Updated: Jul 10
Roll & write games have become perennial favourites and we've seen this mechanic used to cover an endless array of themes and with varying degrees of complexity. Some use conventional dice; others, like Railroad Ink (Horrible Guild), use custom dice. Some use pads of printed score sheets, others use reusable dry-wipe boards. Tho' games like Rome & Roll (PSC) have stretched the envelope for the mechanic, using roll & write to deliver a full-scale euro game; others have gone for simpler designs. Where tho' do Geoff Engelstein's Super-Skill Pinball games fit within this sub-genre?
Super-Skill Pinball: Ramp It Up! follows on from the Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade game released by WizKids in 2020. Super-Skill Pinball: Ramp It Up! isn't an expansion to the original game, it's a standalone sequel. You don't need to own or even have played the previous game in order to play this one. As the name suggests, you're recreating pinball using roll & write mechanics as an analogue for the real thing. That's an ambitious ask but Geoff Engelstein's design manages to carry it off. For sure, it's slow motion pinball but it manages to pull off the look and feel of 'real' pinball remarkably well as it adapts it into a roll & write game.
You play using two dry-wipe boards. One represents the pinball table and the other is the backglass. In the previous Super-Skill Pinball game, the backglass was solely used for recording your score but in Ramp It Up!, it also provides an upper level for scoring: unlocking a ramp that you can only access by using the flippers. Tho' the boards are busy, game play is actually very straightforward. You roll the two conventional six-sided dice and choose the number from one of them. That's the number you play this round. You move the silver ball (actually a flat-bottomed silver marker that captures the look of a ball but, happily, won't roll off) to the next zone below the one it's in and you mark off that number on your table, taking any score that gives you. Next turn you do the same with a new dice roll.
Along the way, you'll be triggering bonuses and unlocks. You'll be collecting sets (marking off all the numbers grouped in a zone) both for the score that will give you but also to reset them so that you can score them again. Activating flippers will shoot your ball back up the table and, obviously, you'll want to keep the ball in play as long as you can. You'll inevitably find tho' that as you mark numbers off, the dice won't offer you the numbers you need... But, as in the 'real' game, you have the option to 'nudge'. When you take that option, which you can do up to three times in a game, you nudge the number on a die and write down by how much. So, for example, if you nudge a 3 to use it as a 5, then you record 2. As in the physical game, nudging is not without risk... If on the next dice roll the difference between the two dice is less than the number you recorded, then you 'tilt': your ball goes out of play. So, to take another example, if you nudge by 1, then you'll only lose your ball if the next dice roll is a double. When a ball does go out of play, for whatever reason, that’s the end of the round. You start off the next round with a new ball, and the game is played over three rounds in all.
Super-Skill Pinball: Ramp It Up! isn’t just one game, however. It comes with four sets of dry-wipe boards. They all use the same core mechanics but they are ranked in terms of difficulty. Gofer Gold is the ‘easiest’ – tho’ it certainly offers plenty of challenge. The Oceans 11-style High Roller Heist board is a step up in difficulty, and the Top Speed board, with its motor racing theme is the most challenging – with speed controls to be regulated in order to access numbers 7-9 that would be impossible to reach on an unenhanced d6 roll. The wrestling themed Pin Pals differs from the other three games because it is designed to be played by tag teams of two, where bonuses you unlock on your board also trigger unlocks on the board your partner is playing. That said, you can solo Pin Pals by playing two boards at the same time.
The game comes with enough sets of boards for up to four players but, Pin Pals aside, Super-Skill Pinball is essentially a solitaire game. You’re all competing to get the highest score (just as in solo play you’ll be trying to maximise your score and beat your previous best) but you’re all playing on your individual boards, so this is multiplayer solitaire. The only thing you’re sharing is the dice rolls – but you won’t necessarily be picking the same number each turn, and once the game is underway you won’t even necessarily all be in the same round (players are bound to have a ball go out of play on different turns) and you won’t all hit ‘game over’ at the same time.
Before I started to play, I was sceptical about the prospects of recreating a pinball-playing a experience thro’ a roll & write game. Several games in, I’ve been fully won over. It foregoes the speed of pinball but, thanks to a clever design and helped with Gong Studios’ art, Super-Skill Pinball: Ramp It Up! doesn’t lose any of the excitement. It’s not of course the same as playing the physical game on a real table but, perhaps surprisingly, it still manages to deliver a great adrenaline rush.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)