I don’t think this has actually come up in my writing much, but I quite enjoy a good game of poker. I played through college and university, then for a while in a bar down the road. It was all very amateur, which was interesting because it’s pretty much the only game I’ve come across that people will join without having any idea how to play whatsoever. I strongly suspect this was because I wasn’t playing for money–just in tournaments or against friends–but I also suspect that part of it was down to poker, on the surface, being a game of luck. No matter how bad you are at poker, you will occasionally win a hand just by being dealt the right cards. That’s not something that can be said about chess.

The thing is, some people take this to mean that poker is all about luck, and it’s really not. Having a strong hand is certainly an advantage, but “strong” is relative. The trick isn’t in being lucky enough to get dealt a flush, but in judging whether or not that player who just called your raise has a three of a kind (which you beat) or a full house (which beats you). That’s potentially the difference between winning a ton of chips or losing a ton of chips, and it has almost nothing to do with luck. A game of poker is not a roulette table, and it’s not a slot machine.

Screenshot from 2016-03-06 19:46:41

Reeelz is not a slot machine either, no matter how much it looks like one. Reeelz is to slot machines what poker is to blackjack. You spin the reels and get a random series of images, but how the game plays out from there is all strategy. The goal in Reeelz is to make combos–“Hot tea,” “Ice tea,” “Holiday house,” etc.–which behave much like poker hands.

Screenshot from 2016-03-06 20:56:55

Some combos are the equivalent of a lowly pair: so easy to make that you’d be unlucky not to get one. Two sun images anywhere on the row, for example, will allow you to tick “Twin stars” off your list. However, in order to make “No sun until weekend” you have to have five stormclouds followed by two suns, running left to right. To make “Eat out,” every image in the row must be a sandwich. These combos are so staggeringly unlikely that you’d probably have to spin thousands of times to get them by chance. Reeelz doesn’t give you thousands of tokens, however: to begin with you can’t hold more than twenty at a time.

This is where Reeelz gets really clever: far cleverer than it looks. You can use tokens not only to spin the reels, but to nudge a single reel up or down one place. This means that although most combos only win you a single token (and a free spin), you can spend a handful of tokens to nudge your way towards one of those virtually impossible combos. This will typically lose you tokens overall, but nowhere near as many as you’d get by hitting that “Spin!” button over and over again in the hopes of lining up stormclouds and sunshine by pure chance.

So although Reeelz looks like a game that’s all about luck, it actually demands a great deal of thought. The challenge isn’t simply hitting a button and hoping for a winning result: it’s identifying when you’re close to a big combo, and when you’d be better off spinning the reels and trying again. The goal isn’t simply to rack up tokens: it’s to take down combos. Ticking off all the easy ones first will mean hitting your token limit, forfeiting any new winnings, and being stuck with only 20 tokens to make all those combos you couldn’t get by chance.

Screenshot from 2016-03-06 19:57:51

Reeelz won’t exactly eat up hours (though I’ve been coming back to it now and again for years), but it does contain probably the best, simplest probability-based mechanic I’ve ever seen. I suspect that even if the game itself was pretty simple to put together, a lot of time must have gone into thinking up those combos and tweaking the token limits. Early on, running out of tokens can feel like bad luck, but if you come back and try for a high score, you’ll realise pretty quickly just how much control you have over the game. The problem is never that you aren’t handed a big combo: it’s failing to notice when you’ve nearly been handed one.

Reeelz is playable in-browser and takes nearly no time to pick up, so I highly recommend giving it a go.


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