A Beginner’s Guide To Slot Machine Symbols

A Beginner’s Guide To Slot Machine Symbols

Slot machine symbols are images that are displayed on the rotating reels of a slot machine. They are integral to the game because predefined combinations of symbols result in player wins. There are several different types, including standard symbols, wilds, and scatters. Let’s break down each type.

1. Standard Slot Symbols

Most spaces on an individual reel are made up of standard slot symbols. Standard symbols are only meaningful if they appear together on a payline. Other than that, they have no special function or impact on gameplay.

On any given spin, most of the matrix will be filled with standard symbols.

The specific imagery of the symbols varies widely. Traditional symbols like fruit (cherries, lemons, grapes), along with bars and lucky 7’s are still commonplace in many slot games.

Standard slot symbols
Image credit: Saranai/Shutterstock

Many modern games make use of playing card values as their standard symbols. For example, the popular online game ‘Mega Moolah uses cards from 10 to Ace as their standard symbols. But unlike a deck of cards, the higher the value, the rarer the symbols are on the reels. So three Ace symbols will pay more than three King symbols, and so on.

In fact, the prize for slot symbol combinations is always inversely proportional to that symbol’s frequency. For example in the popular casino slot game ‘Buffalo Ascension’ lining up three of the very common 9 symbols wins 5x your initial bet, while lining up three of the rarest Buffalo symbols wins 200x your bet.

If you’re playing a themed game, you can expect to see standard slot symbols decorated to match the game’s motif. The most valuable standard symbols might be specially themed images. For example, in the popular ‘Wheel of Fortune’ casino slot game, the higher value standard symbols are evocative of prizes from the original game show, such as gold bars or an image of a cruise ship.

2. Wild Symbols

A wild is a slot symbol with a special behavior to the player’s benefit. Like a wild card in poker, wilds can represent any other standard symbol on the board needed to make a winning combination. And in multi-payline games, a Wild might stand in for one symbol on one payline, and a different symbol on a second payline.

The below image shows a spin result from ‘A Night with Cleo’ where a Wild Cleo symbol has shown up in reel 2 in the center row.

A spin result from ‘Nights with Cleo’ where a wild Cleo symbol has shown up in reel two in the center row.
Credit: Proprietary Games

In this case, the Wild Cleo counts as a second Eye of Horus symbol for one winning combination on the center row. But it also counts as the middle of three Emerald 9 symbols for an additional prize.

3. Bonus Symbols

A bonus is a special slot symbol type that triggers a special game mode or prize. Three or more of these rare symbols must appear in one spin to activate the bonus.  And whether it’s free spins, a side game, or some other temporary change to gameplay, it’s always good news for the player.

In the popular ‘Harley Davidson’ casino slot game, a single Bonus symbol adds a free spin to a bank that accumulates from spin to spin. When multiple Bonus symbols appear together it triggers a free-spin mode, where the player gets to finally use all the spins that have been building up in the bank.

If you’re playing a game and can’t figure out why you never see bonus symbols, check the rules. In some games, bonus symbols appear more frequently when you bet more per spin.

4. Scatter Symbols

Scatter symbols aren’t constrained by paylines. When these special slot symbols appear on the matrix, the player wins whether they are lined up neatly in a row or, you guessed it, scattered around the board.

Like bonus symbols, scatter symbols sometimes deliver a nice payout, or they could trigger a bonus game mode. You’ll usually need a minimum of two or three scatter symbols to reap the benefits.

In the image below, you’ll see a welcome sight from ‘A Night with Cleo.’ In this game the Ankh Keyhole is the game’s lone scatter symbol. Two scattered Ankh Keyholes wins 2x your wager. When three appear, you win 10x your wager and enter a lucrative bonus round where you get 15 free spins and the prizes are all worth 3x their normal value.

Scatter symbols in Nights with Cleo
Credit: Proprietary Games

As scatter symbols, all three Ankh Keyholes count for the player.

Other Special Slot Symbols

Slot games continue to evolve. Here are other slot machine symbols you might encounter, along with an explanation of how they affect gameplay:

  • Sticky: When these special symbols appear, they stay in their frame for multiple spins. They might be standard symbols that become locked into place, or they might be a special symbol in the game. Either way, as Stickies accumulate on the matrix, chances for bigger combinations and prizes go up.
  • Stacked: These slot symbols cover more than one space on a single reel, significantly increasing the chance of forming a winning combination.
  • Bank: These are special symbols that don’t provide an immediate win for the player, but instead add to a collection of some kind of bonus feature (like free spins) that grows over time.

    While most players continue to play until they can cash in their bank of free spins, or other accumulated bonus, sometimes players abandon games with a balance in their bank. The next player to come along will start play with a nice (albeit temporary) statistical edge.

The fun part about the expanding zoo of slot symbols is that their special benefits to the player can be combined. For example, if the Stacked symbol covering multiple frames on a reel happens to also be a Wild symbol, you’ll have that many more Wilds and are all the more likely to create winning combinations.

How It All Comes Together: Reels, Rows, and Paylines

Slot games of old were truly machines. The player pulled a lever and watched mechanical reels spin in hopes of seeing matching symbols land on the payline – the center horizontal row running across the three (or more) vertical reels. These games were limited by how many gears and levers you could squeeze inside a machine.

With the advent of online slot games, the old mechanical constraints are gone. Now your spin is shown on a digital display. And while most slot games stick to a handful of virtual reels and rows, some varieties incorporate a much bigger matrix, or the visible frames where slot symbols land after a spin.

Games also now feature a wider variety of paylines. Today’s players can win by matching symbols on any horizontal line of the matrix – or in some cases zig-zags, diagonals, and other patterns.  

Let’s look at an example of the paylines. The online slot gameA Night with Cleo’ features a 15-frame matrix made up of 3 rows and 5 reels. In this game there are 20 different paylines as represented below in the game’s rules.

A night with Cleo paylines
Credit: Proprietary Games

Important gameplay notes about paylines

  • Leftmost-to-right. Matching as few as two adjacent slot symbols can be a winning spin in some games. But in nearly every slot game today your combination must start from the leftmost reel and must be continuous. So if you’re playing 88 Fortunes’ and your spin produces Golden Turtle symbols in the center row frames of reel 1,2,3, and 5, the symbol on the 5th reel doesn’t count as part of your combination. Don’t be too sad, getting Golden Turtles in the first three reels are worth 40x your wager.  If you spun again and saw Golden Turtles in the center row frames of reels 2,3,4, and 5, it might look good, but it’s worthless because this combination of slot symbols is continuous, but doesn’t start from the leftmost reel.
  • Multi-pay. You’ll notice in some games that parts of more than one payline overlap in the leftmost two or three reels. For example, in ‘A Night with Cleo’, two Eye of Horus symbols on reels 1 and 2 would pay 10% of the amount wagered. Look at the above image of the game’s paylines. There are three different paylines that start with the center row of frames for reels 1 and 2. So, if your two Eye of Horus symbols are in those two frames, you win 3x the normal prize since your winning combination sits in three qualifying paylines.
  • Pay-per-line. Although it’s not as common in modern games, you’ll occasionally come across slot games where the maximum number of paylines is only active when you make the maximum bet per spin. As always, check the rules!
  • Beyond Paylines. Some online slot games are considered ways-to-win games instead of payline games. Under this system, there are no predefined paylines, so you can win if you get matching symbols anywhere on consecutive reels. As usual, the leftmost-to-right rule is in effect (although a few games now feature a rightmost-to-left rule). An even more flexible approach is cluster payouts, where there is no requirement for combinations to sit on consecutive reels. In these games, any cluster of adjacent matching symbols, including two symbols on top of one another in the same reel, can make up a combination.

Slot Symbols Now and Forever

Just about everywhere you go, simpler slot machines have given way to the more complicated online slot games. Expect the games to continue to evolve in visual appeal and complexity. But regardless of whether you prefer pulling the lever on a mechanical one-armed bandit or the flashing graphics of the modern digital games, knowing slot machine symbols is an important requirement to getting the most out of your experience.

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Lead image credit: Pics-xl/Shutterstock