3-Reel vs. 5-Reel Slots

3-Reel slots are what you might call “classic” or “vintage” slots, and for many of us they are the only slots we’ve ever heard of. With online gaming came a revolution that expanded traditional slots into something bigger, with more reels, more ways to win and serious dedication to graphics, software and game design: 5-reel video slots1.   

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Today you can find both types online (or at land-based casinos) and, depending on what kind of player you are, you might have a preference one way or the other. Not sure which side of the fence to fall on? Let’s take a detailed look at the main differences and advantages of both 3-reel and 5-reel slots to help make up your mind!

Key Differences

We’re going to use a fair bit of casino lingo moving forward – if you too au fait with paylines, volatility and progressives, then check out our slots guide2 quickly before carrying on.


Since the paylines determine the number of ways to win, you might assume that more is always better – but is it? Traditional 3-reel slots tend to have 1-5 paylines, but not more. There are far fewer combination options than with 5-reel slots, so having fewer paylines brings a level of simplicity and transparency to the game – when a combination comes up, you know if it’s a winner; with 243 paylines on a huge video slot, you have no idea what’s happening half the time.

If that’s not a problem, however, having 243 ways to win (or just 25-35 on an average 5-reel slot) is still huge advantage. Many players choose lower stakes and high paylines to win as often as possible – this isn’t as great a strategy when you only have three or four of them!


Volatility is essentially a measure of risk vs reward.

  • High volatility = high risk, high reward
  • Low volatility = low risk, low reward

Generally speaking, 3-reel slots are low risk: you might lose 50p or £1 on a spin, but you’re also only going to win £5-10 back on average. 3-reel slots are great for just passing time and enjoying the slots, without a view to winning big.

Now, 5-reel progressive slots3 offer a completely different player experience: you might bet £5, £50 or more on a single spin, but the jackpot could be worth millions. With Mega Moolah, the maximum bet is £6.25 and the jackpot usually cashes out around £6m – worth the risk?

Graphics and Sound

Most 3-reel slots stick to the tried-and-true method of using 7s, fruit and gems on classic reels. No frills, but heaps of nostalgia. The difference with 5-reel slots is that they go much further on the design side.

5-reel slots have silky smooth animations, lifelike and interactive characters, more symbols and the benefit of game-enhancing bonus rounds. Bonus rounds usually change the entire style of the game (including the music) for a short time, making it a much broader experience than 3-reel slots.

Additionally, some software developers (like Playtech4) obtain the rights to your favourite pop culture characters, like Marvel superheroes. Gladiator is a hugely popular slot, using the main characters (and even clips) from the blockbuster movie.

Jackpot Opportunity

Ever heard of progressive slots? If you’ve only played 3-reel games, then probably not – these are unique to 5-reel slots. Every time a bet is placed, a percentage of that amount contributes directly to the jackpot. That means that on popular games, the jackpot is always rising, frequently entering the millions of pounds.

While you usually have to bet the maximum (which can be very steep!), the rewards are truly life-changing if you hit the jackpot.

Away from progressives, the bonus rounds and extra paylines on 5-reel slots mean that the odds of winning big are always higher, and the fixed jackpots are always larger than on 3-reel games.


Alongside the jackpots and the dedication to graphics, 5-reel slots offer a whole other dimension over their 3-reel rivals: bonus rounds.

Certain symbol combinations unlock bonus features and hidden rounds within the game. Frequently these are “free spin” rounds – you’ll get a dozen or so spins, and all winnings are added to your total, making these incredibly lucrative for many players. Money aside, there are incredible animations and scenes, a showcase of creativity from the designers.

As a rule, such bonus features aren’t built-in to 3-reel machines.


With today’s online gaming platform for new slots being so popular, there’s no doubt that the majority of players use 5-reel slots. There’s a level of investment and variety with these games that is completely unprecedented, and players love it!

However, 3-reel slots have a definite place in the market too. It’s a slower game style, but it appeals hugely to those who prefer simplicity over bells and whistles. There are pros to each style of gaming – and no rules to say you can’t enjoy both – so go test the waters and see which you prefer. The answer might surprise you!