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Pinball for Dummies: Starting a Game

By Will Oetting

Starting a Game

In our first lesson we will go over how to start a game, how to play a multiplayer game, and how to make your games last longer by earning extra balls and free games.  Keep in mind that all pinball machines are unique.  The start button can be found in several different places on a machine depending on the era and which company built it.  There are also a lot of differences in how the displays are set up.  This can lead to confusion until you get used to the various designs.  Follow the below information and you’ll be on your way to playing your first pinball game.

Credits, Free Play, and Free Games

When you walk up to a game on location somewhere, you will most likely need to add credits to be able to play.  One credit allows you to play a single game.  Look at the cost card, usually yellow, in the right hand side of the apron at the bottom of the playfield.  It tells you how much it costs to purchase a single credit.  It currently ranges anywhere from a quarter to a dollar to buy a single credit.  If you are lucky, the operator of the game might give you a discount if you buy multiple credits at a time (i.e. 5 credits for $2).  If you plan on playing a couple of games then this discount is the way to go.  You’ll find quarter slots and sometimes bill acceptors on the very front of the machine.  The number of credits you have purchased should show up on the screen or a display in the backbox.

Credit Card
Credit cost card on apron
Most locations give you the opportunity to earn or win free credits through high scores or from a match at the end of each game. 
For many pinheads, this is why they play.  Earning free games is an amazing feeling.  As you get better at playing you will earn more and more free games and can play for quite some time off your initial credit purchase.
What draws you to pinball?x
  Don’t be afraid of the knocker sound, it is a good thing and lets you and everyone else in the room know that you have earned a credit.
Credits Displayed. Man that is a lot of free games won!

If you get to play a game at someone’s house or if you decide to buy your first machine, then the machine will probably be set on free play.  Therefore, there is no need to buy any credits at all.  You can play all you want.  “Free Play” will probably be displayed on the screen or display as well in the card at the bottom right of the apron. 

For more info on buying your first game: New to Pinball?

Start Button

Start Buttons
Different Start Buttons [Some images provided by High End Pins]

Now that you have credits on the machine you’re ready to find that start button.  Look back at the very front of the machine to the left of where you put in your money.  You will usually find a flashing button labeled “Start.”  On older machines, it isn’t always that easy.  It can sometimes be a metal button on the coin door itself.  Wherever you find it, push it once and only once to start a single player game.


Playing with friends can be much more fun than by yourself.  You can normally have up to four players playing together during the same game.  To initiate a multiplayer game, you just have to push the Start button for each player that is going to join.  So, for a three person game, push the Start button three times.  You should hear an audible tone and see some zeroes “00” pop up on the screen or displays for each player you enter.  Remember that you have to have a credit on the machine for each person, so three credits are required for a three-player game.

Multiplayer game started

While playing a multiplayer game, each person takes their turn until their ball drains and goes out of play.  Then it is the next player’s turn.  At the start of the ball the player whose turn it is should see their score flashing.  It can sometimes be hard to keep track of who’s turn it is at times, so it can be helpful to watch each other and try to make sure the correct person is playing at the right times.  If you ever become a competitive player, playing the wrong person’s ball can get you disqualified, but you don’t have to worry about that right now. 

Balls In Play and Extra Balls

You typically get to play three balls per credit for modern games.  A single ball can be played for as long as possible before you drain.  There isn’t a time limit on how long you can play a ball.  There are some older games that you will normally get five balls instead of three.  That is mainly because the amount of time a player could keep the ball playing was much less than current games, thus they gave you more balls so that you feel like you got your money’s worth.  

Extra Ball

You might start with only three balls, but you can always earn some extra balls as well.  This is another great way to extend the amount of play you get in a game and will boost your score.  If you have earned an extra ball there is usually a light right between the flippers on the playfield, normally labeled “Shoot Again.”   Each game will have different rules on how to get extra balls, but we will cover that in a later lesson.

Extra Credit: Turn On/Off the Game

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Keywords:  Pinball 101, Pinball for Dummies, Pinball for Beginners, Beginner’s Guide to Pinball, Intro to Pinball, Pinball for Newbies, Basics of Pinball

Full Glossary of Pinball Terms

About the Author: Will Oetting

I helped my father-in-law buy his first game, Bounty Hunter, and then instantly missed it when it left the house.  That drew me to the community and I was lovestruck pretty hard.  I have been working with Jeff behind the scenes of TWIP to help make sure that the website is running at its best.  I am also on the TWIPY committee where I help setup the surveys and collect the data for the awards.  My current favorite machine is Taxi but I also enjoy games of all types.

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