When most people think about pinball machines, they picture loud dings and rings, flashing lights and colorful characters.
Bill Manke and Travis Hetman, owners of Lakewood's Boxwood Pinball, wanted to get back to the game's roots.
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"Pinball became electronic very quickly, but it wasn't always that way," Manke said. "We wanted to take it back to being player versus player. To being more about social interaction."
Three years ago, Manke and Hetman met at the Denver Art Society in the Santa Fe Arts District, and bonded over a shared appreciation of pinball. Manke studied sculpture and kinetic art, and started making bagatelle pinball machines out of wood.
"Bagatelle was pinball before flippers and all the stuff we see today," Manke explained. "It was all about the skill of the plunge."
Together, Manke and Hetman started Boxwood, with Manke making and designing the games and Hetman creating the art for each piece. The process for crafting each one takes around six weeks. The machines Boxwood makes provide dual uses — they can be hung on the wall as art, or played.
Manke designs the games to cater to a range of skill levels. People can just walk up and play, but he also has adventure books he created to play through for more dedicated players.
"The story aspect is important because it allows for the creation of goals," Manke said. "My plan is also to create one new tournament board a year."
According to Manke, bagatelle machines became popular bar games during the Great Depression. Tapping into that history, Boxwood has machines at area brewpubs and distilleries, like Englewood's Devil's Head Distillery.
"We've had one of the machines here for three months," said Devil's Head owner Ryan White. "I'd never seen a machine like it before, and it's been a great game for guests to play."
One of the reasons for the transition to electronic pinball machines was to attract people in a loud place, Manke added. The machines Boxwood makes are designed for home use and the ever-growing craft brew scene.
The design and building process are fun and challenging for Manke, and he developed a way to share that process with children. He created simple kits that allow children to build, design and color their own bagatelle machines.
Parents and schools have used the kits as a fun hands-on activity and way to teach children about a variety of subjects, including math, science, art and storytelling.
Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning teachers Jenny Kapke and Judy Racine used the kits to help their students in their simple tools section. Over around six weeks, students learned how to use tools, about painting and engineering.
"It was a great project because it integrated all kinds of skills seamlessly," Racine said. "It really was a phenomenal experience for everyone."
Seeing others take delight in the games he has created keeps Manke eager to tell new stories through his works.
"The most amazing part for me is coming up with rules for the game, and then hearing them explained to others," he said. "It's watching the story spread."
For more information, visit www.boxwoodpinball.com.
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