How do 5 Reel Video Slots Work? How do You Play Them?

Posted on March 31st, 2016

A Brief History For You
marvel slotsThe modern day slot machine is a complicated beast. In the old days, you stuck a coin in the machine, pulled the handle and watched 3 reels spin. Your hope was to line up enough symbols on the centre pay-line to bag one of the wins which were all detailed on a pretty simple pay table.

Betfair has a Big Range of Slots

In fact, the first slot machine had 5 reels, as it was based on a game of poker. I guess you could say that video poker came before slots.
Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York designed a machine in 1891 with 5 reels and 50 face card symbols. You would stick in a nickel (5c) and pull the lever. You´d try and get a good poker hand. If you got one, you might get a free beer. Things have moved on from those days!

liberty bell slot machineThe 5 reel machine had too many possibilities to develop a paying machine in those days, so around the 1890s Charles Fey of San Francisco designed a simpler version with  only 3 spinning reels and 5 symbols – horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts, and a Liberty Bell, which gave the machine its name.

With this simpler version, Fey was able to design a means to pay winnings. If you landed 3 bells in a row, you bagged a 10x payout: ten nickels (50¢). In those days, understanding the games was a breeze!

But what about modern games? How did they get so complicated? Let´s look at some of the games that are available online. You can still play fairly simple 3 reel slots, but they are getting harder to find. Most of the development these days is in 5 reel multiple pay-line slots with lots of bonus features. Most of the players got bored with the 3 line games long ago. But if you are new to slots, you might find the game a bit daunting, so this article is to help you understand how 5 reel video slots work and how you play them.

How Modern 5 Reel Slots Work. How to Play Them
The basic theory is exactly the same as the original Liberty Bell machine, except there are plenty of variations. At the simplest level, a slot is a pure game of chance where you insert money into a machine, you spin the reels and you hope to land a combination of symbols that will pay out a win according to a pay table. Here are the main differences between a Liberty Bell machine and a modern day slot.

Number of Reels
Most modern games now have 5 reels instead of 3, which makes for many more combinations of symbols. This allows the slots manufacturer to come up with more ingenious and entertaining ways of building up wins. What it doesn´t mean, is that the odds are any better on these new slots. The machine payout is set by the manufacturer who has to work within the law set by the government.

irish luck slot paylines

Irish Luck slot pay-lines

On a Liberty Bell machine, there is one pay-line, the horizontal centre line. So if you get 3 bells lined up across the middle, you win the jackpot. In a modern slot, you can have 20, 30 or even 50 pay-lines. These can be horizontal, diagonal or even zigzagged (the machine will  detail them in the pay table). The point is, that there are many more ways to land a win- you don´t just need to land 5 symbols in a straight line across the middle of the reel.
That sounds great doesn´t it? More pay-lines, means better odds doesn´t it?

Not exactly. You have to pay to be on each pay-line, so if you are betting on 20 pay-lines and 1 pay-line comes in, you win on that one but lose on the other 19. it is essentially a way of getting you to bet 20 times at once. The psychology behind betting on slot machines has been well documented, and machine manufacturers know that if their players win small amounts more frequently, they are more likely to stick around and wait for a big one to drop in. Just remember, a “win” on an individual pay-line might be a loss across all 20 pay-lines. You might have bet $10 and got $6 back. So you are down $4. But it´s still a win right!? The next one might be bigger! (We are just trying to explain the manufacturer´s thinking behind this).

Bets Per Line, Coins, Bet Max etc
What ´s all that about? Well, the method of setting your total bet varies from machine to machine, but the important thing to understand is your total bet. Let take a look at the Irish Luck slot for example. This Playtech slot has 30 pay-lines (see the graphic above). They are horizontal, zigzag, diamond shaped, you name it. On this machine you can change you bet size – I can select $1 for example. Some machines call this the coin size. I can then select how much I want to bet per line (from 1 to 10 coins on this slot). And that´s not all! I can then select how many pay-lines I want to play. Your total bet is going to be (bet size) x (bet per line) x (number of pay-lines).

bet per paylineLet´s run through an example. I bet with $1 coins, I bet 1 coin per pay-line (so $1) and I bet on 30 pay-lines for the best chance of getting frequent wins. So I bet $30. Three Aces drop in which according to the pay table pays out 10x. How much do I win? At first glance you might think, great, I won 10x my bet which is $300. But wait……I only won one payline.

I won one line bet (and lose the other 29), and three of a kind pays out 10x my line bet. So I win $10. Overall, I am down $20 on this “win”.

See the screenshot above. We have actually lined up 3 aces along pay-line number 11, if you look at the pay-line graphic. Now obviously, 3 of a kind isn´t a great win. If we had landed 5 wild symbols which is the Irish Maiden, we would have won 10,000x our bet, so we´d comfortably be in pocket with a $10,000 win and only a $30 spend. But you get the idea- the slots designers like to make you think that you are winning frequently even if you are just losing less. That´s fine, just keep an eye on it and be aware that that is what they are doing!

Why is this so complicated? Well, it´s not to be honest, when you get the hang of it, it´s not really. Some slots like Thunderstruck 2 have simplified the whole process by replacing the whole pay-lines thing with a Ways to Win concept.  Instead of all of those different pay-lines zigzagging arround, the slot pays out on 243 specific combinations. It´s the same thing really, it´s just that they worked out that most players don´t really pay much attention to the exact shape of the pay-line. They are happy for the machine to pay out automatically.

In Thunderstruck 2, you select you coins size (from 0.01 to 0.25) and then number of coins  (1-10). The game is set at 30 pay-lines (you can´t change this). So let´s say we bet 5 $0.1 coins on each payline, so 50c a line. Our total bet is $15 per spin. We get 3 Kings, which pays out 10x. So we win $5 back. 5 Thunderstruck symbols would have got you 1000x your line bet, or $500.

So, it´s the same as Irish Luck, except you can´t change the number of pay-lines- you are always betting on the maximum number.

Some of the newer games are even easier to understand. Take the Bikini Party slot, for example. In this game, you just adjust how much you want to bet. There are 243 Ways to Win, and if you look at the pay table, it just tells you how much you will win based on your bet. Change the bet amount, and the payout amount changes too. Easy! If you are new to slots, you might want to start out on a game like that and then work your way over to the more complex games.

Wild Symbols
Most modern day slots will have wild symbols. These are symbols that will stand in for other symbols to make up a winning combination. Say you have 3 Kings and 2 Wilds on an activated pay-line. Hey presto! The machine will pay out for 5 Kings. Some machines will have more than one wild symbol, and some will have additional ones in the free spins round. The name of the game, as always, is to keep you entertained, and to keep you playing!

Free Games, Scatters and All That Jazz
The other big difference between the old school 3 reel fruit machines and the modern 5 reel video slot is the bonus features. This is where the designers have really let their hair down, and there are too many different bonus offers to explain in detail here, but they all share common traits. If you want to make big money on a modern slot, it pays to get into these rounds- they tend to be where the action is.

Generally, you will need to get at least three scatter symbols to trigger the free spins bonus. What´s a scatter? Well it´s a symbol that just needs to appear on the screen in sufficient numbers (generally 3 or more) to trigger a side bonus game- they are not tied to any pay lines. Once you are in, you will generally get some free spins and any wins will be inflated by a factor of 15x for example. These bonus rounds can be pretty generous!

After that, there are many different features that you´ll see. Study the pay table and play the demo game to get a hang of the slot before you bet for real- that´s always a good policy. You might see Rolling Reels (made famous by Gonzo´s Quest), extra free spins triggered in the free spins round (our personal favourite as it can lead to long winning runs), expanding wilds, you name it. The sky´s the limit on this and new features are being invented all the time.

The new slots are incredibly entertaining, with video graphics, more ways to bet and features galore. Just remember though, more reels and more pay-lines don´t mean better odds. These games are designed to get you to bet more and to bet longer. Remember that! Sometimes it can be a good idea to play a simpler game like the Dolphin Quest slot or the Tomb Raider slot. You can always play another game with lots of bells and whistles on it later.

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