Take two dice, add a pencil, and throw in a piece of paper. On the surface, does playing a game with these handy instruments elicit any feelings? That’s a question I never ask myself when playing the latest roll and write. I enjoy randeauxwriters, in fact, I enjoy them a lot, but almost to a sheet they feel like number puzzles, never generating a board game experience.
Sure, one of the reasons we play board games is exactly the fact that it is satisfying to figure out the puzzle. How many moves? What dice do we need to successfully vanquish a foe or monster. Which one of the action spaces will yield a bonus action that let’s us do a clever maneuver?
But, the games that we remember, the ones that lay sticky in the depths of our mind are the ones that go beyond just pushing cubes or scribbling numbers on a blank piece of paper. Give me a game that lets me feel like I am hurling numbers from my retractable pencil like Zeus hurling lightning bolts at Hades’ Titans minions, and you will light up my face.
Enter Super-Skill Pinball 4-Cade.
Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade is a new roll and write from Wiz Kids and designer Geoff Engelstein. It accommodates up to four pinball wizards, and takes about 30 minutes to enjoy the three ball ride.
If you have ever played a randeauxwriter, you already know the drill. One player rolls two dice, and then players will use one of the two dice to mark off sections on their player sheets. Players will score points based on the marks that they make, or trigger bonuses, and combos can be found all over the player sheets. Each player has three chances, or balls, in the game, to score as many points as possible. Depending on the theme of the game, players might even have special areas of the board that are unique to that machine — things like ramps, spinners, and even minigames.
Your ball starts on the start space, which simulates using the plunger’s action to throw the ball to the top of the playing surface, and then uses “gravity” to force you to roll the dice and choose numbers that match one of the dice in each zone going down the sheet from the top. The bottom will be very familiar to anyone who has fed quarters into their local pinball machine — two flippers on the left and right side help you corral the ball and send it back flying across the table to score points. But, the numbers around the flippers are limited, and eventually, your last ball will slip through harmlessly straight down the middle, ending your final turn and the game.
There’s even a ’tilt’ feature built in. Remember how you could nudge the pinball machine to try to get the ball to hop or slide to an area of the board? You can do that here, too. Players can can alter the result of one of the dice, but in doing so, they subtract the smaller value of one of the die from the larger. If the very next roll’s difference between the two dice is equal to or greater, the player has tilted and their ball drops harmlessly into the void.
Super-Skill Pinball comes in a box about twice the size as my hand, with some really cool components. Each player gets a scoresheet representing the theme of that particular machine: circus, cyber hacking, 70s disco dancing, or a role playing game involving wizards and dragons. Each player’s scoresheet also has a matching “backglass”, which usually tracks the total points and any special mini-games. On both of those sheets, players will mark off sections corresponding to the number that was chosen out of the two dice that are rolled each turn.
I say “mark off”, but here, it is using an erasable marker to mark out the results on plastic boards made for the markers, printed with the particular ‘pinball machine’ you and your friends are playing.
I say “boards” because unlike all but a few roll-n-writers, each player actually has two boards: one made to represent the playfield area of the machine where the ball rolls around hitting bumpers and other targets, and the other made to look like like the “backglass”, the one that has the score on it and the beautiful pictures representing the theme of the machine.
The game has one more little thematic touch: each player has one or more silver half-balls which are used to slide around the sheet as the “ball” bounces from “zone” to “zone.” To be fair, I dumped the “ball” pretty quickly because sliding it around was not only a bit of a hassle, but it also smudged my numbers on the board. It did not take long, only a game or two, and I had the ball bouncing around the board in my mind’s eye instead of with a representation of the silver ball.
Players have three chances (three balls) to score as many points as possible, and have the chance to use the sliders, targets, multi-ball opportunities, and little mini games (even one on the back glass!) to out point their rivals. To simulate gravity, the ball starts in the upper section of the playing field, and slowly goes from level to level as players cross off the relevant numbers on the targets or bumpers (or all the way to the bottom if the player chooses for strategy or has no matching number in between). Some of the targets and bumpers will give points. Some will give bonuses (like ‘skill shots’ to automatically cross off numbers you need) or special powers. The best of them mimic real life pinball, like the sliders, where one of the dice is used to ‘drop’ a number on the slider tube as you rocket your pinball from the flipper to the top part of the playing field again.
Other than the smudging of the player boards, this is a great production with good components. The four boards are different enough to warrant multiple repeat plays as you explore the different combos that can be had.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
Before the game arrived, I had heard of the concept. I was definitely intrigued by the idea that a roll and write could simulate pinball. My first thought was that this would be a linear type of progression, kind of a roll and write on rails. How wrong I was.
From the first moment I started moving the silver ball around, and then eventually got used to the mechanics enough to stop using the ball all together, I was completely immersed in the game of pinball. I especially became a part of the machine itself. It sounds ludicrous, but I actually ‘felt’ the ball launch off the flippers into the top part of the scoring areas, or watched my eyes bounce back and forth when I rolled the correct sequence of numbers that kept it up in the bumper area.
I have had a blast playing Super-Skill: Pinball 4-Cade, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to any roll and write fans out there. (It especially makes a fun solo game, just challenging yourself to do better scores — sounds like real pinball?) But, not all of the boards were created the same. Not that it matters, but since this is my review, I thought I’d share my favorite and least favorite boards and why.
I’ve really enjoyed the combo goodness of the Cyberhack board, where players try to get into a little ‘mini game’ in which you push your luck attempting to infiltrate a computer and run a simulation before busting. There’s some moments that make you feel clever if you have enough re-rolls to warrant a long run in that area, and I thought thematically, it was the strongest board.
My least favorite was the dragonslayer themed board. The theme was cool, a sort of roll and write version of a spellcaster game where stealing the dragon’s hoard of treasure is the goal. For some reason, the process of leveling up and picking spells was a bit sterile to me, and the dizzying choices kept my eyes focused on that part of the board, losing the connection between my eyes and the whizzing of the pinball. I get what the designer was going for, and I’ll wager it has been popular with some people, but it was not for me.
On the other hand, I love the fact that the publisher included a quick start book for the Carniball machine. A short guide helps players get up and running, and makes the rest of the rule book look a little meager in comparison. And I’d be remiss if I did not mention how clever the tilt mechanic is in the game. You only get three chances to tilt, but each one feels dramatic, especially if you push your luck a bit by going with a spread higher than zero or one numbers. Sometimes you really need to change that roll, but the spread is just a little bit dangerous. Giving the player agency to make decisions like this is pretty unique in the roll and write world, but it is a very welcome delicious decision.
Here’s why I loved playing Super-Skill Pinball: 4Cade. For thirty minutes, I was playing pinball, not a roll and write, something that never happens when I play other randeauxwriters. How did the designer accomplish this? I’m honestly not sure, but if I had to hazard a guess, I think it was the decision not to make this a side scrolling number crunching exercise, and instead dressing up each section of the pinball machine with mechanics that absolutely mimic their real-life partners. In doing so, Geoff tricked our minds into thinking that each roll of the dice represented the chance encounters that a ball will have as it meanders its way down the playing field.
Somehow, Geoff also injected in me that same sinking feeling of frustration and unfairness when I ran out of a few matching numbers in the flipper area and rolled the wrong results on my die, representing an early ball drop. Argh! But, just like the long lost pinball machines of my youth, where the dream was always to have a stack of quarters ready to feed into the machine, Super-Skill Pinball: 4Cade calls you to play just one more game.
Super-Skill: Pinball 4-Cade is like a really good bag of chips, you sit down planning to just have a couple and before you know it, you’ve spoiled your dinner. I’m amazed to say that it actually feels like playing pinball; a bad roll of the dice feels like an unlucky bounce of the ball. All its really missing are blinking lights to complete the experience
This game gives you the feeling of sitting at a real pinball machine with Free Play on. Everything makes sense thematically from bouncing off of bumpers to using flippers to rocket the ball back to the top. It’s an extremely fast pace roll and write. You’re constantly marking off objectives and point tallies all the while maneuvering your pinball to the next most efficient position. I would venture to guess that if you enjoy pinball even one iota then you will have a blast playing this game. For me this is my go to solitaire Roll and Write and the rest are not even in the same hemisphere.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!