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A game of Dominoes

Dominoes (or "dominos") generally refers to the individual or collective gaming pieces making up a domino set (sometimes called a deck or pack) or to the games played with these pieces. (In the area of mathematical tilings and polyominoes the word domino often refers to any rectangle formed from joining two squares edge to edge.) Standard domino sets consist of 28 pieces called bones, cards, tiles, stones, spinners or dominoes. Each bone is a rectangular tile with a line dividing its face into two square ends. Each end is marked with a number of black spots (also called pips) or is blank. The spots are generally arranged as they are on six-sided dice, but because there are also blank ends having no spots there are normally seven possible faces. Standard domino sets have ends ranging from zero spots to six spots (double six set), but specialized sets might range from zero to nine (double nine set), zero to twelve (double twelve set), zero to fifteen (double fifteen set), or zero to eighteen (double eighteen set). The back side of a domino is generally plain, or is decorated in the same manner on every piece. Dominoes have been made of bone, ivory, plastic, metal and wood, and occasionally are made of card stock like that for playing cards. Dominoes are rather generic gaming devices. Many different games can be played with a set of dominoes.


While most modern domino pieces are rectangular and made of ceramic or heavy plastic, they were historically carved from ivory or animal bone with small, round pips of inset ebony. The game's name comes from the pieces' resemblance to Venetian Carnival masks known as domini, which were white with black spots. These masks were so named, in turn, because they resembled French priests' winter hoods, being black on the outside and white on the inside. The name ultimately derives from the Latin dominus, meaning "lord" or "master."

The oldest domino sets have been dated from around 1120. Modern dominoes, as most of the Western world knows them, however, appear to be a Chinese invention. They were apparently derived from cubic dice, which had been introduced into China from India some time in the distant past. Each domino originally represented one of the 21 results of throwing two dice. One half of each domino is set with the pips from one die and the other half contains the pips from the second die. Chinese sets also introduce duplicates of some throws and divide the dominoes into two classes: military and civil. Chinese dominoes are also longer than typical European dominoes. Over time Chinese dominoes also evolved into the tile set used to play Mah Jong, a game which swept across the United States in the early to mid 1920s.

The early 18th century witnessed dominoes making their way to Europe, making their first appearance in Italy. The game changed somewhat in the translation from Chinese to the European culture. European domino sets contain neither class distinctions nor the duplicates that went with them. Instead, European sets contain seven additional dominoes with six of these representing the values that result from throwing a single die with the other half of the tile left blank. Curiously, there is also a seventh tile with both halves set as blank. Perhaps this was done for symmetry's sake so that each of the resulting suits would contain seven dominoes each.

Tiles and rules

Tiles and suits

Bones are generally named for the number of dots on the two ends of the bone. A bone with a 2 on one end and a 5 on the other end is called the 2–5, for example. Bones that have different numbers on the two ends are called singles, and bones that have the same number on both ends are called doublets or doubles. In Barbados, the doubles are referred to as couples. A double six would be referred to as couple six, a double five would be known as couple five etc..

Bones that share a common number of spots on one end are said to be of the same suit. In a double-six set, for example, 1–0, 1–1, 1–2, 1–3, 1–4, 1–5, and 1–6 all belong to the suit of one. All singles belong to two suits. The 1–2, for example, belongs to the suit of one and the suit of two. All doubles belong to one suit only by this definition. An alternate definition of suit allows all dominoes to have two suits, by counting the set of all doublets as an additional suit.


The value of each end of a bone is determined by the number of spots on the end, with zero (blank) being the lowest and six being the highest. The rank of a bone is determined by the combined number of pips on the two ends. This rank is sometimes referred to as the bone's weight so that a higher ranking bone is called a heavier bone while a lower ranking bone is called lighter.


There are currently five major domino sets commercially available. They are Double Six, Double Nine, Double Twelve, Double Fifteen, and Double Eighteen, which is the largest set available commercially. Here are the number of tiles and points (pips or spots) in each set.

  • Double 6: 28 tiles, 168 pips
  • Double 9: 55 tiles, 495 pips
  • Double 12: 91 tiles, 1092 pips
  • Double 15: 136 tiles, 2040 pips
  • Double 18: 190 tiles, 3420 pips

Generally the most commonly used sets are Double Sixes and Double Nines, though the other three sets are more popular for games involving several players or for players looking for long domino games.

Game variations

Common games

Most domino games are block games or draw games. In draw games, players take part in the bone election, drawing from the boneyard when they have no matching, the bossman then reshuffles the bones before the final deal. In this case, the player with the highest double must lead by playing that double. If no player has a double, the heaviest bone is played. Playing the first bone of a hand is sometimes called setting the first bone, leading the first bone, downing the first bone, or posing the first bone, and the bone so set, led, downed, or posed is called the set, the lead, the down, or the pose. Dominoes afficinadoes often call this procedure smacking the bone down. After the first hand, the winner of the previous hand is usually the leader for the next.

After the final shuffle the bones are dealt; each player in turn draws the number of bones required (7). The stock of bones left behind is called the boneyard, and the bones therein are said to be sleeping. The player with the highest double leads with that double and, if no player has a double, the hand is reshuffled and redealt.

The next player, and all players in turn, must play a bone with an end that matches one of the open ends of the layouts. Play continues until one of the players goes out (and calls "out!" or "domino!") and wins the hand. Or until all the players are blocked and no legal plays are left. This is in some areas referred to as a lockdown. If all the players are blocked, or locked out the player with the lowest hand wins. .

In block games, players who cannot match on their turn must forfeit the turn by knocking (passing), accomplished by tapping twice on the table or by saying, "go" or "pass". In draw games, players who cannot match must draw bones from the boneyard until obtaining a playable bone. If the boneyard is exhausted, the player knocks.

In games where points are accrued, the winning player scores a point for each pip on each bone still held by each opponent. If no player went out, however, and the win was determined by the lightest hand, the winning player sometimes scores a point for each pip on each bone still held by each opponent, and sometimes only the excess held by opponents. A game is generally played to 100 points, the tally being kept with paper and pencil. In more common games, mainly urban rules, games are played to 150 or 250 points and are tallied by creating houses, where the beginning of the house (the first ten points) is a large +, the next ten points are O, and scoring with a 5 is a /, and are placed in the four 'corners' of the house.In some areas, if a lockdown occurs then the first person to call the lockdown will gain the other players bones and add the amount of the pips to their house.

Games using more dominoes

With bigger domino sets, especially with the Double Fifteens and Double Eighteens, it is possible to have more players. Double 9s is good for 4 to 6 players and each player would start with 7 dominoes in their hand. Double 12s, 15s, and 18s are good for up to 10 to 15 players, each with 7 dominoes. If you have fewer players and more dominoes, start with more dominoes in each player's hand, but leave enough dominoes in the bone pile to draw from. When using the larger sets, make sure you have plenty of playing room as they can spread out considerably.

Double 6s = 8 rounds, double 9s = 10 rounds, double 12s = 13 rounds, double 15s = 16 rounds, double 18s = 19 rounds.

Other games

There are also a variety of other games played with dominoes. Some are simple memory games like Concentration (based on the card game of same name), some are complex, and some are simple solitaire games. Common games include Private Trains and Chicken Foot.

A popular domino game in Texas is 42. The game is similar to the card game spades. It is played with four players paired into teams. Each player draws seven dominoes, and the dominoes are played into tricks. Each trick counts as 1 point, and any domino with a multiple of 5 dots counts toward the total of the hand. 35 points of "five count" + 7 tricks = 42 points, hence the name.

Also, in the Caribbean, there are other common games which involve four players in which the players can play as partners or as individuals. In partners, the partners sit across from each other and all hands can not be seen by the other players. The game is started by shuffling the dominoes or 'cards' and each player pulling seven cards. The double six is then played and play continues to the starter's right side. If a player can not play then he is passed and it is the next player's turn. The object is for a team to win by one of the players running out of dominoes. The winning team is awarded a point and then restart the process by shuffling and pulling a new hand and then starting with any domino either partner wishes to play. The game goes on till one team reaches six points. Double points are awarded when you get 'key'. This happens when your last card is the only card that can be played on both ends. Also when a player pulls five doubles all players put their dominoes back and pull new hands, the following game is played for 2 points and the double six is started by the player who has it. This variation is called Partners, where the other variation is called Cut-Throat, where each player plays for himself, in which all the same rules apply as in partners. This form of dominoes is most common in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Competitive play

Domino games are generally not played at a professional level. Numerous organisations and clubs of amateur domino players exist around the world. Some organisations, including the International Federation of Dominos and the Fédération Internationale de Domino (FIDO), organise international competitions. The 2007 FIDO domino world champion is the Swiss college student Alex Joss.

Other uses of dominoes

Dominoes waiting to fall

Other than playing games of strategy, another common pastime using domino tiles is to stand them on edge in long lines, then topple the first tile, which falls on and topples the second, which topples the third, etc., resulting in all of the tiles falling. Arrangements of thousands of tiles have been made that have taken several minutes to fall. By analogy, similar phenomena of chains of small events each causing similar events leading to eventual catastrophe are called domino effects. The phenomenon also has some theoretical relevance (amplifier, digital signal, information processing), and this amounts to the theoretical possibility of building domino computers.

The Netherlands has hosted an annual domino toppling exhibition called Domino Day since 1986. The event held on November 18, 2005 knocked over 4 million dominoes. Another new record was set at 4,079,381 stones on November 17, 2006.

At one time, Pressman Toys manufactured a product called Domino Rally that contained tiles and mechanical devices for setting up toppling exhibits.

Dominoes are not just for games these days. Domino Art is the art of decorating domino tiles. First the domino is sprayed with an acrylic paint. Once it has dried, it is stamped with a rubber stamp and then various colors of ink are applied. Some artists drill holes in them before spraying and wire wrap the finished piece.

Dominoes are also commonly used as components in Rube Goldberg machines.

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