Getting to know your casino slots – Low and high variance slot machines

Playing slot machines online is all about the numbers—wins and losses, stake, jackpot and RTP combine to make every session different and exciting. But few players are aware of variance, which is maybe the most important factor in your online slots experience. Once you understand this concept you’ll be able to pick the right online slots for you and upgrade your online gambling experience, so read on for all you need to know about variance and online slots.

The basics: what is variance?

In online slots, variance (or ‘volatility’) is a way to measure how often and consistently a game will pay out. So with a low variance game you can expect to win small amounts frequently, but in a game with high variance the payouts will be less frequent and predictable, but much more valuable. Another way to think of variance in slots is as a measure of how long you have to play a game before your return comes close to the game’s RTP (Return to Player) rate, with low variance games approaching RTP after a fairly short session, while high variance games need a lot of time (and cash!) investment to get to this point.

Getting started: Choose the right level of variance for your online slot machines

You probably already know how much you like to stake per spin and what level of jackpot gets you excited, but by thinking carefully about the level of variance in your games you can control your experience and get exactly what you want from your casino time. The key factors to consider are how long you want to play for, how much you want to spend, and, most importantly, how much risk you enjoy. In general, slot games fall into four categories:

  • Low variance: These are the games where you score a small win every few spins, and a relatively small balance can keep you playing for hours. Risk and reward are low, making these great chill-out games, but the best low variance slots offer the occasional chance at a big win to spice up your session.
  • Medium variance: Not quite low-risk, but not high-risk either. With a mixture of small and big prizes, these games are the sweet spot for a lot of players. Medium variance games can be a great way to enjoy a respectable playing time for your stake, but with an exciting level of risk and prizes to match.
  • High variance: The games for high-risk, high reward players. If you crave the big win (and you don’t mind walking away empty handed sometimes) these slots could be just what you need. Whether you stake high or low, you might spin dozens of times with nothing to show for it but the best high variance slots offer the chance to win thousands of pounds with a single spin.
  • Ultra-high variance: These are the big boys. With progressive jackpots that can be worth millions of pounds, you’re very unlikely to win. But if you’re feeling lucky, choose a game with a sky-high jackpot and cross your fingers! The odds of a payout are very low, but if it’s your day you could walk away a millionaire.

Choosing games: How to find high and low variance slots online

Online casinos in the UK are legally required to publish paytables for their slots giving the rules and winning combinations of the game, but for multi-line games these tables can be very long and complicated. It is possible to use the paytable to figure out the variance of an individual game, but this is not an easy task. As a rough guideline, the highest variance games will feature low payouts for a three or four symbol match, and lots of high value scatter or wildcard prizes. You can spot a low variance game by checking the paytable for a ‘flat’ prize structure where maching 3 symbols pays almost as much as a five symbol match, and looking for games where the top jackpot is a relatively low multiple of the stake.

If you’d rather have an expert opinion, many third-party sites maintain slot volatility lists where professional analysts use hundreds of paytables and a database of information from play sessions to calculate the variance level of popular games. To hone your instincts for what different variance levels mean in the real world, free-play mode is your best friend, letting you really get a feel for the payouts and play experience involved. After a little practice you may find that you can ‘sense’ the variance of a game just by trying a few spins. And don’t think you have to play the games that earnt the biggest payout in your test session—if you like to gamble for fun or to unwind after a busy day, look for games that feel right to you.