Dominoes, cousins of playing cards, are one of the world’s oldest tools for game play. They are small rectangular blocks of wood or plastic that have numbers, resembling those on dice, stamped on them. When stacked on end in long lines, the first domino can be tipped over, causing the next to fall and creating an endless chain of events. Dominoes are also used to play games that test skill and patience.
Most domino players are familiar with the traditional games of drawing tiles and placing them edge to edge on a table so that the ends show matching numbers or form some other specific total. These are called positional games and they account for most of the play that occurs with dominoes. However, many other types of domino games are also played. Blocking games such as bergen and muggins, which require players to empty their hands of all but the winning tile before their opponents can play, are common, as are scoring games such as Mexican train. Some domino games duplicate card games, such as solitaire and trick-taking games, and are popular in areas where religious prohibitions on gambling prohibit the use of playing cards.
As the popularity of dominoes has increased, so too have the number of games available. These range from a simple game of drawing and placing dominoes in a line to create a design or pattern to complex domino puzzles such as tumbling towers, which take hours to complete and require a great deal of strategy to solve. Many of these games are educational, helping children learn basic counting and math skills.
While a domino set can be used to play all sorts of different games, it is the rules and conventions of these games that make them interesting. For example, the standard domino set has twenty-eight tiles with a number of spots on each end ranging from one to six. The number of pips on each end of a domino is referred to as its “value,” and a double-six, for example, is the most valuable domino in the set.
The term domino is actually an Italian word that means “fly.” The earliest sense of the phrase was probably a reference to the fact that these small rectangular blocks are easily moved by a slight touch. Later the word came to mean a large hooded cloak worn with a mask at a masquerade or carnival party. It is this sense of the word that physicist Stephen Morris says is crucial to the success of any domino set. When a domino is stood upright it stores potential energy, and when the force of gravity causes the domino to fall, much of that energy is converted to kinetic energy and sent crashing into the next domino, which in turn causes the domino after that to topple and so on.
It is this process that allows for a chain reaction of dominoes to grow and become ever more elaborate. The most spectacular displays are created by a domino artist who builds and arranges dominoes into shapes and patterns. His or her most intricate designs can take several nail-biting minutes to fall, but when they do, the result is a visual masterpiece.