Basic Mechanics of Domino Games

There is often an assumption that everyone knows the general mechanics of domino games and they can be omitted from any of the rule books. The statements given here are general and there are countless exceptions to them. Indeed, a lot of domino games are more a matter of folklore and local conventions instead of firm written international standards.

Arrangement of Players

When a domino game is played, the players arrange themselves in a circle around a horizontal surface on which the tiles will be played. This surface is called the "table" although any flat surface can be used. The players face inwards, and are approximately evenly spaced (so that they cannot see each other's tiles).

The Domino Set

A domino game is played with a set of tiles intended for that game. The set of tiles consists of a fixed number of pieces known as tiles. The tiles in a domino set are identical in size and shape. Each tile has two sides, the face and the back. The backs of the tiles in a domino set are indistinguishable. The faces of the tiles in a domino set are unique and divided into two halves. The set of tiles that make up the domino set will be known to all of the players using that domino set.

Suits or Pips

The halves of the tiles belong to suits which are shown by zero to (n) spots or pips drilled or painted on the halves of the tiles. The spots are usually arranged in a symmetric pattern. The most common value for (n) is 6, then 9, then 12 and 15.

The tiles have all possible permutations (not combinations!) of the number zero to (n) represented in their faces.

Dealing

Dealing is done either clockwise or counterclockwise. If this is omitted from the rules, then it should be assumed to be:

  • clockwise for games from North America, North and West Europe and Russia;
  • counterclockwise for South and East Europe and Asia, also for Swiss games.

One player or all the players mix the tiles face down on the table top until the players are agreed that the tiles are in a random order. During the shuffle, no player is allowed to look at the faces of the tiles. It is dishonest to try to see tiles as they are dealt, or to take advantage of having seen a tile accidentally. Shuffling should continue until the chance of a tile remaining next to the one that was originally next to is small. In practice, many players do not shuffle for long enough to achieve this.

After the shuffle, either the dealer distributes tiles to all the players or each player takes turns drawing one or more tiles from the pile in the center of the table. The set of tiles dealt to a player is known as their hand. The remaining tiles, if any, are known as the boneyard. The tiles in the boneyard are left face down and pushed to one side of the table to leave the center of the table clear for play.

When the deal is complete, all players pick up their tiles and hold or arrange them in such a way that the faces can be seen by the holder of the tiles but not the other players. The most common method is to set the tiles on their edges in a semi-circle which faces the player. Another common method is to use a tile rack made for this purpose. Finally, people with large hands can simply pick up their hand and hold it with their fingers.

Connecting Games

Connecting games are the most common domino games. Lines of tiles are formed starting in the center of the table by placing the tiles end to end or end to edge according to the rules of the game. The most common convention is that the ends be in the same suit.

Since the lines or trains can get longer than the table is wide, the train can be bent and turned to avoid falling off the table. In games which use larger domino sets, some players allow the tiles to be stacked on top of each other.

Capture Games

In capture games, each player places tiles face up on the table and also removes (captures) tiles from the table according to the rules of the game. The captured tiles are kept by the player, usually in front of himself, and then scored in some manner.

Capture games can either be trick taking games or tableau games. In trick taking games, the arrangement of the tiles on the table does not matter. The right to capture tiles is determined by the face of the tiels alone.

In tableau games, the arrangement does matter and determines which tiles can be captured. These games are very often solitaires with the goal of capturing all the tiles.

Trick Taking Games

One of the players, specified by the rules of the game, leads (plays the first tile) to a trick by playing a tile from their hand. She chooses a tile from their hand, and places it face upwards near the center of the table. The other players in turn, in the direction of play (clockwise or counterclockwise, as specified for that game) each play a tile to the trick, until each player has played one tile. The tiles played to the trick are all played face upwards on the table where they can be seen by all the players. Once a player has played a tile to a trick, she may not change their mind and substitute a different tile. A player who cannot see a tile in the trick may demand that it be made visible to their. A player who does not know which tile has been contributed by which player may demand this information.

There are frequently restrictions on which tiles a player is permitted to play to a trick. Such restrictions commonly depend on the tile led (first played) to the trick, and may depend on tiles subsequently played. Some common sets of such restrictions are described under following suit.

When the trick is complete (i.e. each player has played one tile to it) the players will observe who has won it. The winner of a trick is commonly the player who played the highest trump to it; or if there is no trump in it (or the game is one without trumps), then the highest tile of the suit led. The "suit led" means the suit to which the tile led to the trick belongs.

The winner of a trick takes it, straightens it up so as to form a tidy packet, and places it face downwards in front of their. Its contents may not subsequently be inspected. In games which are concerned with the number of tricks won, a player who has won several tricks arranges them so as to make it obvious how many she has won. If two or more players are playing together with a common objective, they may keep the tricks that they have won together: they should still be arranged so that they can be counted.

The player to lead to the first trick may be forehand; or may be determined by the bidding. The winner of a trick leads to the next trick. If the winner of a trick is unable to lead to the next trick, having for some reason no tiles left, the lead passes around the table in the usual direction of play to the next player who is able to lead.

During the play of tricks, known as the play of the hand, the players ensure that they do not allow other to see their tiles. It is generally against a player's interest to allow their opponents to see their tiles. It is cheating to allow their partner(s) to see their tiles. In either case, it is not permitted. The tiles already played to the current trick, and no others, should be clearly visible.

Players should do nothing, by word, expression or gesture, to indicate or imply anything about the tiles which they hold or the view which they take of any play.

It sometimes happens that a trick is completed, and turned face downwards, before all the players have clearly seen all the tiles in it. Before the lead to the next trick, any player may demand to see such a trick.

In trick-taking games, the tricks continue one after another with the players' hands getting smaller and smaller. If all the players started with hands of the same size, they should all play their last tile to the same trick. The hand is then over (note that this is a different sense of hand from the set of tiles held by a player at the start of play). As the players have no choice about which tile to play to the last trick of a hand, it is common practice for it to be played rapidly, without the players waiting for their turns.

There are many infractions of the rules which are possible during the play of a hand. Two of the more frequent are the play of a tile by a player whose turn it is not, and the accidental exposure of a tile. These may be ignored if they bring no disadvantage to any other player.

Another frequent contravention is the play of a tile contrary to the rule of following suit. This is normally treated more seriously. It is known as a revoke (to be distinguished from a renounce, which is a legal failure to follow suit, there being no tile of the required suit in the player's hand).

In many games, the official rules specifying the penalties for various infractions occupy more pages than the rules specifying how to play correctly. This is tedious, but necessary for games that are played seriously. Such penalties for infractions are generally omitted from the Web pages at this site: if you intend to play a domino game at a high level, you should make sure before beginning that you agree on the penalties to be used. When playing privately, this will normally be a question of agreeing house rules. In a tournament there will probably be a tournament director who will enforce the rules when required and arbitrate in cases of doubt.

In most trick-taking games, each player is obliged to try to follow suit, if possible. This means that when it is a player's turn to play, she must, if possible, play a tile of the same suit as the tile led to the trick. If she is unable to do so, having no such tiles, she may play any tile.

In many trick-taking games, one of the suits is known as trumps. The trump suit has the special property that all trump tiles, however small, beat all tiles of the other suits. Therefore if a trick contains trumps, it is won by the highest trump played to it, ignoring any other tiles played. Only if a trick contains no trump, it is won by the highest tile of the suit led to it.

In games which involve a trump suit, the rules about following suit can be more complicated, because these rules determines when it is possible to play a trump. A system of describing rules about following suit and playing trumps in card games has been devised by David Parlett, and is given in his book A HISTORY OF CARD GAMES (Oxford University Press, 1991).