European pinball championship 2014, Fiera business park, Rimini, Italy

With just less than a week from our last tournament in K15's arcade, we we're once again on the road. Our destination, Rimini sets a personal record for me as a longest pinball tournament trip so far. The record however isn't going to last for long, as I'm heading towards Denver in May.

This was a trip I almost missed as there were no country based quotas for signing up. The locals flooded the registration, leaving virtually everyone else out. Thankfully they made some last minute changes and we got in as a team.

Day 1, Thursday - Mustang high score tournament

After a night at OMO's place, we took an early flight from Helsinki to Milan. After a brief snack at Milan, we hopped on a train to Rimini. We were a bit puzzled by the fact that the direct train to Rimini was almost an hour slower than another that had one change.

4 hours later we were in mid-Italy, near the seemingly never ending beaches of Rimini. The place was the archetype of a holiday village - hotels after hotels and night clubs. Fortunately we were a bit early for the sun bathing season, so most places were still closed and we were spared from the usual tourist trap hell with drunken travellers and souvenir pushers.

The first thing in my agenda was to get a pre-paid SIM for my iPad, so I could report back home. What happened at the local cellphone store was so absurd, that I actually wrote a separate story about it, you'll find it here:

https://plus.google.com/107344774238343197095/posts/hVdkHYe23Zv

During the time I spent in the shop, OMO and TTV had arrived. They had learned that the tournament was long gone and we had missed our first try at Stern's latest. We compensated the loss with the cheap offerings from the bar.


Day 2, Friday - Pre-EPC tournament, EPC classics qualification and EPC team games

After some breakfast, we took a taxi and arrived at the Rimini Fiera business park. The place was HUGE! The pre-tournament was in the middle of arcade and gambling machine exhibition. The pre-tournament was a high score based 5 machine mini-tournament with all machines being recent Sterns. I also saw the Stern's latest, Mustang for the first time. Unfortunately it was powered off and wasn't part of the tournament.

Then out of nowhere Gary Stern himself appeared and started to work on the Mustang. We got to see him upgrade the machine to the newest firmware and then he shook hands with the players, wishing good luck to everyone. It felt so surreal to shake hands with someone I've only seen in pictures! Gary happily chatted with the players about the company games, until the tournament began. I was surprised to hear Gary speak at least some Italian. Gary also gave us a demonstration game on the Mustang.

Gary Stern playing Mustang at EPC'14, Rimini

Pre-EPC tournament

The tournament itself was rather tightly timed. Player signup was more of a shouting match with everyone circling the officials from every direction. The idea was that you played a game, then went back to the queue to wait for another game. The officials however had no clear agreement on how to do this, so at times they asked to sign up for the next game while leaving the area after finishing the last game, at times again they gave a piece of their minds and pushed us out for trying that.

We had 2 tries in total of 5 machines. I decided to play each at least once in case we run out of time. I started out with Avengers, that was a real disaster to play. The game was under ceiling windows and the sun reflected off the glass so I couldn't see the ball at all. After some random flailing I had 1.5M on it and that was that. X-men, AC/DC, Avatar and again were't that bad, I took an exaggerated leaning position to fight the reflection. Many of the fellow players followed my lead.

At some point the officials started to refuse new signups so everyone in the competition managed to get at least one entry on each machine. I even managed to squeeze in a second entry on one machine. I used my newly learned playing pose on the Avengers and managed to get to the Hulk multiball. My 7M total score wasn't too impressive, but It sure wasn't the worst entry on the machine either. In the end none of the Finns qualified, and we wandered off checking out the exhibition and smooching off the free handouts from various gaming companies.

Later that day we noticed Technoplay's booth had Mustang on free play. Me and OMO challenged two German guys to play it. I have to say I was a bit surprised by the game. I expected a lot less from it and while the theme doesn't appeal to me, I loved the soundtrack. A pinball machine that uses Aces of Spades as a multiball theme can't be all bad! The game had a rather nice idea of the modes selecting where the multiballs start. It has no traditional "lock 3 balls"-multiballs, but instead the running mode selects the objectives for instant multiball. The three-level left loop is also quite fun feature, at least until the flippers wear and you can no longer make that extra-steep double-ramp. Me and OMO both won the Germans, with my first ever game ending in 122M score that made it to the high score list. Man, it felt good to write my tag on it on my first game :)

EPC classics

Later that day we were contemplating on taking a taxi to San Marino, but the EPC classics tournament opened, and I wanted to beat the rush by playing as early as possible. There were around 15 games to choose from. The downside was that you only had one game on each. Another rather peculiar thing was that only 8 from the total of 240+ players actually qualified - that's a bit harsh if you ask me. I signed up and selected Whirlwind as my first game. It was in pretty steep angle and without ball saver. I locked two balls, but didn't get the multiball started. After I was done I asked for a scorekeeper, who looked at me  seemingly confused. Apparently I was missing a player card that has my player ID as a bar code so he couldn't enter my score. We could arrive from any of Fiera's entrances, but only on one they gave the player ID card in addition to the exhibition entrance ticket. After a quick trip to the reception I got my card and they accepted my score.

I then played the Police force. I barely got the multiball going and cashed out one jackpot, ending up with a bit over 3M score. Not that good, but not a total disaster either.

I noticed a queue forming on all commonly known Williams machines. I did some thinking - if I play the games everyone knows, the top players are going to sweep the floor with me. Then again there were several less known machines I had the basic knowledge of. I did a risky move and concentrated on those. First up - Torpedo alley! This Data-East "gem" offers easy jackpots if you know what you're doing. I did and some time later I set a high score on it! "That's very good", commented the score keeper.

Earth, wind, fire was my next pick. I had circled in the area, looking how the games play. I was sorry to see so many malfunctioning machines. I like to think my score on the machine was rather good, but I later learned I was only in the top 20-30 in it.

I saw the repair guy work on F14 several times, and with the queues growing fast, I decided to try my last game on that. My first ball tilted for no apparent reason. The second did the same, except I now noticed that the slingshots give tilt warnings! I called up the score keeper, who told me that the game was void and I needed to pick another machine. Fine.

I chose Tri zone. It didn't take too long for me to realize my mistake. The machine had a faulty EOS-switch on the right side and I had severe trouble hitting anything. The officials considered that a "it's the same for everyone"-kind of a thing, and I had to play that train-wreck of a game. 

I wasn't quite sure where my entry would place me in the whole tournament. I think I had my moments, but then again the last game in Tri zone might have just been the last straw.

EPC teams

I took some time to rest my feet at the Fiera's cafeteria and stopped for a Gin tonic or two. The teams competition started some time later. The qualification round consisted of playing one game on 5 different pins as a 4 player teams. The games were set on 4 ball, so we'd play one ball per player on each of the games.

Games in our group were:
- Medieval madness
- Class of 1812
- Twilight zone
- Road show
- Cactus canyon

So, no major surprises there. The only game all of us weren't familiar with was the Gottlieb oddball, but at least I had played it before at one of the Orivesi tournaments, so I knew to go for the repeatable one mil ramp shot.

Most of the games had some kind of bastardisation in them, like the missing in/outlane rubber posts in the Twilight Zone. The qualifications started and we got to play each game. The games had lots of other nasty surprises, like wrongly adjusted or just plain bad flippers, rejecting lock loop in the TZ and so forth. Most of the games were more of a lesson on what not to do than actually play them. After 5 games we were rather bummed about the whole thing and left to the cafeteria for some alcohol to wash away our sorrow. We were actually thinking about leaving, when there was a public announcement for OMO to contact the officials.

OMO's face was like a sunshine when he ran back. We were still in the game, actually being 2nd in our group! Unbelievable!

The team playoffs stated soon afterwards. First up was Poland. I can't remember the game, but it was one of our better games, mostly because we already knew the game's surprises. Next was a nerve wrecking one: Italy. Their team was led by Acciari himself, and we were now playing on other group's games which we hadn't seen before. 

Team Italia was in high spirits when they heard they'd be playing against us. They had a machine they had already played in their own qualification: High speed II. Oh dear. After a bit of negotiation we decided to go with the "collect the RPM early and take the multiball if we get the chance".  The game was a total learning experience for us. We soon discovered all the "no, not there"-places it had, including somewhat easily rejecting upper right saucer. On the 4th ball we had 25M and the Italians 50M, and Acciari was yet to play. OMO put on his game face and quickly racked up another 50M, getting us a 25M lead. Phew! But then it was Acciari's turn. They had the video mode lit, and the video mode is almost always a free 20-something millions. He tried, tried and tried to hit the saucer, but it was team Italy's time to get the short straw! A bad bounce off the saucer caused a center drain. 

The whole place went dead silent for couple of seconds. We looked at each other and then cheered like we all went insane at the same time! Team Finland had cleared its place into fighting for the positions 1-3. We joked that even if we started downing hard booze right now and all passed out, we'd still bring home the first ever European championship trophy for Finland!

Next game was against team Germany on Medieval madness. Winning that game would have taken us in the final game, against the winner from the loser's bracket. We noticed team Spain knocked team Italy off the game, leaving them 4th.

The Germans played a strong game from the very start. We again had severe trouble - we got 3 house balls in a row, leaving OMO trying to catch the Germans' 20+M lead. Unfortunately the machine hated us as much as in the qualifications, and we lost. The funny thing was that he situation didn't chance at all. We just dropped to the losers' side of the bracket, and if we'd win the next one, we'd take on Germany again in the final.

On the losers' side we went against team Spain for the place in the final, or for the 3rd place.  The game was the Twilight zone and we got to start. It was just horrible from the very start. On the 2nd ball the Spanish got the power ball, but immediately drained it. I was the 3rd player, and I was in the very same situation as in Hopeakuula open last year: the power ball was the second ball in the ball through, so if I'd get rid of the first metal ball, I'd be playing with the power ball. After a brief consultation we decided we wanted the power ball on our 3rd ball. 

I first thought about letting the ball drain, but then noticed the lit lock and put the metal ball there. POWER BALL! I didn't try to collect the 5M targets - I just wanted the power ball mania. The machine was rather fast playing, and I had some trouble cradling the power ball, but I finally managed to catch it on the left side. It was a million dollar shot: one right loop shot could give us EPC silver or gold.

I missed it. 

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!

I hit the slot machine scoop instead, and it kicked the ball back so hard it drained from the side. The Spaniards got the ball on their turn, managed to get the power ball mania and went to over 100M lead. 

Our 4th player, OMO, started from the 35M - 138M scores. I had my full confidence on him, he had pulled us out of the swamp many times before, but this time the TZ was too much. After a valiant attempt team Finland was out, and we had secured the bronze trophy for the first time in history from EPC.

Spain took on Germany, but lost, so team Germany was the #1 team in Europe, the spanish placing 2nd.

Despite losing the two last games, we were in extremely high spirits and celebrated our accomplishment at the bar area. Then it was time for us to get our trophies. It was out of this world to stand there, before TV-cameras, reporters shooting away like this was any other sports event.

We took the celebration to the local Bar Barracuda with our trophy! The only thing slowing me down a bit was that my EPC main event qualification event would begin 9 in the morning. I returned to the hotel  early and left the others enjoy their trophy celebration. That night I heard I was 8th in the classics tournament at that point. Not bad, when over 240 players participated!


Day 3, Saturday: EPC main event

I got up at 7 in the morning. The others had returned just couple of hours earlier. I went to get some breakfast, then took a taxi to Fiera.

I had previously heard that I'd be playing in the qualification group A. I couldn't find my name on the list, so I asked a nearby official about it. He had no idea, and pointed me to a short guy in the middle of the arena. I walked to him, but before I could say anything, he went ballistic and started to yell "OUT OUT OUT" straight to my face. I found it a bit comical seeing a skinny guy, over 20cm shorter than me going ape shit at me. I was so dumbfounded that I just stood there, until the guy started to push me hard. Not wanting to raise an international incident, I walked out in dismay.

Some time later I was still walking around, looking for my qualification group. Then they announced, that we literally had a minute to get to our group or we'd be out of the competition. I was however finally at the right spot. The said minute came and went. The officials were booting up the machines, only to discover some of them had trouble and started to investigate them. Some time later they seemed satisfied with their repairs and gave us a go.

My qualifications run had both its good and bad moments. Many of the machines were in a direct sun light, making them virtually unplayable thanks to the pattern of ceiling windows being reflected off the glass. It was the very same problem we had yesterday with the pre-tournament. My first opponent was a no-show. I just stood there next to Congo, waiting. Eventually the officials came by and told me I had won and I should move on. I observed a curious pattern with the no-shows. If it was a local player, they kept calling his name forever and even tried to reach him by phone. If it was a foreign player, it was more of a "okay, he no here, you win"-kind of a ruling. Many players in my group commented on that, especially when trips to the toilet were companied with the "if you no here 2 minutes, you lose"-ultimatum.

Our group had tons of malfunctions. Creature from the black lagoon suffered from an apparent switch matrix problem. The officials tried to investigate it, but the fault went over their heads, so it was ruled "it's same for all". I really wished we all didn't have to suffer from tilt warnings when certain seemingly unrelated switches were triggered. We had couple of modern Sterns there too, but they all had such a trigger happy tilts that you literally tilt the machine by plunging the ball. Complaints were systematically ignored and the officials completely lost their ability to speak English if the player pressed the issue. I witnessed several cases where a calm (well, calm within reason!) player tried to explain the problem, only to be met with an angry sounding salvo of Italian. A Hungarian player had apparently spent some time learning the local language, and managed to tell off one of the officials in a rather colorful way. I secretly enjoyed seeing the fireworks after that!

I also got to play against Acciari himself on White Water. The game played otherwise satisfactory, but the upper right flipper had completely worn out flipper bushing, making the start mode-shot extremely hard. I wasn't too surprised, when I saw Acciari make the shot on his first try. He had apparently played this one before and knew about the issue and how to bounce the ball into the upper loop.

Not counting couple of games I lost mostly because of machine faults, I was rather satisfied with my playing. After 12 games I still had the chance to be in the top-4 who'd get to the next round. My last chance was however crushed by Stern's Avengers, where I missed all the skill shots with the ball getting oddly stuck in mid-plunger lane, and the opponent managed to cash in all three. Neither of us did nothing else on our game.

A quick check on the score board confirmed what I had feared - I was out of the game now. My last opponent was a French guy with 9 wins so far. I had no chance of getting to the second round, but he'd still be in the game should he beat me. We played White Water, in which I now completely ignored the start mode option and just built on the multiball. My opponent was a bit puzzled about me not even trying to start a mode, but he soon learned the hard way. On my 2nd ball I had two balls locked and the 3rd lock lit. My opponent played a strong 3rd ball, and managed to start the multiball, stealing my locks! He nailed two jackpots, leaving me far behind. He was clearly happy with his accomplishment, until my third ball started. I now had to lock 3 balls, but I did that pretty much without any trouble and collected 3 jackpots right from the start. That game probably felt the best I've played for a long time, it's a shame I lost so many good tries on semi-working machines or the cursed sun shine reflecting off the playfields. 

Later on OMO, MTV and TTV got their share of the fun. OMO suffered the same fate as I, being dropped during the first round. MTV and TTV again did better - TTV was actually best of his group. 

Here's a short clip from the main area during TTV's qualification:

Overview of EPC'14 main tournament area in Rimini Fiera

On the second round TTV got a raw deal when a loose light bulb started to sail across the playfield and got stuck on the slignshot switch. The officials decided to fix the game, and for some reason pulled the playfield out ... enough for it to fall off the rails and right into the cabinet! After that treatment the game started to randomly tilt from slingshot hits. TTV tried to protest, but he was told to just play. It turned out the falling playfield had smashed the tilt sensor, but apparently that wasn't a reason good enough for any kind of compensation. I wouldn't had hold it against him if TTV had gone postal for that. I would have tried some of my newly learned Italian, including "bastardo", "cazzo" and "merda".

Both TTV and MTV fought hard, but the second round was the end of the line for both. Later that evening the classics tournament ended. I had been keeping it on eye for some time and was sad to see I went back and forth in the places 7 to 10, until I got pushed out of top-10 and then on the 12th position. Then again, I guess the position 12/242 is a rather good outcome with fellow players this experienced.

Here's my final positions from the classic pins:

#2 on Torpedo Alley
#3 on Police Force
#26 on Earth Wind Fire
#40 on Whirlwind
#35 on Tri Zone

After we were all out of the game, we hung around with the other pinheads, making new acquaintances and supporting the Fiera's bar. Many players were rather pissed off about various injustices and bias observed in the tournament. The most discussed was the case where a match between Blakemore(?) and Acciari ended when the game developed a major fault. The new game wasn't any of the games in the tournament, but a single Twilight Zone, sitting right in the center of the whole area. That Twilight Zone has not been played by any of the players, and the high score table consisted of single tag - CEL. Well done, boys, you win the fair play prize! I tip my hat to Blakemore(?) for winning on Acciari's own machine.

I was glad to hear our friends in Belgium will be organizing the 2015 EPC. We were also invited to various other tournaments all over the Europe - at least I will try to attend as many as possible.

In the end we all agreed that with all odd things happening in the tournament, this was still one of our best pinball trips ever! The WPPR points aren't in yet, but I think the 12th position might just be worth more than winning a tournament in Finland, so it was a good trip points-wise too. I consider my first ever proper trip to Italy a success.

Another thing that I really appreciated was the media's interest in our game. My other half Pilvi tipped off the local newspaper, that soon contacted me after our team game had finished and they actually ran several stories of our success during the tournament. The Italians considered pinball a perfectly good spectator sport, I hope to see more of that in Finland as well some day.

Here's a short clip from the beach, near our hotel:

A view from Rimini beach, Italy


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European Pinball Championship 2014
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