3 Reel Slots

The classic modern online slot has five reels.

However, there’s plenty of room for variety in the online slots world and games can be found with a number of set-ups. Some offer higher numbers of reels – though more than six is pushing things visually – and more commonly games offer a retro, classic set-up of 3 reels.

Here we’ll look at how the history of slots has influenced this layout. What you can expect from a 3 reel slot game. Why you might want to play a 3 reel slot machine and take a look at some of the most popular current titles in this style.

3 reel slots are popular at the moment and we’ll look at why we think that is and offer you some advice as to how to get the most out of your 3 reel slot gaming experience.

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The History of Slots: From Five to Three

It would be intuitive to imagine that slots started out as a simple thing that became more sophisticated. But that’s not straightforwardly true.

The first slots had five reels.

It was a mechanisation of a poker game. Where we now see symbols drawn on reels were 50 actual playing cards (two had been discarded from a full deck to improve the odds in favour of the machine’s owner). The spin of the drums (as they were then called) simulated a deal, and when the reels stopped a single pay-line showed a hand. Prizes were paid out manually and were usually set by whoever owned the machine.

If you’ve ever done any reading on poker you’ll know that it is a monumentally complicated game. Even with two cards chucked out, the need to calculate winnings from 50 unique symbols is insanely difficult. It was never going to be done with the limited mechanical technology of the late 19th century.

And so we come to 3-reel games.

These are the brainchild of one Mr Charles Fey.

Fey simplified the machinery and also cut the direct link with card games. Gambling has not always been legal in the US, and he also wanted to cut the direct link with poker.

In order to do both, he reduced the five drums to three and he dumped the cards for a set of five symbols (horseshoes, hearts, diamonds, spades, and the Liberty Bell).

This made the calculation of prizes massively simpler, and games could be set up to pay-out automatically.

The 3-reel slot became the norm. Symbols became the norm.

Five-reel games are by their nature much more complex, and they weren’t reintroduced to the gambling machine until the advent of poker machines in the 1940s. New technology made more complicated machines like Bally’s 1963 electromechanical pioneer Money Honey possible. They also made the games more lucrative and made them a stalwart of the big Las Vegas casinos.

Video slots (invented in 1976) made the games even more adaptable. And from 1994, slot machines went online.

Today, there really is a very little limit on what a slot machine can offer to players, but 3 reel slots are making something of a comeback.

Why should that be?

Looking Back to go Forward: 3-Reels of Simple

What do you want from a slot game?

Put aside the fact that you want to win, we’ll take that as read. Ask yourself what sort of experience you want.

You’ll probably want a visually pleasing experience, and you’ll want some sort of engagement in gameplay, and you’d probably like it to be easy to play.

All of these things can be delivered by a 3-reel slot.

Slot games have increased in sophistication: they have animations, different ways of delivering the “spin”, characters, arcade-style bonus games, and everything else you can imagine. But at heart, the player still gets the same experience, which is gambling on a random outcome.

If that’s the key to your experience then you might decide that the simpler the game is the better.

Alongside this natural inclination for players to enjoy a distilled experience is the rise in mobile and tablet play.

A super-sophisticated game with beautifully drawn characters and a story arc might work well on a large desktop screen. But what works well on a small phone screen being played on the bus on the way home from work?

The simple virtues of big, graphical symbols on 3-reels on a small screen are obvious. It’s easy to see and it’s easy to play.

Current design trends are towards simplicity – in controls, in graphics, and in gameplay.

Whether you choose to go along with this trend is of course down to you, but its appeal is obvious.

Retro 3 Reel Slots: The Power of Memory

There’s also a very powerful trend towards retro aesthetics in online slots.

Why that is would take a long socio-political analysis. We don’t have the time for that, but nostalgia is a powerful thing, always has been, and always will be.

I grew up in the 1980s, looking back at the music and style of the 1960s as much better than what was on offer to me at the cutting edge of modern design. Now, I look around me to see young people rejecting the aesthetics of the 2010s in favour of the 1980s design I thought was so terrible at the time.

And so it is in gaming.

The simple design allows designers to signal that their games are reassuringly old fashioned and have time-proven virtues. For most of the history of the slot machine, it was a 3 reel slot game. Anyone playing games today who grew up with real-life slots will find 3-reel games friendly, easy to understand, and quick to get stuck into.

What’s not to like?

Cut Down Design for Simplicity of Play

There is no reason on earth why a 3-reel slot can’t have the world’s most complex and numerous bonus games. However, it is more likely to be a simpler game.

Three-reel slots are often filed along with “Classic Slots” or “retro slots”.

Most will tend towards more traditional symbols and so might be styled as fruit slots, with cherries and the like making up the bulk of the scoring icons.

Some take that link to a logical conclusion and present their three reels at the heart of a mock-up of an olde style fruit machine from the sticky-floored pubs of the past!

These games can be complex, featuring second sets of reels, and a big choice of bonus features shown on a mocked-up second layer above the main reels.

Nudges might be a feature on classic, 3-reel slots too. Nudging was the original fruit feature and got many a player down on their knees looking through the glass to see what symbol was next on the reels. It’s basically a Respin but delivered one crawling symbol at a time. It’s a great feature and it’s amazing that it ever went out of style.

3 Reel Slots Odds: How to Win on a 3 Reel Slot

The first thing to make clear is that there is no trick to winning on slot machines. There is nothing you can do to get around the random nature of these games.

However, there are smarter ways of playing, and there is a lot of information about the games that can help you make the most of your time on them.

Whatever you do, the best guiding principle for your game playing is to play for fun rather than for money.

A 3-reel slot should play exactly the same as any other. You’ll have a spin button – usually a big green one – that sets the reels spinning. And there will also be some sort of mechanism for setting the wager. This is either done by setting a single amount, or by setting a wager amount and then deciding how many pay lines you want to stake that amount on.

Three-reel slots are usually simpler in one respect, and that is in the number of pay-lines they feature.

Five reel games commonly come with three rows to give a “playing area” of 15 symbols. Across this field of play run the pay-lines. Three-reel games usually have just nine symbols, this means that there are usually fewer pay-lines. There may be just one, running across the centre horizontally. Adding in the diagonals gives you three pay-lines.

Generally, 3-reel slots have lower volatility than 5-reel games. Volatility is a ratio between the frequency of wins against the size of those wins. Games that pay out relatively infrequently but pay out larger sums when they do pay out are described as high volatility. Low volatility games do the opposite. (Boringly, most games are described as medium volatility games, and 3-reel games are more likely to be medium or low volatility rated.)

3 reel slot games are also likely to have fewer bonus features. Everything we say in this guide can be prefaced with the disclaimer, “Generally speaking”, there are very few hard and fast rules for slots, which come in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes.

Again, though, bonus games are somewhat at odds with the generally classic vibe of 3-reel slots.

The look is likely to be simpler too, with the classic symbols: card suits, 7s, bars, fruits, and bells favourites.

Let’s have a look at the actual mathematics of 3 reel slot machines.

3 Reel Slots Odds

We’ll make it clear first that YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW THIS STUFF. You don’t need to know it to play safely and you don’t need to know it to have an enjoyable game.

However, being well informed and knowing your way around a game is the best way to play it safe.

There are some simple numbers that you should be able to understand, but these more complicated sums are extras.

Your game will be governed by a random number generator and should have been audited. If the site you use is licensed then you can be assured that you’re getting a fair spin of the reels.

The sums that work out pay-outs are very complicated.

They are decided by the number of symbols and the way the algorithms are set up. The number of symbols on each reel should be same within a game, but between games, the variation can be enormous – remember, we’re in virtual worlds now, there is no physical limit on these reels.

A 3 reel slot game with 20 symbols per reel has a 20/1 chance of randomly landing on a symbol. So the odds of all three reels hitting the same symbol at the same time are 20-times-20-times-20, which are 8,000 to 1.

So, the odds of hitting a unique symbol are 8,000 to 1. You can sub in numbers to give you the odds on other outcomes. If there are four symbols of a particular type on each reel then you have odds of 4/20 multiplied by itself three times, which comes out as a 666 to 1 chance.

That’s the more complicated maths. And those sums will be vastly different in scale for a five-reel game while delivering a very similar result in terms of the simple numbers.

Those are best known to players as the theoretical return to player or RTP. The typical figure for an RTP these days is about 96%, which can also be expressed as a house edge of 4%. This is the profit the casino site can expect to make from the machine.

These figures are calculated over the theoretical life of the machine and will not represent an individual session you have a game. The sums that calculate this figure are also predicated on the player acting in a certain way.

So, they’re a guide, and the first thing you notice about them once you start to take notice of them is that they are generally very similar.

So the reality is you will probably have a very similar experience financially whatever the game you play, whether it’s 3-reel or 5-reel or 150-reel.

Some Top 3 Reel Slots Titles

We’ll end by looking at some of the most popular 3 reel slots of the last year or so.

  • Break Da Bank comes from Microgaming. It’s a very simple game in the classic 3-reel slot style, with bars and dollar signs among the symbols. There is a wild – the game logo – which also operates as a multiplier. Betting is on up to five pay-lines.
  • Couch Potato from Microgaming is also a very retro, classic slot. The three reels and three rows deliver just a single pay line right through the middle of the screen. Again, the palate of symbols is classic, with 7s, cherries, fruits and bars. There’s a wild – the logo again – again operating as a multiplier on wins. No bonus game here in classic 3-reel style.
  • IGT are behind Triple Diamond. There are nine players, which is high for a 3-reel game (the number of pay lines should not affect the outcome or your experience). A good, old set of good, old symbols features bars and 7s. The game symbol is the top payer, shooting out wins of up to 1,199x stake for full sets. It’s also a wild and a multiplier.
  • Wheel of Wealth Classic Slot lays out its offering in a straight forward way. It’s a classic 3-reel slot with a single pay line and very simple betting. Betting at the top end of the scale operates a bonus feature, which is a simple wheel of fortune feature with a top prize of 1,000 coins. A wild also operates as a multiplier on wins in which it features.
  • Double Triple Chance from Merkur is another classic. Appropriately enough as Merkur has a long history stretching back to the days of cabinet games. It’s colourful and noisy and very traditional with bells, 7s, and fruits. There are 5 pay-lines on the 9 symbols playing area. There’s a respin feature triggered when sets of 9 symbols fill the reels that can retrigger up to six times. A gamble feature on card colours is another traditional feature that you can use to double (or lose) your wins.
  • Bar Bar Blacksheep comes from Microgaming and making the most of a fairly lame pun. The theming stretches as far as some sheep-related symbols with wool bags and actual sheep appearing on the reels alongside the bars. The black sheep is a wild and a multiplier on wins.
  • Jackpot Jester 50,000 from NextGen shows that you can really win big on a simple 3-reel game. The game is self-consciously retro and themed around an old-fashioned cabinet game. It’s a two-screen game with a second set of reels spinning in a Super Game where the real big wins – including a 50,000 coins jackpot – are to be found.
  • Alchemist’s Lab comes from Playtech, and ticks some of the classic slot boxes but takes a detour down chemistry theming with symbols based on labs, test tubes and other chemical doohickeys, with those alchemical bars of gold and spell books offering the biggest prizes. Spellbooks also trigger a bonus round.
  • Fire Joker from Play’n GO may be the simplest machine it is possible to have. The look is flat and simple, the graphics are old school and diagrammatic. The three reels and three rows give players nine symbols to play with, all taken from the classic fruit slot palate. The fire joker is a wild. This game does has bonus features, including a respin on some misses, and there’s also a potential multiplier of up to 10x on wins.
  • Mega Joker from NetEnt is an established favourite. This is a game that is designed to look like it staggered out of a British pub in the 1980s. It plays in the same way, and has a classic two-screen look, with a top screen delivering all the big wins and bonuses. The symbols are the fruits – watermelons, grapes – bells, and bars that make up most classic slot reels. It’s a low-stakes friendly game with gambling from 1 to 10 coins. High staking opens up the top of the machine a long line of skills-based bonus features that veteran players will remember from their misspent youths.

Play 3 Reel Slot Machines Safely

Are 3 reel slot machines for you?

The short answer is, yes, if you like slots.


Because really they’re not terribly different from any other sort of slot. There is a great deal of what might be called the illusion of choice in the slots and online casino world. This is an appearance of variety which is really something of a trick.

We’ve shown you in the history of the slot that the game is simple. And the game you play today, on your machine costing hundreds of pounds and using an internet connection to connect you to a set of servers in Greenland or beyond, is pretty much the same as the game those guys with enormous moustaches were playing in the 19th century with cards stuck on drums.

Things have got a lot more sophisticated in some ways – the graphics, the fact that you can carry the games in your pocket – but the mechanics: click a button, random things happen, you may or may not win a prize – are the same.

And when you look at the numbers, 3-reel slots and 5-reel slots offer very similar returns to the player, and most are similar in terms of total payouts and volatility too.

The differences we are left describing to you are broad, indistinct and aesthetic: games are simpler, faster to deliver a spin, and often retro in style.

The way to pick a slot game that’s right for you is to pick the one you enjoy playing, and the way to find that game is to play around!

It is that simple.

Never forget to play safely, to play with an eye on your budget and your mental health. Follow safe gambling advice and play at licensed sites and you’ll be well on the way to a safe and enjoyable experience.

3 reel slot reel games are for you if you love the small screen, simple graphics, high speed, and retro looks.

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