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Dexterity games are a special breed. They are best described as strategy games where a physical act is required to implement the strategy effectively. I understand the strategy of basketball quite well and believe that I can design plays to take best advantage of certain situations. Being short and having limited athletic skill, however, often makes it impossible for me to implement what my mind can conceive. Many people underestimate the strategic quality of most good dexterity games. But, play Crokinole or Carabande with someone who thinks well along with shooting well, and it is clear that good flicking is synonymous with good shot selection and positioning. Or just watch a billiards match.
Spinball is the newest entrant into the world of well designed dexterity games, and the physical implementation is quite clever and subtle. I first saw the game three years ago at the Gathering of Friends in prototype form. It got played often, appeared again the next year with even more play, and finally last year was an all-out hit with two pre-production copies in almost constant play. With Aaron now making production copies available, this is a game that should receive more attention for the true gaming market but also for the family market as well.
Spinball is played on a board that is roughly the rectangular size of a Foosball table, but without the depth. The board is open on each end (no barriers, that is), has a small wall on each long side, and contains two scoring holes divided by a horizontal barrier. With the board placed on a table of about waist height, players stand at either end and shoot a ping-pong ball from their side, attempting to place it into the hole on the opposite side of the center barrier. To do this requires a good backspin and directional control, using the side walls for ricochets where necessary. The device to fire the ball is ingenious. It is a simple "Y" shaped wooden crutch that is placed on the edge of the board, with a small wooden knob on the underside ensuring its alignment. The ball is placed inside the "Y", and another wooden piece with a pencil eraser type tip is rubbed across the top to both propel the ball forward and give it the appropriate spin.
The basic concept works very well and in practice there are many ways to shoot and score. It gets more complicated by using "blockers", pieces of cut copper tubing, included with the game. When your ball scores, you can choose to record the score as a point (five points wins the game), or use the score to either place a blocker (to make your opponent's shot more difficult) or remove a blocker that has previously been placed. Using blockers effectively can neutralize a single string shot by an opponent and require them to have a small arsenal of shots to win. Of course, the same is true for you.
Spinball plays quite fast and works well. The shot selection is quite varied, and there is even an option to score double by sending the ball far enough across the table before bringing it back to the hole. As the players get comfortable, there seems to be an imbalance between the "score" or "block" actions. Basically, a blocker is often not as valuable as a score yet it is clearly valuable. To offset this, we typically play with a variant that requires alternating scores and blocks. I would recommend this for regular players but not for novices, since trying to score against 3 or four blockers can be a daunting and ultimately frustrating task. As the game is designed, everyone from kids to adults will naturally be drawn to the interesting mechanism and how easy it seems when watching it.
Spinball clearly requires physical finesse to control the ball effectively, yet like other good dexterity games the strategy is also crucial. How to avoid a blocker, where to place a blocker, how to use the score, and how to bank are just a few of the decisions that go into most plays. Evenly played, the better shooter will of course win. Making the higher percentage shot and sinking a crucial 2-point shot can help overcome a small deficit in shooting skill, however.
Aaron Weissblum's recent collaborations with Alan Moon have deservedly received high praise. Spinball is Aaron's own design, and it shows a good range of design ability versus his other published projects. Spinball would be a very popular under the Christmas tree this winter, and is a great way to get non-gamers into the spirit of fun competition. Contact Aaron if interested.