Common EM Playfield Features

From Bob Matthews EM Encyclopedia 2018
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EMs and Solid States have fewer types of playfield features than later games; technology takes time. Here are the features you’ll find most often:

Lane Sets

Often used to advance the Bonus Multiplier [or light a lane to do so], or to increase the value of drop targets or other playfield features. On some games, scoring a top lane will light a corresponding lower lane below for increased scoring. If so, there may be a top lane you should try to score first since the lane below which it lights is more likely to be scored later than the others. Example: the center lane on Royal Guard.

Drop Target Sets

On most EMs, there is no scoring advantage to hitting targets in any particular order. [Sample exception: Sinbad] That doesn’t mean there’s not a best order to hit them in, however! Some targets are more dangerous than others due to where the rebounds tend to go. We’ll deal with that by machine if needed. Otherwise, watch your rebounds and learn what’s riskiest on your particular game. Avoid those targets if feasible, otherwise get them last.

On SS games, there may be a preferred target order, usually left-to-right or vice versa. There may also be one set of targets that is more valuable than the other(s), either all of the time or during specific times. For instance, on Joker Poker, each set of drops of a given card type [10-J-Q-K-A], lights your 5X bonus on a different ball in play.

Drop Target values may vary depending on what you’ve done before you hit them.

Games where this is critical include:

- Volley -- targets are worth 500 without the matching colored lane, 5000 with matching lane
- Jacks Open -- targets are worth 1000 plus 1000 per completed lane up to 3 lanes; completing the 4th lane resets the lanes and target values
- Card Whiz -- targets are worth 1000 plus 1000 per completed lane up to 3
- Jumping Jack - targets are worth 100 in bonus, 1000 if lit saucer collected

Several games have drop target-based end-of-ball bonuses. In some cases, complete sets matter [High Hand – 10 times the value for complete suits]. In other cases, they don’t [El Dorado].

Inline Drop Targets

On several solid-state games, notably Ballys, a series of 3 or 4 drop targets are positioned in a mostly vertical row one behind the other. They are most often used to increase your bonus multiplier, e.g. on Paragon, the first two targets are just points, then the next two give you 2X and 3X bonus, and finally the saucer behind the targets gives you 5X bonus. Some sets are 2-3-5, some are 2-4-6, some are 2-3-4-5, some like Paragon have one or two non-multiplier targets first. In each case, though, they are a primary goal for you on those machines. For some of these games, the path behind the targets is open, leading to the top of the machine; this is usually also a good thing to shoot for. In other cases, there’s a dead-end behind them, with a standup target of some kind set there; these are usually valuable, too. Other example games include Eight Ball Deluxe, Future Spa, Dolly Parton, Black Pyramid, Viking, Frontier, Harlem Globetrotters, Flash Gordon and Hotdoggin.

Vertical Spinners

Flaps hung above the playfield that spin when the ball travels through them. When spinners are single-valued, they are usually not worth shooting. Most spinners, though, are dual-valued, e.g. 100 per spin unlit, 1000 when lit or 1K unlit and 10K lit. A few machines even have 3 or 4 spinner value levels. Somewhere on the game surface or instruction card will be text telling you how to light the spinners for their higher value(s). On some games, the spinners when lit are highly valuable compared to other features and are “safe” shots in that the ball goes up to the top of the game through them vs. a shot at a drop target where the rebound can drain. On these games, the optimal strategy often becomes “light spinner(s), then shoot spinners all day.” Grand Prix is one of the best-known examples of this.

Be aware that not all spinners are created equal: some spin many more times per hit than others, i.e. they’re “juicy.” The juicier a spinner is, the more valuable shooting it becomes as a strategy. Spinners which just flip a few times before they stop may not be worth your effort, and an alternate strategy should be chosen.

Horizontal Spinners

Disks set into the surface of the playfield that spin when you hit either of two posts on their edges positioned 180 degrees apart. They are usually used to build bonus of some kind, and can rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on how and where you hit them. While most vertical flap spinners are designed to be spun almost exclusively by shots from the flippers, horizontal spinners can also be spun when the ball bounces into them off slingshots, bumpers or other playfield features. Such bounces can also cause them to stop spinning or even reverse direction if they are spinning when hit a second time.

When shooting at horizontal spinners, you need to consider three factors for your shots: the angle of the line between the posts relative to the flipper; which direction you want the spinner to spin; and where the rebound from the shot might go. If the line between the spinner posts is roughly perpendicular to the flipper you have the ball on, you’ll get more spins from your shot. You make the spinner rotate clockwise with a shot to the left post and counterclockwise with a shot to the right post. If the posts are nearly aligned with you, a shot may just kick right back at the flippers without causing the disk to spin much, if any, and risks a center drain. Don’t shoot at the spinner when it’s at such an angle; shoot the ball elsewhere and wait for a random bounce to realign the spinner for you.

Since shots directly at the center of a post regardless of angle may bounce downwards, and possibly drain, you usually want to hit the post slightly off center. Consider both “slightly off center” and “just grazing” shots, taking into account where the rebound from your intended shot is likely to go. If there’s a bumper just beside and behind the post, for instance, you may want to hit the post so that the rebound will avoid the bumper.

Rollover Buttons

Less common, these can be asterisk-shaped disks with slightly raised centers [Jungle King], lozenge-shaped disks about ½ inch wide [Satin Doll], or small tabs ¼” wide [Hang Glider]. They often advance your bonus or spot a number / card / letter. On machines which have a large number of these, it’s usually a good strategy to hit as many of them as possible. Where there are fewer such buttons, they can often be ignored.


Unlike most modern games, on EMs, the scoring from bumpers can sometimes be a significant fraction of your game’s total. Lighting bumpers to increase their value by a factor of 10 can be important. It’s also not unusual to have some bumpers worth more than others in a game, e.g. some be 10 points when unlit and 100 lit, others 100 unlit and 1000 lit. Bumpers are rarely high in relative value on the later SS games.

Waterfalls a.k.a. Plinko Lanes

Example games: 300, Atlantis, Centigrade 37 and Sing-Along. These are a series of lanes, usually two parallel sets on the right-hand side set one below the other, typically 3 or 4 pairs. There may be a gate below the bottom right lane that can be opened to return the ball to the plunger lane. The ball can drain out the [right] side if it comes down the outer lowermost lane and there is no open gate protecting it. They’re usually valuable to shoot at, but their value must be weighted against the chance that the ball drains if it exits the lowest set of lanes the wrong way.


These come in two basic physical types: sharp-edged ones just slightly larger than the pinball [High Hand, Snow Derby], and shallow bowl-shaped ones [Little Chief, Strato-Flite]. Some just award points, although their value may change [Snow Derby again]. Others may cycle through different awards of either points, bonus advances, playfield features [open gate] or some combination thereof. Some may collect bonus. See what it does when you shoot it; it may be the most important shot on the game. The bowl-shaped ones are more likely to have the ball rim out and not fall in; watch out for that. The sharp-edged ones have a smaller feed-in area but are more likely to actually catch a ball once it’s there.

Locked Ball Saucers and 'Lock Stealing'

Some saucers are used to lock balls for multiball play. Locking a ball when the saucer is ready to do so is almost always a good thing to do. The ready state is sometimes indicated by the saucer being lit; on other games, it’s always ready to lock a ball.

Some machines that have lock ball saucers allow “lock stealing.” This occurs when one player shoots a ball into the lock but does not release it to start multiball before their turn ends. On many EM and SS games, that ball can be released by the next player, or by any other player after that, thereby giving them a multiball instead of the player who locked the ball. This alters the strategy of play when it occurs; for instance, if you begin your turn while there is a ball locked by a previous player, your best move is often to start that multiball right away. Whenever playing such a game, check the ball lock status before beginning your turn. Some examples are Fireball, Fathom, Space Shuttle, and Taxi.

Ball Return Gates

A wire gate, usually at the lower right, where the ball will return to either the plunger lane or the flipper if the gate is open vs. draining out the side if the gate is closed. If the game has such a gate, you usually want to open it ASAP.


Many EM games have relatively weak slingshots, mostly due to age. In machines where there are no return lanes, e.g. the bottom configuration is outlane-left sling-left flipper-center gap-right flipper-right sling-right outlane, you’ll often find the ball bouncing softly back and forth between the slingshots. Situations like this are where the “art of nudging” came to the forefront. Your goal in such situations is to nudge the machine (or not) when the ball hits the slings in order to get the ball to either settle gradually down to where it will be shootable with a flipper, or climb up and rise above the slings, but not go into either outlane. It’s kind of like riding a swing as a child - - you “pump” the swing / sling to rise up (*or pull to drop down), but here, there’s a “no fly zone” at the top of the sling where the ball must not go lest it drain. It you’re in rising mode, once the last hit was just below the top of the sling, the next one needs to clear the outlane gap.

Examples: Drop-A-Card; Flip-A-Card; Fun Land

Roto Targets

These are spinning targets where there is usually a post, saucer or other feature between two gaps in front of a rotating disk. Two different shots can be made at any given time by hitting either of the exposed targets in the gaps. The disk is stationary when you are about to shoot at it - it spins when the ball goes through an indicated lane or hits an indicated target. You may also collect the item indicated in one of the gaps by having the ball go through a lane, hit a target, land in a saucer elsewhere on the playfield, or drain in a linked outlane.

Random Value Features [Spinners / Targets / Saucers]

Do the math. If the values are 5, 50 or 500, treat it as worth 185, i.e. use the average value. Then prioritize your shots using that average value vs. the fixed-value shots.

Examples: Fun Land spinners; “300” and Soccer bonus-add saucers.


These are metal pads set in angled channels that you can push back via a flipper shot into the channel. The “vari” part comes from the fact that their value varies depending on how far back you push the pad - - further is more. The strength of the flippers, narrowness of the channel and stiffness of the target pad will all affect how easy it is to score on these.

Examples: Baseball; Orbit; Pro Football

Variable Award Lanes or Chutes or Switches

Examples: Sea Ray, Knockout, Heat Wave

A few games have channels which can give you something or not, but which appear to be random as to when they are available. Most such games have a set of gears inside which simulate randomness; they actually do have a pattern, but their mechanics makes it a long enough one to not be worth trying to memorize, nor can you always tell where you’re starting in the cycle. Sea Ray is a good example, where the wavy chute on the left can award up to 4 different things. The gearing, linked to the ten-point switches in this case, can light the chute for 0, 1, 2 or all 4 features. Each ten-point switch advances the cycle. A few steps actually do not change the chute status, but about 90% do. For games with this feature, if you want to collect or enable one or more awards via the chute, all you can do is keep shooting the ball towards the chute and hoping that you trigger just enough switch changes en route to light what you want as the ball enters it.

Similarly, some games don’t have simple on-off toggles for their bumpers, but a geared semi-random pattern. Heat Wave has its bumpers so wired. In this case, make the most of the top when lots of bumpers are lit.

This page is one of many in the The Players Guide to Classic Pinball by written by Bob Matthews