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Domino Basics Introduction

Here is a basic introduction to Western domino gameplay, describing the common methods and procedures found in most domino games.

Standard Western dominoes are small rectangular tiles marked with a number of circular dots (known as spots or pips) on either of their two ends, divided by a central line (known as the bar, divider, or centre).

They come in a variety of sizes but commonly, standard Western dominoes are sized about two-inches long, one-inch wide, and 3/8-inch thick.  This is small enough to be held in the hand, and large enough to clearly indicate gameplay and to be easily placed and manipulated.  They are also thick enough to stand on any of their edges.

An individual domino tile is conventionally referred to by the number of spots on each end, with the lowest spotted number usually taken first.  So, a domino tile marked with a 3 and a 5 on either end is referred to as a "three-five".  When both ends of a tile are marked with the same spotted number, they are called doubles or doublets).  So, a tile marked on both ends with six spots is called a "double-six".  Domino tiles marked with two differing values are called singles.

Tiles 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, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 all belong to the suit of one. All singles belong to two suits. The 12, 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.

Tiles which have ends with the same number of dots are members of the same "suit". In a Double-Six set, there are seven suits (blank, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), each with seven members.  0-5, 1-5, 2-5, 3-5, 4-5, 5-5, & 5-6 make up the "fives" suit, for instance. Except for the doubles, each tile belongs to two suits.


General Domino Game Play

Rules and Convention Variations

Rules and conventions for domino games vary greatly between different players and in different locations or regions of the world.  Remember, there are no officially set rules for domino games and some players may play a different rule than the one you are used to.  You may play any variation on the rules you like, but remember it is important all players agree on the rules and conventions of the game before you start play.  The following text describes a number of commonly found rules and conventions for domino-play found in most domino games.  Most rules are interchangeable between most domino games, so feel free to play the rules you and your fellow domino players are comfortable with, just make sure everyone is in agreement first.

Types of Domino Game

Domino games can be divided into a number of categories defined by their gameplay.  The following are the main categories of domino game you may come across.

  • Most domino games are block or draw games.  In these games players draw a hand made up of a number of domino tiles which they play onto a sequential layout of tiles with matching suits on the end of a tile connecting.
  • Point domino games differ from block-type games in that players score points as the round is in progress and not just at the end.  Tiles are usually played onto a sequential layout with matching suits on the ends of tiles connecting.
  • Card domino games bear a lot of similarities with standard playing-card games with gameplay based on taking tricks, making melds, and other playing-card conventions.  These games don't have a sequential layout of tiles with matching suits connecting.
  • Solitaire domino games for one player often involve matching tiles to a total or playing them onto a sequentially matching layout.

Shuffling the Dominoes

At the start of any hand, round or game of dominoes, the tiles should be shuffled, so no player knows where any particular tile is, and may not select it or know who else has it.  Typically, all the tiles are turned facedown on the flat playing surface, then repeatedly mixed and moved around at random by a player using the flat of their hand(s).  A player's hand must not remain on any of the same tiles during the shuffling and must be clearly shown to be raised and moved about during the process. The shuffled domino-tiles (or bones) are commonly known as the boneyard.  The player who shuffles the dominoes may be determined in a number of ways.  The following are common among domino players:

  • The player to the right of the leading player shuffles.
  • The winner of the last hand, round or game shuffles for the next.
  • Any number of players may all shuffle together at the same time.

Selecting the First Player and Order of Play

The first player to make a play in a domino game may be determined in a number of conventional ways.  The following are all common ways to determine the first player and are well known among domino players and with many domino games. 

  • One of the most common ways to determine who goes first is for the player with the heaviest (bearing the greatest number of pips) double in their hand, to lead.  If no player has a double then all the dominoes are shuffled again and players re-draw their hands.
  • Another way is for the player holding the heaviest domino, regardless of whether it is a double or single, to go first.
  • The player who won the last hand, round or game goes first in the next.
  • Players draw a tile from the boneyard and the one with the heaviest leads play.  The drawn dominoes are subsequently returned to the boneyard which is re-shuffled.

In Europe and North America order of play usually passes in turn to the next left player, in a clockwise direction.  Many Latin American and Carribean countries play in an anticlockwise direction.

Drawing Tiles for a Hand

In domino games using hands of tiles, players may take it in turn to draw the required number of tiles from the boneyard or they may all draw their tiles at the same time in a haphazard scramble.  In a multiplayer game with hands of dominoes, players set their tiles on edge facing themselves so they may see the values of their tiles, but with no other player able to see the values of any other player's tiles.  All players should be able to see how many tiles are left in any other player's hand at all times during play.  Often tiles are left remaining in the boneyard which may come into play during the course of a hand or round.

Card-type domino games may have a dealer who deals out players hands consisting of a number of tiles which may vary according to the specific game.

Determining The First Tile Played

In a multiplayer domino game using hands of dominoes, the first tile played may be determined in a number of ways.  The following are common among domino players:

  • If the first player was determined by the heaviest double or single tile in their hand then they play it first.
  • The first player may play any tile they choose.

Playing the first tile in a round, hand or game may be known as setting, leading, downing, or posing the first tile, and the tile set, led, downed, or posed is referred to as the set, the lead, the down, or the pose.  This first set is also known as smacking the tile or bone down.


Playing Subsequent Tiles

Typically in a domino game, after the initial tile has been laid, the open ends of the dominoes in play may be used for placing subsequent connecting tiles with a matching suit value on one end.  Doubles are often set widthways with the long side connected to one of the short sides of an open tile which must have a matching suit.  In many domino games only the long side may be used to set a subsequent matching domino against.  However, some games allow play on any one of the four sides of a double, allowing the domino line-of-play to branch off in four directions.

If at any point during play you find your layout leading off outside your playing area (or even if you just feel like it) you may set a tile at a right-angle to an open ended tile creating an "L" shape in your line-of-play.

Drawing Subsequent Tiles During Play

During play in a domino game using hands a situation may arise in which a player may be unable to play a domino from their hand onto the layout.   In this situation, depending on the game being played, a player may do one of two things:

  • In block games, players must "knock" or pass, missing their turn.
  • In a draw game players draw a tile from any left in the boneyard.  Depending on the particular game, they may either play the tile if it matches the open ends of the layout, pass if they cannot match the tile to the layout, or continue drawing tiles until they are able to play one or the boneyard is exhausted.

Most game rules for dominoes allow players to draw tiles until the boneyard is empty, but some may not allow the last two tiles to be drawn, with the winner of a hand or round scoring the point total remaining in the boneyard.

The End of a Hand, Round or Game

The end of a multiplayer domino game using hands is usually determined by either a player playing the last domino in their hand or when no player is able to play any further domino-tiles onto the layout.  When no further tiles may be played by any player, the game is said to have been "blocked".  This is also known as a lockdown  and the players are said to have been "locked out".  When a player plays his last tile they traditionally announce it by calling out "domino" and the other players are said to have been dominoed.

In many block domino games the winner of a hand or round scores the total number of pips left in the other players' hands.  Doubles may be counted as one or two, so double-six could score either 6 or 12 points and double-four could score 4 or 8.  Sometimes a double-blank is scored as 14 points but often scores just 0.

In a game consisting of a number of hands or rounds, players record their ongoing scores on a score-sheet and the first player to score over a pre-agreed total (say 100, 200, or 250 points), wins the game.









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