Hello everyone! My name is Dan, I work at the Main library, and I love games. In this series of posts, I’m going to be teaching you how to play some classic games that are easy to learn, fun to play, and quite possibly already in your home! Today’s game is a great deal: buy one set, and then you can play many different games. Let’s learn about Dominoes!

You’re probably familiar with dominoes (the objects) already. They are rectangular pieces made of ivory, wood, or (more commonly these days) plastic, divided by a line through the middle with varying numbers of dots on each side. Not all dominoes use the dots: some sets might use numerals, letters, or even pictures, but the concept is the same. Numbered dominoes go up from zero (a blank side) to a certain number, depending on the size of the set. A set contains every possible combination of each of the numbers in the set, including doubles. The double six set (where six is the highest number) is the smallest set commonly sold, with 28 total dominoes. Also reasonably common are the double nine (with 55 pieces) and the double twelve (with 91). Even larger sets do exist, but the double twelve is probably the largest that you’ll ever need unless you’re playing some truly huge games.

Contents of a double-six set of dominoes.

All domino games have broadly similar gameplay. Each player draws a hand of dominoes (the exact number differs by game, but seven is a good general number), then one player starts the “line of play” on the table, usually with the highest double that was drawn. (An easy way to do this without forcing players to reveal information about their hands is to ask the whole table if anyone has the highest double in the set, e.g., “Does anyone have the double nine?”. If not, continue with the next lower number until someone has it.) From that point on, on their turn, players must match one of the open ends of the line with a domino from their hand, placing it on the table with the matching ends adjacent. In several domino games, a double may be placed sideways as a “spinner,” which allows play from all three open sides of the double. If several spinners have been played, there may be quite a few ends available! If a player is unable to place a domino, they draw one from the leftover dominoes that were not dealt out and left facedown, the “boneyard.” If the drawn domino is playable, they may do so; otherwise, they must pass. If the boneyard is empty, the player has no choice but to pass.

A game in progress, with the line of play in the middle of the table and the boneyard to the right.
The double blank played as a spinner.

There are two major branches of domino games: blocking games and scoring games. In a blocking game, the only goal is to be the first player to play all their dominoes. Once one player has emptied their hand, all other players score points equal to the total pip count of the dominoes remaining in their hand. The fewer points, the better! Games are played to a certain number of rounds or until a player hits a threshold of points, at which point the lowest score wins. A key part of the strategy in blocking games is choosing the dominoes you play carefully, attempting to block off as many options for the other players as possible.

Scoring example: if these dominoes were leftover in a player’s hand at the end of the game, that player would score 8 points.

The other type of domino game is the scoring game. In a scoring game, points are scored during play in addition to at the end of the round. One example is the game Muggins (also known as All Fives and Fives Up), where if after a player places a domino, the sum of the numbers on all of the ends is a multiple of five, that player scores that many points. Since points are good in this variant, the player who first empties their hand is given points equal to the total number of leftover pips in all opponents’ hands, rounded to the nearest five. This game can be played to a certain number of points or to a particular score. This game can also be played with multiples of three scoring instead of multiples of five or with both.

Another popular variant is Mexican Train, which is a blocking game with some additional rules. In this game, a double is placed in the center of the table as the starting “station.” Each player has their own personal “train,” which is a line of dominoes starting at the station with a matching number. There is also a public “Mexican Train.” On their turn, a player may play on either their own train or the Mexican train. If a player is unable to play, they must draw from the boneyard. If they cannot play the drawn domino either, they must mark their train with some small object, like a coin or button. Any marked train is now public and can be played on by any player (like the Mexican train) until the player who owns it can play on it again, at which point the marker is removed, and the train again becomes private. Scoring is done in the same way as in a blocking game, and low score wins.

There are plenty more domino game variants, and I won’t pretend to be able to cover them all in a single post, but this should give you a good starting point if you’re new to the game. Looking for some more information? Check out these materials from our collections!

Dominoes (Hoopla ebook)

Dominoes and Solitaire (Hoopla ebook)

Domino Sundays (Hoopla ebook, children’s book about a girl playing dominoes with her grandfather. Contains some Spanish).