Chinese Dominoes

Article by Joe Celko (71062.1056@CompuServe.COM).

Nobody is sure where or when Chinese dominoes came into existence, but they were reported by European travelers during the Renaissance and are still popular in Asian countries today. It is assumed that Chinese dominoes were the ancestor of Mah Jong.

Chinese dominoes are different from the usual set of Western dominoes in many ways. About the only things they have in common are a relationship to dice, being made from a hard black material and having their spots drilled into the surface and then colored for visibility.

The Shape

Chinese dominoes are longer and narrower than the "double square" shape in European sets. This is because the games played with them use the tiles like playing cards to build melds or like dice to make totals rather than to build chains of tiles. They have to have a shape which allows several of them to be held at once, so most pieces are about one inch wide and about 2.5 inches long.

The Pips

Chinese dominoes have no dividing bar in the center to separate the two ends. The two ends are separated by either distance, clustering or colors. The games depend on the total number of pips, so easily identifying the ends is not as important.

Following the convention of Chinese dice, the one pip and the four pip are always colored red. The other pips are all colored white, except for the double six. The double six separates the two ends by coloring three pips red and three pips white in each cluster of pips. Twos are shown as two white spots side by side (like Chinese dice) on the extreme end, not on a diagonal like Western dominoes and dice. There are no blanks tiles. Korean sets sometimes use a large red spot for the one, again following the convention of Chinese dice. The three pips are usually shown as a diagonal, except on the double three dominoes, where the spots are laid out as two horizontal, two vertical and two horizontal groupings.

Unlike Western dominoes, there are no blank tiles in Chinese sets. The Western set has 28 tiles in the standard double six set while the Chinese set has 32 tiles. The ranking, name, coloring and arrangement of pips of Chinese dominoes is based on tradition. The total count of pips is important in many of the Chinese games; in most Western domino games, the total is not as important as the values on each half of the tile.

Military and Civil Series

Chinese dominoes are also divided into two series: military and civil. The military series consist of ten dominoes:


Notice that there are no military double tiles. The civil series is made of two of each of the following dominoes:


Notice that all doubles are civil tiles.

The Woodpile

The better quality Western dominoes have a spinner in the middle of their dividing bar. This is a little, metal, rounded nail head that keeps the face of the tile from scratching on the table top when they are shuffled and to allow them to spin so they shuffle better. Chinese dominoes are always flat faced. They are mixed in the same manner as Western dominoes, but while Western games leave the tiles loosely spread on the table top in a boneyard, Chinese games build a woodpile by stacking the dominoes in a row to a height which varies from game to game.

The hands for the games are dealt from the woodpile by throwing dice (usually three) and counting the stacks in the woodpile. The first player gets the stack determined by the dice and then each player takes the next one in line.

Named Pairs

There are traditional pairs that have names and rankings, much like the names that we assign to dice throws. If you shoot craps you know that 1-1 is "snake eyes", 6-6 is "boxcars", 4-4 is a "hard eight";. Similarly, the Jack of Spades and the Queen of Diamonds are a "Pinochle" in the card game of the same name.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell