What are Slot Paylines and How Do They Work?

Paylines is a word that slot players will hear often, but what exactly does it mean? Most of us don’t put too much thought into how paylines work, instead just being content to assume that 50 paylines is better than 10 paylines.

But what exactly are paylines? And how have they evolved since the time of three-reel slots?

When you played an old fruit machine, there was a set number of paylines, and they tended to be similar, but now that most slots have five reels, some have more, and some don’t utilise reels at all, paylines can be far more complex than they were.

The Evolution of Slots

The launch of the online casino industry saw many casino games evolve, not only online, but also in their land based forms, and this was most true of slot games.

Once a simple type of game, with limited differences between slots, they have grown into the most varied and exciting games in the entire online casino world, even if their RTP is often amongst the very worst.

Technological advancements have made a huge impact on the world of slot games, the switch from Flash to HTML5 and the introduction of virtual reality being the most recent, and mobile gaming being arguably the most important for both slot developers and players.

With the increase in technology has come a rapid increase in competition, with various software developers attempting to outdo each other and bring the newest, freshest, and most exciting slots, which is great news for lovers of this particular game category.

Nobody knows what’s coming next, but we can be sure that the evolution of slot games is far from over, and they look set to get more impressive, and more complex, as time goes by.


However complex modern slots may become, they are all essentially made up of the same components. All slots (with very few exceptions) will have the following:

Autoplay – A tool which gives you the option to let the slot spin itself for a select number of spins (Autoplay ends if a feature is triggered)

Balance – The amount available in your account

Bet per line – The amount you will wager per payline on your next spin

Maximum bet – The bet per line amount multiplied by the number of paylines

Number of paylines – How many paylines you choose to have in play

Paytable – A breakdown of what each payline will pay

Play/Spin – The button (or equivalent) that spins the reels

Reels – The reels house the symbols, this is the part of the slot that spins

What Are Slot Paylines?

A payline, which is less frequently referred to as either a betting or winning line, is usually three or more symbols that make up a winning combination.

In days of yore, when the world was simpler and slots had three-reels adorned with cherries and 7s and the like, there was one payline, and it went straight through the middle of the reels. If you landed three matching symbols, one in the middle of each line, you’d win the amount stated for that symbol in the paytable.

As we’ve covered already, slot machines have moved on a lot since then, and it’s not rare for a slot to offer 50+ paylines, the average is somewhere around the 20 – 30 mark.

There are two types of payline slots, fixed paylines, and variable paylines.

Fixed Paylines

A fixed payline slot offers an amount of paylines, say 30, for example, and however much you bet, those paylines will remain in place.

Variable Paylines

A slot with changeable paylines will tend to appeal more to those who like more control over the slots they are playing. With a slot that works in this way, there is a maximum number of paylines, let’s use 30 as the example here as well, but you are able to select the amount of paylines you would like to have in play.

This means that you can have 10 paylines for a lower bet cost, but you also have less chance of landing a winning combination. The more paylines that are in play, the more likely you are to pick up wins, but the more it will cost you.

Picking the Right Option

It may seem logical that you should always play with the most possible paylines on a variable slot, and for the high rollers out there, that is certainly true, but for those who play more for fun, a more measured approach is advisable.

If you are playing slots because you enjoy them, and you don’t intend to take too high a risk, it is sensible to play variable payline slots and not select anything above five paylines.

Symbols and Paylines

The number of symbols that constitutes a payline varies depending on the number of reels a slot has. If you are playing a three-reel slot, then a payline will consist of three symbols, however, if you are plating a five-reel slot, things get a little more complicated.

It is rare that a five-reel slot will only pay out for a five symbol payline, instead you will usually find that a slot will pay out for three, four, or five symbols in a payline, with the winning amount increasing with each additional symbol in the payline.


The first mechanical slot machine was developed in the late 1800s by Charles Fey, a car mechanic from California who could not possibly have realised at the time how much his invention would evolve in the subsequent century and a half.

Fey came up with the idea as a way to keep his clients entertained while they waited for their cars to be fixed and returned.

Fey’s slot machine had three reels and four symbols, with one single payline and a highest pay-out of 10 nickels. This was known as the Liberty Bell slot as the highest pay-out was for three bell symbols in a row. Fey’s concept was repeated in numerous classic slots that followed.

The first electromechanical slot machine was produced in 1964 by Bally Manufacturing. It was called Money Honey and was the first slot machine to utilise electronical parts instead of springs, Money Honey also added lights, sounds, and the option to bet with multiple coins instead of just one.

It was around this time that the first five-reel slot machines started to arrive, although they were still very much in the minority, and with these slots, came the option for multiple paylines.

In the 1970s, the next big advancement in slot machines came with the introduction of video slots. The first, Fortune Coin, was a three-line slot that echoed the slots that came before it, but with the addition of themes and new technologies that changed the way slots would look forever.

It was not until the 1990s that video slots with numerous paylines became more frequent, and this conveniently coincided with the launch of the online gambling industry in the mid-90s.

In the twenty plus years since the online casino industry launched, the movements forward in slot machines has been extreme, and this has meant that the way paylines work has changed immensely. So many slots now exist that themes are often repeated, meaning you will find many a slot based on Ancient Egypt, Vegas, and the old classic, fruit.

That being said, this repetition doesn’t get boring because with every year, and every new set of advancements, comes an entirely new range of slots that take what came before them and improve it.

It’s anyone’s guess where the online slot machine revolution will go next, especially being that one of the newest evolutions is one of the most exciting there’s ever been.

This year, Swedish software giant NetEnt unveiled the first virtual reality slot game, a VR version of their classic Gonzo’s Quest the first NetEnt slot to go platinum.

The introduction of virtual reality into the slot world is likely to catch on fast, so by this time next year you can expect there to be a few VR slots around, with, one assumes, differing levels of quality.

But just because virtual reality is here now doesn’t mean that’s it, and the race is already on to be the software developer who brings the next big step forward in the industry.

Understanding Paylines

The changes in slot games have meant that paylines have become far more complicated, and look set to continue to do so, so it’s sensible to have a logic in place for the future.

The only thing that it is important to keep in mind when it comes to paylines is that one requires a risk vs reward strategy.

The more you are willing to risk, the more you could win, but the more you could lose. In this sense, paylines are a perfect representation of the gambling industry as a whole.

When it comes to playing slots, most people do it for fun. After all, the return-to-player (RTP) of slot games is one of the lowest around. If you are one of these players, then it’s worth avoiding the temptation to select all possible paylines on a variable slot. If you want to bet on all paylines, your best bet is a fixed payline slot, where you know exactly what you’re dealing with and there’s no temptation apart from raising your bet amount. When it comes to variable payline slots, it’s worth being careful unless you can afford the risk.