Annals Of Miscellany

This new Skee-Ball game from Google is awful, but let’s talk about Skee-Ball anyway

By John Teti • May 29, 2013

Google has released another “Chrome Experiment,” which is the company’s name for its games that require a zillion devices and don’t work very well and aren’t that great even when they do work, anyway. This new Google game is called Roll It. Once you hook up the virtual wires between your telephone and the online cloud internet server intranet network web, you can enjoy a simulation of Skee-Ball that is on par with the shittiest of downloadable Wii games. Nice opening animation, though.

Google’s effort may be lackluster, but its choice of subject is timely. Skee-Ball is one of those games that belong to the summer. This hybrid of bowling and archery is the perfect accompaniment to a lazy day at the beach. Skee-Ball isn’t strenuous enough to break a sweat, but it involves enough motion that you can convince yourself that it is a physical activity.

The first Skee-Ball alleys, sold in 1914, were 36 feet long. They didn’t sell too many of them at first, on account of they were 36 feet long. So the manufacturers reacted to demand, and in 1928—a mere decade-and-a-half later—new alleys were introduced at a length of 14 feet. By giving Skee-Ball the novel feature of being able to fit inside a building, the appeal of the game skyrocketed. The rest is history, and you can read that history on the official Skee-Ball site, although I’ll warn you that it gets depressing toward the end. Who knew that there was a casino-themed Skee-Ball that incorporates blackjack and progressive jackpots? I did not know that, and now I do, and I am worse off for it.


There’s surprisingly little advice on Skee-Ball technique on the web. I suppose that kids today can learn Skee-Ball the way I did: from a trucker passing through a seedy bowling alley on the New Hampshire-Vermont border. As my friends and I whiled away the dwindling minutes of a sixth-grade field trip in the bowling alley’s arcade, this trucker approached us and offered to win us some prize tickets on the Skee-Ball machines in the corner. Remembering what we’d been taught about talking to strangers, we readily agreed and gave all of our money to this person who smelled of menthol cigarettes. She fired the balls up the ramp like some sort of Skee-Ball-playing trucker, bouncing the balls off the side of the lane, hitting the 50-point hole almost every time. The prize-redemption tickets sprung forth, and many Chinese finger traps were taken home that day.

I learned an important lesson from that drifter: The carom is key. You want to bounce the ball off the side of the lane about two-thirds of the way up. The exact spot varies depending on your stance and the nuances of your particular machine. It’s hard for me to express exactly why this helps, but it makes a big difference, in part because it gives you an intermediate point to aim for—one that your hand-eye coordination can grasp more easily than the dazzling ramp of holes and point values. (Not every top Skee-Ball player uses the carom, but you are not a top Skee-Ball player, so just use it. I have also heard tell of players who employ a double carom, using both sides of the lane. This, I don’t need to tell you, is madness.)

The other elements of Skee-Ball technique are to stay low and roll the ball off the tips of your fingers. Unlike the carom, I do know why this approach works: It imparts topspin so that when a ball catches the lip of a hole, it’s more liable to keep moving forward rather than bouncing off. There are few arcade failures more humiliating than watching a ball ricochet off the rubber of the 50-point hole and sputter into the pit for zero points.

Some Skee-Ball alleys have 100-point holes in the upper corners of the playfield. These are for the deft, the daring, or the desperate. I recommend sticking to a strategy that focuses on the traditional 50-point hole or the 40-point hole (the latter of which offers more room for error). Don’t concern yourself with learning the 100-point angles unless you are a Skee-Ball professional. And if you are a Skee-Ball professional, I recommend that you reexamine your life, or at least do an Ask Me Anything on Reddit about it.

Miniature Skee-Ball machines appear to be a popular project for Lego enthusiasts. These replicas emulate the basic physical characteristics of the real thing while eliminating all that pesky fun. (But hey, I once made a wooden tic-tac-toe game in shop class, so I’m not one to talk.) The Lego Skee-Ball builders like to put their creations on the popular YouTube video website. Here are a few of those.

The first 50 seconds of the video above will be played for me, on a loop for all eternity, when I arrive in Hell.

This machine is a bit more sophisticated. The person in this video has way cleaner fingernails than me. Well done.

First of all, if you’re going to put all-caps “GIGANTIC” in the title of your video, you’d better give me a Lego Skee-Ball machine that is bigger than this. Second of all, we get it. The coin slot only takes nickels. WE GET IT ALREADY.

Now this guy, he’s a baller. But again with the coin slot.

Do you want to know how to make your own Lego Skee-Ball machine? Well, you should find out how to do that! This concludes my review of Roll It.

Photo of Skee-Ball machines by Rob Boudon.

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28 Responses to “This new Skee-Ball game from Google is awful, but let’s talk about Skee-Ball anyway”

  1. clivedaddy says:

    My dad used to make skee-ball machines on the beach, sandcastle style. So we’d have it on the boardwalk and on the beach. He was really good at it.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      Wouldn’t throwing a ball down the sandcastle one just demolish it?

        • clivedaddy says:

          We would wet the sand and pack it very densely.  Then, we’d dig the points holes with a plastic spade, only kind of shallow.  The ball we used would either be a small paddle ball (Pro-Kadima model) or a tennis ball, either light enough to maintain the integrity of the board. One year, I remember my dad was able to build it so that there was a ramp on the side that would return the ball, but I don’t really remember how he pulled that off. 

  2. Skee-ball was fun, but it wasn’t the most efficient way to win tickets.
    At the arcades I went to, that honour went to “After-Shock”. In “After-Shock”, you let your token slide down an inclined plane. You would tilt the plane left and right in order to get the token to fall in various holes. As you probably inferred from the title, the “After-Shock” machine shakes like crazy.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      Speaking of Dave, there is some sort of Jungle Shooter game at the local Dave and Buster’s that, when first installed, could net thousands of tickets, especially on half price Wednesdays.  It’s one of those where you catapult a ball and try to get it in various tubes worth different point values.  There was one tube near the top of the machine that, if you aimed for it at the right time, would almost always go through the tube, through the moving hand in the center of the machine, and into the marked pit below, totalling about 250 tickets per shot.  Going for four shots per game, and you’re making about 3-4000 tickets per dollar.

      Naturally they noticed this and reduced the point values a few weeks later.  But my wife and I managed to get several high-value kitchen appliances first!  (Hooray for double blender, waffle maker and slow cooker!)

  3. stakkalee says:

    Here’s the only skee-ball tip you’ll ever need – when you go to get your tickets, pull slowly; that way you should be able to get a few more tickets from the roll inside the machine, maybe dozens if the roll is loose.  It’s technically not stealing – they can’t blame you if the paper doesn’t rip correctly!

  4. Roswulf says:

    Every now and then, I am overcome with joy at the simple privilege to live in a world with John Teti and Gameological.

    • John Teti says:

      Thank you for passing some of that joy along to me. I’ll walk with a little extra spring in my step tonight.

    • zebbart says:

      This article made the same thought roll through my head. There’s just something different in Teti’s pieces that is delightful.

  5. ItsTheShadsy says:

    How about good video game skee-ball? Specifically a version where you kill people?

    • zebbart says:

      Totally! The idea of having to really wing the ball with all your strength sounds so fun.

  6. aklab says:

    I really enjoyed this article. Skee-ball is one of those things that I forget how much I love. Every time I venture into a beachside arcade, which is every few years, I think, “Skee-ball! I love Skee-ball! Why don’t I play Skee-ball more often!” and then I spend all my of kids’ quarters.  

    (insert joke about n-point holes) 

  7. missmoxie says:

    Johnny, remember the day you won the rubber shark ring that lit up? I think it’s still in the back of the coffee table drawer.

  8. Flying_Turtle says:

    Only the future knows what’s in store for Skee-Ball, Inc. The possibilities for Skee-Ball in the Amusement Industry are endless.

    Of course they are, Skee-Ball. Of course they are.

    I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it never occurred to me to carom the ball. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone play that way. Drifters have so much to teach us, if only we would learn.

    Edit: Fun with number agreement

  9. vinnybushes says:

    John, I may have a found a new nighttime activity for you: competitive Skee-ball championships! in Williamsburg no-less.

  10. Steve Lewis says:

    At one point in time when I was a child, I aspired to make my own skee-ball machine out of paper. I made the ball return ramp and the 50-point ring, and lost interest after that. Ah, youth.

  11. duwease says:

    Why was this masterpiece given the mini article treatment?  It has all the full-bodied flavor of a traditional article.  Plus the same amount of calories when you factor in how much time I spent reading that AMA..

    • zebbart says:

      That AMA was great and he seems like a pretty nice normal guy, but this: “Everybody add LovesToSpoon247 on xbox live.I made my avatar some slut. A classy one though,” had me laughing and cringing hard at the same time.

  12. Caroming, eh?  I should have thought of that before I tried firing those skee-balls overhand.  Chuck-E-Cheese may still have a restraining order against me, but I did win that big stuffed pony for my girl.

  13. Citric says:

    If the skee-ball trucker isn’t the pivotal scene in a bittersweet coming of age film, I don’t know what is.

  14. Bowen Kerins says:

    Here’s why the side-wall carom is effective: your ball’s movement is then TOWARD the scoring holes instead of away from them.  If you’re aiming for the 50 straight-away, you have to hit it dead perfect.  If you’re aiming for the 50 from a carom, there is a lot more leeway and a lot better chance you’ll hit the 40 instead of dropping all the way down for a 10.

    It’s similar to bowling, where a curving ball has a greater margin of error than a straight ball by hooking back toward the pins.The 100 is a total sucker shot, but not all that much different from aiming directly for the 50 with no carom.

  15. Bowen Kerins says:

    It hasn’t been mentioned here yet, but there’s a huge Skee-Ball league in Chicago.  They even keep statistics on the most “Hundo” shots (100-pointers) and badges for players with all-50 or all-40 rounds.  NERDS!

  16. Mercenary_Security_number_4 says:

    pffft.  Futurama called this years ago.

  17. Eco1970 says:

    Brilliant. I now know what Skee-Ball is.