Pinball Showdown Review

PINBALL SHOWDOWN (Shoot Again Games)

I really, really wanted to love Diane Sauer’s Pinball Showdown. Perhaps that was the problem from the very beginning. I had high expectations for this game based on a genuine passion for the game of pinball. It’s clear that the game’s designer also loves pinball. Sauer has been professionally repairing and restoring pinball machines for years, and her customers’ glowing testimonials praise her skills in this regard. Pinball Showdown, unfortunately, loses that special something in the transition from the arcade to the tabletop.

Pinball Showdown can be played with only two players, but it’s best experienced with three or four pinball wizards. Each player takes the role of an individual pinball during a particularly frantic multiball mode. It’s all about discovering the proper balance between speed and control while attempting to outscore opponents by bouncing off of playfield devices and nailing high-scoring combos. All the while, each player tries their best to activate Wizard Mode, claim the most valuable playfield cards, and avoid the dreaded drain.

A player’s influence over their ball is expressed via double-sided speed/control tokens. Control tokens are used to bid on playfield cards, while saved tokens can be flipped to the speed side to gain access to the rarest, riskiest, most valuable cards. The highest scoring cards are special combo cards that can only be claimed once and require a number of specific playfield card prerequisites to be scored. When a combination is claimed Wizard Mode turns on and doubles everyone’s points. As long as at least one ball maintains a high enough speed, Wizards Mode stays active and keeps the points rolling in. If balls lose too much speed or no combinations are claimed, Wizard Mode deactivates until another combo is scored. This continues for ten rounds or until a player drains after the fifth round.

Sounds great, right? It is indeed a fantastic idea. The real kick in the pants is that playing it simply isn’t as fun as one would hope. The bidding aspect really pulled me out of the experience and seemed wildly out of place. This is especially true in the two-player mode where bidding feels absolutely pointless. Multiplayer sessions are far more entertaining, but something still feels off.

The biggest problem is that, while Pinball Showdown might be a mechanically accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a single ball in the middle of an exhilarating multiball mode, the game just doesn’t feel like playing pinball. Pinball Showdown never claims to deliver an authentic pinball playing experience, as such gameplay would be near impossible to replicate through a tabletop card game. Nevertheless, themes matter in tabletop gaming. They pull us into an experience and provide necessary context for players’ actions. It seems to me that removing the pinball-themed artwork from this game’s cards would strip Pinball Showdown of any connection to its source material.

I was incredibly hyped to play this game with friends, but my excitement soon waned once our sessions got rolling and the gameplay became more tangible. It’s a neat idea from a game designer whose enthusiasm for the game of pinball clearly shines through. Unfortunately, it feels more like a bidding game wearing a pinball skin than a tabletop game that effectively simulates the panicked thrills and thick tension of an actual multiball mode in a real pinball machine. Maybe pinball is just one of those unique experiences that cannot smoothly translate to the tabletop format. I appreciate Sauer’s ambition in this project, but I can’t really recommend Pinball Showdown based on my experience with it. Hang onto those quarters in case you walk into a laundromat or barcade and are pulled in by the glowing allure and siren song of a Twilight Zone or Adams Family machine sitting in a dark corner.