Game Preserve 2016 February Tournament: It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll

Note: Due to recent events, Shawn no longer recommends participation in Space City Pinball League events until further notice. Please see the Bayou City Pinball League website for alternatives.


This adventure begins with a journey through the Houston area’s wonderful traffic. I was using Google Maps directions to guide me around traffic as best it could, and it directed me onto the Hardy Toll Road at Little York, taking a side street to get past the worst of the backup on Little York itself.

Once I got onto the mainlanes, it was smooth sailing until the toll road was closed due to construction at FM 1960. I decided at that point the best course of action was to stay on West Hardy Road to Louetta, then cut over to I-45 there. Google Maps told me, in effect, “don’t bother getting on the freeway, just take the feeder the rest of the way to Sawdust.” Which I did, and which turned out to be a great move (traffic wasn’t really moving again until after the exit for Sawdust.)

I arrived at around 4:10pm. (I had messaged Phil earlier saying I was on my way and that traffic was horrendous; his reply, which I didn’t see until after I had arrived at Game Preserve, was that he wouldn’t be starting until about 4:20pm.) I managed to fit in a couple of warm-up games before the pairings and a rule change were announced. (The rule change was the shift from 4-2-1-0 scoring to 3-2-1-0 scoring during the qualifying rounds, with three-player games being scored using 3-1.5-0.)

My first round game was on Tri Zone with Matt, Erich, and Brian, a game I usually feel pretty confident playing. The game itself seemed to be in good mechanical working order, though the general illumination had some bulbs burned out. My hopes of getting off to a good start quickly went out the window. I was only able to manage a rather embarrassing 49,270, with Brian’s 122,150 being good enough for third place. I don’t know if it was just nerves, getting really unlucky bounces, or a combination of both. It was quite disappointing to be at the bottom of the heap to start things off.

The second round game was originally Junkyard with James and Sarah. However, in the middle of James’s second ball, the wire came off of a kicker coil. Rusty, who had already completed his game at this point, made a heroic effort to try to get it up and running again mid-game, but the fix attempt wound up not working and we would start over again on Space Shuttle. This was a tough break for James, who had the lead at the time of the malfunction on Junkyard (I had a decent second place score), and who would wind up finishing third with a 142K+. Sarah would take second with a 178K+, and I rang up a decent score of 952K+. I would have liked to at least light up the millions digit in the score counter, but what I had was plenty to win.

On to the third round: Congo with Justin Niles, Chris, and James. Not surprisingly, Justin did about the same thing when I played against him in the first week of the league, posting a decent 372M+. I struggled to get into a rhythm and managed to post a 69M+ good for third, with Chris eeking out second with a 76M+. So if you are keeping track so far, that’s three rounds and I have 4 ranking points (0, 4, and 1 in order). I’m starting to wonder if I will even qualify for A-division at this point.

For the fourth round I was dealt Roller Disco with Joe Reyna, Justin, and Jaina. I like Roller Disco, though it is a rather difficult game to really get into a rhythm on. For those who have never seen this game, it’s a wide-open widebody playfield with two sets of lower flippers and two separate sets of inlanes. The game play bears some resemblance another Gottlieb classic, Black Hole, except there’s no lower level and no multiball, and the playfield on Roller Disco is nearly symmetric whereas Black Hole derives many more subtle nuances from its asymmetric playfield.

I manage to squeak out a third place here with a paltry 90,130 (Justin taking a very unsurprising first here with a 231K+), but the real noteworthy part of this game came with an early stuck ball I had. Joe did this whole act with “you’re going to have to bump it off of there, I’m not grabbing the keys.” I tried some subtle nudges that wound up not freeing the ball, then one that did… only to have the game tilt about two seconds layer. In a qualifying round where I got off to a terrible start and needed everything I could get, that left me Quite Obviously Not Amused. (Joe, of course, laughed his ass off.) I feel that kind of thing may pass for a joke in a social or “beer league” game of pinball, but that kind of nonsense to a fellow player is, at least in the pinball culture I grew up with, something one Just Doesn’t Do. (I’ll get back to this later)

On to round five, Lord of the Rings with Rusty, Joe (again), and Brian. The real shocker here was Rusty bolting out to an incredible lead by the end of ball 2. I had little hope of catching him, but I was going to try. As it was, I did well enough to snag a solid second place with 9.3M+, far behind Rusty’s 24.2M+ but comfortably ahead of Brian’s 7.4M+. On the third ball, I managed to get some multiball modes going, and I never really quit until I lost the ball. Had I been able to keep it in play, I was ready to do what I did back in November on my first ball on Lord of the Rings against Phil.

Going into round six, I’m starting to have some hope of making A-division but prepared for the reality that I might not for the first time under this format. I drew Rock Encore against Jaina and William. I put up an embarrassingly bad 282K+. However, William was only able to put up 223K+ and Jaina put up only a 220K+, so as badly as I did, that was still good enough for a first place. An ugly win scores the same 3 standings points as a more elegant win, so I’m not complaining.

Finally, round seven. I’m in 10th place in the standings, with a possibility of moving into the top 8 for A-division playoffs, but there was a chance if the wrong players won, I would not. I had to find everyone and begin my game, so there wasn’t too much time to analyze scenarios. I was assigned Party Zone with Ruben, Kevin, and Melissa. Fortunately, I drew the fourth player spot, which somewhat gave me improved odds of winning, knowing exactly what I needed to do. I caught a bad break on each of my first two balls, but still had a competitive score going into ball 3.

Early in my third ball, I got a (worthless in tournament play) extra ball from the Supersonic Robotic Comic. Just about anything else would have been better. I was unhappy enough that I flashed my middle finger at the score display, which drew a couple of chuckles from my opponents (well, I’m glad someone found it amusing). Later on, I lit the Eat-Drink-B.Merry sequence, from which I scored 3 million points, enough to secure the win. After plunging off the extra ball I would wind up with 8.6M+, good enough for first place, and enough to edge out Ruben for the 8th spot in A-division. Winning the game without starting multiball was perhaps the best thing to happen to me all night, and perhaps the biggest highlight of the tournament. Again, it’s not the prettiest win, but an ugly win and a pretty win count for the same 3 points.

My moment to get amused, however, came when I saw Joe Reyna had missed A-division by a good three places, winding up in 11th. Sure, maybe Joe wasn’t playing to make A-division. But I have to say, I found it hilarious. Call it karma, call it the pinball gods doing their thing… either way, it all worked out in the end. He who laughs last laughs the hardest, indeed.

Phil announced to all the players as the last rounds were finishing up to be back at 8pm for the playoffs. I took my meal break at Taco Bell, reflecting on how I had done so far. I was relieved to have made the A-division playoffs, though I was still unhappy I had barely eeked in, and that with a final round game where I probably didn’t deserve to take first place. I set the bar pretty high for myself, and this performance in the qualifying rounds didn’t measure up to it.

The semi-finals saw me grouped with Phil, Rusty, and Brian, with the other group being Erich, William, David, and Justin. Rusty wound up with the #1 seed with 17.5 points, which was a real surprise to me as up until now I had thought he was a good player, but not of the caliber that could win the A-division of a tournament outright. Obviously that has now changed and there is yet another player to watch out for.

The first game was on Party Zone. Unlike my previous plays on this table, I couldn’t get anything going at all. A perfect microcosm of this game was the shot that I attempted into the cottage lane (to light multiball once it is made three times), which bounced right back out, and right down the middle. I would sign off with an absolutely dreadful 3.5M+, less than half of the 7.7M+ third place score by Rusty.

The second game was on Rock Encore. It’s a table that by now, I’m starting to despise. Nothing I did got any appreciable amount of scoring going, and my final score of 194K+ didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being good enough for even third place.

We ended the night on what would be a relatively meaningless (to me) game of Roller Disco. Going into that game, I was the 0 in an 8-3-3-0 point split, with the top two players advancing. The only way I had any chance to advance was to win with Phil (8 points) coming in second. This would put me in second overall, with the point totals then becoming 10-4-4-3, forcing a playoff with either Rusty or Brian (whoever came in third). Neither of those happened, with Rusty finishing first with a 223K+, Brian finishing second with a 159K+, my 120K+ being good enough for third, and a rare fourth-place finish by Phil with a 78K+.

So there you have it, my best impression of the Houston Oilers translated to a pinball tournament. If you remember the Oilers, it’s not a comparsion I should be eager to make, though it is accurate. A tie for seventh place is definitely not what I had in mind when I walked in to The Game Preserve. It ties the lowest finish I have had at any tournament held at The Game Preserve; twice in the past, I have come in seventh place, once back in 2014 October, and again back in 2015 July. The only two tournaments where I have finished lower than seventh were the 2014 Oil City Open main tournament, where I came in 14th (though I did salvage some pride that trip by coming in third in the side tournament), and the Houston Arcade Expo tournament where I ranked 30th in qualifying (though keep in mind the field in the latter is much larger).

And the search for the elusive first place continues…

(Gallery includes some post-tournament scores. I will be adding captions as I have time later this week.)

Space City Open: A day of redemption

Note: Due to recent events, Shawn no longer recommends participation in Space City Pinball League events until further notice. Please see the Bayou City Pinball League website for alternatives.

So today was the Space City Open, a long awaited pinball tournament. First, before I get into the meat of this post, Phil was kind enough to host this tournament from his house with his quite well-maintained and diverse collection, and I would like to extend my thanks to him for doing so.

I went into this tournament with the most positive mindset I could put myself in. I’ve been having a pretty lousy week, to say the least, and it took quite a bit of energy to block all of that out this morning and afternoon and focus on the goal at hand.

For the most part, I feel like I succeeded in maintaining focus through the ups and downs. I had some great games and moments in this tournament; I also had quite a few not-so-great games and moments.

We’ll start at the beginning. We had 14 players, and there were eight different games: Diner, Dr. Dude, Dracula, Firepower, Iron Man, Tales from the Crypt, The Simpsons Pinball Party, and Whirlwind. Phil does have other games there, but those were the eight chosen for the tournament. (Judge Dredd was also on the list but due to technical problems it was a last-minute scratch.) The tournament format was a seven-round match play tournament.

Groups were drawn, and I wound start the first round on Iron Man with Brian, Blake, and Dick. I’m pretty sure I’ve never played Iron Man before today, so I had no clue what to do as far as strategy. So, I just sort of winged it, basically just trying to make the shots that were lit and taking hints from the score display as the game went on. This worked as I took first place in this game and was off to a great start. I put up a 9.1M+ with the next highest score being 7.3M+.

My good fortune would be interrupted by an absolutely crummy game of Dr. Dude against Ruben and Rob. I could barely muster a 1.9M+, but there was still a contest between Ruben and Rob with the former eeking out a victory with 5,049,580 versus the latter’s 4,910,970. I just could not get it going. I would have a decent start to a ball, and then BAM! Right down the toilet. I finally got the Mix Master lit (the next-to-last step before multiball) and then lost the ball down the left outlane (I think).

I would quickly return to form in the next game on The Simpsons Pinball Party against James and Garrett. It was not an easy victory by any means as I also began this game with outright disasters on my first two balls (of a 3-ball game). However, I managed to get a monster of a ball going on my third ball of the game, stacking several modes and both multiball modes. I was pretty sure I had won the game early on but kept playing because I was “in the zone” and needed to ride the wave to build my confidence back up. I would sign off with a 29,926,940 (oh, so close to 30M) with the runner-up (Garrett) finishing with 5.7M+.

On to the fourth round. I drew Diner with Rob, Danny, and David. I know the ruleset of Diner even though I have had very little experience actually playing it. This game brought the only stuck ball of the tournament for me; I managed to get the ball wedged behind the spinner. It wasn’t going to budge with any reasonable amount of nudging (defined as any amount that would not set off the tilt sensor), so we had to pull the glass and put the ball back on the plunger lane. This was a minor distraction in the grand scheme of things; I managed a 1.7M+ for second place next to Rob’s 2.1M+ and sub-1M scores from David and Danny.

The fifth round was probably the most dramatic moment in the qualifying rounds. I drew Whirlwind against Phil, Rob, and Blake. (For some reason the software liked to keep putting Rob and I in the same group.) Phil got off to a fairly early lead, and my back was against the wall going into my third ball. Again, I started off with a couple of lackluster balls, and I wasn’t building on that great of a score going into the final ball of the game. I was facing Phil’s score of 5.1M+ or so (it may have been a little higher) with a score of somewhere in the 1M to 2M range. I was able to complete multiball and score a “Million Plus” shot (scoring 2M). I would sign off of this game with 6,056,720 and could only sit back and wait for Phil to complete his last ball. To my amazement, Phil drained fairly quickly and after his end-of-ball bonus, his score only added up to 5,841,910. It held up! I managed to win a game against Phil! I couldn’t believe it.

Round six saw me playing Dracula alongside James and David. By contrast this was a pretty ho-hum game and the scores were nothing really spectacular, but I did manage to win with a 21.9M+ with David in runner-up at 11.1M+.

For the seventh and final round, I drew Tales from the Crypt alongside Cory, Garrett, and David. This was another game where I had the first two balls go rather badly. It wound up being mostly for moot, but I did score 146.7M+. It was only good for third alongside Garrett’s 237.8M+ and Cory’s 246.5M+.

So after a brief intermission, we began the semi-finals. Our first game was on The Simpsons Pinball Party. To say the least, I did not get off to a good start at all. I managed only 1.2M+, which probably wouldn’t have been enough to beat a couple of grade-school kids much less the tournament finalists. In fact, I would dare say this is the worst game I’ve ever played in a pinball tournament, ever.

The silver lining to that cloud was that I got to pick the next game. I thought about it for a few seconds, and then selected Whirlwind, as this was one of two games where I had outscored Phil in the qualifying rounds (the other being Dr. Dude which I was much less familiar with). I was able to put up a 4.6M+ to Phil’s 6.1M+.

Ruben then selected Dr. Dude for the last game of the semi-finals. Basically, this game decided who would advance to the finals, as Phil had pretty much clinched his spot in the finals at that point. It was a pretty uneventful game until the last ball. I got a multiball going, and was able to get enough Mix Master bounces to score the jackpot (which on this game is a flat 5 million). Not only was this good enough to beat Ruben’s score, it was good enough to beat Phil’s as well, which was a much-needed confidence boost.

The finals began shortly thereafter. I was playing alongside Phil, Garrett, and Brian. We would start, again, on The Simpsons Pinball Party. I didn’t do much better, with only 4.9M+ good enough for third. If I was able to come close to the score I had put up earlier, I might have been able to eek out second and top the 16.1M+ put up by Garrett. On the other hand, Phil’s 76.9M+ was going to win barring a miracle.

The next game was Whirlwind, selected by Brian. I was only able to put up a 3.1M+ to Phil’s 8.8M+ and Garrett’s 4.8M+. Had I been able to make at least one Million Plus shot during multiball, it might well have been a different game altogether. This finish was good enough for third place in the round and kept me in a position to at least salvage a decent showing. The question was, could I refocus and get it done?

Brian selected the machine for the third and last game of the finals, which was Firepower. It’s a game I feel very confident playing, having been the very first pinball game I remember playing as a young kid (I think I was all of 5 years old when I played it the first time). I selected to go first, which I felt would give me an advantage in this situation. Whether it actually did or not is up for debate, but I had an absolutely great game with a good multiball during my third ball. I would sign off with 310,200, good enough for first place on the game and putting me in second place overall for the tournament. Second place was Brian’s 188,260, and third was Garrett’s 106,110. Phil managed all of 15,270; not that it really matters, as the only way he was in danger of not winning was if he finished last and Garrett finished in first place, and even this would only have forced a tiebreaker for first.

I am glad I was able to salvage a second place finish, but it’s still one place short of where I want to be. It was disappointing to do so well during the qualifying rounds and semi-finals only to run into the trouble I did during the finals. It’s not even a case of putting up an otherwise decent score and then having someone (like Phil) come in with a monster score that dwarfs it. A sub-5M score on The Simpsons Pinball Party is embarrassingly low and I am still frustrated at myself a bit, as I picked a really bad time to “lay an egg.”

I experimented with strategy in Whirlwind a bit. I was having difficulty making the plunger skill shot. Back when I was a teenager playing Whirlwind at arcades (such as Fame City and the Time-Out at Northline Mall, if anyone remembers those), I had mastered the art of plunging really short, and sweeping the drop target bank for 600K (the best you can do with just a plunge is 500K knocking down the middle and bottom targets). For the third ball in the finals, I simply went for a full plunge to feed the upper flipper and try to make the million and multiball release ramp shot. Of course, I missed it, and eventually had to settle for the right saucer shot to start multiball. I figured this gave me better chances to win the game than a possible 300K (which was the best I had done on the skill shot on this game all day) and the ball cradled on a lower flipper if I was lucky, or down the outlane if I was not.

Oddly enough, I think Whirlwind was the only game where strategy as such required that much thought. On all the other games, it was either very obvious strategy, or in the case of Iron Man, I was just winging it. There’s a point at which the strategy becomes so obvious to me that I no longer even think about it. The tables that come to mind where this is the case for me would include High Speed, Firepower, Black Hole, Beat Time, Liberty Bell, and Roller Disco. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, and it is likely no coincidence that every table on that list was made before 1987. Earthshaker, for example, has enough complexity to it that the strategy is not always obvious to me (though one can rarely go wrong pounding the ramp shot to oblivion, one reason it’s not well liked as a tournament game). As counterexamples from the EM era, Fireball and Blue Chip stand out as examples of tables with relatively deep strategy. I could probably write a whole post about strategy in pinball, and at some point I may do exactly that.

In conclusion, I had a great time despite the result. Phil was a great host and hopefully this is the first of many tournaments he will be hosting at his place. The crowd was fantastic despite the turnout being a bit low; fourteen players was still enough to have a very fun and interesting tournament. And, I’m not giving up the hunt for the ever-elusive first place. I didn’t expect it to be this hard to catch.

Space City Pinball League, Season 2 Week 1: Oh, this rooster sure can lay an egg

Note: Due to recent events, Shawn no longer recommends participation in Space City Pinball League events until further notice. Please see the Bayou City Pinball League website for alternatives.

So tonight was the first week of the second season of the Space City Pinball League. I didn’t play in the first season, for a variety of reasons, but I plan to play as many weeks of this season as possible.

The venue is Eighteen Twenty Lounge, next door to Joystix (the corner of the building closest to the intersection of Hamilton and Franklin). It’s a relatively nice bar (I didn’t take that many pictures of the bar itself, if anyone wants me to just say the word and I’ll take a few next week). The games in the lineup are: Game of Thrones LE, Batman: The Dark Knight, Spiderman, The Walking Dead, KISS, and Star Trek. All are fairly recent games from Stern, and all are well maintained, clean, and play as fast as jackrabbit sex.

So, it started off being a decent night. I had the lead through the first two balls of Game of Thrones LE, and I’m thinking it might turn out to be not so bad. I have some 14 million points and change, which looks like it might actually hold up for first place. (I know it’s probably a fairly low score, and as the weeks go on I’m hoping I’ll be able to look back at it and laugh.) And then Justin Niles plays his final ball. And it becomes obvious I’m settling for second place that game in rather short order.

The next game is KISS. For whatever reason, I never really got it going. I would sign off with an embarrassingly low 4.7M+, good enough for dead last. Not surprisingly, Justin would win this one too with a 25.8M+. I’m starting to doubt myself right about here.

After this, we played on Star Trek. I got a little bit going on the third ball, enough to eek out a 14.8M+ good enough for second. Justin, of course, dominates with a 38.7M+. At this point I officially readjust my goals to just try to put up a decent showing for the rest of the night.

Next came Spiderman. This might be a fun game to play, but the ridiculously conservative tilt setting made it more of a chore. I would barely eek out a 15.8M+ good enough for third. Justin, of course, smokes us with a 58.9M+ and mathematically eliminates the rest of us from any hope of winning the group that night.

We would wrap up on Batman: The Dark Knight. As if getting used to finishing out of first place was not bad enough: my final score this game was 6,532,970. Ruben, one of the other players in the group, would take second place with 6,538,030. A difference of a mere 5,060 points, which on this game is probably around what a single bumper hit scores, separating my third place from Ruben’s second place score. As you might have guessed by now, Justin walked away with this one with an 18.8M+ and becomes the only player in the entire league to win all five games for 25 ranking points. The other three of us (Ruben, Chris, and myself) tied at 10 ranking points for the night, in a four-way tie for 19th out of 26 players (one player from a different group also finished the night with 10 ranking points).

Given I’ve never played at least two of these titles before (Spiderman and Batman: The Dark Knight), my previous experience with Game of Thrones was on the Pro version (the LE adds an upper mini-playfield), and my experience with the other two titles was very limited at best, maybe I didn’t perform that badly after taking everything into account. But I still feel like I “laid an egg” tonight (thus the title). I really should have been able to put together at least one performance good enough for first place, and it just didn’t happen.

I did have a good time, all things considered. I got to see some familiar faces again, and meet some new people as well. I am uploading the pics below, and for those of you who want to follow along (and don’t mind the occasional spoilers between league night and when I write my post about it), the results will also be available at