Never let it be said that a slot machine designer will waste an opportunity to build entertainment into today’s games.

Even the symbols are fair game to become an entertainment vehicle, right alongside the bonus events, animation and jackpots.

Symbols on reels have been basics ever since there have been slots. But today’s online and video slots have opened the door to making the symbols themselves an important part of the playing experience.

Take a look at some of the ways symbols are used on modern games:

THEMED SYMBOLS:

Instead of symbols such as bars, fruits and 7s that have been staples of slots for a century, graphics can reflect the theme of the game.

Egyptian-themed games such as Cleopatra use pyramids, Sphinxes, scarabs and asps. Outer space-themed games such as Space Wars can use depictions of aliens and space ships, and the long line of Monopoly games have icons such as the Go to Jail policeman, Free Parking vehicle, Chance and Community Chest cards and Mr. Monopoly at their disposal.

Themed icons can be augmented with the old bars and 7s or A, K, Q, J, 10 images, but overall the graphics leave you no doubt what you’re playing. There’s no generic look here.

BONUS SYMBOLS:

Every player wants to get to the bonus events and enjoy free spins, take a spin on a bonus wheel or touch icons to build their bankrolls. But the anticipation of getting to the bonus adds its own fun,

On most slots, that means landing special bonus symbols on the reels. 

The American slot that pointed the way was Reel ’Em In, one of the first popular video slots in the late 1990s. If you landed three matching fishing lure symbols anywhere on the reels, it would take you to the choose-a-fisherman event to reel in credits.

When you saw the first lure stop on the reels, then the second, your anticipation level soared while waiting to see if that third lure would drop.

That’s a format that has stood the test of time. In the Smokin’ Hot Stuff Wicked Wheel game released in 2019, for example, you advance to the bonus when three wicked wheels land anywhere on the third, fourth and fifth reels. 

Whether online or on land, you’ll find hundreds of slots that use bonus symbols to take you to the big event.

FIRST-SCREEN BONUS SYMBOLS:

Collecting bonus symbols usually means a set of free spins or a change of scene on the screen to play a bonus game.

Some games include special symbols that give you a quick bonus game right on the main reels.

One clever use of first-screen bonus symbols comes in Bally’s Hot Shot slots. Among the symbols are representations of the reels on Bally games such as Blazing 7s, Blazing 7s Diamond Line, and Blazing 7s Seven Times Pay.

If you land any three anywhere on the reels, you get a treat. Starting with the left-most icon, the mini-reels spin in turn for bonus credits.

SCATTER SYMBOLS:

Most payoffs on the main reels require matching symbols to line up on paylines.

Scatter pays are different. If the required number of scatter symbols land anywhere on the screen, your credit meter rises.

That format is used most often to launch bonus events. A smaller portion of games use the scatter format to award credits on the main game. Cleopatra has a hybrid solution: Two Sphinxes are worth a scatter win in credits, while three Sphinxes launch a free-spin bonus.

STACKED SYMBOLS:

What could be better than a winning combination across the reels?

How about winning combinations on every payline?

Stacked symbols make that possible.

Multiple copies of the same symbol fill consecutive spaces on a reel. If you land a stack of 7s on the first reel, for example, 7s could take up every space from top to bottom on that reel. The same goes for every other reel on the game.

Filling the screen with any symbol can be exciting, bringing five-in-a-row payoffs on every payline. When it’s a premium symbol filling the screen it becomes a win to remember.

One game with a memorable potential display is American Gaming Systems’ Tiger Tiger. In the free spins bonus, all the lower-paying symbols are eliminated. The only symbols are stacks of Bengal tigers, black tigers, huntresses and wild symbols.

When you get stacks of any of those across the screen, you and your credit meter can thank your lucky tiger.

WILD SYMBOLS:

These are truly a player’s pal. Wild symbols match any symbol on the screen – or almost any symbol. Most slots exclude bonus symbols – no substituting a wild symbol to reach the bonus. Some also exclude special jackpot symbols.

Wild symbols can be a bridge between paying symbols to form a winning combination, so that 7-wild-7 is the same as 7-7-7. Consecutive wilds can also be their own winning combo. On a slot where three consecutive high-paying symbols bring a bigger pay than four consecutive low-payers, three wilds in a row will bring the bigger pay.

When stacked wilds are available, they can lead to huge wins. So can expanding wilds, where a regular wild symbol can expand to fill the whole column. Your winnings grow with the symbols.

SPLIT SYMBOLS:

How can you create giant 10-of-a-kind wins on slots with the usual five reels?

It can be done with split symbols, used on games such as Gypsy and Shadow of the Panther. The format was created by High Five Games and leased to other manufacturers.

Some symbols contain the usual symbol icon, but some put two in the same box. You might have one gypsy fortune teller or panther, but you might have two at the same time. 

The biggest prizes on such games come from lining up five split symbols. That’s 10 in a row and the credits will roll in.

As with wilds, stacks, bonuses and scatters, that makes split symbols part of the game, and part of the fun.