The fundamental playing field for every online slot game is the reel.
The reel holds the symbols, and its (virtual) spin is the action in the games you play.
Today, when we write in our reviews that a game has a “standard” set-up we mean that it has five reels and three rows. That’s five horizontal lines of symbols and three horizontal sets of them, putting a total of 15 symbols on the screen at the end of a spin.
That’s the standard. But there’s no need for it to be like this. We’ll have a look at the history of the slot game and show that there are good historical reasons why this should be the case, but today’s technology means that the designers can really use any number of reels they like.
In fact, the truth is that as the random event on which the game depends is now delivered by a series of zeroes and ones there’s no need for any “reels” at all – a row of numbers could flow along with the screen and stop when you push a button.
Let’s take a look at the history of 5 reel slots; the way that 5 reel slot machines work; how to play them safely and successfully; and some of the top current 5 reel slots, in our 5 reel slot guides.
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5 Reel Slot Machines Online
The History of the Slot: 5 Reels First
The slot game is a gambling game. In fact, it’s got a place in a long history of gambling games that not everyone recognises these days.
Slots are poker!
There you go. We’ve said. They’ve come a long way from the original machines that were a very obvious and direct attempt to mechanise the world’s most popular gambling card game, but that’s the root of the slot.
And that’s why we have five reels in so many games, because most poker variants have five cards in a hand, and a slot spin is the equivalent of a poker deal and where the reels land is the equivalent of a hand.
Thinking about slots this way is a nice way to understand the game, but it’s got the solid history behind it, including actual cards and glue!
In 1891, when every man, by law, had to wear a gigantic walrus moustache, the first thing that looked anything like, the slot machine was invented. This came from the Sittman and Pitt company, who were based in Brooklyn, New York.
This game worked as a direct automation of a game of cards, specifically poker. In order to make the game profitable for the owners and operators, two cards were removed from a deck of cards and 50 of them were stuck on five rotating drums – 10 on each reel. Sittman and Pitt had been making card drop and card draw games for a while, but this was of their gambling machines that a modern slot player would recognise.
You put your money in the slot – hence the name – and pulled a lever (hence the later “one-armed bandit” nickname) and the drums went spinning round. If you scored a winning poker hand you could collect a prize from the machine’s owners, usually a saloon keeper, often in the form of a drink or cigars.
This 5-reel set-up was low-tech, and very obviously made the link between poker and the machine. In time both of these issues proved something of a problem.
Poker hands are complicated, and decks of cards (even with the two cards removed) offer a huge number of combinations. Calculating the prizes earned using the technology of the time was completely impossible. Hence the trip up to the bar to collect your prize.
The link to cards is an interesting historical artefact that has relevance even today. Gambling has had a complicated legal history, particularly in the United States (a country that has at times struggled to reconcile its puritan and libertarian founding instincts). A machine that played poker was very obviously a gambling game, and would very obviously be outlawed where gambling was illegal.
In order to simplify the technology, and to get around the law a number of changes were made to early slots.
Charles Fey is generally credited with the most important of these changes. These simplified the game by ditching two of the drums to become a three-reel game, and swapping out cards for a smaller set of symbols. These five symbols (hearts, diamonds, and spades from a pack of cards, a patriotic Liberty Bell, and a lucky horseshoe) made the game much simpler and allowed the prizes to be delivered automatically.
As Fey’s machines spread from San Francisco across the US like a plague, they soon started to fall foul of the law themselves.
New entrants to the market started to make their machines look more like vending machines than gambling games by awarding prizes in the shape of food. These games, which most often offered fruit-flavoured chewing gum (a portable, novelty product that doesn’t go off quickly) as a prize, introduced the world to fruit symbols, the BAR (a fruit gum company logo), and the idea of the “fruit machine”.
The law didn’t like these games, but players very much did, and they went global, fighting court cases as they went. (Where money meets the law, money usually wins – just look at the history of Uber for confirmation of this truth of capitalist life.)
Three reels remained the standard set-up for decades. But the Sitmann Company hadn’t stood still either.
Fey had improved on the poker machine and included them in his range of games. Sitmann too continued to make poker-related gambling machines. By 1898 Fey had perfected a machine that could deliver prizes for poker hands. And in 1901 he invented a game with a sort of respin feature that simulated the second deal of a draw poker hand. Sitmann and Pitt followed down this innovatory route, and slots and poker machines existed side by side around the world.
By the 1940s the Bally company (still around and big in slots today) were producing a High Hand poker machine that had some electromechanical elements. In 1963, they introduced the first slot to use this technology, Money Honey that allowed much bigger pay-outs to be delivered automatically.
In 1970 Dale Electronics rolled out the world-first video poker machine. The Poker-Matic didn’t initially take off, but with a little tweaking, the concept really took off as Video Poker, a simplified version of the world’s favourite card game that’s an important moment in the cross-over between slots and poker machines.
In 1976 the first video slot was made, using a 19-inch Sony screen and computer boards for all the mechanics of the game.
With computers and screens delivering the game there’s no real limit on the number of reels, symbols, or bonus games that a slot machine can deliver.
The slot machine and the poker machine took slightly divergent routes but they both ended up at 5-reels. This common history is most apparent in Australia, where many people use “pokies” as a slang curtailing of “poker machine” to refer to all slot games.
What’s the cross over today?
As industry observers it seems that the two scenes are quite different: slots are massively popular online, with whole sites devoted to them while video poker games remain a relatively niche-type attraction. Where players can play actual face-to-face poker, as they increasingly can via streaming services or social games, then that’s preferable; where there’s a choice between poker games and slots they seem to prefer slots.
How to Play a 5 Reel Slot Game
The 5-reel slots you see should play almost exactly the same as any 3-reel slots you’ve been spinning.
Let’s have a look at a typical example:
Well of Wishes is a new 5 reel slot game from Red Tiger.
The set-up is very classic for a 5-reel slot.
Let’s have a look at the paytable that records the pay-outs for this game.
There are 11 symbols in total.
At the bottom of the paytable, Red Tiger pay tribute (as so many do) to the origins of the game with a run of card suit symbols: 10s, jacks, queens, kings, and aces. The top-paying symbol here is the Ace, with a 25 coin pay-out for a full set of five.
Then we have the higher paying symbols: they are a four-leaf clover (charmingly enhanced with a ladybird); a lucky horseshoe; a bag of gold; and a feather fan. This pays 300 coins for a set of five.
In addition, there is a scatter symbol that delivers a respin feature and can trigger the free spins round. And a wild symbol, a patch of a four-leaf clover on a coin, that sub in to make higher value wins, and also trigger an extra wilds feature.
This is a very standard looking game.
Most 3 reel slot machines are very simple, with fewer pay-lines. Pay-lines are the routes across the reels along which “hands” of symbols are created. In a 3 reel slot machine game, you may find just a single pay line, horizontally across the centre of the reels, but with fewer symbols on offer (typically 9), you will almost never find as many as you will on a 5-reel game.
Well of Wishes has 10 pay-lines. This number is not all that high, but already it’s bringing some complex geometry to the picnic.
The first three lines are horizontals along the top, middle, and bottom lines. Then a V, which is inverted for the fifth pay line. A table-top line is inverted to make the sixth and seventh lines, before two-stepped diagonals and a sine wave complete the 10.
The sums behind a 5 reel slot game are complex.
The numbers that players need to look at are simpler, and there are just two of them.
A volatility rating (sometimes called variance) records how likely a machine is to pay out, and what size of the prize it will pay out. High volatility games (like Well of Wishes) are more likely to pay out bigger prizes, but they’re likely to pay those prizes out less often. The opposite ratio is classified as a “low volatility” slot.
The other figure is the theoretical return to player. This number is written as a percentage and it records how much money a game is expected to return to players over its lifetime. In the current market, this number is typically around 95 – 96%.
Neither of these measures are particularly useful in some ways. They’re very vague and they do not vary very much across the industry. The main thing to note is that the games you play should be somewhere in this region or they’re out of the ordinary in some way.
What are the odds of wins on a 5-reel machine then?
The truth is you’ll probably never know exactly.
The RTP will tell you that the owner of the game will expect to make a profit of about 4%. So, that’s the difference between the frequency of wins (and the amount staked on them) should be about 4%. That is, if something is likely to happen on, say, 20% of the spins then the pay-outs for it will be worth 16%.
These figures introduce you to an important part of online gambling, however many reels are spinning, and that is that the games are set up so that in the long run you lose money. The RTP is a measure of a game’s whole theoretical lifetime (and it factors in certain player behaviour too), but with the highest of technologies playing their part here, you can say that a profit can be relied on.
A modern 5-reel slot game can have a limitless number of symbols on reels that don’t have to have a physical reality. That means working with enormous numbers to work out the odds of a particular event. The odds of a few games are known, for example, the odds against a 2003 world record jackpot win of several million dollars on a bricks-and-mortars casino machine in Las Vegas were around 50 million to one.
The good news is that you don’t need to know any of this, and, in fact, it’s all fairly academic, as a 5-reel slot and a 3-reel slot (and a no-reel instant win game for that matter) offer you a published RTP of that is about the same.
The Top 5 Reel Slot Games
We think you’ll agree by now that it’s not a case of 5-reels good 3-reels bad.
All modern games will give a player a good experience and offer a fair game. Most of these games can be played by beginners who know their way around just one game.
So let’s take a look at the most popular 5 reel slots in the current market according to a well-known industry audit site.
- Dead or Alive II is a sequel (as you’ve guessed) based around the old west and featuring some nice-looking symbols from western films. The game has a nearly 97% RTP, which it delivers from 9 pay lines on a five-by-three grid. The game was released in April 2019 and a massive top prize of 2 million coins is no doubt one of the reasons so many players love it so much.
- Pirates Plenty The Sunken Treasure is another series game. The reels are based on pirate maps and sit on a pirate ship backdrop. This 5 by 3 game has 20 pay-lines and a 1 million coin top prize. It was released on November 2018.
- Mega Moolah is in the top 10s because of its enormous prize. This game has an 88.12% RTP but that masks the money that is syphoned off to a progressive jackpot that has broken the world record on a couple of occasions. The advertised top prize for this game on a 5 by 3 grid is 225,000 coins, which can be won by hitting symbols on the 25 pay lines.
- Pirates Plenty Battle for Gold is another of Red Tiger’s pirate-themed games. It has a 96.12% RTP and high volatility. The layout is five-reel, but with four rows giving a 20-symbol playing field on which are found 20 pay lines.
- Gonzo’s Quest is a worldwide classic with a long history and some wonderful graphics, effects and animations. The game is easy to play and mixes things up by having a 5 by 3 grid that isn’t based on reels but lines of stone blocks in an Aztec temple.
- Rich Wilde and the Book of Dead is one in a long line of Indiana Jones-linked archaeology/Ancient world themed games. Its five reels are filled with Egyptian symbols and its gameplay is packed with bonus features. You’ll love the top prize of 500,000 coins. The 10 pay lines don’t make winning any less likely than with games with more pay lines and the RTP is a generous 96% plus.
- Starburst is a legendary game. It’s very classic in some ways and will be classified as a classic or a fruit slot by some sites, but the futuristic sci-fi design and super stylish look of Starburst make it a success in any era. True to the timeless appeal of this game it has a 5 by 3 grid and 10 pay lines that can deliver a top prize of 500,000 coins.
Playing 5 Reel Slots to Win
It’s a staple feature of guides like this to feature advice on how to play the games they feature safely, and how to win on them.
If you’re ever reading one of these guides and it seems to tell you a winning strategy then run for the hills. There is no trick to winning at online slots – it doesn’t matter if they have 3, 5, 7 or 700 reels – and anyone who tells you that there is, is probably pushing a scam.
With all the games you’ll be doing yourself a favour if you read the instructions first. Most online slots games these days fit into a relatively simple template and once you’ve mastered one you’ll be able to find your way around them all. However, if you don’t want to be thinking about what this new bonus screen means when you’ve got £500 riding on your next decision then take at least a quick scan of the rules and make sure you know how to access help and further information.
Better than playing to win – which you probably won’t in the long run – is playing safely. Follow good safe gambling advice: don’t gamble when you’re unhappy or upset, and don’t gamble to try to manage your mood; don’t gamble when you can’t afford to, and never gamble with more money than you can afford to live; in fact, don’t gamble for money, gamble for fun. Keep an eye on your finances and set limits on how much you’re going to spend on a session before you start.
Here, there is something to consider when playing 5 reel slots rather than 3 reelers. Staking is sometimes set as a simple maximum amount. This isn’t always the case though. Sometimes you will be able to stake a particular amount on each pay-line to produce a total stake that is the multiple of the two. Here it’s very important to know that you understand the system the game is using and that you know how to operate it. This is the worst part of the game to get caught out on.
5 Reels for now? The future of 5 reel slot machines
5 reel slot machines have been the established favourite in the online slots industry for a while. The 3 reel game has made something of a comeback as more and more players have switched to playing on mobile screens and as a result, prefer bigger, simpler visuals which 3 reels can deliver. Improvements in tech mean it’s possible to add even more reels, and two of the UK’s current top 10 games feature non-standard layouts with more than 5 reels.
For now though, because of their natural visual appeal and symmetry and because of their history and link to the poker world we think that the 5 reel slots will remain the standard set-up in the online slots industry and will be the games that you’ll be offered most commonly.