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Slingo’s 19-year history shows how casual game design has developed

By on July 31, 2014

Deputy Editor Zoya Street demoed the latest version of Slingo at Casual Connect last week, and decided to learn more about this casual classic’s infernal history.

I’m told that Slingo began as the basement project of a real-estate agent who wanted to design a game show. He bought an old fruit machine, took it apart, and adapted the wheels to show bingo numbers instead. For months, he pulled the lever and kept ledgers of the results that came out, manually changing the arrangement of the numbers on the wheels to get the right balance of odds.

He commissioned a computer version of Slingo only as a proof of concept to show to TV execs — the hope was always that the game would be a big, physical, telegenic spectacle. But it was quickly identified as good content for the burgeoning online space in the mid-1990s, and in 1995 the game was hosted on AOL. Attached to their chat service, it quickly became AOL’s top social game.


The core loop of Slingo is fundamentally boring: spin slots to generate bingo numbers, fill in the bingo card as best you can within 20 spins. What makes the game successful is all the bells and whistles around it. The extra chance elements. The skill required to identify matches quickly. Decisions about where to place special cards that clear numbers from the board. And most importantly, social elements such as chat that made the game more than just a solitary pursuit.

There’s a strange ambivalence to the cartoon art that surrounds Slingo. A battle between good and evil is being played through the game, but it’s as though it is tactitly understood that gambling is a sin. The devil is always trying to make the game that little bit trickier, appearing behind tiles to make numbers change before your eyes, for example. You’re always trying to be on the side of the angelic cherubs, but you’ll never get the devil off your back for as long as you play.

Since its launch, Slingo has been passed from one developer to the next for a number of ports to different platforms for different eras. It’s a 19-year history of game design changing to suit new circumstances, and the whole history can be traced through dry, mechanical game reviews written by hardcore gamers who are clearly uninspired by the very premise of a social casino game.


The first review of Slingo on GameSpot was for the retail CD-ROM version in 1998. Despite the game’s hit status on AOL, this port got a score of 1.5, rated “abysmal”. “The idea of bingo as a single-player computer game seriously confuses me,” wrote the reviewer. “The most fun part of Slingo is picking your background. You can choose from caveman, space, art deco, laboratory, nature, fantasy, and ocean. The cute dragons in the fantasy background breathe fire when you spin.”

This review seems to anticipate everything that Slingo became later on. The game itself is simple and uninteresting, but that’s not necessarily a problem. Bingo is simple too, but it’s the context in which it is played that makes it fun. Slingo’s history of redesigns have always been about producing that context, socially through chat and multiplayer, and mythically through backdrops, animations and additional elements that appear over the course of the game.


Slingo was first ported to mobile by SuperHappyFunFun in 2005, nine years after it first launched on AOL. This port, called Slingo-2-Go, came with online multiplayer as well as single-player modes, and a chat function that allowed users to send terse, pre-written messages to each other (“gl,” “gg,” “g2g”, and the like). “Fanatics will really enjoy being able to take their Slingo addiction on the go,” concluded a politely disinterested GameSpot reviewer.


The next mobile edition of Slingo — ‘Slingo Bingo‘, also by SuperHappyFunFun — found a more acerbic crtic at Pocketgamer. Confused by the very idea that a bingo game would contribute anything to mobile gaming, Andrew Williams slammed Slingo‘s audience before even beginning to review the game.

“The enduring image of the archetypal bingo fan is the overweight, middle aged woman with a little too much time on her hands. Hardly the kind of cool lifestyle message advertising execs love to get their hands on, is it?”

It’s hard to imagine someone having the same reservations today about whether women aged 35-50 are a viable audience for the mobile games market; they’re now considered one of the most lucrative audiences in gaming.

Still, Williams seems to be won over by the end, praising Slingo‘s addictive gameplay. In particular, he highlights the achievements system, colourful graphics and the use of a variety of unique elements: “there’s a round in each world where you have to face off against a bingo-ing pirate on a single game board, for instance.”


Zynga brought Slingo to Facebook in early 2012, maintaining the game for just a year and a half before it was taken offline. Zynga brought in the bells and whistles that contributed to the success of its other games — the pizzazz of explosions and confetti, along with a social leaderboard populated with your friends and frenemies. Crucially, it also incorporated Zynga’s energy mechanics, which allowed it to monetise as a free-to-play game as well as contributing to its virality. A journalist at Mashable quoted the pragmatic comments of Slingo Inc. CEO Rich Roberts:

“Zynga has the experience on social games and this certainly fits what Zynga does,” Roberts said. “We think that with this relationship the game will appeal to user [sic].”


Shortly before the Zynga version of Slingo was retired, the property was bought by RealNetworks. Their GameHouse division is now launching a new Facebook version, called Slingo Adventure — the ‘Adventure’ part refers to a Saga-style progression map. It is soon to be followed with a mobile edition with cross-platform user profiles. GameHouse already hosts most of the previous iterations of Slingo (Deluxe, Supreme, Quest and even Mystery), and Slingo Adventure will feature incentivised interactions between the different games on the platform.

Between the progression map, the cross-platform features, and this connection to a bigger inventory of games, RealNetworks’s use of Slingo appropriates all the latest mechanics in social game design. I played it at Casual Connect. I feel the same way as all the reviewers that came before in Slingo’s 19-year history: it’s distasteful on the surface, but I can’t deny that it’s fun to play.

There is a kind of inevitability to Slingo. Perhaps because it is so empty and dull at its core, it is flexible and can easily be repurposed to fit the requirements of any platform. Whatever has been proven to work, will always be applied to Slingo.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.