You are a pinball.
Now go. Go fast, because you need enough speed to get up that ramp. But not too fast or you’ll lose control.
This is the feeling Hamilton resident Diane Sauer has spent hours trying to capture, the feeling of being a pinball zipping and bumping and careening around the inside of a machine. And in her latest board game, it’s the feeling Sauer wants players to experience—all through cards.
Sauer, a lifelong games aficionado and professional pinball machine repairer, is also a professional board game designer. Her latest creation, Pinball Showdown, is a tabletop board game that uses tokens and photo cards of various devices inside a pinball machine to put you in the middle of the playfield. The tokens are green (speed) or red (control).
The faster your speed, the less control you have. At the same time, players need speed to carry them through the forest of pegs and bumpers and ramps under the glass. Different cards and card sets rack you up the points. And the strategy is to balance what you’ve got versus what you could lose—which is either control or momentum.
Sauer admits that a pinball board game is an unusual undertaking. But the idea’s not so out of character when you know how much she’s always loved both types of games.
“Board games have always been a hobby,” she says. “I thought, ‘There really should be a pinball game of some sort.’ This was a thing that I absolutely had to do.”
She has tried several times. But they were more of a managerial style of game. Like one incarnation in which players ran a pinball parlor in the 1970s and 80s. A nice throwback, yes, but “it didn’t really have the feel of pinball,” she said.
Then, like a pop bumper firing, an idea hit her. She woke up one morning with two thoughts: “I’m doing this all wrong,” and “You have to be the pinball.”
Once that gleaming epiphany was in motion, the game of Pinball Showdown came together quickly, Sauer says. She sat down and wrote the rules and the game mechanics with some input from her husband, Nick, and very little has changed since the first draft. The couple made a deck of cards from photos from old machines and parts she took herself.
With a complete set of rules and mechanics, Sauer set out to make her latest game something people could actually buy and play themselves.
So, would a pinball game that isn’t an actual pinball game be something gamers would like? Turns out, yes. Sauer funded the project through Kickstarter, looking for about $3,000. Well before the campaign expired last month, more than 300 backers pledged more than $8,000 towards the project.
Pinball Showdown is Sauer’s third game as a pro gamesmaker. Her first two couldn’t be more different from Pinball Showdown.
Legends and Lies debuted in 2014 as a cryptozoology game, the kinds of myths and monsters that inspired a lot of episodes of The X Files and In Search Of. That was followed by Conspiracy!, in which players took on the role of conspiracy theorists. It was based on the kinds of things that inspired countless other episodes of The X Files, and cover stories in classic tabloids, like those aliens who always managed to drop into the White House for a photo op.
Other than the unusual twists inherent to a game about conspiracy theories, Conspiracy! added a neat twist on card games. Usually, the discard pile made in the course of these games is just that—garbage no longer pertinent to the game. But Sauer saw this as a wasted chance, so she made the discard pile count. The more a player discards, the weaker that player’s argument about the veracity of a theory gets.
Such attention to detail is an underpinning of Sauer’s games. She loves easy-to-learn games built on themes (as opposed to around a specific action or singular finish line objective, for example), but she also loves playing games she’s never played before. Since she’s been playing games since she can remember and now she’s 55 years old, Sauer gotten to play plenty of games.
So when she designs one, she wants it to be something people can get, but still new and unusual. And it’s got to be something she wants to play herself, because when making and marketing a game, she will play it a lot. A whole lot. Sauer and her husband frequent game and science fiction conventions where board games are a big splash. To get the word out, she shows the games and plays them with people. So indeed, she wants it to be something she likes.
Sauer says she’s developed several games with her husband—a research scientist who worked at Bell Labs for 30 years, which means he’s handy to have around for problem solving and logical thinking, she says—but most ended up shelved or not going anywhere for one reason or another. A main reason to ditch a game, she says, is because it’s fundamentally fine and it makes sense but it’s just not fun to play.
One, based on the premise of Night of the Living Dead, is still in the works, though. It’s one of Sauer’s favorite films, and the idea of being in the house and having to figure out how to avoid getting swarmed by zombies is a natural for a game, she says. She’s been in talks with the rightsholders about putting it together and would love to have it ready by 2018—the 50th anniversary of the movie’s release.
“I’m still trying, but I’m not super hopeful,” she says.
As for pinball, well, she’s just always loved pinball, having grown up in the ’70s and ’80s when you couldn’t keep yourself occupied on your phone. Or even with cable TV for most of her youth. She spent her time biking to the movies at The Director’s Chair cinema, where Black Forest Acres now sits on Route 33 in Hamilton Square, or dropping into pizza shops or restaurants or arcades around Hamilton to get her pinball or arcade game fix.
In the working world, she became a computer department manager at a company that, about 15 years ago, laid her off. She got a pretty decent severance package, so she decided to do something she always wanted to do and buy an old pinball machine at auction.
She managed to land an old Star Trek machine she loved playing as a kid. She fixed repaired it, played it and then said, “Oh, that’s not that exciting.” Nostalgia, it turned out, wasn’t enough to make this particular machine from the final frontier that thrilling, but she had at least caught the repair bug.
Sauer purchased other machines to fix, including an old Doctor Who game that she got for a song because 15 years ago, she says, nobody really cared that much about Doctor Who. But it was another favorite show from her youth that made for a more exciting game.
The problem with repairing pinball machines, though, is that pinball machines are kind of large. Sauer didn’t have the space to just collect machines, so she started selling the ones she repaired (some for handsome profits, she says). Before long, friends and associates with machines of their own were asking her to fix the games, and before long she had a viable business—Shoot Again Pinball.
Who taught her how to fix the machines? She did. She admits she was never terribly mechanically oriented growing up, but Sauer says the problem-solving was a natural extension of how her brain works, and she picked up the skills fairly quickly.
Sauer’s inside knowledge of pinball machines lent itself to building a pinball card game that understands the action, reactions and mechanics of a good game. When she builds a new game, she says, she prefers to start with a theme (as in, “what if I’m a pinball?”) and use mechanics wisely (as opposed to coming up with new mechanics).
For the non-gamer, “mechanics” refers to the things you must do in order to continue a game. The most basic is “roll and move,” like in Monopoly. A player rolls the dice, then moves accordingly. For Pinball Shootout, Sauer built the mechanics around ways to balance speed and control and directionality. Players use strategy to play a card that any player could score on, because devices mean points. Every player sets out a device card, but anyone can collect the points.
Hamilton resident Diane Sauer’s next project will be Bigfoot vs. Yeti, a game that focuses on uncovering the story of Sasquatch.
She must have a knack for this kind of thing because reviews from gamer sites and publications pretty unanimously praise Pinball Showdown. Nat Levan, a game designer and owner of Oakleaf Games near Philadelphia, says the game “makes the offbeat idea of playing as a pinball feel natural.” Bonus Round Game Café, a gamer site based in Chicago, said the game “completely captures the feeling of pinball.”
This is praise from people who, like Sauer, have played countless games and know what works and what doesn’t. Likewise, at gaming conventions, people have approached her to tell her how much they like her games, which she says is a strange but wonderful experience, knowing something she did brought so much joy to people.
Marketing Pinball Showdown will be mainly a word-of-mouth and social media campaign for now, Sauer says. That’s largely because the game is so different from her other games, which have a paranormal and paranoia undercurrent. Few people who play a game like Conspiracy! for example, will cross over to play a simple, old-fashioned pinball game.
Sauer’s next project will be Bigfoot vs. Yeti, a game that combines her first two and focuses on uncovering the real (or so it may seem) story of Sasquatch and the Abominable Snowman. There should be plenty of crossover from her existing game fans, she says.
For all games she develops, Sauer aspires to an old board game called Acquire, from the early 1960s. The game itself, about acquiring hotels, is not so much the inspiration as the fact that it had several great aspects to it, she says. It had some luck, strategy, and infinite possibilities within a game, “and all the rules fit on a boxtop,” she says. “I kind of aspire to make a game that good.”
Day-to-day, though, she wants something more profoundly simple from an game she makes.
“I hope that people play it and that they enjoy it,” she says.