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How to Play Dominoes

by Staff

Dominoes (or dominos) is an ancient game that originates from China. The fact that it is still a popular game today, proves that it is indeed a great game. Just like games with cards and dice, dominoes has an element of luck involved, however, it also requires skill, just like poker or blackjack. You can play it for fun with friends and family, online against a computer or other players and as a gambling game too. You may have played dominoes as a child and be familiar with the basics, nevertheless, we will cover everything you need to know about dominoes in this overview.

Tiles and Combinations

Dominoes is played with 28 rectangular tiles – normally twice as long as they are wide. The tiles are made up of two square halves divided by a line. Each side has a value that is determined by the number of pips that are marked on it. There can be up to six pips on each side, however, it can also be blank (no pips). The sum of the two sides’ values is known as the “weight” or the “rank”.

The tiles are named based on their values. E.g., a domino that has two pips on one end and five on the other can be called a 2-5, a 5-2, a deuce-five or a five-deuce. When a tile has two same values it can be called a “double” – e.g., a double five. If the two ends have different values it is called a “single”.

Traditional dominoes are played with 28 tiles (also called a “double six”) with 2 to 4 players but larger sets also exist. A 55-tile set or “double nine” allows more players to participate or players can play longer games with them.

How to Play Dominoes

Learning how to play dominoes is very simple and even children can easily grasp the idea. Each player has their turn and they have to place one of their tiles to the exposed end of the tile chain. The number of pips on the exposed end has to match the one end of the tile the player is about to place. If the player doesn’t have a matching tile, they miss their turn or they can draw a new tile from the pile (this depends on the variant of the game). The player who places all their tiles first wins the game and scores points. The points they score depend on the value of the dominoes the other players are left with.

One of the players will shuffle the dominoes face down on the table. They must not keep their hands on any tiles and they must not be the first one to draw the tiles for themselves. After the first game, another player can do the shuffling and they can keep taking turns. After the pile has been shuffled, each player draws a domino and the player who has the heaviest piece will start the game.

The number of tiles drawn depends on which domino game is being played. Each player places their dominoes in front of them so that other players can’t see them. If there are any remaining tiles in the stock, they are left there facedown.

Domino Gameplay

  • A player is selected to start the game. It can be a random selection, or it might be the player who won the last round – he is called the “setter” or “downer”
  • The first player places the starting tile face up in the middle of the table – this piece is also called “the down” or “the lead”
  • The game can rotate clockwise or anticlockwise
  • The next player places a tile at either end of the starting domino tile
  • Each player can only place one tile and then it is the next player’s turn, however, if they all agree, after placing a double tile, a second tile may be placed
  • If a player can’t place a new tile on the table, he can either pass or bye from the stock (depending on the variant). Some games allow players to skip even if they would have a playable tile
  • The tiles are placed on a table in a line and the line can turn when it is close to the edge of the table
  • New tiles can only be placed at the two ends of the line
  • In some variants, doubles are spinners – they can be played on all four sides so the line can branch in four directions
  • The game ends if a player places his last tile at the end or if all players pass – nobody can play a tile anymore

Domino Scoring

In blocking games, the scoring only happens once the game has finished. When a player empties his hands, he wins the game. His score will be the total pip count of the losing players’ hands. In some variants of the game, the total pip count of the remaining stock is also added to the score. If the game is blocked – no player can move – the total pips of each player can determine the winner.

In scoring games, depending on the rules, one or both ends of the dominoes are counted. So if a 5-5 tile was placed, it would count as 10. In some games, the score is made only when the pips at the ends of the line are a multiple of 5 or a multiple of 3. Other variants give players scores for having the same value dominos on both ends of the line.

When you play dominoes online, no winner is determined if two or more parties have the same score.

Domino Variants

The most popular types of domino games are the ones where tiles are laid out. The three main categories of these are blocking games, draw games and scoring games.

Blocking games

The objective of these games is to lay all your tiles while blocking the opponents. At the end of the game, a score is determined by counting the pips of the losing players’ tiles.

Scoring games
In these games, the scoring happens during gameplay. Players get points for certain configurations or moves and also when they finish the game. Most of the scoring games use variations of the drawing game.

Drawing games
This version is similar to the blocking games but here players are allowed to draw as many tiles as they want from the stock before they lay a tile. They are only allowed to pass if the stock is empty. The score of the game is the number of pips the opponents are left with plus whatever is left in the stock.

Gambling with dominoes

Apart from placing them in a line and counting points, dominoes can also be used for Pai Gow Tiles, a gambling game. Pai Gow (not to be confused with Pai Gow Poker) is an ancient Chinese gambling game that has become very popular in casinos both in China and around the world. You can not only play Pai Gow in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand but also online. We did a guide on it under this link: How to Play Pai Gow Tiles.

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