Dominoes

An ancient game still popular today

August 9, 2022

From the time I was a wee tyke, this game was part and parcel of my life. There was something fascinating about these little black tiles with white dots on them. No doubt they helped me learn to count and add.

A typical set up for a game of traditional dominoes.

Additionally, they were often employed as bricks for tiny doll houses and set up in rows only to be knocked down.

The domino was first mentioned over 700 years ago. It is, no doubt, one of the oldest games known to man.

Yes, the Infallible Wikipedia has a page devoted to it:

The cover of a domino box which we discovered among my parents’ things. The inside box cover (below) is signed and has a date of 1910 in it.

“The earliest mention of dominoes is from Song dynasty China found in the text Former Events in Wulin by Zhou Mi (1232–1298). Modern dominoes first appeared in Italy during the 18th century, but they differ from Chinese dominoes in a number of respects, and there is no confirmed link between the two. European dominoes may have developed independently, or Italian missionaries in China may have brought the game to Europe.

The name ‘domino’ is probably derived from the resemblance to a kind of carnival costume worn during the Venetian Carnival, often consisting of a black-hooded robe and a white mask. Despite the coinage of the word ‘polyomino’ as a generalization, there is no connection between the word ‘domino’ and the number 2 in any language. The most commonly played domino games are Domino Whist, Matador, and Muggins (All Fives). Other popular forms include Texas 42, Chicken Foot, Concentration, Double Fives, and Mexican Train.”

Now, on the minute chance there are readers who are not familiar with dominos, the most common configuration features a set of 28 tiles. Each tile has two faces featuring from zero to six ‘spots’ on either face. The lowest denomination is double zero (blank on both faces), while the greatest is a double six (a six at either end). In between is every single combination of numbers such as one-five, three-four, two-six, etc.

The traditional game I learned was that each participant drew seven tiles and the one with the highest double would start the game by laying down their tile face up. The person to their left would either play a domino which matched their number (For example, if they played a double five, then the second player had to also play a tile with a five at one end) or draw if they did not have a play.

The game continued until one person was able to play all of their tiles before anyone else.

I have a distinct childhood memory of playing dominoes with my mother and grandmother at the family cabin. My grandmother was a keen game player and, it seemed to me, that she always won. But I’m certain my mother won her fair share also. As a kid, I never stood a chance against them!

After my mother’s dementia had taken over her brain, dominoes was the last game she was capable of playing and my sister would often get out the dominoes set which had been acquired just for Mom and engage her in the activity.

The set of dominoes acquired for Mom after her dementia diagnosis.

More recently, my sister, niece, and the niece’s hubby, introduced me to a domino game which I would describe as being on steroids. The game: Mexican Train.

Mexican Train, however, uses dominoes with up to twelve dots on each face, so there are 91 tiles. We turn to the Infallible Wikipedia once again to learn how the game is played:

“With a standard double-twelve set the double twelve is placed in the station. In each successive round the next lower double is used until all doubles are used. The double-blank is the final round.

Play continues to the left. Each person lays one legally placed domino per turn, or two if the player’s first domino is a double. If they are unable to, they must draw a domino from the boneyard. If they are able to lay that domino, they must do so immediately. Otherwise, their turn is over and play continues to the left, each player trying to place all their dominoes by playing matching dominoes one at a time, end to end.

A train can be as long as the players can make it; it ends only when all dominoes that could match its endpoint have already been played. As a result, trains can become quite long, especially with an extended domino set. It is acceptable to ‘bend’ the train 90° or 180° to keep the train on the playing surface, as long as it does not interfere with the endpoints of other trains.

All trains begin the game as ‘public’, and all players may play on them. When a player plays a domino on their train it then becomes ‘private.’ When a player draws a domino and is unable to play it, they must mark their train as ‘public’ by placing a marker on their train.

The Mexican train is an additional train that anyone may play on during their turn. They can start the train by playing a domino matching the engine (i.e. the double played at the beginning of the round) or add to the train.”

I must admit I was curious about how it became known as Mexican train. One last blurb from the Infallible Wikipedia:

The new Mexican Train dominos set up and ready for customers

“‘Mexican Train’ is a name typically used only in the United States. It is believed Mexican Train Dominoes is a variation on a Chinese game called Pai gow, which means ‘make nine’. Chinese laborers brought the game to Latin America once they began working in sugar fields in the mid to late 1800s. Cubans and other Latin American players adopted the game to use dominoes and called it ‘Domino Cubano’. It later arrived in the United States around the 1860s once Cuban laborers began working on U.S. railroads. Americans began referring to the game as ‘Mexican Train Dominoes’ because of its growing popularity among Cuban, Mexican, and other Latin American laborers brought to the United States.”

Playing the game with my sister and her gang has become one of my favorite things to do when we get together. This is in spite of the fact that the final score of the first round of 13 I ever played resulted in me taking high score honors. Oh, did I mention that you are trying to earn the ‘least’ amount of points? Exactly.  

My high score – which was somewhere in the high 600’s – has not, to my knowledge, been eclipsed by anyone else in our quartet. My niece tried hard to get there last week when the four of us spent a few days at the beach. I have yet to check with her to see if, from the past score sheets which are kept, if she is the new high score champ.

In years past, she has brought the Mexican train set she owns with her on the annual trip. But this year it was accidentally left behind. As fate would have it, the first day we were there was my birthday and, after a stop at Fred Meyer, there appeared a shiny new metal tin full of dominos as a gift.

Now one might think that since it was my birthday week, they would at least let me win the game. One would be wrong. Despite my best efforts, it was my sister who came out on top for this two day round of Mexican Train, followed by her son-in-law, then me, and then my niece.

Since I started playing with them, however, I would say each one of us has been the victor at least once.

Ultimately, however, I always come away from the game feeling as though I’m the winner, regardless of the score. For me being able to experience the joy of simply playing games with family and friends is the real win.

As for the new set of tiles, I opted to leave them in the owner’s closet at the family condo for all the to enjoy when at the beach.

The links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominoes

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Train

If you have a few minutes take a look at this YouTube video of dominoes set up and then getting knocked down. I don’t possess the patience to do something like this.

One thought on “Dominoes

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