From vintage bars and bells to dazzling digital displays, slot machine reels have transformed immensely over the years. Once purely mechanical, today's slots combine technology and entertainment, offering more than just a chance to win. Dive into this article to discover the journey of slot reels and how they shape our modern gambling experiences. Let's spin the story!

Invaders from the planet moolah™ slot machine
Invaders from the planet moolah™ slot machine

What are slot reels?

Chances are you’ve at least seen a slot machine in some form. Most people know the general look and design of a slot. Players drop in a few dollars (actual slot tokens or coins in the old days) and then press the spin button or pull a handle.

This puts the reels facing outward from the slot cabinet in motion. These spin vertically and eventually come to a stop, signaling whether a player has won or lost. The reels feature various slot symbols that relay the type of a particular spin. Players will often become accustomed to seeing some familiar symbols that may have been part of the world of slots since their invention in the late 1800s. Some of those common and popular symbols include:

  • Bells

  • Bars

  • 7s

  • Playing card hands (A, K, Q, J, 10)

  • Playing card suits (hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades)

  • Fruits

Slot machine with fruit symbols
Slot machine with fruit symbols

These certainly aren’t all the symbols a player will find in a random slot. However, these classics are still found in numerous games from Las Vegas and Atlantic City to Monte Carlo and Macau. Modern video slots make use of high-energy themes and unique narrative arcs, so many games have moved beyond these classic symbols on the reels.

Some symbols also offer some extra winning power for players. Those include:

  • Wilds – These can usually be substituted for other symbols on the reels, allowing for more winning combinations.

  • Scatters – These unlock bonus features such as free spins and other bonus games. These can offer players extra ways to win including the possibility of some big prizes.

  • Multipliers – These multiply a regular win by a certain amount.

Most games feature three reels but more modern games have seen that expand depending on the game. As slot manufacturers have innovated, additional opportunities to reveal symbols have been added. Some games even feature a completely separate set of secondary reels. But on older reels and even many still today, three reels are a popular combination.

The general idea remains the same, however, more than 100 years after the first slot machines were unveiled for eager players. A player drops in some money and spins those slot reels, eagerly awaiting which symbols show up when those whirling reels come to a stop – hopefully a nice jackpot.

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How Many Reels Are On A Slot Machine?

A typical slot machine, whether found in a traditional brick-and-mortar casino or an online gaming platform, typically features three to five reels. These reels are vertical columns that display various symbols and symbols on them, and they spin when a player activates the machine.

The number of reels can vary from one machine to another, with three-reel slots being the simplest and most classic version, while five-reel slots are more common in modern gaming. The number of reels directly influences the complexity of the game and the potential combinations, adding an element of excitement and strategy to the player's experience.

However, there are also specialized slot machines with more than five reels, offering even more diverse gameplay options and winning possibilities for adventurous players.

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How do slot machine reels work?

Up until the age of computers and modern technology, slot machine reels would spin because of real mechanical engineering within the slot cabinet. A series of gears and levers were used to crank up those reels. The handle out of the side of the machine was used to “spin” the reels by releasing a braking mechanism and putting them into motion. A series of kickers and a stopper eventually bring the reels to a stop, leaving the gambler with a few symbols showing on the front of the cabinet. If they line up just right on the pay line, the player is rewarded with a payout. Some of those can occasionally be massive jackpots, but those odds are long.

Slot Machine Reel Strips

In the intricate world of slot machines, the composition of the reel strips plays a pivotal role in determining the outcome of each spin. These "reel strips" are physical strips of paper or later, plastic, containing various symbols. Each strip corresponds to a specific reel, and the arrangement of symbols on these strips influences the odds and potential payouts of the machine. As the reels spin, these strips move in synchronization, dictating which symbols align on the payline when the reels come to a halt. The careful design of these strips has a profound impact on the excitement and anticipation of each spin, making them an integral part of how slot machine reels work, both in the mechanical classics of yesteryears and the modern digital incarnations of today.

Most modern slots, however, don’t even feature traditional mechanical reels. Instead, players will find “video reels” that mimic those vintage slots of old Vegas. These machines feature mostly computer and software components, including an algorithm, to make them function. These games use RNGs (random number generators) and an algorithm to make the reels spin and award wins and losses.

Some machines may feature what seem like mechanical reels. However, these reels are spun by the computer and software in the cabinet and not from some mechanical movement generated by the user as they once were by a player pulling an external handle.

The slot’s software has already determined the result of the spin when a player presses the spin button. The reels offer players just a visual representation of that selection with the bells, whistles, music, bonus games, etc., all part of the entertainment that comes with the machine. But those entertaining qualities keep players coming back for more of the action.

Research firm Technavio estimates the industry’s compound annual gross revenue to rise almost 13% from 2020-25, topping out at almost $9 billion. Manufacturer creativity seems to be driving demand for more creative and better products.

The growth of the slot machine market will be driven by the growing vendor involvement in the market,” the study notes. “The vendors in the market are launching new products. They are attracting more consumers by introducing slot machines with improved features. Digital slot machines are considered to be extremely user-friendly because they display all of the information in the form of comments and let players play without any aid or assistance. These characteristics have resulted in high demand for these devices in casinos.

Vegas slot machines
Vegas slot machines

Changes and innovation in slot reels

With that in mind, how is the industry appealing to more players? The use of modern computer technology moves video slots well past what could be offered on a traditional mechanical slot. One of the best innovations is the ability for players to bet on numerous paylines.

This offers players numerous ways to win. The technologically advanced offer numerous lines that can seem to crisscross across the reels. The slot’s ability to display all these wins also makes it easy for players. Beyond the gameplay, modern machines offer other unique properties such as:

  • High-definition visuals

  • Multiple screens

  • Expanded number of reels

  • Pop culture tie-ins and advanced gaming themes

  • Interesting bonus games and extra features

  • Advanced theater-like sound effects

In recent years, some slot manufacturers have even introduced skill-based games, which offer players the ability to play a role in the game’s outcome based on their skills and strategy. These games are meant to appeal to a generation of players brought up on video and mobile gaming options.

Online and mobile game slot reels

Speaking of mobile slot games, slot developers have moved beyond traditional casinos. Players in legal jurisdictions can find some of their favorite games available right on their cell phones, mobile devices, and computers.

This has allowed players to compete for major jackpots right from their own homes. These reels spin on a player’s phone just as they would in a traditional casino. Those who find those slot symbols lining up just right can be in store for some big winnings as well.

The largest online slot win came in 2021 in Belgium. One lucky player cashed in for $23.6 million playing a Mega Moolah machine on the Napoleon Sports & Casino platform. The vast majority of players won’t ever experience those kinds of jackpot odds. Still, many players enjoy some modest winnings and entertainment, spinning slot reels here and there from the couch, subway, or maybe even on a park bench.

Zeus 2 reels
Zeus 2 reels

The mobile gaming fun carries over to the social gaming environment as well. Numerous platforms, such as Jackpot Party, offer players a chance to spin some reels without any real money on the line.

Players can learn how to play slots and check out some of the various games with no real skin in the game, which means you can keep some of that hard-earned cash in your wallet.

Many players see those slot machine reels and the symbols they reveal as just a nice way to have some fun, win or lose, or even without anything on the line.

The future of slot machine reels

The slot industry continues to advance with unique options always around the corner. Advanced graphics, sound, and gaming options continue to make the casino floor quite a place for innovation.

Players now can just use bills and no longer need to carry around buckets of slot tokens. Cashless play is also now becoming an option, with players setting up an account and not even needing to slide currency into a machine.

More advanced narratives continue to gain steam as well. The technology just seems to ramp up every year, bringing more computing power and more fun to the slot area. Perhaps look for more skill-based games and more simulation of what players find in other mobile gaming environments. One thing is certain, slot machines’ popularity seems to show no signs of slowing down.

Frequently asked questions

What are slot machine reels?

These are the vertical cylinders located on the front of a casino cabinet. They can be moving mechanisms or simulated on video slots. These feature symbols can align in certain winning combinations. Players see the results on paylines on the screen or in front of the game.

Do modern slots use mechanical reels?

Most modern slots make use of computer technology and feature video reels even those with mechanical-looking reels make use of an RNG (random number generator) to determine the result of a spin. The reels just display this result as seen in video slots.

What are the symbols on slot reels?

These vary by game and can display various icons and unique features. Some symbols award more winnings than others. Players generally hope to find the best symbols lining up, dreaming of a major jackpot.

For more information on slot symbols, including their meanings and significance, consider exploring this comprehensive article on slot symbols.

Sean Chaffin
Sean Chaffin

Sean Chaffin is a longtime freelance writer, editor, and former high school journalism teacher. He has covered the poker and gaming industry for many years.