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The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association

Player Guide

"An introductory guide for competitive pinball players."

PAPA recognizes there is more than one way to teach players how to prepare for competition. If the advice offered in this guide does not work for you, we encourage you to keep trying until you discover a more effective method.

Above all, we encourage players to look within themselves as often as possible for answers. A key moment in a player's development is when he or she begins to think about the game of pinball with a competitive mindset. Every flip you make will lead you closer to more points or the final drain. The outcome is entirely up to you!

The following guide is intended to challenge players to learn about both pinball and themselves as competitors. Discussion and feedback are encouraged! We intend this guide to be a community resource that grows and becomes more refined over time. If you feel we are missing something important, or feel you can contribute to this guide in a meaningful way, please don't hesitate to contact us.

Competition Play:

When stepping up to a competition game, it is important you move at your own pace. Some players attempt to clear their minds and distance themselves from any nerves. Other players embrace the added energy and try to use it to their advantage.

You can watch other players and learn from them or mimic their styles, but in the end, it will always boil down to you and the game, one-on-one, and only you can discover the style, mental preparation, and state of mind that leads to your personal success.

Pre-Plunge Rituals:

Different players have different pre-plunge rituals. Some of these rituals are superstition and can benefit state of mind, but others serve more practical purposes. Wiping a lockdown bar, for instance, can make a difference in a player’s grip on the game. Similarly, the series of flips that many players make prior to plunging can offer crucial information later in the ball.

  • Are the flippers responsive?
  • Do both flippers feel equal?
  • Are the opto-interruptors sensitive?
  • Is a flick pass or tap pass possible?
  • Are the buttons clean and working well?

Don’t be afraid to take a minute and look the game over, especially prior to plunging ball one. Take note of where the outlanes are positioned and look for signs of any modifications. Check the backglass for any notices written by the tournament director. If you’re in the position of being able to watch other players on the game before you, gather whatever information you can from watching their games. Are the feeds consistent? How were those players handling them? Were they successful? Did they give you any audial clues as to how the game is playing? Don’t be afraid to take a page from poker players and learn from your opponents.

In-Game Decisions:

The risk-versus-reward process that players endure generally follows two schools of thought. Some competitors will do whatever they can at all times to position themselves for an attempt at the most lucrative shot in the game, while other players will always search for single shots, or patterns, that feel comfortable and safe, and build a strategy around those specific shots. It is true that no shot in pinball is completely safe, but when players reach a high-level of ability, they can better recognize which shots are giving them trouble at a given moment and which aren’t. Most players strike a balance between the two concepts and lean in one direction or the other depending on how the game in question is playing.

All players should plan a strategy prior to plunging ball one. If you must deviate from your primary strategy to another, do so decisively and don’t look back. Where many players get into trouble is in being caught between multiple strategies at once, and thus accomplishing none of them. Also, it is best to focus on your strategy in small sections, rather than sweeping goals. For instance, Ruling the Universe in the game Attack from Mars is not a good tournament strategy until you already find yourself extremely far into the game. At the outset, prior to ball one, a more reasonable goal would be to light lock and work toward your first multiball. Don’t be afraid to take this concept a step further and think of the game in singular moments:

Step one, gain control of the ball. Once you have control, take a moment to collect yourself and move on to step two, shooting the lock.

Simplify the game as much as you need in order to stay comfortable. And if you find that none of these mental techniques work for you, don’t be afraid to search internally for a different solution and find success in your own way.

Risk versus Reward:

Players always need to consider what a particular shot is worth. Pinball machines are designed to drain your balls quickly, so you, as a player, must always take care to keep the risk of losing your ball as low as possible. This means only flipping when absolutely necessary and not wasting shots working toward non-lucrative goals.

It is important to remember, however, that value must be considered in more than instant points. Lighting the lock in Attack from Mars is not necessarily the most lucrative shot in a game at a given time, but it could potentially lead to a high-scoring multiball. If you find yourself at a crossroads, don’t be afraid to count the number of shots left to reach a particular mode and make a strategy decision based on the results. If you find yourself five shots from a particular multiball but only three shots from another, consider attacking the three-shot multiball first. While you’re considering your strategy, also don’t forget to account for the difficulty of the shots involved and how it adds to the risk factor. If the five-shot multiball is located in a significantly safer area of the playfied than the three-shot multiball, it may be the better strategic choice even though it will require more attempted shots. As you gain experience as a competitive player, these decisions will begin to feel second nature.

Which Strategy?

A great deal of the beauty of competitive pinball is found in situational play. A player at a bar, arcade, or home game could potentially use the same strategy on the same game at all times without deviating. Competition play often forces players into making unusual decisions. The best way to play games in a qualifying situation is not necessarily the best way to play them in a head-to-head matchup. Similarly, the best way to play a game in a four-player group may not be the best way to play it when head-to-head! The important thing to remember is to always gather whatever information you can from the players around you and consider how your strategy may, or may not, affect them.

In a Best-Game qualifying situation where players receive multiple attempts on the same game, the best strategy is often to go for the high risk, high reward situations, even if that means potentially ending with a low-scoring game. If the tournament format affords you multiple attempts, that low-scoring game won’t make much of a difference, but the one time you break through and do achieve your goal, you will reap the reward.

In a PAPA-style qualifying situation, where players must string together multiple games on a single qualifying card, players will often dial the risk-taking back some, not wanting a single bad game to ruin four other solid performances.

Target scores are more common in a head-to-head scenario. Always pay attention to what your opponent is doing. The knowledge that you need 50 million points, as opposed to 500,000 points, or worse yet, not knowing the score at all, can often be the difference between success and defeat.


Pinball competitions have developed a general code of conduct that has served the game well. Please keep the following considerations in mind anytime you play into a competitive event. Some of these items are suggestions while others are enforced by official rules.

  • If you must swear to relieve tension, excuse yourself to a private location or do so under your breath. Pinball can be very frustrating at times, but larger events are also attended by younger players. Help us encourage the next generation of players rather than scare them off. Screaming obscenities in public is never acceptable and may lead to disqualification.
  • If you must leave mid-game for any reason, even temporarily to use the rest room, inform the tournament director prior to leaving. Leaving without telling anyone, expecting them to wait for you without knowing when you will return, is discourteous to the other players and also against the rules. If a tournament director is not notified and a player is found absent when it is their turn, PAPA rules allow three minutes for the player to return before the tournament director will plunge the ball in question and continue the event.
  • Rooting for particular players is a fun by-product of competition. Don’t hesitate to cheer for your favorite player, but keep any negative comments within the bounds of good taste. There is no need to disparage other players or openly root against them.
  • Waiting for a tilt mechanism to settle is allowed. If the amount of time you plan on waiting is significantly longer than normal for any reason, please explain your situation to the tournament director so he or she may inform the other competitors in your group of the reason for delay.
  • Clean your hands often, especially after eating or using the rest room. All players are forced to touch the same flipper buttons, and all players should work collectively toward cleanliness. Hand sanitizer is your friend!