Game On: Best Buys in Pool, Table-Tennis, Foosball & Air-Hockey Tables

An innovation in how the air is directed means that today’s air-hockey tables deliver smoother game play. You also will find foosball tables that keep the action moving thanks to changes in the playing surface and positioning of the ball return.

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Better times for the economy translated into more people buying game tables. Manufacturers report that innovation is playing a hand in increased sales, too, particularly when it comes to air-hockey and foosball tables. Furthermore, retailers and manufacturers say the popularity of shuffleboard tables increased.

AIRING IT. When it comes to air-hockey tables and how easily the puck moves across the playing surface, it isn’t just how much cubic feet per minute of air is generated that’s important, but also how that air is distributed. Five manufacturers now make air-hockey tables that differ from the conventional method of having the air blow from underneath the playing surface. Instead, these models blow air from the side, where it circulates in a chamber before it’s distributed.

Manufacturers and retailers tell us that this method creates spinning airflow, which then is directed across the playing surface. The result, they say, is more-consistent pressure, which means that the cushion of air that’s under the puck is more consistent. Consequently, we found that the puck glides more easily on these air-hockey tables than what can be achieved on conventional models. This innovation is found on models that start at $1,799, compared with $700 for air-hockey tables that use conventional air distribution.

In a nod to achieving more-consistent game play, larger, heavier pucks (3-1/4 inches and 42 grams) now are standard compared with the 2-1/4-inch, 32-gram pucks that used to be common. We found that the heavier puck doesn’t fly off the table with the annoying regularity of the lighter versions, so you’ll be able to keep the action going instead of having to stop and crawl under the sofa on occasion to retrieve an errant puck. However, our hands-on evaluations also revealed that you might want to keep any smaller pucks, which still are sold as replacements, because we found that those work better (read: move quicker) on less expensive air-hockey tables that don’t generate a powerful airflow. Those models typically are $500 or less.

Finally, lighting and sound effects that make home air-hockey tables mimic those that are at the arcade have become more common. Lighting effects, such as lights that flash when a goal is scored, LED pucks and LED pushers to strike the puck can be found on air-hockey tables that start at $999. If you want sound effects, such as cheering crowds and an announcer, you can expect to shell out at least $1,499. Previously, you’d have paid $6,000 for those features.

CORNER CHANGE. Foosball tables also had tweaks that we found to improve the game play. For example, since 2014, foosball tables that have flat corners instead of raised corners are widespread across all price ranges, starting at about $720.

When we tried this out, we noticed that the change to flat corners creates a livelier game, because the ball is played out of the corners more predictably, without it going in haphazard directions. The change increases the game speed as well, because the foosball “men” now reach the ball and play it rather than wait for it to come back.

Furthermore, the transition of foosball tables to three goalies on the rod from a single-goalie format is rather complete. Three-man goalies were introduced, because the conventional single goalies, which have sloped feet that can send the ball off at unexpected angles, were too challenging for novice or unskilled players, according to John Graybill of manufacturer GLD Products.

In our hands-on evaluations, we found that the extra goalies mean that action isn’t stopped as often, because fewer goals are scored and, thus, the ball remains in play.

A handful of sub-$1,000 models still use single-goalie rods, and we found five manufacturers that provide both options on models that start at $695, so you can change the rod yourself if you’re a foosball purist. In addition, kits for single-goal rods start at $50.

Another change, which was introduced in 2014, is the widespread adoption of the side ball return. Previously, the ball stopped on the end of the foosball table where a goal was scored, so a player had to retrieve it before putting it back in play at faceoff. Now, the ball is returned automatically to the midtable faceoff position. Nice.

SHUFFLE ON. Retailers and manufacturers whom we interviewed say a surge in interest in shuffleboard tables for the residential market led to an increase in sales. Although he declined to provide figures, Cris Gould of manufacturer Legacy Billiards says sales of shuffleboard tables “increased dramatically in the past year.” Brian Rosselli of manufacturer Olhausen and Chance Pack of Valley-Dynamo, which makes Champion shuffleboard tables, agree that shuffleboard tables surged in popularity. Rosselli tells us that he hasn’t seen any slowdown in 2016.

Manufacturers point to the increased use of shuffleboard tables in arcades and other game-table venues and retailers credit Olympic coverage of curling for the interest. Whatever the impetus, you won’t find more models available despite the sales increase. We found 39 residential shuffleboard tables that start at $870 from 10 manufacturers, and Pack says that number is consistent with years past.

That doesn’t mean that shuffleboard tables haven’t been tweaked, however. Starting in 2014, manufacturers added climatic adjusters to shuffleboard tables that start at about $2,000. Climatic adjusters consist of a rod that’s bolted to the underside of the shuffleboard table that you tighten or loosen by adjusting a nut. This allows you to ensure that the shuffleboard table maintains a slightly concave shape, so the puck remains on the surface as it comes to a stop instead of sliding over the sides.

Shuffleboard tables that are as long as 22 feet are available, but manufacturers and retailers say 12- and 14-foot lengths are the most popular. Pat Sullivan, who owns retailer Total Recreation, says customers like that a shuffleboard table can be placed along an outer wall and doesn’t take up the entire room, like a pool table or table-tennis table does, so you can squeeze in another game table.

Keith Loria is the editor of BCA Insider, which is the official publication of Billiard Congress of America.

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