Disclaimer - this review contains absolutely no reference to The Who's "Tommy".
A couple of years ago roll and write games turned into a THING and suddenly everyone was doing them and playing them. Most were, as expected, utterly forgettable and as ephemeral as a single-use score sheet. So far, only Cartographers has emerged in my estimation as one worth anything other than a dalliance. Geoff Englestein, who has been quietly making some really damn good games for years now, presents his take on this genre and it turns out that Super Skill Pinball 4-Cade is a brilliant use of the roll and write concept to pull off something that I would have thought otherwise impossible – to make playing a tabletop game feel like playing a pinball machine.
There is some genius design work here to make that happen. At its core, it’s standard roll and write fare where you roll a die and mark off boxes, and the player that made the best choices on the die rolls and the options available wins. But wait, there’s more. Mr. Engelstein saw, in the mechanism of checking off sets of boxes to earn points or advantages, something not unlike lighting up a group of dropout lanes or knocking down a bank of targets to spell a word.
That’s smart stuff, but even smarter is how he has taken the concept of a ball traversing the plane of a physical play field – of course, with a terminal point at the bottom – to control available choices. After launching the ball, your die roll choices are limited to the top field. If you can’t check one off, you drop to the next field. If you can check something off, you must drop to anylower field for the next roll unless you are hitting the right numbers to play the bumpers. Once you get to the drain, there are limited boxes for each drop and flipper. There’s a red flipper and a yellow flipper, and these coordinate to which targets you can hit with that flipper as the subsequent roll sends the ball back up the playfield.
You can bump the table, fudging your roll, three times a round. But doing that means you risk a tilt if the next roll is under what you adjusted. Or you can earn a Skill Shot for hitting the topfield dropouts and pick a number to use instead of a future die roll. There are light-up bonuses, multiball, spinners, and even backglass mini-games. This is a comprehensive tabletop simulation of playing a pinball machine, and it offers four different tables – carnival, cyberpunk, fantasy, and disco - each with unique layouts, targets, bonuses, and challenges.
And it just feels right. As your marker (a bifurcated silver ball) carroms and careens between the targets, you are constantly engaged in making decisions and deciding when to take risks or shoot for a better scoring opportunity. Sure, the physics of a real table and the engineering of one can’t really be duplicated but the simulation will particularly surprise and charm anyone who’s ever plunked quarters into a Williams, Stern, or Gottlieb arcade machine.
There are two chief negatives to what is otherwise a brilliant design. One is that the high score play coupled with elimination means that some players might be playing for quite a bit longer than others, although the limited checkboxes in the drain-level field act as a sort of timer and all play is simultaneous. This is adjunct to another issue – the game feels long. At 20-30 minutes, it’s a delight. At 40-45 minutes the repetition starts to grind and from my experience the last quarter of the game tends to feel kind of anticlimactic in terms of determining a winner. It is strictly a high score game, although there are some achievements you can mark off on the score sheets in the rulebook. And yes, you should absolutely write down your high scores on these tables, ACE.
Even when it runs a little long and my daughter is beating me by 200k going into my third ball I love that this is a high concept, small box game with a modest production and a completely fresh idea. It has the kind of heart and soul, a passion for the subject, that is missing from far too many games pumped out onto the market today. It’s a singular design rich with character and care; although it risks coming across as Yet Another Roll & Write it manages to hit the mark and light up the “definitive example of the genre” bonus.
Thanks to Geoff Engelstein and WizKids for supporting our site with a review copy. TWBG never accepts payment for our content