By Kieron Gillen on June 5th, 2009 at 8:55 pm.
My Granddad never played dominoes. He played Crib.
You know, Cribbage. 15-1, 15-2, a run and one for his hat. Any game requiring matchsticks to play has the proper level of debased and destructive Midlands working man’s club culture for me. Hell, it was even improving. I swear chasing matchsticks up and down Granddad’s board was one of the things which pushed my brother towards his love of maths and, eventually, his current gig as a teacher of number sex.
So he didn’t play, hence I didn’t either. Not significantly. I know how the game works, of course. It’s a game simple enough that you can grasp it just by seeing its appearances in film or television. Hell, it’s one of the games the Lady has never touched, and she’s playing it immediately. You have a number of dominoes. You have to put them down on the table. You need a matching number of dots to place. If you can’t, you miss a go. The first one to get all down, wins. If neither can go, the one with the most spots on the hand loses. It just makes sense. The analogies to card games like Rummy or even other family board games like Scrabble – and, if you think about it, Scrabble is very much a riff off Dominoes, but piggybacking on our language instead of the universal abstracts of dots. I haven’t much to say about Dominoes actually, but I’ll come back to that “universal abstracts of dots”.
We played a handful of games, got down to some mild tactics – the thing with dominoes being that it’s so simple that you almost don’t think at first there are tactics. I mean, you put down what you can, right? Well, no. It’s also a game – like a few other – which would work better with a family rather than just the a couple, especially one who’ve managed to find some more red wine. To its credit, it motors and at no point is the game boring – an extended tedious endgame of something like FUCKING LUDO. 7 dominoes. A maximum of 13 goes between a pair. All down, next round, go, go, go!
(Except… not Go. As much as people in the other comments thread have been hoping, there’s no Go pieces in the box.)
Of all the games, Dominoes is the one which I could play with the largest proportion of human beings on the planet. If we didn’t share a language, I suspect I could play a game of Dominoes with them. Which, I suppose, is why it’s such a pub-based classic. Any time humans come together, they can come together over dominoes.
I think that’s what I’ll take back from Dominoes to games. How elegant its training system is. You learn the game by looking at it and the most basic level of pattern recognition. None of these are complicated games, of course. You could watch most of these games played for a couple of minutes – the exceptions being Chess, Backgammon and the card games, I suspect – and be able to play. But many – probably most – could actually play a game of dominoes if you solely presented someone a photo of a half played game, then dealt them their seven dominoes. That’s a beautiful thing, and a strong example of how the character-lead, empathisable pieces of Chess aren’t the only way for the actual components of a game to improve the nature of a game itself. For completely opposite reasons, dominoes are the only boardgame in the box whose individual pieces are absolutely iconic. Chess dramatises the game. Dominoes pieces explain the game. That’s neat, and worth thinking about.
When playing any game, the transparency of the pieces is something that can absolutely hurt a game. Take Demi-God. While everyone adores the Rook’s look – the equivalent of Chess’ pieces charisma – there’s regular grumbles that he seems somewhat vulnerable. The Rook’s look, to some level, fails to explain him. Not many modern games can hope to achieve the transparency of Dominoes, but as much as it’s possible, while not removing depth, it’s something that the very best developers strive towards.