Article by Ken Tidwell.


There has been an unusually high demand for the rules to Domino games. I think I finally figured out why. Excite, a search site run by ArchiText, has a review of the Game Cabinet that mentions that you can find the rules to Dominoes here. At one time the DominoWeb site offered these rules (after a fashion) and you could find that site by going out the back of the Cabinet.

But people wanted more. Some folks wanted me to run the rules to Forty-Two, a Domino game that is particularly popular in my native Texas. Other folks wanted the rules to even more obscure Domino games. So. Here it is. Almost everything that I know or could find out about Dominoes with pointers to still more places to learn about them.


Dominoes are small tiles traditionally carved from ivory or bone with small, round pips of inset ebony. These tiles may be used to play many different games. Our name for these tiles may derive from this black on white look. 'Domino' is the French word for a Christian priest's winter hood which was black on the outside and white on the inside. 'Domino' is also a style of mask featuring a black and white motif.

The oldest domino sets date from around 1120 A.D. Dominoes, as most of the Western world knows them, however, appear to be a Chinese invention. They were apparently derived from cubic dice, which had been introduced into China from India some time in the dim and distant past. Each domino originally represented one of the twenty-one results of throwing two dice. One half of the tile is set with the pips from one die and the other half contains the pips from the second die.

Chinese sets also introduce duplicates of some throws and divide the dominoes into two classes: military and civil. Chinese dominoes are also longer than typical European dominoes. We will explore some of the games played with basic Chinese dominoes later. Over time Chinese dominoes also evolved into the tile set used to play Mah Jong, a game which swept across the United States in the 1920s.

Some time in the early 18th century dominoes made their way to Europe, making their first appearance in Italy. Its surprising that it took this long for the game to make the trip since the silk road would have been open for quite some time before this date. The game changed somewhat in the translation from Chinese to European culture. European sets contain neither class distinctions nor the duplicates that went with them. Instead, European sets contain seven additional dominos with six of these representing the values that result from throwing a single die with the other half of the tile left blank. Curiously, there is also a seventh tile with both halves left blank. Perhaps this was done for symmetry's sake so that each of the resulting suits would contain seven tiles.

Interestingly, American eskimoes also play a game using tiles that are very similar to Dominoes. This makes me wonder if the game doesn't date from before the last eastern migration across the land bridge to the Americas. Is there an anthropologist in the house?

Many of the games we associate with dominoes are quite modern. The block games seem to be the oldest of the European games. While Muggins, also known as Five Up, dates from the early 20th century. I suspect that some dominoe games, such as Reiner Müller's solitaire games, date from the last few decades.

A Personal Digression

When I was very young I spent most of my time with my maternal grandmother. She taught me to play Dominoes, the game known as Five Up or Muggins here, as soon as I could add. We would play in the late afternoon after she had finished her sewing and before she started dinner. She owned a beautiful set of Dominoes made of ivory that had yellowed to the color of butterscotch.

I have not seen the scoring notation she used mentioned in any of the references that I have found. It is clever in that the scoring system, like many of the games, does not rely on the player's level of numeracy. You can get by if you can just count. The score was kept using X's to represent 10 points. Each stroke of the X was worth 5 points. We would start with a large X and then fill in a smaller X between each arm of the large X as we scored points - one arm of an X for every 5 points scored. When a large X was completely filled with smaller X's then a player had scored a total of 50 points and we would start another large X with the player's next score. Typically, we would play to 250 points or five large X's. Between the simple math required to spot scoring combinations in Five Up and this straightforward scoring scheme I must not have been more than three or four years old when I first started playing Dominoes.

My paternal grandparents preferred Forty-Two. I was quite a bit older before I could deal with this game with its subtle bidding and relatively complex scoring.

According to Dominic Armanino, a well respected expert on the subject, the popularity of Dominoes in the 1950s centered on San Francisco and Texas, two places near and dear to my heart! Its no wonder I've been over-exposed to these tile games!

Have fun and may you never have to dig in the boneyard!

Back to the Dominoes page.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell