the playfield to give the game an “eyeball check”. Bouncing the ball off of both stationary flippers, as well as rolling the ball into the slingshots, are two useful methods to check consistency. When performing this type of leveling technique, you are looking for atypical variations in how fast the ball rolls or whether it curves more in one direction than the other.
If you are using a digital level or iPhone app, don’t forget to calibrate it before leveling your game!
The Pitch, or “steepness”, of a game varies between manufacturers, eras, and even between different desired setups for the same game. While all games should be level from left to right, a game’s pitch can be correct at multiple settings within a range of common-sense guidelines. The best starting point is always the manufacturer’s default recommendations as stated in their manuals.
- Williams WPC = 6.5 degrees
- Stern = 6.5 degrees
- Gottlieb = 6.5 degrees
So what happens when adjusting a competitive game away from the manufacturer’s recommended setting? Many players assume steeper is always harder, but the truth is it depends on the design of the game in question. When a game with a difficult center feed is made steeper, such as Avatar, ACDC, or Terminator 2, the reduced lateral motion of the ball can cause an increased amount of center drains. For games with wide outlanes or side posts removed, a shallower game can induce more side-to-side movement which leads to more outlane drains. Combine a shallow game with tight slingshots and you often have a far more lethal combination for players than merely steepening the pitch.
The main problem with reducing a game’s pitch, or making a game feel floaty, is it can dramatically inhibit competitors’ ball control skills, and that setup decision is rarely in the best interest of an event. The key to pitch is deciding which direction each game should be set based on its design and to set the game subtly in that direction. More often than not, the manufacturer’s recommendation will work well in any competition setting.
Some game mechanisms only function correctly within a certain range. For example, the ball launch on Star Trek: Next Generation will frequently not make it to the drop target after a few hours of competition if the game’s pitch is set too steep.
Flippers are the players’ primary interaction with a pinball machine. If there is a problem with any of them, it will be the first thing he or she notices, and if it remains unfixed, it will be the last thing he or she remembers about your event.
No one wants to play a game with weak or broken flippers!
All flippers should be fully capable of making every corresponding shot in the game. If the flippers are not crisp and strong, rebuild them prior to the event. Keep in mind that as flippers are used throughout the day, the coils will heat up and they will become weaker. If your flippers are barely making a ramp prior to tournament time, that same ramp will be impossible to make after several hours of competition. As time passes, heat will cause flippers to weaken. Be proactive when it comes to testing and fixing flipper issues prior to any event!
Several of the finer flipper skills also require fresh opto-interruptors on the cabinet switches. As the interruptors get old, they lose tension and don’t respond to subtle flicks of the flipper button. If your interruptors haven’t been replaced recently, chances are they are not responsive enough for high levels of tournament play. This type of pre-tournament maintenance is inexpensive and can make a large difference in both perception of your event, and how a game plays when it matters most to a competitor.
When the ball transitions from the inlane guide onto the flipper, it will occasionally bounce a small amount. This tiny hop can be the difference in timing between a successful ramp shot and a horrible drain. The problem with flipper hop is that it is rarely consistent, so players can’t adjust their timing no matter the length of the event.
Flipper hop adds a randomizing element into a game where one is never desired. Tournament directors should attempt to shift the lane guides, if at all possible, to reduce flipper hop. Some directors have even gone so far as to create custom guides out of plastic to lay overtop of the metal guide to attain a smoother transition for the player.
Anything that can be done to eliminate flipper hop is a positive step for the event.
The use of ball saves can be controversial. Some directors feel there is no difference in fairness whether a ball drains two seconds after it is plunged versus ten minutes. In both cases, the player had an equal opportunity to play the game even if one of them turned out poorly. If a player with a two-second ball receives a second chance, why shouldn’t a player with the ten-minute ball receive one as well?
A second point of view is that players should receive ball saves when they are not in control of the game’s initial plunge. For instance, the plunge in Bram Stoker’s Dracula feeds the ball directly into a dangerous set of pop bumpers, a completely random situation, where Indianapolis 500 by contrast is a controlled feed to the flipper. Giving players an extra opportunity to control the random, Dracula feed, with a ball saver helps ensure the competition is decided more by the talent of the players involved rather than the randomness of the machine’s design.
The counter argument to this logic is that pinball is an inherently random game by design and better players learn to maximize the opportunities they do receive. Having the ability to recover, concentrate, and succeed after a house ball is a skill in itself.
One final opinion is that allowing ball saves in games such as Attack from Mars, with two possible plunges, can be a strategic decision by the tournament director to give players a free opportunity to learn critical information about the game. A ball saver on Attack from Mars offers players an opportunity to check the feasibility of the loop pass, a dangerous maneuver, and to lower the saucer if they choose, allowing for more strategic options later in the game. These types of benefits provided by a ball saver often translate into players reach deeper into a game, and thereby offering more potential excitement for any audience.
PAPA’s recommendation is for directors to use ball saves sparingly in larger events and to consider the talent level of any players participating in smaller events prior to making a decision. If your event consists of novice players, give them more opportunity and encouragement. If your event consists of higher level players, treat them with the respect they deserve and the situation warrants.
Please note that some games do not have the option to disable ball saves, and on other games, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, setting the ball saver to zero in the menu also may have the unintended consequences of eliminating any ball save during multiball, which most players agree is an appropriate award earned through skillful play.
The first step toward making a game more difficult, and the most effective way to do so without angering players, is to increase the sensitivity of the slingshots. Increasing lateral motion in this area of a pinball playfield will lead to faster drains.
The primary method for adjusting slingshots is by widening or tightening the switch gap.
The decision to remove an outlane-post is far more noticeable to players and more likely to be considered unfair, even though it may have less impact on the difficulty of a game than increasing slingshot sensitivity. The difference between the two options is removing posts is permanent, while the switch gap on a slingshot may change slightly during an event due to use. As a director, do your best to prepare slingshots prior to the tournament and leave them alone, even if they shift slightly, unless the sensitivity has dramatically changed and become a technical problem.
Tournament directors have to make decisions that balance two opposing forces:
1. Every game should be accessible enough from a difficulty perspective that players have an opportunity to fully showcase their talents.
2. Games must be set hard enough to keep the flow of lines moving at a reasonable pace.
These decisions are extremely important as they relate to the long-term success of an event. A tournament including over sixty games is far more likely to be remembered for a handful of egregious errors made in game preparation rather than the multitude of correct decisions made alongside those few mistakes.
As a director, you have the freedom to make games more or less difficult, but every change should be made with caution and purpose. If you don’t have a definitive reason why you are changing something, trust the game’s original designer and leave it as it was shipped from the factory.
Certain posts can be pulled with little effect while removing other posts may cause massive, unintended consequences. Before you remove anything, consider its impact on the game. In the case of outlanes, players will generally be far more accepting of outlanes pushed to their widest setting rather than removed, and the difference in ball times is often negligible between the two options. Removing the rubber from a center or outlane post will also have a similar impact to removing the post entirely.
Stern Spiderman is a game that typically runs long in competitive events. The majority of the shots are safe feeds back to the flippers, and the centrally located Sandman targets can be completed safely during multiball. Removing this game’s center post can reduce game times without affecting player strategy.
The center post on Terminator 2 is placed in the game to account for ricochets off of the skull drop target. Since this drop target is the primary strategy, removing this center post causes the game to be far more randomized than intended. Tournament directors should reconsider any changes they make to a game that increases the risk of a particular shot significantly above a player’s expectation.
To clarify the point another way, if a director feels the need to increase the difficulty of a game, he or she should find a way to do so without altering the game’s primary strategies.
A tournament director has the abillity to increase software difficulty in many modern games. It is typically best for a director to choose one or the other between making games play harder physically, as in wider outlanes or sensitive slingshots, or increasing software difficulty, but not both. Most tournament directors prefer to increase their game’s difficulty on the physical side so players aren’t caught off guard strategy-wise by an unexpected rule change. Physical changes are always apparent to players prior to starting the game, while software alterations require a note placed on the backglass by the tournament director.
A tournament director should avoid making extreme software changes to a game that dramatically alters a player’s expected strategy. For example, making the multiball start on Attack from Mars six shots instead of four is within reason, but making the joker lock on Stern’s Batman ten shots instead of two is ill-advised no matter how easy the game is playing from a physical standpoint.
Any settings that change how a game will act during a critical juncture should also be posted on the backglass, such as virtual locks of X-Men, or single ball Destroy the Ring on Lord of the Rings.
A tournament director should feel free to answer specific questions regarding rules or game setup, but he or she should never explain competitive strategy. In the first instance, a director is giving a competitor information so he or she can develop their own plan of attack. In the second instance, a director is giving strategy advice and upsetting the natural competitive balance of the event. Giving information regarding settings is fine. Giving advice regarding rulesets or strategy is not.
Preparing Games for Finals:
If you run a multi-day event, allowing players a bit more leeway with the tilt, outlane posts, or game settings during the finals can lead to exciting finishes. Since qualifying lines are no longer a concern and the prize pool is finalized, dialing back the difficulty in order to let the players showcase their talents can be a good thing for both players and spectators alike. The obvious downside to this thought process is the best players will compete in the final rounds, making the danger of the event taking longer than expected very real. If games are made to play easier for finals, make only minor adjustments as opposed to wholesale changes.
If a player hits a shot successfully, he or she should be rewarded appropriately. When the ball bounces out of Doc-Ock on Spiderman, the rear saucer on Batman, or the Tommy start-mode scoop, it is bad for both director and player. If the Attack from Mars or Monster Bash scoop is returning the ball down the middle as opposed to a flipper, it should be fixed, even if it means stopping the game and adjusting the trouble mechanism during the tournament. Scoops and controlled feeds should always work as intended!
Some directors use impact foam behind Dock-Ock to reduce bounce-outs. The scoop on the tournament Tommy machine at the PAPA facility has been increased in size by a quarter inch to reduce the same issue.
As a director, be proactive when it comes to correcting known design problems. Telling a player, “tough luck” after he or she loses a game with numerous rejected, successfully aimed shots will not encourage return attendance.
Players generally agree one strong nudge should receive a warning, while a second strong nudge should tilt a pinball machine. If a game is sliding on the floor, it should tilt. If a game is giving warnings from gentle shaking or the action of a moving part on the playfield, the tilt mechanism is likely set too tight.
If a game is set so the tilt mechanism is too tight, the setup favors players with better aim. If the tilt is set too loose, the setup favors players with recovery or nudging skills. In a best case scenario, every game should be set so players are required to use a variety of skills in order to succeed against the competition.
When pinball is played at its highest level, all skillsets are important. It is the tournament director’s primary function to help discover who is the best overall pinball player, not who has the best aim while delicately stroking the flipper buttons with a handful of feathers. Nudging has always been a part of pinball and should be respected as a critical skill.
Phantom tilts are one of a tournament director’s worst enemies. Players feel cheated, and the spirit of competition suffers because players were not given the appropriate opportunity to succeed. Phantom tilts can be caused by many things, including, but not limited to, improper tilt setup, wiring issues, or debris shifting inside the cabinet. The most common cause of phantom tilts is a plumb bob installed off center inside the ring, leading to an elliptical orbit that causes the plumb bob to strike the ring far later than a player would expect after a strong nudge.
Plumb bobs continue to move far longer than most players choose to wait (usually a number of minutes). This can lead to situations where a small nudge will elicit a tilt after a larger, previous nudge did not. There is nothing a tournament director can (or should) do about this situation other than be prepared to open the coin door, if the situation warrants it, to show the offending player the still-moving plumb bob. Pinball is a game of subtle nudges, and it is not uncommon for a player to continually move a machine with slaps, shakes, or gentle pressure without realizing what he or she has done.
Some directors choose to install plumb bobs above the tilt mechanism’s ring rather than below it. This type of installation causes the plumb bob to become stationary sooner than when the bob is installed below the ring, giving the tournament director even more control over how a game is playing. A second benefit to this setup is less carry-over between players with regard to the moving plumb bob.
It is important to note some games produced by Williams in the early 1990’s have software issues that make it difficult to tilt a machine with only one nudge. It has become accepted practice in competitive circles to use both tilt warnings when shaking the mist ball free in Bram Stoker’s Dracula without actually hitting it. Players also will attempt to nudge games like Avatar hard enough for the captive ball to shift and cause a multiball restart. These types of maneuvers are considered legal by most events and are only governed by the tilt mechanism itself. It is up to the tournament director to decide if these options, and similar, are desirable or not at his or her event by setting the plumb bob appropriately beforehand.
Cleaning the plumb bob and the inside of the tilt ring to make it more sensitive should always be the first maintenance option, rather than raising or lowering the plumb bob inside the ring. Be sure your tilt mechanism is clean!