Player’s Guide

PAPA recognizes there is more than one way to teach players how to prepare for competition. If the advice offered in this guide does not work for you, we encourage you to keep trying until you discover a more effective method.

Above all, we encourage players to look within themselves as often as possible for answers. A key moment in a player’s development is when he or she begins to think about the game of pinball with a competitive mindset. Every flip you make will lead you closer to more points or the final drain. The outcome is entirely up to you!

The following guide is intended to challenge players to learn about both pinball and themselves as competitors. Discussion and feedback are encouraged! We intend this guide to be a community resource that grows and becomes more refined over time. If you feel we are missing something important, or feel you can contribute to this guide in a meaningful way, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


1. The first step in becoming a competitive pinball player is believing that you CAN WIN!

2. The second step to becoming a competitive player is remembering that having fun while playing, win or lose, is more important than any other skill.

3. The third step is physically getting out there, going to an event, and meeting new people.

Competitive pinball brings a different mindset than casual play, but this doesn’t mean the experience has to be rigid, repetitive, boring, or less fun. It is true game strategies are sometimes simplified during competitive play to help bring risk back into balance with reward, but competition also offers different types of excitement, social interaction, and unusual in-game decision-making that casual play can never supply.

And finally, the best part of competitive play is that just because you’ve made the decision to become a competition player doesn’t mean you have to stop kicking back a few and playing the game with your friends the same way you always have. When it comes to attending an event and giving the experience a try, the risk versus reward equation in this case is always in your favor.

Flipper Skills:

A major step to becoming a better pinball player is learning the game’s fundamental flipper skills. If you still find yourself double-flipping (flipping with both flippers at the same time) or machine-gun-flipping (repeatedly hitting both flipper buttons for no reason), you still have a long way to go. But there’s hope! PAPA has already provided a series of videos designed to show players of all skill levels a series of techniques they can learn that will help them improve.

If you haven’t watched PAPA’s video series on Flipper Techniques, take a short detour and visit the following page.

A Thinking Game:

If you’ve already watched the videos, the next thing you can do is practice! Nothing will make you a better pinball player than actually playing pinball, but before you drop a bunch of tokens into the nearest coin slot and fire up a four-player contest all for yourself, re-consider for a moment how you practice.

The first question to ask is: Do you have a strategy?

As a player, you should know what you are planning on attempting with the ball before it’s ever plunged. The more you play games, the more you will understand the different in-game strategies, and the easier learning the rules of new pinball machines will become. If you are still at the beginning of this process, however, focus on keeping the ball under control and in play. If you’ve never played a game before and don’t know the rules (and the rulecard doesn’t help), experiment with the various shots.

What does the artwork on playfield say?
Do the playfield inserts light up when you shoot certain things?
What happens if you shoot something more than once?

Gather information as you play the game. Pinball is as much a mental experience as a physical one. Pay attention to the sounds the game makes and open yourself to what information it gives you. What may initially appear to be nothing more than flashing lights and arrows are actually a roadmap to what is happening within the game. On a very basic level, if something is trying to get your attention in a big way, it is generally worth the effort to hit it with the ball, but this doesn’t mean you should do so wildly…

Every flip matters!

Every time the flipper is engaged, it should be engaged with a specific purpose. Whether your are attempting to hit a specific target to start a mode or just to gather information, you should always have an associated reward in mind any time you put the ball at risk.

Game Setup:

If you always play games the same way with the same strategies, you are not challenging yourself to improve. If you own the games you play and never adjust anything on the playfield, different types of flipper rubbers, tightening or loosening the tilt, or adjusting slingshot sensitivity, you similarly are not challenging yourself to improve.

A major step toward becoming a skilled pinball player is developing the ability to adapt to different games, or the same game setup in different ways, and learning to do so faster than your opponent. A significant part of pinball success is due to muscle memory, but if you repeatedly play the same games prepared the same way, your body will use that muscle memory against you when playing a game that is prepared differently. If you have the capability, force yourself to play a wide variety of games, or adjust the games you do play frequently.

Examples of simple things you could do to change the way a game feels include:

  • Change flipper rubbers to a softer or harder type
  • Widen or tighten the outlanes
  • Tighten or loosen the tilt
  • Change the slingshot sensitivity
  • Reduce or raise the game’s pitch
  • Clean and wax a dirty game
  • Adjust the level slightly

If you can adjust your games as described above, do so regularly. Something as simple as changing one aspect every week can do a great deal to help you as a player.

If you find yourself becoming so comfortable with your games that you can handle the kickouts, feeds, and rebounds with your eyes closed, you will never maximize your potential!

How to Practice:

Some players are not fortunate enough to be able to make regular alterations to the games they play. If you find yourself in one of these situations, make a decided effort to play games differently. Using the same strategies repeatedly will not only make the game become more boring more quickly, but it won’t put you into the variety of situations that, as a player, promote decision-making and growth.

To Change things up from time to time, consider the following ideas:

  • Play for modes instead of score, or vice versa.
  • Play one handed for ball one, then switch for ball two.
  • Pick one target, or objective in a game and focus entirely on that shot. Some games even count the objectives for you, such as shooting exclusively for Fish in Fish Tales, Train Wrecks in Addams Family, or Meters in No Fear.
  • Pick a target, similar to above, but also choose a Death Shot that ends your ball. Try playing Iron Man for Iron Man Letters, but agree that any successful ramp or full orbit shot ends your ball.
  • Play a few games doing nothing but attempting flipper skills. Compete with a friend to see who can post pass, tap pass, or alley pass more times before draining.
  • Play a game Split-Flipper! Choose a partner, and have each player take one flipper button. Discuss strategy decisions collectively as the game progresses.
  • Disallow a mode, major feature, or flipper skill during a game. If playing with someone else, have each opponent decide which mode, feature, or skill is disallowed each ball for the other player.

The list above is just a small fraction of the possible ways you, as a player, can put yourself into new situations. For every obstacle you manage to overcome, you will learn a little bit more about both the game and yourself as a player.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself!

Understanding Game Rules:

Being able to control the ball is only half of the battle. If you want to improve at a pinball machine, make a concerted effort to learn the game’s rules. Only when you know what shots, or sequences of shots, are worth the most points will you know what strategy to use at a given time. The easiest way to learn a game is by playing it. If you want to play a particular game but don’t know if one resides nearby, join a league, post your question in the pinside forum, or check a pinball machine locator.

A second way to learn about games is by watching videos and using traditional game rule sheets. PAPA provides rulesheets and a series of video Tutorials, broadcast coverage, and gameplay videos to help you learn more about a wide variety of games.

What to Shoot Next?

In addition to placing a rulecard on the game offering basic instructions, most pinball machines will guide players by lighting inserts or flashing lights on the playfield to signify important shots. Playfield inserts are clear or colored pieces of plastic set into the playfield. Inserts are lit by lightbulbs underneath the playfield and serve as signposts to the player explaining what is happening within the game’s rules. What may seem like a bunch of random, flashing lights to the uninitiated is actually the game’s software giving the player critical information.

As you play more games and learn more sets of rules, you will begin to recognize similarities between games, between multiballs, and sometimes even between multiple games from the same programmer or designer. The process of learning pinball rules builds upon itself, and while the adventure may seem daunting in the beginning, things will become easier as you progress.


Although modern pinball machines can seem extremely complicated, the good news for new players is that most machines employ similar concepts regarding how the rules work. In most newer games, there will be a sequence of shots that begins a multiball. A multiball is when more than one ball is on the playfield at the same time.

Multiballs are good for players for a variety of reasons:

  • The more balls you have available, the more balls you can drain without losing your turn.
  • Multiballs give players the opportunity to try out new shots with less risk than during single-ball play.
  • The points are usually higher during multiball. Not only are there more balls with which to score, but specific shots are generally also worth jackpots, which can be large sums of points.

In most games, a multiball must be started by locking a ball or balls. The term lock is used because games would originally hold a ball in place, or lock it there, until the player managed to release it with another ball. Some modern games use virtual locks, where the game will announce a ball has been locked, keep track of the number of locked balls in the rules, but then release the same ball back into play. In the end, whether a game uses physical locks or virtual locks doesn’t really matter to the player, since they both serve the same purpose.

If you find yourself walking up to a new game with no strategy in mind, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is whether the game has a multiball, and if so, how do you lock the balls to start it. This information is generally found on the rule card or written somewhere on the playfield itself. Do yourself a favor and look over the game before plunging. Read any writing that is available and take note of prominent or unusual features.


What is classified as a mode, or whether modes are important to scoring, varies from game to game. Nevertheless, it is still good to know whether a particular game has them, what they are, how to start them, and what they’re worth. As a rule of thumb, modes will start a sequence of shots within a game, usually designated with lit or flashing lights on the playfield.

Most modern games have modes, while most older games do not.

Modes are important because they will change the scoring pattern for a game. Generally speaking, they will make certain shots worth additional points or build toward a goal. When playing Addams Family, for instance, shooting the center ramp will award very few points during normal play. If the Addams Family mode Seance is running, however, that same center ramp will award 5million points, 10million points, and then 15million points on three consecutive shots. 30million points on only three shots is a sizable amount of points for this game. Unfortunately, not all modes are created equally, and some are even beneficial to ignore.

The key to playing modes in a competitive setting is knowing which are worth a significant amount of points and which are not. If you know a game’s rules, do your best to play the high-scoring modes early in your game unless there’s a noteworthy reason not to do so.


Some games allow competitors to play multiple modes, or multiballs, at the same time. When two features are running simultaneously during a game, the player has stacked them. Stacking is important because certain modes can be very risky, but playing them during a multiball alleviates the risk of losing a single ball and ending your turn.

In some situations, players can stack two separate modes together, meaning a single shot to a ramp or playfield feature will count toward multiple modes at the same time, offering the player a two-for-one type scenario.

Some games allow stacking. Some do not. Experiment with whatever game you’re playing and find out if any modes or multiballs can be stacked together, and then ask yourself whether or not stacking them, in your case, is beneficial or harmful.


Still curious about learning the rules? PAPA has already done a great deal of research for you and provides a number of different tutorials, rule sheets, and gameplay videos to help players learn the rules.

Do yourself a favor and watch one of the many instructional videos we’ve provided.

Competition Play:

When stepping up to a competition game, it is important you move at your own pace. Some players attempt to clear their minds and distance themselves from any nerves. Other players embrace the added energy and try to use it to their advantage.

You can watch other players and learn from them or mimic their styles, but in the end, it will always boil down to you and the game, one-on-one, and only you can discover the style, mental preparation, and state of mind that leads to your personal success.

Pre-Plunge Rituals:

Different players have different pre-plunge rituals. Some of these rituals are superstition and can benefit state of mind, but others serve more practical purposes. Wiping a lockdown bar, for instance, can make a difference in a player’s grip on the game. Similarly, the series of flips that many players make prior to plunging can offer crucial information later in the ball.

  • Are the flippers responsive?
  • Do both flippers feel equal?
  • Are the opto-interruptors sensitive?
  • Is a flick pass or tap pass possible?
  • Are the buttons clean and working well?

Don’t be afraid to take a minute and look the game over, especially prior to plunging ball one. Take note of where the outlanes are positioned and look for signs of any modifications. Check the backglass for any notices written by the tournament director. If you’re in the position of being able to watch other players on the game before you, gather whatever information you can from watching their games. Are the feeds consistent? How were those players handling them? Were they successful? Did they give you any audial clues as to how the game is playing? Don’t be afraid to take a page from poker players and learn from your opponents.

In-Game Decision Making:

The risk-versus-reward process that players endure generally follows two schools of thought. Some competitors will do whatever they can at all times to position themselves for an attempt at the most lucrative shot in the game, while other players will always search for single shots, or patterns, that feel comfortable and safe, and build a strategy around those specific shots. It is true that no shot in pinball is completely safe, but when players reach a high-level of ability, they can better recognize which shots are giving them trouble at a given moment and which aren’t. Most players strike a balance between the two concepts and lean in one direction or the other depending on how the game in question is playing.

All players should plan a strategy prior to plunging ball one. If you must deviate from your primary strategy to another, do so decisively and don’t look back. Where many players get into trouble is in being caught between multiple strategies at once, and thus accomplishing none of them. Also, it is best to focus on your strategy in small sections, rather than sweeping goals. For instance, Ruling the Universe in the game Attack from Mars is not a good tournament strategy until you already find yourself extremely far into the game. At the outset, prior to ball one, a more reasonable goal would be to light lock and work toward your first multiball. Don’t be afraid to take this concept a step further and think of the game in singular moments:

Step one, gain control of the ball. Once you have control, take a moment to collect yourself and move on to step two, shooting the lock.

Simplify the game as much as you need in order to stay comfortable. And if you find that none of these mental techniques work for you, don’t be afraid to search internally for a different solution and find success in your own way.

Risk versus Reward:

Players always need to consider what a particular shot is worth. Pinball machines are designed to drain your balls quickly, so you, as a player, must always take care to keep the risk of losing your ball as low as possible. This means only flipping when absolutely necessary and not wasting shots working toward non-lucrative goals.

It is important to remember, however, that value must be considered in more than instant points. Lighting the lock in Attack from Mars is not necessarily the most lucrative shot in a game at a given time, but it could potentially lead to a high-scoring multiball. If you find yourself at a crossroads, don’t be afraid to count the number of shots left to reach a particular mode and make a strategy decision based on the results. If you find yourself five shots from a particular multiball but only three shots from another, consider attacking the three-shot multiball first. While you’re considering your strategy, also don’t forget to account for the difficulty of the shots involved and how it adds to the risk factor. If the five-shot multiball is located in a significantly safer area of the playfied than the three-shot multiball, it may be the better strategic choice even though it will require more attempted shots. As you gain experience as a competitive player, these decisions will begin to feel second nature.

Which Strategy?:

A great deal of the beauty of competitive pinball is found in situational play. A player at a bar, arcade, or home game could potentially use the same strategy on the same game at all times without deviating. Competition play often forces players into making unusual decisions. The best way to play games in a qualifying situation is not necessarily the best way to play them in a head-to-head matchup. Similarly, the best way to play a game in a four-player group may not be the best way to play it when head-to-head! The important thing to remember is to always gather whatever information you can from the players around you and consider how your strategy may, or may not, affect them.

In a Best-Game qualifying situation where players receive multiple attempts on the same game, the best strategy is often to go for the high risk, high reward situations, even if that means potentially ending with a low-scoring game. If the tournament format affords you multiple attempts, that low-scoring game won’t make much of a difference, but the one time you break through and do achieve your goal, you will reap the reward.

In a PAPA-style qualifying situation, where players must string together multiple games on a single qualifying card, players will often dial the risk-taking back some, not wanting a single bad game to ruin four other solid performances.

Target scores are more common in a head-to-head scenario. Always pay attention to what your opponent is doing. The knowledge that you need 50 million points, as opposed to 500,000 points, or worse yet, not knowing the score at all, can often be the difference between success and defeat.


Pinball competitions have developed a general code of conduct that has served the game well. Please keep the following considerations in mind anytime you play into a competitive event. Some of these items are suggestions while others are enforced by official rules.

  • If you must swear to relieve tension, excuse yourself to a private location or do so under your breath. Pinball can be very frustrating at times, but larger events are also attended by younger players. Help us encourage the next generation of players rather than scare them off. Screaming obscenities in public is never acceptable and may lead to disqualification.
  • If you must leave mid-game for any reason, even temporarily to use the rest room, inform the tournament director prior to leaving. Leaving without telling anyone, expecting them to wait for you without knowing when you will return, is discourteous to the other players and also against the rules. If a tournament director is not notified and a player is found absent when it is their turn, PAPA rules allow three minutes for the player to return before the tournament director will plunge the ball in question and continue the event.
  • Rooting for particular players is a fun by-product of competition. Don’t hesitate to cheer for your favorite player, but keep any negative comments within the bounds of good taste. There is no need to disparage other players or openly root against them.
  • Waiting for a tilt mechanism to settle is allowed. If the amount of time you plan on waiting is significantly longer than normal for any reason, please explain your situation to the tournament director so he or she may inform the other competitors in your group of the reason for delay.
  • Clean your hands often, especially after eating or using the rest room. All players are forced to touch the same flipper buttons, and all players should work collectively toward cleanliness. Hand sanitizer is your friend!

Safe Cracker (Matt Coriale)
Safe Cracker (Mike Morrey)
Scared Stiff (Bob McCann & Dan Wilson)
Scared Stiff (Robert Macauley)
The Shadow
Shaq Attaq
The Simpsons, Data East Pinball
The Simpsons Pinball Party, Stern Pinball
Soccer Kings
Southern Belle
South Park
Space Jam
Space Station
Starship Troopers
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation (notes, Bowen Kerins)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (notes, Paul Fernquist)
Star Wars
Star Wars (external)
Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace (Milen)
Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace (Scott Frazer)
Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace (notes)
Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition (Chris Hehman)
Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition (Robert Macauley)
Striker Xtreme
Striker Xtreme (external)
Stellar Wars
Street Fighter 2
Super Mario Brothers
Super Mario World
Surf ‘n’ Safari
Swords of Fury
Tales from the Crypt
Tales of the Arabian Nights
Tee’d Off
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Terminator 3 (external)
Theatre of Magic (Bowen Kerins)
Theatre of Magic (GeekBoy)
Time Shock
Tommy, The Who’s
Transporter: The Rescue
Twilight Zone (Kevin Martin)
Twilight Zone (Bowen Kerins)
Twilight Zone (notes, Brian Rudolph)
Walking Dead
The Web
Whitewater (notes)
Who Dunnit
Winter Sports (external)
Wizard of Oz
World Challenge Soccer
World Cup
World Cup Soccer
WWF Royal Rumble

Basic Flipper Skills

Improving your pinball techniques, or flipper skills as we like to call them, will help you score loads of points and enjoy pinball even more than you otherwise would have. At one point in time, every world champion had to learn the basics, just like you. So whether all you want to do is have a little bit of extra fun and reach that next mode, or whether you go to sleep every night dreaming of taking home the World Championships Martian Trophy, learning new flippers skills will help you become more popular, lose weight, and achieve your wildest desires.

Getting Started:

Every player starts with the basics! The more you practice, the more you will learn to aim your shots and utilize flipper skills. The more you utilize flipper skills, the higher your scores will rise. Don’t be afraid to try new techniques and improve! And trust us… it’s not random. You can make the game do what you want!

Dead Bounce:

The dead bounce is the easiest flipper skill to learn… Do Nothing! Often times, the key to gaining control of a moving pinball is to not flip. Mastery of this technique lies in knowing when to use it and when not to use it. If you’re new to pinball, force yourself to hold back on some occasions and gain a feel for where a ball goes when it hits a lowered flipper.

  • How does the angle change?
  • Is the ball safer after the dead bounce than before it?
  • Does the ball bounce the same when it hits different parts of the flipper?
  • Is the dead bounce consistent every time the ball leaves a certain playfield features?

If you’re struggling to learn this technique, play a few games one-handed and see how it forces you to gain control of the ball by dead bouncing. Challenge yourself to learn this technique, and once you feel you have a handle on it, pat yourself on the back; You’ve graduated to Intermediate Techniques.

Intermediate Flipper Skills

After you have improved your aim and learned to use both the cradle and dead bounce, it’s time to start challenging yourself with intermediate-level skills. Most of these techniques are designed to bring the ball under control, but some skills, such as the post pass, are designed to move the ball from one flipper to the other for setting up a desirable shot. The more you play pinball, the more you will learn which shots are valuable and worth setting up.

Drop Catch:

The drop catch is a beneficial technique for gaining control of the pinball anytime the ball is angling toward the flipper. The key to a successful drop catch is releasing the flipper button just prior to contact. When the ball finally does contact the dropping flipper, it will lose momentum and move up the inlane, as opposed to bouncing back into the field of play.

It is important to note the drop catch can only be used when the ball is angling toward the flipper. If the ball is angling away from the flipper, or in other words, moving toward the center drain, lowering the flipper prior to contact will do nothing but guide the ball into the outhole and cause your friends to shake their heads at you.

Post Pass:

Pinball machines frequently put players into positions where specific shots on the playfield are worth a great deal of points while other shots are not nearly as valuable. In these moments, players find themselves wanting to transfer the ball to the flipper that has the best chance of making the most valuable shot, and when that happens, the most common technique to transfer the ball is post passing.

To complete a successful post pass, a player must shoot the ball off of the bottom portion of the slingshot directly above the cradled ball. The proper flipper-button timing to complete a successful post pass varies from game to game.

Live Catch:

While the drop catch works best when the ball is angled toward the flippers, the live catch works best when the ball is angled toward the center drain. A successful live catch is determined by how closely a player can match the end of the flipper stroke with the impact of the ball. Ideally, the flipper will reach its highest point at the exact moment it contacts the falling pinball. The better the player’s timing, the easier it will be to bring the ball under control.

Flick Pass:

If a ball is moving too quickly to cradle, briefly releasing the flipper button as the ball approaches the end of the flipper can cause a flicking motion, safely transferring the ball from one flipper to the other.

This technique, and many others, require the flipper mechanisms to be very responsive to quick button presses. It’s always in players’ best interest to flip a few times and get a feel for the flipper mechanisms prior to plunging the ball.

Advanced Flipper Skills

After you find yourself catching the ball successfully and implementing other intermediate-level skills, it’s time to kick things up a notch with advanced flipper techniques. The following tap pass, loop pass, and other techniques all require a high level of precision that can take thousands of attempts to master, but acquiring these techniques is often what separates the good players from the great ones. Also, you can admit it, they’re pretty cool to look at!

Tap Pass:

While tap passes will work on all eras of games, the technique is primarily used on older games from the Solid State era, such as Paragon or Future Spa. A successful tap pass requires a fast flick or tap on the flipper button, causing the flipper power to briefly engage, sending the ball only as far as the opposite flipper, rather than into the upper playfield.

Loop Pass:

The loop pass is an advanced technique used to transfer the ball from one flipper to the other by way of an orbit shot. This technique only works on games where an orbit shot feeds the opposite flipper.

To successfully complete a loop pass, a player must lower the flipper just prior to contact. As the pinball contacts the dropping flipper, its energy will be reduced enough for the player to gain control.

Cradle Separation – Traditional:

When a player needs to separate two balls that both reside on the same flipper, the most common way to do so is the traditional cradle separation. To separate the two balls, the player must gently flip the ball closest to the tip of the flipper up the slingshot and wait for it to return. If the moving ball contacts the cradled ball with enough force, it will bounce to the opposite flipper.

Cradle Separation – Over / Under:

The over / under cradle separation is a variation of the traditional cradle separation. In this version, instead of waiting for the first ball to contact the cradled ball, the player employs a post pass to transfer the second ball to the opposite flipper.

Illegal Flipper Skills

Several pinball techniques are banned from competition. Some of these techniques, such as the bang back, are banned because they risk player injury. Other techniques, such as the shooter-lane cradle and death save are banned because high-level players are capable of abusing these skills consistently enough to play single games lasting several hours. PAPA does recognize some of these techniques involve a high degree of skill, but this recognition alone does not outweigh the potential negative impacts of allowing these techniques to be used in competition.

Shooter-Lane Juggling:

Shooter-lane juggling occurs when players repeatedly tap the plunger rod on a machine to keep a second or third ball from being sent into the playfield by the auto-plunger. In a best case scenario for the player, enough balls will stack up in the shooter lane that the auto-plunger is not strong enough to remove them, allowing the competitor an opportunity to play a one-ball multiball for an extended period of time.

Shooter-Lane Cradle:

Shooter-lane cradles are a variation of the more common, shooter-lane juggle shown above. On some games, either the shooter rod is slightly too long, or the auto-plunger is slightly too weak, and when a player continually presses the shooter rod in as far as it will go, the game will not be capable of auto-plunging the appropriate number of balls into play.

Death Save:

The Death save is a technique players sometimes use in casual competition to send a ball draining down the right outlane back into the field of play. When the ball reach the outhole, the player raises the left flipper and pushes the game slightly forward and to the right. If the technique is performed correctly, the ball will rebound off of the metal guide leading to the center drain and rebound back into play.

Bang Back:

Bang Backs are the king of all illegal pinball techniques. Any players who attempt this maneuver are risking sprained or broken wrists and damage to the pinball machine. This demonstration is for informational purposes only.

Note: The video refers to a ball draining down the left outlane, but a bang back can be successfully employed from both sides.