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Playing the Hits

The latest in table game variation and innovation

Playing the Hits

One of the highlights of the Global Table Game Conference held in April at the Sahara in Las Vegas was the Best New Table Games competition.

Galaxy Gaming took third-place honors for “3 Dice Baccarat.” The selection says something about the state of table games in 2023: it’s not a new game, but one that speaks to the popularity of a variation to an existing, established game, the kind table game fans like; it also involves dice instead of cards, a reflection of the poor shape of the card manufacturing industry.

Variations of baccarat, blackjack and roulette continue to thrive in the table game market. “Look for this trend to continue,” says Paul Omohundro, senior vice president of product for Galaxy Gaming.

Electronic table game players are often loyal to established games, making it difficult for new games to enjoy significant success and widespread player adoption, says Luigi Cacciapuoti, vice president, specialty products and electronic table games for IGT.

“Typically, ‘enriching’ player-favorite games such as blackjack and roulette is a more successful approach than introducing an entirely new concept,” he says. “Our customers are definitely seeking the evolution of established games rather than creating new, unproven games from the ground up.”

For IGT, its two primary areas of focus are improving the player experience though hardware and software and “rebalancing” the high-return-to-player/low volatility of many traditional games by offering a diverse menu of side bets, Cacciapuoti says.

“At the table, we are seeing more and more players engaging with side bets on games like blackjack and embracing other variations of their favorite games,” says Conrad Walsh, director of global product marketing for Light & Wonder.

This trend comes at a great time, Walsh says. “It is unlikely that anyone creates another universally popular game like blackjack, but we have had a fair amount of success with creating side bets and variations that amount to a blackjack-plus experience.”

Served on the Side

The most popular side bet in baccarat today is the Dragon Bonus. (Galaxy Gaming’s version is called Golden Talons). This wager is based on the spread between the winning and losing banker hand and player hand. A spread of four or more points wins the side bet. The larger the spread, the more the win, Omohundro says.

With 3 Dice Baccarat, one set of three dice is used for the player and one set for the banker. Each hand is scored by adding together the three dice and using the last digit of the sum, resulting in totals of 0-9. The hands are compared and the highest total wins.

The game also features a triple progressive. Players win if either their hand or the banker hand has three dice with the same value. If both hands have triples, it opens up the chance for the jackpot.

The second most popular baccarat game is EZ Baccarat. (Galaxy’s version is called Rising Phoenix). “A game I launched for DEQ Systems Corp. back in 2007, EZ Baccarat combined side bets with a commission-free method,” Omohundro says.

The side bets include a banker winning hand of a three-card total of 7 and player winning hand of a three-card total of 8. The commission-free method was based on the same winning banker event of a three-card total of 7, known as the Dragon 7. When this happens, the banker and player hands push. This is how the house gets it edge. Players became comfortable with this push because of the side bet, which pays 40-to-1.

Due to competing ownerships, these two games were never combined until Galaxy released Rising Phoenix with Golden Talons. “The only problem with the EZ Baccarat side bets are that they are low-action wagers, meaning they don’t hit very often, so players don’t wager on them very often. So, Galaxy and others developed a series of ‘action’ side bets with a high hit frequency.”

Despite the obstacles, new games are developed. “It is no easy task,” Omohundro says. “It takes a village. You have to have a buy-in across the organization, and the same passion and vision across the organization. From game concept, to running the math and making it work, developing the rules of play, naming the game and creating a logo and layout, to trademarking the name and logo and patenting the design of the layout—once all of these have been checked off, you move to the compliance phase of submissions, field trials, and eventually, full commercialization.

“There are internal and external roadblocks throughout the process,” Omohundro says. “We recently had to change the name of a new game three times because of trademark issues.”

In advance of bringing a new product to market, IGT conducts extensive internal and external focus group testing to ensure it will meet the needs of today and the opportunities of the future, Cacciapuoti says. “This is an exhaustive process, as we need confidence the solution has real appeal for the players and that the user experience is compelling. Ensuring that players can understand and enjoy a game is another design complexity that we must consider throughout the entire product design process.”

When all is said and done, however, getting a new game to market is straightforward, Walsh says. “Once we have created the game—name, rules, layouts, payouts, dealing procedures, etc.—we submit the game to the testing labs to verify that the math was calculated correctly and that the game is compliant with the regional regulatory requirements. Since these games are physical, as opposed to digital software-driven games, the testing process is quick, and we can get a new game onto a casino floor very quickly.”

Step-by-Step Improvement

Innovation is always a critical driver of growth in any sector. However, specific to electronic table games content, incremental innovation is often more impactful than disruptive innovation. Within the online gaming industry, the best example of disruptive innovation is the live-dealer casino game, Cacciapuoti says. These games are conducted in actual casino settings and relayed to the players’ devices via fast-speed internet. “The experience is so realistic that the simulated roulette and blackjack games at online casinos have become relics of the past,” he says.

The pressure to innovate is more commonly related to serviceability, signage, aesthetics, ergonomics and other factors that influence the player and operator experience.

“Innovation is important across all areas of the casino, and table games are no exception,” Walsh says. “The unspoken agreement between us and our casino partners is that they will continue paying us for their existing games, and in return we will continue to reinvest in innovative concepts for them. We do not feel much ‘pressure’ to innovate; rather, innovation is thought of more as a mutually accepted expectation.”

Walsh says if a player cannot understand how to play the game within 60 seconds of sitting down at the table, that game will not be successful. So, a player sitting at a game like Three Card Sabotage or 2-3-5 Poker will intuitively understand the new game, as those games build upon well-known games like Three Card Poker or Stud Poker.

“Historically, games that are completely new generally fail due to the games taking longer for the player to understand,” he says.

With just so many ways to play poker, there are fewer new titles. Yet two poker games finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the new games competition, including HomeRun Poker.

In HomeRun Poker, the progressive pool is 100 percent player-funded, via a side bet wager that gets awarded to the player who reaches home plate first with four wins, says Matthew Lanoue, registered agent of HomeRun Gaming.

The game starts with two separate wagers, one an ante, the other a “strike out” wager that is a side bet that the player will win the pot. Then the cards are dealt to each player, and the flop is spread. This cuts out the pre-flop wager and makes the game 25 percent faster.

“The winner of the hand keeps their strike-out and the others that lose the hand, their strike out wagers go into the progressive pool,” Lanoue says. “The player to win four pots (four HomeRun Baserunners) gets to ‘Homeplate,’ and is awarded the accumulation of the lost strike-out wagers.”

The most recent major variation of poker was adapting the Short Deck (6-plus) model. This was the hottest trend in poker pre-Covid, with even the World Series of Poker introducing the event to tournaments.

Short Deck Poker is a different way to play Texas Hold’em, Omohundro says. “Removing 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s leaves a 36-card deck,” he explains. “This version became popular among the poker greats playing in high-stakes cash games in Macau. The Ace still plays on the lowest straight, but now acting like a 5 (A- 6- 7- 8- 9).”

Because of the short deck, the rankings of hands vary slightly. The three-of-a-kind outranks the straight and the flush outranks the full house. “At my last company, Empire Technological Group, I invented the first house-banked addition called Vegas 6+ Hold’em Poker,” Omohundro says. “This plays like Texas Hold’em Bonus Poker, with the same short deck changes, and includes a hole-card bonus side bet and a best five-card hand side bet.”

Light & Wonder is always innovating in the table games space. “We have a couple new themes hitting casino floors between now and the end of this year. The main two we are focused on are variations of existing successful games: Three Card Sabotage and 2-3-5 Stud Poker,” Walsh says.

The Repeater Bets for craps is “a set of bets that involve making wagers on the sequential outcomes of dice rolls before a 7 is rolled,” Omohundro says. “That is the general thought process. If an operator likes the technology, they have to use the game content to use it, not a replica version.”

Another issue is the dearth of card manufacturers. Big card operators have left the market, leaving a bit of a monopoly for the remaining big operator. Prices have gone up accordingly, and lead times have increased dramatically.

By removing the cards from the game of baccarat, and instead using two dice cups with three dice in each, with a small amount of math adjustments and no draw rules, you can play the same great game of baccarat with all of the same great side bets mentioned above. They pay a little differently because of the math difference, Omohundro says. As you do in normal baccarat, you count the three dice, drop the 10s and that is your total. (Example: a 6, a 5, and a 3 total 14. Drop the 10 and you have a baccarat total of 4.)

Online table games are the fastest-growing segment of our business. “Traditional blackjack and poker titles continue to flourish, adding progressives is brand new to the space, and thirst for new content abounds. My hope for the future is that the online space and the live game space merge in the form of linking progressives,” Omohundro says.

Most online games are successful versions of real table games already. That is the usual progression. “However, recently we have seen two very popular online games transition to the casino floor,” says Omohundro. “That is Evolution’s Lightning Roulette and DigiWheel.”

New online table games are helping drive the future of innovation across all table game form factors. In the online table game space, we are no longer limited to a dealer’s ability to calculate payouts in real time. “This allows us to lean into more advanced math models and deliver compelling new bonus features not previously available at the table,” Walsh says.

“As we prove the acceptance of these games in the online marketplace, we are innovating new ways to bring those games into the land-based casinos, starting with electronic table games and eventually moving into the traditional felt table gaming pits.”

Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.

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