GAME OF THRONES
Welcome to our in-depth review of Stern Pinball's Game of Thrones.
When Game of Thrones was first announced and the initial playfield pictures published, it was immediately apparent how the largest feature of the game - the castle upper playfield - was missing from the Pro version of the game.
We wanted to review the most complete model so we have waited until now, when we could get our hands on a Limited Edition game to review. However, as we show and describe the game's features, we will note how this Limited Edition model differs from the base Pro model and the mid-range Premium.
This review also introduces a new feature to Pinball News - the 'expand' icon:
So, on with the review...
The three variants all have different art packages, from the backglass/translite to the cabinet and backbox. The LE is themed after the House Targaryen with the backglass featuring Drogo, Daenerys and Missandei, with Daenerys's three dragons, Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion.
The cabinet sides both feature a fire-breathing Drogon, while the laser-cut black gloss side-rails include a section of the House Targaryen emblem and their motto 'Fire and Blood' highlighted in mirrored gold.
The flames wrap around to the cabinet front and around the coin door where the game title is repeated.
WWE Wrestlemania was the last game to feature a coin door decal with the game's name on it. Ever since Kiss there has been no factory-fitted decal. The game does feature the regular pair of start buttons (one for regular games, one for ToPS tournament games), a plunger mechanism, and, with this being a European model, a single multi-coin slot.
Although the two cabinet sides feature identical artwork, the backbox sides do differ, with Jorah Mormont on the left and Daario Naharis on the right.
The Pro and Premium cabinet and backbox artwork is totally different from the LE. The Pro features characters from the houses of Stark on the left and Lannister on the right, while the Premium depicts members of the Night's Watch, along with the Free Folk, Wildlings, and White Walkers who live north of the wall.
Ever since Star Trek, the speaker panel has featured a game-specific decal, and Game of Thrones is no different. The emblems of the seven houses of Westeros form a repeating background pattern, with gold edging around the speakers and the red LED dot-matrix display.
Along with the special numbered plaque, the LE comes with gloss black legs, backbox hinges, and lock bar. The lock bar features an illuminated action button and gold-coloured laser-cut mounting plate, although the action button and plate are also found on the Pro and Premium models.
That's all the external artwork and hardware, so let's take a look under the glass and examine the playfield.
Starting down at the bottom, the LE and Premium models are four-flippered games - two in the familiar place at the bottom, and another two on the upper playfield. Since the Pro lacks the upper playfield, it only has the two flippers.
The 'shoot again' insert sits between them which is lit solidly when you have an extra ball and flashes when a ball save is active. It is usually lit orange - the traditional colour to denote an extra ball - but like most of the LEDs in the LE and Premium models it is an RGB LED, and so can be lit in any colour.
Below the flippers and above the drain is the phrase 'valar morghulis' which is High Valyrian for 'all men must die' - an appropriate phrase for when the ball has ended.
The inlane ball guides are made from transparent red plastic, lit by two white LEDs and topped with an attractive piece of butyrate printed with a cog design to match the bevel gear and chain artwork on the playfield below.
Unlike some previous LE models, Game of Thrones does not feature any additional playfield lighting or flashers mounted inside the metal apron, nor does it have any illuminated panels in the apron itself.
Like its companion on the right, the left slingshot is a pretty basic affair, with just a single layer of butyrate featuring another cog design and a spot lamp. However, unlike earlier Stern designs were the spot lamp was part of the general illumination to help brighten the central playfield area, this one is a seven LED white flasher. As it's an LED flasher, the spotlight cone is really just a decorative cover and doesn't provide any reflective effect.
The top slingshot post is also the mounting point for the end of the wireform which conveys the ball from the upper playfield back to the main playfield level.
A metal wire guide is fitted to the inlane/outlane divider to prevent the ball jumping into the outlane when it drops from the wireform.
There is one outlane and one inlane on either side.
The outlane features a Lord of Light insert which, when lit, provides a ball save. There is no kickback mechanism, so a new ball is instantaneously launched from the shooter lane instead as soon as the outlane switch is triggered.
Above the outlane is the standard adjustable post which varies the width out the outlane and hence the difficulty of the game.
By default the LE ships with both posts in their top position which makes the game pretty unforgiving, but, you know, 'valar morghulis' as they say in Westeros.
Just above the outlane adjuster is the first of the game's major shots - the Lord of Light drop target bank.
As you might guess, completing these drop targets lights the Lord of Light ball saver on one of the outlanes. However, the large shield insert indicates that the drop targets are also one of the required shots for some of the different house modes.
This insert, like all the shield inserts on the LE, Premium and the Pro models is a frosted uncoloured plastic which is given its colour by the RGB LED beneath.
Various modes have their own colours, and certain shield inserts light up in that colour to indicate that shot will advance through the mode. In addition, at certain points during the game a shot can be lit for two modes simultaneously, in which case the shield insert alternates between the modes' colours to show it will count towards both.
The second major shot is the left orbit lane which sits just above the drop target bank.
This lane feeds around the top of the playfield, past a pair of rollover lanes to an equivalent orbit lane on the right side. A pair of controlled gates can prevent the ball completing the orbit and send it into the rollover lanes instead.
The shield and arrow inserts show when this shot will advance through the current mode or score a jackpot during multiball. The square insert is a flasher used when the spinner spins to accentuate the effect.
On the LE and Premium this lane disappear under the upper playfield, so it's difficult to tell if a weak or inaccurate shot has made it all the way round until the ball emerges. On the Pro this area is much more open and the ball more visible.
Next we come to the first of five rectangular standup targets.
These standup targets are used during certain modes as required shots, but are generally pretty dangerous with a tendency for the ball to rebound off them and head straight down one of the outlanes.
When a hit on a standup target is required, the insert in front will light up. In the LE and Premium this will light in the mode colour, but in the Pro it is a single colour.
To the right of the standup target is the next major shot.
The Castle Black lane is another dangerous, though necessary, shot. Like the left orbit lane it disappears under the upper playfield on the LE and Premium models, and like the Pro, it ends at a kickback mechanism which rapidly fires the ball back at the player. For the unaware, this can easily lead to a centre drain.
The Pro model includes an up-post in the equivalent lane which is used to trap the ball while a mystery award is given. The LE and Premium use the Iron Throne to hold the ball and award mysteries, so no up-post is needed on those models, but the shot does advance you towards Wall Multiball instead.
The second standup target sits to the right of the entrance to the Castle Black lane, and to the right of that is our next major shot, the centre ramp.
Like the previous two shots, this also disappears beneath the upper playfield, but as it emerges this lane feeds the centre ramp, which raises the ball, sends it down the right side of the playfield, and feeds it into a lock area.
This is fairly standard ball lock as seen on games such as The Avengers and The Lord of the Rings with a white up-post trapping the balls and three rollover switches under the ramp which detect when a ball is locked.
If a ball is shot up the ramp when lock is not lit, the up-post will drop to allow it to pass if no balls are already locked. If one or more are locked, the up-post drops momentarily to release just the first ball.
The difference in Game of Thrones is the addition of the sword mechanism.
This is tied to the up-post, so that when the post drops to release a ball, the sword also drops, 'beheading' the front ball. However because the up-post sometimes needs to drop independently of the sword (to allow a ball to pass when lock is not lit), the post and the sword have separate solenoids.
Back to the main shots then and, after skipping over the third standup target, our next shot isn't a lane or a ramp, but a battering ram.
The battering ram is an important shot and usually a relatively safe one too. Shooting it gives a temporary scoring multiplier which can go as high as 5x. When combined with other shot multipliers, this can make certain shots worth up to 25x their regular value which can lead to some crazy points awards. It also increases jackpot values and scores the super jackpot.
The battering ram is a metal block with a rubber disc on the front where the ball hits and an arrowhead at the back where it canons into a standup target to register a hit. A decal gives the metal block a wooden appearance.
The fourth vertical standup sits to the right of the battering ram, and then we come to the next major shot, the right ramp.
On the LE and Premium models there is a resettable drop target in front of the right ramp, but the Pro doesn't have this. That's because on the Pro the right ramp simply sends the ball down the left side of the playfield and into the left inlane, whereas in the LE and Premium it sends the ball up to the upper playfield, and the game likes to try to control when you can make that shot.
Like the centre ramp, the right ramp is clear plastic, but it has some metal protectors on the side walls at the entrance to prolong the ramp's life.
The ramp is relatively short and has a sharp turn at the top to direct the ball onto the upper-playfield.
Leading up to the ramp we find the familiar shield and arrow inserts, plus another for swords which collects one of the many named swords in the series.
We've skipped over its previous three siblings, so we should mention that the fifth and final rectangular standup target sits on the right of the right ramp entrance.
The final lane to shoot on the main playfield level is the right orbit, which is also the place to collect extra balls and mystery awards.
As it passes under the centre ramp, the right orbit can feed the ball round to the opposite orbit lane. But thanks to a complex combination of a controlled gate, a diverter and dual-level upkicker, it can be diverted into three other places as well.
The right orbit lane is also where a ball from the shooter lane joins the playfield, which means you can either plunge hard and sent the ball up to the top of the playfield or plunge softly and allow the ball to drop into the right orbit and gently roll down to the flippers.
We'll come back to what's at the top of the playfield shortly, but carrying on our tour around the playfield, just below the right orbit lane are two square standup targets which are vital to starting Blackwater Multiball.
It is these two targets which light lock on the centre ramp's ball lock area. Initially only one needs of the two targets needs to be hit to light a lock, but for subsequent multiballs both targets need to be hit.
As you can see from the shield insert, these - like the Lord of Light drop targets on the left - can be a shot for one or more of the house modes.
The right outlane has an adjustable post to vary the difficulty of the game, and like the left post, the default position is in the highest hole of the three available.
You might notice a switch inside the black rubber ring just above the outlane adjuster post. This is referred to as the '10-point switch' as that's all it does - score 10 points, and help provide some small scoring variation to prevent all score being multiples of a thousand or a million.
The rest of the bottom right of the playfield is a mirror-image of the left side, with one inlane, one outlane with a Lord of Light ball saver insert, a slingshot with a spot lamp flasher above it, and the a wireform feeding the ball into the inlane.
Because there is only one inlane and one outlane on each side there's room for a more substantial black wooden divider between the outlane and the shooter lane. Games such as Metallica and Kiss only have a narrow wire divider.
That shooter lane is quite conventional, starting as wood, but becoming metal as it takes a slight incline before joining the right orbit lane.
Which takes us back to our starting point at the flippers. But there's a lot of hardware at the top of the playfield we haven't covered yet, so let's take a look at that area next.
We said the right orbit lane can feed to a number of places, and one of those is the top rollover lanes.
Two controlled gates on the orbit lane can allow a ball travelling in either direction to either complete the orbit, or stop the ball and drop it into the Castle Black top rollover lanes.
Now, there's one problem with the top rollover lanes in the LE and Premium models - you can't actually see them. You can kinda see one of them through the right ramp (if it's not too dirty), but the other is totally obscured by the Iron Throne, which is a pity as they play an important part in the game.
A good mod would be to replicate those inserts with LEDs on the back panel.
The lanes and inserts are also difficult to photograph since the centre ramp crosses them. Nevertheless, here is the elusive duo.
These use familiar lane change to swap the lit and unlit inserts, and lighting them both extinguishes them, increases the bonus multiplier and - on the Pro - advances you one step towards Wall Multiball.
From the rollover lanes, the ball rolls into the pop bumper area.
The pop bumpers all have RGB LEDs in, so they can be lit in any combination of colours, while a seven SMD flasher sits beneath a printed window to accentuate the pop bumper hits.
There is only one exit from the pop bumpers, and that's to the right and into the right orbit lane.
If the ball isn't stopped so that it falls into the Castle Black top rollovers, there is diverter which can move out of the way to send the ball into a scoop which feeds an upkicker.
But this is no regular upkicker.
In its normal mode, the ball is kicked up to the top and onto a wireform which leads to the Iron Throne.
The ball travels along the wireform and drops into the Iron Throne, where it will probably stay while a mystery award is given. There is a slight tendency for the ball to roll straight out, but if that doesn't happen, once the award is given, a solenoid fires and kicks the ball into the pop bumpers.
However, behind the back panel is another solenoid which activates a diverter half way up the upkicker. This makes the ball exit half-way up, which sends it into the upper playfield.
The upper playfield is the biggest difference between the Pro and the LE/Premium versions of the game. It takes over the entire upper left corner of the game, covering the left orbit, Castle Black lane and the centre ramp lane.
The upper playfield itself looks very much like a full-size playfield. It has two flippers with two slingshot-like bumpers just above, two return lanes behind those bumpers, three stand-up targets, a U-turn lane and two exit lanes. Hovering above all this is a motorised dragon toy.
Let's do a mini-tour of the mini-playfield.
The two flippers are full-length and can be used to cradle the ball. They use 23-900 coils compared to the 22-1080 coils fitted to the main flippers. However, there is one important thing missing from them: end-of-stroke switches.
The upper playfield uses standard flipper plates which include mountings for the end-of-stroke switches, but they don't appear to be fitted and don't appear in the switch list, despite what it shows in the manual.
You may not appreciate the role end-of-stroke switches play in controlling flippers, but they are there for two purposes.
First, when you initially flip they tell the controller when the flipper is fully raised. The controller can then reduce the power to provide enough current to hold the flipper up without providing so much power the flipper's solenoid burns up.
The second use is when a ball hits the flipper with enough force to overcome the holding current. This could cause the flipper to collapse, but the end-of-stroke switch opens as soon as the flipper starts to drop which tells the controller it has to re-energise the solenoid with full power to raise the flipper again.
In the absence or failure of the end-of-stroke switch, its first use can be compensated for by only ever providing full flipper power for a short time. If the end-of-stroke switch tells the controller the flipper is raised before that time is up, power can be reduced earlier and the solenoid kept cooler, but in any case it's never on full power for very long.
The problem comes with the second situation, because if the ball hits the flipper hard enough for it to drop while you are still holding in the flipper button, the controller has no knowledge of this and the flipper simply collapses.
That effect occurs occasionally on the Game of Thrones upper playfield and can lead to the ball unexpectedly draining down the middle if you're not paying attention.
If the ball does drain between the flippers, there is a brushed steel ball guide which drops it through a hole - called the Moon Door after the less-than-desirable exit route from The Eyrie - and onto the metal wireform which transports it to the left inlane.
There are two passive bumpers in the slingshot positions. These have switches but no kicker arms. They do create return lane behind them though, and these feed directly to the flippers.
In the absence of any general illumination in lane guides or slingshots, the upper playfield is lit by two RGB floodlights - one on either side. They are only small, but they prove very effective at both lighting up the playing surface and flooding it with a specific colour at different points of the game.
At the top of the upper playfield are three standup targets and four lanes.
The left lane is a U-turn which sends the ball round a 180° bend and back down the same lane. A single switch at the exit registers a successful shot.
Then we have the first of the three standup targets.
When the game begins, the inserts in front of the three standup targets are all lit. The target is to hit all three without shooting the ball into the two lanes between them.
Those lanes send the ball off the back of the upper playfield and back down onto the main playfield level. You only want to shoot those once you have made all three standup targets.
If you achieve that, you advance the castle attack status which is shown above the flippers.
The first completion of the standups and shot between them lights Arrows, then Charge followed by Breach, and finally Castle Multiball is qualified.
The ball gets to the upper playfield in one of two ways.
The upkicker we showed you earlier will send the ball here if the diverted half-way up doesn't kick in to send it to the Iron Throne instead. A ball from the upkicker will enter the playfield through the lane at the top right.
The other way to get to the upper playfield is via the right ramp.
This curves to the left and drops the ball through a one-way gate on the right side wall of the castle.
Suspended above all this is the model of Drogon the dragon.
Drogon has a single-colour red LED in his mouth which combines with the LEDs under the inserts to indicate when he is breathing fire.
But Drogon's main trick is how he flaps his wings.
The Pro positions Drogon over the Castle Black lane and uses a solenoid to move his wings, which provides some movement but is not exactly graceful. As with Star Trek where the movement of the Vengeance ship is enhanced in the Premium and LE variants, so it is with Game of Thrones.
The higher models here have motor-driven wings which flap far more realistically.
A motor behind the back panel connects to a drive shaft which runs through the metal beam on which Drogon is mounted. This ends with an elliptical cam which pushes against the hinged and sprung wings, so that when the cam turns the wings move up and down.
You can see the wings in action in this video:
The final area of the playfield we need to examine is the array of inserts just above the flippers.
There are seven houses, and in regular play you get to choose one of them at the start of the game. Each house brings with it a booster which makes certain features more valuable or easier to start depending on the house chosen. The benefits of each house are shown on the DMD selection screen and on the instruction card.
There is a casual mode which can be selected in the menus which aims to make the game more understandable to casual player by removing this selection at the start of the game and immediately beginning with House Stark, which increases the value of the Winter is Coming feature.
Each house has certain shots associated with it, indicated by the colour of the house and the corresponding shield inserts on the playfield. Once enough shots have been made, a house battle mode becomes available by shooting the centre ramp's ball lock. You can then choose which house or pair of houses to battle. You can defer battles until later in the game if you'd like them to run alongside a multiball for better scoring opportunities, unless you are in casual mode where you have to choose a battle each time.
Hand of the King is a mini-wizard mode which is available after winning a certain number of house battles (usually 4), while Iron Throne is the main wizard mode.
Also above the flippers are the playfield multiplier inserts which light for a fixed duration when the battering ram is shot, very much like the playfield multiplier available in AC/DC from shooting the bell. These can go up to 5x on Game of Thrones rather than the 3x on AC/DC, plus individual shots on GoT can be multiplied after making a series of combos.
While we're down at the flippers, let's take a look at the apron decals and the instruction card.
Now it's time to start pulling the game apart to see what's inside, starting with the cabinet.
The coin door is pretty minimal, with just the frame for a coin mech, an illuminating LED and the menu buttons. A slam tilt switch can be added but is not included.
The coin door controls and coin mech link back to a Spike node board which also connects to the two start buttons and the tilt mechanism, although the flipper buttons have direct connections back to the controller board.
Over on the opposite side we can see that Game of Thrones uses an orange shooter rod spring, although judging by the orange dust on the floor of the cabinet, it won't be orange for much longer.
You might also notice that the LE comes with gold leg bolts, which is a nice touch.
We've seen everything on the top, so now let's take a look at the underside of the playfield.
Finally, just to make sure we don't miss a thing, we move up to the backbox and check out what's going on in there.
All the backglass illumination is provided by the two columns of five white LEDs running down the side of the Spike controller board.
Stern certainly label everything comprehensively in the backbox, although we are somewhat intrigued by this arrangement of 23-800 coils and capacitors which seems to be providing some kind of filtering for the backbox speakers.
Of course, the hardware and art package we have shown you here is only part of what goes into any modern pinball. All the sounds, music, display animations, lighting effects and the rules all play a huge role in making a game fun to play.
There's no doubt that the lighting effects in Game of Thrones are amongst the best in any game with, at times, a (literally) dazzling intensity designed to blind the player to what's happening on the playfield. It shows off just how much light Stern's fully LED-based system can produce. So much so that there is an option in the menu to reduce the intensity just a little.
We haven't played the game enough to draw any long-term conclusions about the range of sound and display effects. Those are also subject to changes as new software versions are released, and so would probably rapidly be superseded anyway.
But it's worth saying a few words about the rules, because Game of Thrones is quite unusual in this regard.
First of all, for the novice the rules are quite confusing.
It's true that Stern added a 'casual mode', but that does little to clarify the objectives and merely takes away some of the confusing choices they face.
But here's the thing. Once you break through that complex outer shell which manages to obscure most of the game from the beginner, there's a really interesting set of rules, strategies and massive scoring opportunities lurking inside.
It's really going to take a dozen or two dozen games before you begin to understand how seemingly minor choices you made early in the game can really make an impact later on. Having that information lets you form strategies, choose your battles, and gives you a reason to make specific shots.
Until then you are largely just shooting the flashing lights and ending up bewildered when your score jumps from a few million into the hundreds of millions for no obvious reason.
So persevere. Like life in Westeros, it's tough to make an impact at first. But once you understand how everything works, there is power to be had and fortunes to be made.
Remember though, valar morghulis.
And with that we come to the end of this Pinball News In-Depth Review of Stern Pinball's Game of Thrones Limited Edition.
Many thanks to Stan Simpson for letting us pull his nice new game to bits for this review. We hope you enjoyed it, and we'll be back with another In-Depth Review soon.
© Pinball News 2016