A Comprehensive Guide to Pinball for New Players
If you're looking to join the pinball scene, here's your guide! Learn everything from how to get started playing and checking out nearby venues, all the way up through joining passionate online communities for extra help. With a little bit of knowledge on these topics tucked in your back pocket, you'll be ready have an awesome time with this classic pastime.
Here at Kineticist, one of our ongoing missions is to help folks who are getting into pinball for the first time, or who want to go deeper into the hobby, make sense of the landscape. Those of us who have been in the hobby for some time may not be able to see it all the time, but for a newbie, things can be pretty fragmented and challenging to even partially digest.
On my own journey in the pinball hobby, I've always been a little amazed at the level of institutional knowledge (to borrow some corporate speak) that is available to those who want to seek it out. But, as impressive as that informational pool may be, it's also sort of buried in the depths of the internet, deep in old community forums, on dated websites, and with social media communities started years ago.
One of the amazing things about the pinball hobby is that for what is currently an extremely niche part of the gaming landscape, there's almost an outsize level of content creation going on. Besides community groups and resource sites there are podcasters and streamers galore, social media influencers, whole ass magazines, and so much more to wrap your head around. And that doesn't even start to touch on all the other parts of the ecosystem that you'd need to navigate like how to buy a pinball machine, where to play pinball machines, how to repair your game, pinball leagues, tournaments and so much more.
So we'd like to start to change that with a definitive guide to getting into the pinball scene. Use this as a starting point for exploring the pinball hobby, finding the parts you're most interested in, and connecting with some amazing groups, people, and content creators. Pinball wouldn't be what it is today or what it's going to be tomorrow without these folks, and they deserve your love and support.
Let's get started.
The Pinball Essentials
Kicking things off logically, let's answer some basic questions about pinball.
What is pinball?
Pinball is a type of arcade game in which players use a set of flippers to hit a metal ball around a play field, trying to score as many points as possible by hitting targets and achieving various other objectives. The ball moves through the play field by gravity, and players use the flippers to keep the ball in play and score points by hitting targets and activating various features of the game. Pinball games often feature colorful and intricate artwork, and some are designed to be themed around popular movies, TV shows, or other media properties. The game is typically played by inserting coins or tokens into the machine and using the flippers to control the ball as it moves around the play field.
Who invented pinball?
According to the excellent book Pinball: A Graphic History of the Silver Ball, there are traces of pinball-like games going all the way back to ancient Greece, where people dug holes into the ground and attempted to roll balls into them.
However, most pinball historians (yes, it's a thing) align on pinball being rooted in 17th century France and tied to an indoor table game known as Bagatelle, where players used pool cues to launch balls up a sloped playfield to knock down a set of bowling-like pins. Eventually this would morph into something that resembled modern pinball if you squinted really really hard.
Pinball as we know it today was developed in the 1930s. Several popular machines were introduced during this time period including Bally's first game, Ballyhoo.
Ballyhoo was based on a coin-operated pinball machine created in 1931 by an inventor named David Gottlieb. The game was called "Baffle Ball" and it was manufactured by the D. Gottlieb & Company in Chicago, Illinois. D. Gottlieb & Company would go one to be one of the major pinball manufacturers of the 20th century.
Gottlieb's machine was a commercial success, and it was followed by many other pinball games that were released by various manufacturers in the following decades.
The game of pinball has evolved over the years, with new features and gameplay elements being added to the basic structure of hitting a ball with flippers and scoring points. However, the core principles of the game, including the use of flippers to control a metal ball, have remained largely unchanged since the 1930s.
Where was pinball invented?
If we draw the line from modern pinball machines to D. Gottlieb's Baffle Ball, then it stands to reason that the city of Chicago, Illinois, can take credit for the place where pinball as invented.
Where can I play pinball machines?
In the United States alone there are thousands of locations where you can play pinball publicly. Pinball machines are found in all sorts of places, but most commonly you can find them in bars (or barcades), breweries, retro arcades, family entertainment centers, pinball focused arcades, restaurants, and lots of private home collections.
Finding pinball machines near you is simpler than you'd think, too. The best place for the most up-to-date information is the Pinball Map app, which is a crowd sourced database of all the places to find public pinball machines. It's data is most robust for the United States, but they have info on international locations as well.
At Kineticist, we have our own curated directory of places to play pinball, including our growing pinball and arcade travel guide series.
Where are the best places to buy pinball machines?
If you're considering buying a pinball machine, congratulations! Buying and collecting pinball machines can be rewarding, fun, and a little addictive (it's common to hear from community members that their single machine purchase quickly ballooned into much larger collections).
There are two ways to approach buying pinball machines. You can buy a new pinball machine, or buy a used pinball machine (it's also possible to rent pinball machines, but we won't get into that just yet).
Buying a new pinball machine
Pinball machine sales operate mostly on the backs of a robust network of pinball dealers and distributors. It's a very similar model to purchasing a car. Pretty much every modern pinball manufacturer has their own network of dealers and distributors that they sell their machines through. Occasionally, you may see a pinball company sell direct through an online channel, but it's rare.
Pinball distributors can be found everywhere. Almost all pinball companies will provide a list of authorized distributors on their own websites. Alternatively, there are directories of pinball businesses online, both here and at Pinside.com. Finally, a quick google search for "pinball distributor near me" should also do the trick.
The best place to buy a new pinball machine will likely be whoever your most reputable local distributor is, but if you're looking for options from a more national presence, here are some good starting points:
How to buy a used pinball machine
This is where most of the market action is in the pinball community. The great thing about pinball machines is that if they are well taken care of (and sometimes even if they aren't) they tend to last for a really long time. You can basically buy machines from any era of the game's history that you choose, from really old school wood rail machines to electromechanical pinball machines to modern solid state and LCD types.
Plus, pinball machines generally tend to hold their value. If you buy a playable used pinball machine for $3,000 and decide to sell it a year or two later, it's highly likely that you'll likely get all or most of your cash outlay back. Sometimes, depending on the state of the market and how in-demand a particular title is, you may even make a small profit on the machine. This has been particularly true in recent years, although we caution treating pinball machines like any sort of investment!
The largest used pinball machine marketplace that's solely dedicated to the pinball community is over on Pinside. That's generally where you go when you want to buy and sell games among other pinball and collectors.
Like most other things, there are also pretty robust pools of available machines on sites like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and eBay.
Off-market deals can also be found by getting to know your local pinball player community. Sometimes you can score a machine before it ever gets listed on the public markets.
How do you play pinball exactly?
The road to being a pinball wizard is paved with quarters.
Even though starting up a pinball machine may seem complex and intimidating at first glance, it's really quite simple.
Put money into the machine (usually quarters or dollar bills but sometimes done as a card swipe at larger arcade chains or family amusement centers) in exchange for game credits.
Press the start button on the front of the cabinet. This will load a pinball into the shooter lane of the right side machine. For most games, this will be your first ball of a total of three balls in the game. Some games will be set to five balls per game. Most older electro-mechanical games (produced before about 1979 or so) will be set to five balls per game by default.
Plunge the ball by using the plunger on the right side of the machine (usually near the start button). On some newer machines, this can also be accomplished by pressing a launch button found either on the cabinet near where the plunger would be, or in the case of the latest Stern machines, pressing a plastic button found in the center of the machine, on the lockdown bar.
Once plunged, wait until the ball comes around the playfield to your flippers. Use the flippers to hit the ball, aiming for specific shots on the playfield while avoiding draining, which is when you lose your ball, typically either down the center of the playfield or on the left and right sides where the outlane drains are present.
While games vary greatly in their approach to rules and gameplay, for the most part, the simple advice is to "shoot for the blinking lights". Essentially, the game wants to tell you where to shoot the pinball, so look for whatever area of the playfield is lit up like an insert arrow, drop targets, a ramp, a scoop, or other playfield mech, and try aiming your ball there.
The longer you keep your ball alive, and the more shots you hit on the playfield, the higher your score will be. This is of course a gross simplification of how pinball works but it's a beginners guide!
Many games will also have basic rules outlined in a rules card found on the apron of the machine, on the left or right hand side towards the front. Along the way you may encounter the thrill of a multi-ball mode, win free games, and earn an extra ball or two. Just don't slam tilt the machine!
If you want to go a little deeper into specific pinball skills, check out this great series of videos from pinball creator Abe Flips, where he goes into great detail covering some of the most common pinball flipper skills and ways to approach playing the pinball game.
How do you repair pinball machines?
This could use an entire post (or series of posts) on its own, but like most mechanical items, pinball machines need regular repair and maintenance. Fortunately, if your machine ever breaks (and it will) there's a lot of options available to you!
Many people in the pinball community go the DIY route and repair their own machines. Once you've become comfortable with the parts and inner workings of a few pinball machines, you'll start to see that they all pretty much work the same way and will have similar methods of troubleshooting and repair.
For many machines, parts needed for repair are fairly plentiful. Of course you may encounter certain games or parts that are hard to find, but it shouldn't happen too often unless you're buying or selling a lot of games.
There are also lots of resources to be found online for learning pinball repair. Like YouTube channels, forums, Facebook groups, wikis, and others.
For the most part, games can be pretty forgiving, so don't be afraid to try some repairs on your own and learn by doing. Many people in the community even buy cheap or broken old games for this very purpose -- an opportunity to learn valuable repair skills.
Alternatively, you can hire people to fix your machines for you. Often these are local individuals who are experts in pinball repair and charge by the hour, or you may be able to find repair services from a distributor or dealer (the same places where you would buy a new machine).
Here are some good resources for getting started with pinball repair:
- Pinwiki - a wiki style website with a ton of great information on how to diagnose and repair common pinball issues.
- Pinside Forums - the largest pinball community on the internet. Go here to look up specific game issues and ask people questions.
- Joe's Classic Arcade on YouTube - posts a lot of long form repair videos for specific pinball machines.
- Marco Pinball's PinTech Live Series - archived on YouTube and live streamed on Twitch, the Marco Pinball team broadcasts live pinball repair streams. Incredibly helpful and educational!
- Pinball Repair Help Group on Facebook - Large Facebook group where you can post questions and get help with your repairs.
How heavy is a pinball machine?
This will depend on the era of machine in question, but you can ballpark somewhere between 250 lbs and 350 lbs for the weight of most pinball games.
How do you set up a pinball machine?
Setting up a pinball machine is actually easier than you think! If you've never done it before you'll probably want to make sure you have at least two people to do the job. Once you get good at it, though, it's possible to move and set up a pinball machine entirely on your own with the right tools and techniques!
Each era of machine is a little different, but here are a few good videos to get started learning the process.
How do you level your pinball machine?
Having a level pinball machine is incredibly important to experiencing gameplay the way the machine designers intended.
You want to make sure your machine is level side to side, and set to the correct slope front to back.
Generally, this is controlled by adjusting your machine's leg levelers - front legs for your side to side level and back legs for your slope. Sometimes you may need to ensure your playfield is correctly installed and properly set as well.
Modern machines made after 1980 or so are usually made to be set up with a slope of about 6.5-7 degrees.
Electro-Mechanical (E.M) machines are typically set to 3.5 degrees.
Of course - set up your machines however you want! For example, many people will set their E.M.s up a little steeper in order to make the game faster and have a different kind of challenge.
Who makes pinball machines?
We've got a handy detailed guide to all the current pinball machine manufacturers who are making pinball machines today. But for quick reference, the top players include:
- Stern Pinball
- Jersey Jack Pinball
- American Pinball
- Spooky Pinball
- Chicago Gaming Company
- Multimorphic, Inc
- Dutch Pinball
- Pinball Brothers
- Haggis Pinball
How do you sell a pinball machine?
Selling a pinball machine is often very similar to buying one. Most sales are made on the secondary markets like Pinside, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and eBay. Sometimes you may be able to sell directly to a distributor or dealer, or use it as part of a trade-in towards another machine.
Remember that the pinball community is a small one! Be sure to accurately represent the condition and playing status of your machine when you sell it. Even better, make sure the game is in working order, clean, and prepped to move before making the sale (plus that's a great way to make sure you get maximum value in return for your game).
Trading your pinball machine for another game
Sometimes, you may want to shake up your pinball lineup without necessarily investing more money into your collection. Since many pinball machines are priced within similar ranges, pinball collectors will often seek to trade machines instead of making a direct buy or sale. Cash can be added to either side of the transaction to make the value exchange equal.
How to mod your pinball machine
One of the many ways to appreciate and enjoy collecting and playing pinball machines is to buy and install 3rd party modes for your machine. There are a slew of different pinball mod makers in the marketplace - everyone from smalltime hobbyists to thriving independent businesses.
While these modifications may look amazing on your machine and are often fun to install, just know that when it comes time to sell your game, your investment in mods may not be valued in the same way by the buyer as the rest of the machine. Rarely will savvy pinball buyers pay more for your modded machine than what is considered normal market value.
Here are some good places to look for pinball mods for various machines:
- Pinside marketplace - lots of independent and established pinball mod makers.
- Pinsound - audio mods for your pinball machine.
- PinStadium - lighting mods for your pinball machine.
- MezelMods - playfield and machine mods and accessories.
- ColorDMD - pinball display mods and upgrades.
- Lermods - another place for pinball playfield mods and accessories.
Everything Competitive Pinball
Competitive pinball is one of the pillars of the pinball community. As the famous pinball community phrase goes - "it's more fun to compete". Competitive pinball allows pinball players to socialize, compete against others, practice skills, learn game rules, visit new arcades and pinball locations, and of course, play pinball!
What is competitive pinball?
The competitive pinball scene is thriving! From local tournaments to international events, players all over the world gather together and show off their pinball prowess. Participating in various competitions can earn you prizes, money—and of course glory. There's even an official governing body that ranks participants based on skill level and results from sanctioned events.
What are pinball leagues?
There are pinball leagues all around the country (and more than likely there's a pinball league near you) that meet regularly to play competitive pinball together. According to the IFPA rules, whereas a tournament is a single contained event, a league is based around a season where multiple sessions are held and there are rankings and results recorded at the end of the season. Many leagues run multiple seasons in a single calendar year.
More information about pinball leagues can be found on the IFPA's website.
What is the IFPA?
The IFPA or International Flipper Pinball Association is the governing body and primary advocate for competitive pinball. The IFPA maintains a set of rules and guidelines for running certified pinball tournaments, which allow players to accumulate WPPR points (World Pinball Player Rankings). WPPR points (affectionately referred to as "whoppers") are used to determine the rankings of all the competitive pinball players in the world.
Check out the IFPA's website for more information.
What are some popular pinball tournament formats?
Pinball tournaments come in all shapes and sizes! From the popular combination of pinball and golf known as pingolf, to pinbowling (pinball and bowling), or even one-handed competitions - there is no shortage of creativity from both players and tournament organizers.
The most popular pinball tournament formats include:
- Match Play formats like head-to-head, group match play, round robin and flip frenzy.
- Knockout and group knockout formats.
- Elimination brackets - single, group, pingolf, and ladder style.
- Single player formats like best game, card-based, pingolf, and pinbowling.
Where can I find more resources on competitive pinball?
With so many amazing resources out there, competitive pinballers are sure to find plenty of useful information and tips for their game. Here's a look at some of the best sources available!
- The IFPA - governing organization for competitive pinball
- Matchplay.events - pinball tournament software.
- Tilt Forums - community forums focused mainly on competitive play.
- Pinball Videos - archived recordings of competitive pinball streams.
- Pintips - quick hit tips for playing different pinball machines.
What are the best pinball websites & forums?
There are a ton of great pinball websites and forums to explore if you're inclined. Some of our favorite starting points include:
- Pinball News - long standing website covering the pinball industry.
- This Week in Pinball - another pinball news focused site, focused mainly around providing a weekly update format.
- Nudge Magazine - the #1 rated pinball lifestyle magazine (completed with print editions).
- Pinside - the top pinball community and pinball focused marketplace.
- Tilt Forum - a smaller pinball community forum focused mostly on the competitive side of the game.
- r/pinball - popular pinball focused sub-reddit.
- Knapp Arcade - covering breaking pinball news updates
What are some good pinball apps?
Just like pinball websites, there are a handful of really fantastic pinball apps that should be part of your exploration. We have a roundup of the best pinball apps for your phone or tablet, but our absolute favorite is Pinball Map.
What are the best pinball podcasts?
Pinball podcasts are kind of a big deal in the pinball community. There are a lot of them, they don't always last very long, and those that do them well can be seen as very prominent members of the community, setting the agenda for all kinds of discussions and popular opinions.
We encourage you to explore all the different options out there and find the ones you click with best, but for a starting point, check out:
- Just about anything on The Pinball Network feed, particularly The Pinball Show, Pinball Party Podcast and Triple Drain Podcast.
- The Eclectic Gamer's Podcast
- Poor Man's Pinball Podcast
- The Slam Tilt Podcast
- Kaneda's Pinball Podcast
- LoserKid Pinball Podcast
- Backbox Pinball Podcast
Who are the best pinball streamers?
Dive into the vibrant world of pinball streaming with a never-ending selection of broadcasters at your fingertips on Twitch! Explore dynamic personalities, brilliant game strategies and friendly conversations -- no two streams alike. Whether you're new to this scene or an experienced enthusiast, why not check out some fan favorite streamers and see what all the fuss is about?
- Fox Cities Pinball
- IE Pinball
- JDL Pinball
- Rayday Pinball
- Dead Flip
- Hot Nudge
- Mystery Pinball Theater 3000
- Don't Panic Flip
- Buffalo Pinball
- Backhand Pinball
- Smalltown Pinball
- Wild Dog Arcade
- Pinball Network
- Marco Pinball
Pinball Community Groups
As luck would have it, we already have a guide to the best places to find the pinball community online. Other then the of-mentioned Pinside, some of our favorites include:
- Pinball People on Discord
- Tilt Forums
- Pinball Enthusiasts on Facebook
- Pinball Degenerates on Facebook
He doesn't really stream, so doesn't belong in the pinball streamer's section, but we'd be remiss if we didn't include a nod to Carey Hardey's YouTube channel, as he makes some of the best pinball YouTube content around.
Chances are, if you find a pinball podcaster or pinball streamer you like, they likely have a YouTube channel as well, which we recommend seeking out if that's your thing.