Dominoes – more than blocks for kids

I think everyone know what dominoes are. Often we treat dominoes as a blocks for children, a simple toy for learning to count. Sometimes we play with kids, because this game seems simple. In my country (Poland) it’s unusual to see adults playing dominoes. What a pity! This game is more addictive than you think, and besides it has a fascinating history. Moreover, you can play many games with one set of domino tiles, just like you can play many games with one deck of cards.

History of dominoes

Word “domino” probably comes from the Latin word “dominus” meaning “lord”. Probably this is due to the fact that the dominoes were popular among the clergy. Domino games were also popular in places where puritanical tendencies prevailed. Card games were considered as “immoral” and so they were replaced by dominoes.

One legend attributes the invention of the dominoes to monks from the Montecassino Abbey. Surely this is just a legend, because domino games have longer history.

English mathematician Rouse Ball claimed that dominoes were already known by ancient Greeks, the Hebrews and the Chinese. It is possible. A set of domino tiles considered as the oldest was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun in the ruins of Thebes in Egypt. It can be seen in the museum in Cairo.

In China domino is known at least since XIII century as “gwat pai” or “tim pai” or “nga pai”. Maybe it was known earlier, but first mentions about the game can be found in the written documents from the XII century. Chinese domino is a bit different than European, but it still inspired by six-sided dice. It was used for various games like “tien gow” or “pai gow”. The first of these games can be played also with a dice.

author: Javi Vazquez (lic. CC)

Chinese dominoes are very interesting. The tile set consists of 32 tiles (bones). Some of them have their specific names, and besides some of the spots (pips) are red. There are also special sets of tiles for special games. Set for a game called 挖 花 resembles mahjong tiles. There are also tile sets with  characters similar as in Chinese Chess (Xiangqi).

Some say domino was imported to the west by Marco Polo. Some sources say that famous traveler “spread knowledgeabout the game” in Europe, but Marco Polo lived in XIII and XIV century. First mentions about Chinese domino comes from XII century. Domino probably was known in Europe later, in the XVIII century. It appeared in Italy first. Of course European dominoes has been transformed to better fit our culture.

Dominoes in Europe

Double-six domino (with 28 tiles from 0-0 do 6-6) is most popular today.  It’s relatively easy to buy double-nine domino (from 0-0 to 9-9). There is also a double-seven domino (known in Russia), double-eight (known in the UK and Germany), even double-twelve, double-fifeteen and double-eighteen (sometime used in a fairly popular game of Mexican Train). Additionally, you can use doubled sets in some games. This creates a lot of possibilities!

Types of domino games

Dominoes sets may be different, and in addition they can be used in different ways. In many games tiles (bones) are laid on the table and they form a line, but that’s not a rule. As already mentioned, in some countries dominoes replaced playing cards and some domine games resemble card games. You can even play some card games with a set of domino tiles.

Because of the way the game is played, we can distinguish four types of domino games.

  • Typical domino games – in which players are building the line of play. Points are earned for special tiles configurations and/or when player is out (has played all of his dominoes).
  • Matching games – the object of such games is to aquire groups of matching tiles or special tiles configurations. This is similar to card games like rummy or cribbage. .   
  • Trick-taking games – in such games players lay their tiles on table (one player lays one tile) to form a trick. The trick is won by the player who has played the tile with the highest value (this is similar to card games such as ecarte or whist).
  • Games with mixed rules – their rules may contain elements of building lines, taking tricks or acquiring groups of matching tiles.

“Draw game” – the simplest domino game

I want to describe many domino games in the next articles. Now let me show you the simplest game often referred to as just Dominoes. This is so called “Draw game”. In my country (Poland) this game is known as “traditional domino”. It’s really simple in terms of rules, strategy and tile set used.

To play draw game you need a standard double-six domino set (consisting of 28 tiles with 0 to 6 spots on each half). The image below shows the full set of double-six domino.


Starting the game

Draw game is a game for 2, 3 or 4 players

At the beginning of the game, each player draws a certain number of tiles (bones). The number of tiles drawn depends on the number of players.

  • 2 players draw 7 tiles each
  • 3 players draw 6 tiles each
  • 4 players draw 5 tiles each

The rest of bones lies face down. They form so-called stock (or boneyard). The player who holds 6-6 plays first. If no one has 6-6, the game is started by player with the highest double in hand. So If no one has a 6-6, game can be started with 5-5 or 4-4 etc.

When no one has a double, the first player to play is the player with the highest possible tile (5-6, 4-6, 4-5 etc).

Building a line of play

In one turn player puts one tile on table. He can extend the line of play with one tile at one of its two ends. Tiles are touching each other with shorter sides and adjacent tiles have equal values on “conected” halves. For example, 2-3 can be conected to tile with 2 pips (from one side) or to tile with 3 pips (from second side).

Doubles are played crosswise and they touch other tiles with their longer sides.

In the situation shown on the image below there are already 10 tiles played. The next player can play a stone with 2 pips on the left side or a tile with 3 pips on the right. Note that doubles (4-4 and 6-6) are played crosswise.


Drawing tiles

Game often lead to situation when a player can not play any tile in accordance with the rules of the game. In such situations, the player draw tiles from the boneyard until he find one which can be played.

If there are no bones in the boneyard and the player can not play – he passes.

Aim of the game and scoring

The aim of a single round is to discard all tiles from hand by lining them on the table. Round ends when one player reaches this goal. Winner (player who got rid of all bones) receives as many points as the total remaining pip count of the losers’ hand.

It is possible to block the game (when none player is able to play tiles).  In this situation, the player with a lowest pip count is the winner. The score of the game is the pip count(s) of opponent(s) score minus pip count of the winning player.

The game continues in the next rounds until one player reaches a certain number of points (usually 100). Some people use cribbage boards to count points.

Block game and other variants

There are draw games variants in which players get 8, 7 or 6 bones at start (for  2, 3, or 4 players respectively).

Rules of drawing tiles from the stock can be different. Some people play in such a way that the player who got rid of the stones from the hand must always draw fresh stones. In this variant winning a round requires to discard all tiles in hand after emptying a boneyard.

There is a variant without drawing from the boneyard and it is called “block game”. A player who cannot place a tile just passes.

You can also determine that a player can draw only 1 stone and passes if he still can not play. You can also limit drawing to two stones.

Besides you can play draw game with doubled domino set (2 x 28 tiles) or dominoes other than double-six, for example double-nine.

Read also: Domino: More than block game. Instant Domino, Blind Domino, Jubilee, Bergen, Sebastopol

Why domino games are so nice?

Dominoes seem simple and not interesting, but this is one of the “immortal” games. In some countries you can see many people playing even on the street. Why?

This game seems to simple, but after few games you can discover how addictive domino can be. After many games you start to play more consciously and you realize that there are some strategies increasing your possibility of wining. I wrote, that playing such games with random element can develop your mind.

Polish engineer and science popularizer Szczepan Jeleński in his book “Lillavati” writes about recreational math. He encourages to play domino games. There is a quote of anonymous domino lover in this book. I think this quote fully reflects the beauty of dominoes.

Domino game, judged superficially, may seem a little refined; its simplicity do not predispose people favorably; but this is a nice surprise when in closer contact with it you find a lot of interesting combinations and deeper ties. You could compare dominoes to a modest scholar, whose merits are unnoticed at first, but when we start to know him better we appreciate him and love him sincerely. There is in this game – just like in chess – an element of nobility: it is not suitable for gambling, it’s not fueling greed, it lives for honor and honor is everything to it.

The description above does not fully correspond to the truth. There are gambling games with domino tiles, but it doesn’t not matter. This game really has virtues mentioned above. You should just play and find them.

Other articles on domino

Read also: Domino: More than block game. Instant Domino, Blind Domino, Jubilee, Bergen, Sebastopol

Need equipment?

If you want to try domino games you can buy nice Domino sets on Amazon. By buying it you support creator of this blog.

Author of photo in header: George Hodan (public domainn photo)


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