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“I’ve got a couple more machines out back.”
I was playing some modern and E.M. pinball machines around 2010 at my friend Steve’s house. He led the way out back, and I followed.
He flung open the door, and I saw two other machines. Recognizable as pinball, but still different, unique. Each had a shooter rod, a playfield, a cabinet. A very large backglass and an extremely large cabinet head. The head was so large, it appeared the playfields were a bit shorter than the flipper games I was used to playing.
“Flipper games are like checkers, these… these are chess. Bingo pinball!”
This was my first meeting with a bingo pinball machine. I had no idea that such things existed before that day.
Bingo pinball machines were made as a reaction to the passing of the Johnson Act in 1950. This classified the machines manufactured by Bally, Universal, and others as gambling devices. These machines, known as “one balls” were themselves an evolution of the payout pinball created in the 1930s. The one balls allowed for multiple coin play, but the player only had one ball to achieve their goal and win some number of replays in return. In fact, each one ball game made in the 1940s was produced in two models: a “replay” version, which contained a three-digit replay counter (which could be zeroed out at whim), and a “payout” version, which paid the player in nickels, directly upon winning.
Bally had to think fast – how would they be able to continue to sell games when they were suddenly illegal? Luckily, they employed a genius in the engineering department. Don Hooker invented the bingo pinball as we know it today. The playfield had a combination of spring steel, lamps hidden behind shields on the playfield, carefully positioned posts with two types of rubber, and 25 trap holes. These holes corresponded to a bingo card on the backglass arranged in a seemingly random 5×5 grid.
The first game from Bally had six cards – each card could be bought, in order, for one nickel. The game proved extremely popular, and got around the primary issue with the one balls: on the new bingo pinball, a player could win with only 3 of 5 balls played properly. You only had to line up three numbers on the card to win a small amount of replays. 4 in a row earned about 4 times the amount for 3. And 5 in a row earned 100 replays.
A competitor was actually first to market with their version of the bingo pinball. Lyn Durant, another genius engineer from United Manufacturing Company, was the creator of a three card game. It had a much shorter playfield comprised of a tub with 25 holes arrayed around a pop bumper, reminiscent of a roulette wheel, but this layout did not catch on due to the randomized nature of the play. Bally’s playfield design was far superior, and allowed for a skilled player to make the numbers needed to win. Durant had to concede to player demand (and therefore operator demand), and with United’s third bingo design, which almost mirrored the layout from Bally.
Both of these manufacturers started making money hand over fist. The games were no longer sold in payout versions. Bally began designing new titles and releasing them very quickly – sometimes one every other month! Each new title had more than just fancy new graphics to attract a player, though. Large changes to the games began almost immediately. The second game Bally designed allowed for extra ball buy-in, on a randomized basis.
Subsequent games would get increasingly complex, adding things such as mechanically moving numbers on the bingo card, player-controlled ball movement after landing in a hole with amazing kicker arms, player-controlled spotted number selection, multiple colors with separate odds (number of replays awarded for winning), mechanical rearrangement of the card design itself, returning half of the balls already played back to the player at their whim, and more!
Which brings us back to that fateful day. “Ok. I think I get it. Just line them up?”
I was unable to win. Tilting ended the game, and I tilted frequently. But the games intrigued me. They were “Magic Screen” games, which allowed the player to shift the entire bingo card, mechanically rearranging it’s design, and in the process, changing the way replays were scored. Instead of earning replays for 3 in a row, colorful sections we’re revealed of all different shapes. For example, a shape comprised of 6 different numbers only required that you land three balls in any of the six holes corresponding to the numbers in that shape to win. They didn’t have to touch!
The games made sounds unlike any other pinball machine I had played. A whirring motor hum was constantly coming from that massive backbox, and the occasional click or electric snap could be heard from within. No bells, no chimes, but on a win, a satisfying ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk….
I quickly discovered that the games could be divided into four components:
- Coining phase (or betting phase). During this phase, the player drops one or more coins in an attempt to earn increased odds or feature awards. Sometimes, the machine would only flash the backbox lamps, clack loudly, and award nothing at all. Other times, a satisfying chunk-chunk-chunk of multiple awards could be heard. Does it make sense to keep putting in money, or should you move onto:
- Playing phase. During this phase, a ball is shot onto the playfield. Only through -careful- nudging of the machine, could the ball be influenced. There were no flippers on any bingo pinball produced.
- Decision phase: after each ball is shot, the player must make decisions about the mechanical movement of the “screen” or other feature, keeping in mind the time tree, which will prevent further mechanical movement after a certain ball is shot. Based on this movement, different numbers may be required to earn a winning combination.
- Extra ball phase: didn’t win on your first five balls? Buy up to three more chances and keep trying. Does it make more sense to start over or to keep playing hopes of winning?
The playfield is a descending pyramid of trap holes, sequentially numbered. At the bottom center is a hole marked ‘ball return’. The player never loses a ball. All five must be trapped to complete a game.
Aside from the decision making process, there is the art form of learning to steer the ball. Nudging is required of these games. But learning to play a bingo pinball really taught me the subtleties of the art. Pushing, pulling, twisting, shaking, bumping. All without tilting and losing your game. Playing bingo pinball has really elevated my nudging abilities in other pinball machines, particularly those that require a “called shot” at the beginning of a ball. What keeps it interesting is that, despite the standardized playfield layout, each ball of a bingo pinball game is truly different.
There are several aspects of playing a bingo pinball machine that really attract players. The risk/reward of how many coins to play in the betting phase. The constantly changing goals. And reaching a point in the game where you have two “sets” – two sets of two in a row with a single number in between. With only one number needed, you have to make your shot, otherwise, you get nothing. Gauging your plunge using the plate under the plunger, you launch the ball. Knowing the number you need, you steer the ball out of holes you don’t need, but the ball keeps going past the number you -do- need! Steering it skilfully all the way to the ball return, you get ready to launch it again. Wiping the sweat from your brow, you plunge, steer, miss again. Back to the ball return. Sweat, wipe, plunge, steer, and you land in the number you need. The adrenaline shakes subside and turn to excitement as you press the “R” button to collect your replays.
The ruleset for each of these games was as long or longer than any modern pinball machine I’d played, and these particular games were made in the 1960s! I kept trying.
One day, it clicked. With a series of dramatic and skilled nudging to guide missed balls back to the ball return, I won the “Golden Game”, a kind of mini-game called shot challenge. My award was a large number of replays. Now I didn’t just want to learn, I needed to own one!
That started the gears turning. I began seeking out unique examples of mechanical backbox animation – Magic Lines, Magic Squares, Magic Screen. I also learned how each component within the machines truly functioned. Fixing them became second nature.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I just don’t have enough space to have all the games that I want. But thanks to inventions like the P3-ROC boardset, developed by Multimorphic, Inc, perhaps I could marry the 1950s tech to the most modern boardset available?
My plan was to get a donor cabinet and allow for playfield swaps, but utilize the original hardware where possible. The plan is a reality, and in all, there are 10 unique playfield layouts that can be swapped into the ambitious project. Each playfield must be rewired before it can be used. Unfortunately, the wiring outputs were not standardized. Instead of using the more modern Molex connectors, which are small, prone to failure after multiple inserts and removals, and difficult to clean if needed, I chose to use standard Bally Jones Plugs to handle connectivity.
The scope of the project is both daunting and difficult to describe. I intended to make this the most accurate computerized simulation of the mechanics possible, to give the player the correct feeling of dropping in a nickel and receiving an award (or not!). To do this, first I had to break down the mechanics. Similar to other EM games, a bingo pinball is comprised of relays (pulse or trip), steppers (or step-switches – rotational units that change the electrical path with each pulse of a solenoid), and switches. The steppers were particularly difficult, as I modeled all of the various types (continuous step, step up/reset, and step-up/step-down).
By far the largest challenge was modeling the portioning units. The motor sounds I heard that first day were actually two very large clutch-driven motorized units. Each clutch engaged at specific intervals, changing the flow of current. The portioning is controlled using a large disc with sweeping wipers (switches), and the award of features granted via four or five other rotating units.
The games also auto-portion – similarly to replay portioning on 90s games, there exists a unit that will “tighten” the award of feature and odds increases. Never unfairly, but it will require the occasional extra replay played off to get what you want. Poor players receive awards more frequently.
This project required me to translate the many input buttons for player control into each game as required, but more than that, I used the available documentation to go wire-for-wire, switch-for-switch, position-for-position and implement the game features, portioning and sounds.
Utilizing the free and open source pyprocgame framework, I set to work. Other frameworks, at the time, did not provide enough flexibility to handle a flipperless game to my standard. A year and a half later, I had finished the 138th game. While Bally designed several games in a series, there are unique items to program for every game, not to mention distinct portioning and graphics.
I drew up stencils, taking friendly scenes from three different games: United’s “Circus”, Bally’s “Beach Club” and United’s “Nevada” for the front.
Bingo artwork is some of the most complex seen in coin-op. Cabinet stencils typically had one or two extra colors, compared to flipper counterparts, and the art packages, from backglass, to playfield, to cabinet, are cohesive. Step up to a game called “County Fair”, and you can almost smell the funnel cake.
For the backglass, I commissioned comics artist (and pinball enthusiast) Ryan Claytor to draw a surround in the style of one of my favorite games, “Circus Queen”. It turned out beautifully.
One of my favorite cosmetic touches is two small independently-driven computer screens mounted on the apron, which will switch the score and instruction cards dynamically as you page through the menu.
The real games allow you to power cycle to knock off the credits. The lack of a designated knock-off button allowed the bingo pinball machines to exist in an era where the knock-off was taboo. As the power switch for my game only turns the game off and on, I’ve added a knock-off switch and separate code to handle removal of replays.
Early United games had a bell for replay awards. Early Bally games had a knocker for feature awards or replays. Both are present in my game and operate properly based on the original design.
A common item in most bingo pinball machines is the replay register or replay counter. This is a mechanical device with three or four reels that makes a very distinctive noise when incremented or decremented. I’ve added one of these as well, in service of authentic sound.
My goal is to allow folks to see and play these wonderful games that have never had an opportunity. They have had a bad rap for being gambling devices for many years. Over time (bingos were produced in the US from 1951-1981), each state decided that the harm to the public was too great to allow Bally to continue production, and the skill involved removed them from casinos. All that was left was the overseas market, which still thrives today. The games are so impossibly deep that many new converts cannot believe that they were created in the 1950s. And the beauty is that, with all the game variations, there is truly something for everyone.
In service of that goal, I will be at the White Rose Gameroom Show in York, PA, September 29th and 30th. Please come say hello, and try out my creation. Winning a four or five in a row on any game will earn you a special prize (it is quite an accomplishment).
For the past three years, myself and other bingo pinball enthusiasts have put together a dedicated “Bingo Row”, lining up unique examples of these beautiful games for the public to play. I also host a podcast dedicated to EM and mechanical games, and have spoken quite a lot about bingo pinball. They are the most complex and fascinating EM machines ever designed.
“You know, I bet you could replace all those mechanics with a single computer today”, I said the first day Steve showed me the internals of a bingo pinball machine, and the mile-long schematic.
I was right, but as with the games themselves, the reality was more complex than I imagined at first.
A huge “thank you” to the entire bingo pinball community for all their help – impossible parts found, technical help for games I’ve never seen, and so much more. The list is very long, and I appreciate all you’ve done.
-Nick Baldridge, the For Amusement Only E.M. and Bingo Pinball Podcast