How Do Slot Game Paylines Work?

slot paylinesIn the old days of slot machines when the world was simpler, a slot would have a single payline going straight across the middle of three reels showcasing a few basic symbols.

Lining up certain symbols paid out more than lining up others, and it was impossible to miss it when you got a win because… well… it was right there in front of your eyes. Three lemons (or whatever the symbols were) in a row – can’t miss it.

Over time though slot machines had extra features added, more reels, and then the internet allowed online slots to really shake things up.

Reels could now be displayed very differently, creating the opportunity for many winning lines that travelled across the reels in ever more convoluted patterns, leaving players manically scanning the screen after each spin for a potential win.

Then someone had the idea of wins occurring both ways (from left to right and from right to left), next players were given the option to turn paylines on and off, then someone else decided they could create 243 fixed ways to win on each spin, which soon grew to 1024, and then the Megaways mechanic was born.

All very exciting, but who can remember 1024 different ways to win and then spot the potential combinations as each reel lands? Not us that’s for sure. Before we knew it slot interfaces were impossible to eyeball for wins, so it became a case of spinning and waiting for the game to tell us if we had won or not.

Many players, especially those who came to slotting after the explosion in online casino gambling, have never known any different and don’t really understand what a payline is or how they work, and that is where we come in.

The Basics of Paylines for Online Slots

paylines on a slot

At the risk of teaching you to suck eggs, it’s best to start at the very beginning to make sure you understand the foundation of what a payline is before we get into anything more intricate.

The reels on slots are covered in different symbols that are usually something to do with the theme of the game. So a jungle themed game might have symbols of a panther, vines in the trees, a snake, a parrot, etc.

The symbols themselves are just for decoration and interest really, what is important about them is their value. Slots have low paying symbols and high paying symbols, and they are usually ordered so that each symbol is worth slightly more than the last.

For example, the first of ten symbols might only be worth 5x if you manage to land five of them on a winning payline, the second worth 10x, the third 15x, and so on; whereas the last of those ten symbols might be worth 50x for the same achievement.

So far so simple.

However, you can also be paid out for completing part of a winning combination, usually by getting at least 3 of the symbol on a winning payline.

The payout for this would be less than for getting all 5 symbols on the payline, so in the case of our lowest paid symbol it might be:

  • 3 symbols = 2x stake
  • 4 symbols = 3x stake
  • 5 symbols = 5x stake

As for what a payline might look like, well that completely depends on what the slot developer decided when creating the game, but they are always patterns of some sort.

Slot Payline Patterns

examples of different paylines

The most obvious payline is getting all of your symbols to land in a horizontal line across any row on the grid.

However, paylines can be diagonal, they can go up and down in a zig zag, they can start high then drop flat and low – they can be anything really.

The game will always show you the different winning paylines if you look through the information contained within the paytable, but they won’t be the same on all games. In fact, it can be really disappointing to spot what you think is an obvious winning combination only to find out that on the game you are playing that pattern doesn’t count.

It doesn’t matter which symbols land on the paylines, as long as they are the same then the win is triggered. What will change though is the payout, depending on the value of the symbols on the winning payline.

Number of Paylines to Bet On

adjustable paylinesThis is less relevant nowadays, but worth covering briefly.

It is still possible to access slots where you can choose how many paylines you want to be active for your next spin.

The Book of Ra is one example of this, and we have taken an image from Captains Treasure here, showing just 3 of 9 paylines selected.

This is an antiquated idea now but for a while it was the ‘new thing’ in the online slot world, so there may be a few surviving titles with this feature out there.

By deactivating paylines you can reduce your minimum stake per spin, because if a payline is not active then you can’t bet money on it, but it also means you limit your winning chances.

It’s also crushing to realise you just landed a high paying winning combination on a payline that wasn’t active for that last spin.


Paylines, Stakes and Payouts

starburst win

This is something else that clouds the water when trying to figure out how paylines really work.

It’s essential to understand that while some slots charge a bet/stake per line, others have a fixed amount regardless of how many ways to win are built into the game.

This means that a 20p spin on one machine can mean something different to a 20p spin on another.

For example; a machine with 20 paylines will take a 20p stake and split it into a 1p bet per payline. That means that landing a single winning payline which pays out at 10x the bet will only pay out 10p, not £2.00. This is because although the overall bet was 20p, the bet on the winning payline that landed was only 1p, so the 10x payout only applies to that 1p bet.

Essentially, a 20p bet on a 20 payline game is actually twenty different 1p bets on each payline.

You can win on multiple paylines during the same spin though of course.

A machine that has a fixed bet amounts, say 20p, 50p, £1, £2, and £5 per spin, would pay out on the whole amount. So a winning spin landing a combination that pays out 10x would return £2 on a 20p bet.

One last thing to consider is games that use coins and/or bet levels instead of simply using a monetary bet amount. This is quite outdated now and unnecessarily convoluted but they do still exist.

The player basically chooses their coin value, then chooses how many coins to bet per line per spin. So a coin value of 5p, playing 5 coins per payline on a slot with 10 lines, would cost 25p per line; so £2.50 per spin.

It’s the same concept just with an extra layer of needless faffing around. If you only play newer games you are unlikely to even come across coins, but some older games that are still popular still use them, especially those from NetEnt, like Starburst in the image above.

You can see the coin value is 20p, and we are betting 10 coins, so 1 coin per payline. For whatever reason NetEnt have chosen to display the number of coins used as 'Bet Level': bet level 1 means 1 coin per payline, bet level 2 is 2 coins per payline, etc. 

At the very bottom of the image the monetary value of what you would be betting is also shown in small white writing, so you can see what it all means to your bankroll in real terms.


starburst paytable

As a quick aside, you can find all of this information for each game in the paytable, which they legally have to make easily accessible.

It will show each symbol and its payout value, often using an ‘x5’ style of explanation (which means 5 times the line bet, so x5 or 5x), and might even show it monetarily as well. The best paytables show the monetary payout and this will change to reflect the stake amount you have selected, so it’s always accurate.

The paytable will also explain any special symbols, special features, or bonus rounds, although this is not always explained clearly it has to be said.

The whole thing is usually presented a bit like a slide show, and as well as the paytable there will often be other information in the same place if you click through, such as the RTP and the information on how wins are created.

This will almost always be shown as a diagram too so it’s really easy to visualise what they are talking about.

In the image above, again from Starburst, the paytable actually shows the paylines on the same page which is handy, but this isn't always going to be the case. It's largely a design choice, but it does have to be there somewhere.

To access the paytable look for a question mark symbol, or a symbol that looks like a table/calendar. Each developer has their own take on this but once you’ve found one you can instinctively find them all.

Do More Paylines Mean You Win More Money?

online slot winIt sounds logical, doesn’t it? But no. If anything the opposite is probably true.

You have more chances of winning money, but the amount of money which you stand to win will probably not be as much.

If you think about it, the more paylines there are in the traditional sense then the lower your bet per line will be, and since payouts are all worked out as a multiple of your line bet, that means each payout will be smaller too.

Depending on the volatility of the slot this might mean that you get more frequent wins but of lower value; many might even be for less than the original bet amount.

So you might bet £1 on a slot with 50 paylines (so 2p bet per line) and get two winning combinations of 5x and 10x respectively. Well 5 x 2p = 10p and 10 x 2p = 20p, so you have won 30p but spent £1 on the spin.

In other words, only 2 of the 50 possible paylines were triggered, so 48 of your 50 two pence bets lost.

You can sometimes bet as little as 10p on a 50 line slot and the maths works differently here as the stake is too small to be split evenly across all paylines.

A game like this that we played hit 4 winning combinations on a single 10p spin, which sounds great, paying out a grand total of… 6p. So it really can be a pittance you get back in some cases.

Alternatives to Regular Paylines

jammin jars cluster pays

Being the innovative industry that it is, slot developers have devised a number of ways to make slots play that don’t involve paylines at all, at least in the traditional sense anyway.

These alternative pay structures have a huge impact on the game in question and even sometimes have special features built around them, such as is the case with certain tumbling or cascading reel style slots.

These games have the symbols fall onto the interface instead of spinning in, and when a winning combination is created those winning symbols disappear (usually in some entertaining way, like an explosion) and the symbols above them drop down into their place making room for extra new symbols above.

These can potentially create another winning combination and the same thing will happen again until no further wins are created. Sometimes multipliers are applied to consecutive wins too, which is one way of building a game feature into the payout structure.

Some other alternative ways games create wins include:

  • Ways to Win – Instead of using specific paylines, you just need matching symbols to land somewhere on each reel from one side of the grid to the other. The 243 ways to win slots were the first to do this, but soon there were 720 and then 1024 ways to win slots as well. Most of these games have '243 Ways' or the equivalent written on the interface somewhere. Check out Thunderstruck to get an idea of what we mean.
  • Cluster Pays – Instead of forming winning lines, the aim here is to land lots of the same symbols next to each other in a group. This usually occurs on games with non-typical interfaces such as a 7x7 grid rather than a 5x3, for instance. Jammin Jars in the image above is a very popular cluster pays game with an 8x8 grid as an example.
  • Megaways – Instead of using payline patterns, Megaways slots just require matching symbols to land on each reel without a gap to create a win. However, on each spin the size of the symbols on each of the 6 reels can change, so each reel can have between 4 and 7 symbols on it. This creates a maximum of 117,649 ways to win, but you would need 7 symbols on each of the six reels to achieve this. Bonanza is a popular example of this.

These ideas will no doubt continue to develop, since the online casino industry doesn’t tend to stand still for very long.

Why are Paylines so Confusing?

confused about slot paylinesAny newer players who have gotten this far might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of this, and in truth with so many layers and alternatives it is a confusing topic even for more experienced players.

All of this innovation around paylines and winning combos has undoubtedly made online slot games more interesting and engaging, but it can’t be denied that it has also made them baffling to look at.

Some players have even gone as far as to suggest that this is a deliberate attempt to bamboozle players into spinning the reels without really understanding what they are doing.

Is this true? Who knows. It would be incredibly difficult to prove and would mean the whole slots industry was in cahoots with each other which, with hundreds of different game studios out there, seems fanciful.

One concern is that you could hit a winning line and not know about it, but a game error means you are not paid out. Since you don’t know all the lines off by heart you move on and miss out.

In reality this is highly unlikely, and although casino game errors can occur they are incredibly rare, and every single spin of every single game is tracked and recorded.

You also have to ask what is in it for the developers and casinos?

The developers license their games out to casinos but still handle the running of them, so the casinos can’t interfere with the way they run, and since the developer is being paid for the game regardless it makes no sense for them to fiddle the results.

On a separate note, the slot pays out regardless of whether or not the player understands why, and the total bet per spin is always clearly displayed as well as your overall balance, so if you take things back to the basics of:

  • How much have I got?
  • How much am I spending?

…it’s pretty difficult to accidentally overspend, significantly anyway.

It might be that the odd player accidentally bets more per spin than they intended on their first game or two, but anyone with eyes would spot this error and correct it in no time.

Would this benefit the studios or casinos? Technically yes, by a few pounds here and there, but it’s hardly enough to make an industry wide conspiracy worthwhile.

How are Winning Combinations Decided?

random numbersThis is getting into slightly non-related territory, but winning combinations are decided at random.

Although the paylines or ways to win are set, the order in which the symbols fall and thus create (or don’t create) those winning paylines is handled by a random number generator, usually referred to as an RNG.

This is a complex mathematical algorithm that every single regulated gambling game has built into it, which cycles through hundreds of possible outcomes every second and picks one at random the second you hit the spin button.

The RNG is designed to keep the game balanced overall, across all of the casinos it is being played at, to ensure the RTP (return to player) is accurate.

So although it technically does decide which symbols are dropped and in which order, this ‘decision’ isn’t a conscious one, so it doesn’t think that a winning payline is overdue or anything like that.

You can read more about how RNG’s work here, but as far as paylines are concerned, they come at random and cannot be predicted or controlled.