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Welcome, it is great that you’re curious about pinball! It is a unique hobby in the digital age as it is real, it is physically happening right under the glass in front of you. It is a hobby that is social, that is challenging, that is addictive and endlessly fun. Thanks for stopping by!
When I first became interested in pinball, I had many questions and one friend that was “into pinball”. The questions seemed either too basic or too broad to ask on a forum, so instead I bombarded that friend for months and months with question after question. This page covers some basic pinball information in a very rambling way. Consider it a non-comprehensive guide to how to pinball.
Where can I play pinball?
There are several pinball simulators and video games, such as The Pinball Arcade and Pinball FX. You can download these onto your phone or tablet and they are great ways to get access to a lot of machines to figure out what types of games you enjoy. But nothing is better than playing real machines. To find some nearby you, a couple resources you can use are the Pinball Map app for your phone, or you can look at the Pin Map on pinside.com.
I found a machine but I’ve never played pinball before.
So you found a machine, or even better, a group of machines to play. Put your money or tokens in, or if it is a fancy place you can pay with your phone. Most machines have a start button on the front of the machine, push it and play! Want to play against friends or a random person you just met? Put in enough money for two credits (or three or four) and push the start button twice (or thrice, or fri…four times). For one credit, on most modern machines you will play three balls per game, while older games are typically set to five balls.
How many different pinball machines exist?
- Electro-mechanical (EM): 1947ish-1978ish
- Early Solid State (SS): 1979ish-1989ish
- Dot Matrix Display (DMD): 1990ish-2012ish
- Colorized Displays: 2013ish-current
The years aren’t exact because different pinball manufacturers implement changes at different times. Note that many pinball sources will reference “solid state” as anything using electronics (all games after the EM era are technically solid-state, even if they have DMD or LCD display).
How do I go about buying a pinball machine?
Now things are getting serious! Figure out your budget, where you’re going to put the machine, how you’re going to move the machine, and finally, figure out which machines you want to keep an eye out for. In general, newer machines (or machines with less play) will require less maintenance than older machines. That isn’t always true, but is a good rule of thumb.
My best advice here is to cast a wide net. There are a LOT of great pinball machines out there, and odds are you won’t keep your first one forever (though some do). When I got into the hobby I was planning on buying exactly two pinball machines (one that played fast and one with a deep ruleset), moving them into my basement, and never having to move them again. That was many pins ago.
Where do I buy a pinball machine?
There are many options on where to buy a game. If you’re looking to buy a brand new machine, it is pretty simple – contact distributors for the game you want, find the best price, and buy it. For used ones, you can check Craigslist, Facebook, Pinside, Pinball Classified Ads (Mr. Pinball), etc. Once you get more plugged into your local pinball community, you’ll find more and more buying options.
What is a ruleset?
A pinball ruleset are just the rules for the game. For example, if you shoot the ball into a certain hole, it will score a certain number of points, or on modern games maybe start start a mode or a multiball.
A mode is a “level” of the game that happens for a limited amount of time during a game where you’re typically trying to accomplish a certain task to score points or progress through the game. Multi-balls are modes when more than one ball is in play at a time and can be some of the most exciting times in a pinball game.
Are the levels like the levels on a video game?
Yep. And just like a video game, you can beat the game if you complete all the levels or goals in a game.
How much does a pinball machine cost?
This is like asking how much a car costs – what kind is it? What condition is it in? How many were made? There are a lot of variables that determine how much a machine will cost.
There is a website that tracks eBay sales of pinball machines that you can find at www.bostonpinball.biz. Pinside.com also lists price ranges, and you can look at recent sales of the pins as well which may show the sale price. There is also a book called the Mr. Pinball Price Guide, which comes out annually, that can serve as a reference tool.
Sale prices are the key. Just because a game is listed on eBay for a certain price does not mean that is what that machine normally sells for.
Generally, if you buy from another pinball collector you will likely pay less than if you buy from a dealer. However, buying from a dealer will often mean you can contact them if you have any problems with your game down the road as they often come with a warranty.
Mods are another thing that can affect price.
Modifications – upgrades or additions to the machine. These are very subjective, and sometimes add little or no value to the machine. However, if it has popular mods or mods that are no longer produced it can add significant value.
So, how much does a pinball machine cost?
Somewhere between $25 and $25,000. As a point of reference though, brand new machines cost $5,000 and up, and you can find nice DMD/solid state games for about $1,000 at the low end.
What are some basic things to know when looking at a pinball machine?
Depending on the age and manufacturer of the machine, the following may vary slightly, but here are some basics for most solid state machines. When you look at a pinball machine, there is the cabinet and the backbox. To turn the game on, there is usually a switch on the bottom of the cabinet a few inches behind the right front leg. Some newer machines have the on/off switch on the bottom of the right side of the backbox.
To gain access to the cabinet, there is a key included with the machine (hopefully) that is used to get into the coin door. From there, you can unlatch the lock down bar and remove the glass (see below for pics). You can raise and lower the playfield by lifting up and pulling it towards you. There is usually some type of support under the playfield to set it on the front of the machine. Then you can lift the entire playfield up (make sure you take the pinballs out first!) and prop it against the backbox to work under the playfield.
When lowering the playfield, be careful and do it slowly to avoid scratching the inside sides of the machine. When you go to push it back in, there is a lip at the end of the rails it slides on that it will catch on. You can go to the back at that point and lift up the back of the playfield to get it over the lip, or if you’re skilled, you can put some downward pressure on the front as you’re sliding it and get it up and over the lip.
To get into the backbox (or head) of a machine, there will also be a key (hopefully). Many times the key to get into the backbox is hanging inside the coin door so check there first. The lock will be somewhere on the backbox. For many solid state machines, the lock is in the middle front of the top. If it isn’t there, look to find it, it’s there somewhere. For EM’s, many times the access to the backbox is through the back of the backbox.
To remove the backglass/translight on solid state machines, after you’ve unlocked it, most of the time you’ll lift it straight up then pull the bottom out slightly and slide it out.
To fold the head down or remove the head of the machine for transporting, it is different for different manufacturers. But a lot of the time, to fold it down you’ll have either bolts and wing nuts inside the backbox, or bolts on the back of the pin, or a hole where you need to use an allen wrench, or some combination of the above.
On the inside door of many machines you’ll find volume controls and controls to access the service menu of that machine. On some machines those controls are not on the coin door itself but inside the cabinet. From the service menu, you can change settings and test diagnostics on the machine which can help track down components that aren’t working properly.
Again, much of this is dependent on the age and manufacturer of the machine.
What should I specifically look for when buying a game?
This depends a lot on the price vs. condition of the machine. For example, if you’re looking for a game that the average cost is $1,500, and it is priced at $1,000, then some wear and tear is fine. If the $1,500 game is priced at $2,000, then expect it to be a very nice example in great condition.
Some things I like to check:
- overall condition of the cabinet, playfield, and backglass
- the displays or DMD (are there any lines or dots out? Are any corners of the display fading?)
- for solid state games, check the boards in the backbox to see if there are any areas that look “burnt”
- the area of the boards where the batteries are located to see if there is any battery acid leak that caused damage
- game specific common problems – depending on the machine, it may be difficult to find game specific replacement parts
- open the coin door and smell inside – it sounds strange but if there is a powerful odor (typically smoke) it can be difficult to get rid of the smell
- power it down and power it back up if it was on when you arrived
- play the game, check for anything “unusual”
Usually you’ll have some pictures before going to look at a game, which helps with your review of the game. If it is priced right, no reason to be too picky. If it is a premium price, be more picky.
Don’t worry too much if something isn’t working 100%, especially if it is something minor. Almost everything can be fixed.
You can also go into the service menu for the game to test different components like switches and coils and lights. I don’t typically do this when inspecting a game unless I need to.
Typically, I am looking for a price that I think I’ll be able to get out of it when I sell. The exception to this rule is if I really want a certain title. Then I’m ok with overpaying by a bit, and have found I don’t regret these decisions even if I lose a bit when I go to sell.
What if I’ve never played the game I’m looking to buy?
I love buying games I have either never played or have spent very limited time on. Some people will say you should put enough time on it to make sure you like it, but for me, part of the fun is learning the rules and learning how to play. If you don’t like it, sell it and get a different one!
Ok I bought a machine! What is the best way to move it?
Congrats! These things are heavy, some weigh over 300 lbs. Unless you’ve figured out a safe way to move that much weight yourself, you’re going to want some help. If you’re going to put the machine on its back you’ll want to take the balls out otherwise they may fall out and damage something in the machine. Also, take any loose items out of the machine like the owner’s manual and coin box.
Slow down! How do I remove the pinballs?
In order to remove the balls you have to take the glass off (see above on how to do that). Then there are a few ways to remove the balls, but I typically just manually eject them into the shooter lane.
Ok, what is next?
Then you’ll want to either remove the head of the machine (older games) or fold it down (newer games). If folding it, put a piece of cardboard or some type of padding between the head and the glass. You’ll also want to strap down the head if it is folded to keep it from bouncing around during transport. It isn’t a bad idea to use stretch plastic wrap at this point either. Then you’ll want to remove the legs. I typically set the back of a machine on a stool and remove the back legs, then lower the back of the machine to the ground, tip it up on its back, and remove the front legs. I use a pickup truck to move machines, so if there are no stairs involved, I’ll move the machine to the back of the truck, remove the rear legs, set it up in the truck and remove the front legs.
The easiest areas to damage the machine while moving it are the sides of the head and the bottom sides of the cabinet, so be careful with these areas. To avoid damaging the bottom sides of the cabinet, when sliding it (for instance, into a truck bed), make sure to use a blanket or cardboard or something that will allow it to slide smoothly.
When moving a pin in the back of a pick up truck, it is best to have the back of the pin go in first and the coin door facing the back of the truck (unless you’re moving a pin upright on its back). That way it is easier to strap in and you aren’t risking damaging the coin door or plunger by strapping them against the back of the truck. It is also best to put padding/cardboard anywhere you’re going to strap a machine. If there is any chance of rain, I also put a tarp over the top of the pin. With SUVs you have a little more flexibility since it isn’t necessary to have the machine protected from the elements.
How do I get it into my house?
If you’re moving it onto the first floor, you may be able to just carry it in. If you have a ways to move it or have stairs to go down or up, you’ll probably want a hand truck with stair climbers (under $100). If you have carpeted stairs, you may be able to slide it down the steps with two people and possibly some straps. Do some googling for ideas and get creative. After moving one or two you’ll be a pro.
It is in my house, how do I set it up?
Assuming the machine is on its back, put the front legs on, lift up the back and set on a stool if you can, then put the back legs on. Don’t over tighten the leg bolts, just make them snug. Remove the stool and move it into place. If you’re going to be moving it often, you could get a hydraulic table cart (around $200) or use a motorcycle lift.
Now it is in place, take the glass off, put the pinballs in, and put a level on the playfield to check that it is level. Or if you’re feeling lazy, slide the glass back a bit to drop the balls in, and put the level on the glass. If it isn’t level, use the leg levelers at the bottom of each leg to raise or lower that leg as necessary until it is level.
You’ll also want to check the pitch or slope of the machine to make sure it is where you want it. The rule of thumb I’ve heard is about 3.5 degrees for EMs and about 6.5 degrees for solid state games and newer. I will typically just put the back legs up high and the front down low and play it. If it is play too slow or too fast or certain shots are harder than they should be, I’ll adjust as necessary.
I turned it on and ________ doesn’t work, but it worked when I played it at the other person’s house before I bought it, what happened?
These machines don’t travel very well. A bumpy ride can cause a connection to get a little loose – reseat any corresponding connectors in the backbox or under the playfield and see if that fixes it.
Something isn’t working right and/or I have a question, where do I find help?
Check out a pinball forum (like pinside.com) and search to see if your question has been answered before. If not, start a thread and ask, the pinball community is full of smart and helpful people. There are several other online resources, like pinwiki.com, pinrepair.com, etc.
Do I have to do any maintenance?
Maintenance is usually on an as-needed basis as things will break and need to be replaced or repaired. However, there are a few general maintenance things that are a good idea to do. First, if the pinballs are old or not in good condition, it is best to replace them with new ones as the old ones could scratch up the playfield. Second, if the playfield is dirty it would be a good idea to clean it and wax it (check out forums for tutorials on how to do that). Finally, there are usually batteries in the backbox that need to be changed every year or two.
So what’s next?
Play some pinball!