7-in-1 Magnetic Family Game: Dominoes

By Kieron Gillen on June 5th, 2009 at 8:55 pm.

Yeah, this isn't very experimental either.

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.)

It's only when we get to stuff like Ludo we get fancier photos. It's telling the mixed up box for the title post was done last.

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.

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57 Comments »

  1. Shnyker says:

    Love dominoes, learned it from my Grandfather and never stopped playing since.

  2. Archonsod says:

    Doubles were way overpowered though.

  3. ...hmm... says:

    i find dominoes to be vile, artery clogging things.
    better than papa johns though.

    might as well just get a kebab.

  4. JonFitt says:

    Nerf double 1.

  5. feffrey says:

    There is an actual game with dominoes?
    I thought dominoes was just standing them up in a line and knocking one down to start a chain reaction.

  6. JonFitt says:

    Did you imagine the numbers were just some sort of decoration?

  7. Stuk says:

    I find a more entertaining use of dominoes is placing them in lines and WATCHING THEM FALL! Mwhah! But yes, accessible.

    Also, after playing an online game of Ludo last night I am willing to concede slightly on yesterday’s opinion. I’ve decided that maybe it isn’t the best fucking game ever, but it’s still damn good. Also, I couldn’t find any reference to the mysterious Ludo 2 you mentioned Kieron…

  8. JonFitt says:

    In Texas they play a game with dominoes that seems to be a bit like bridge:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/42_(dominoes)

  9. Lack_26 says:

    Has anyone played Mancala, I like that game it’s still great fun, which isn’t bad for a game which some put at 7000 years old.

  10. Vinraith says:

    Mancala’s great, and surprisingly complex in its assorted variants.

  11. Bhazor says:

    Well to be fair you can play go using naught but a sheet of graph paper and two different coloured pens. Or some hundreds ‘n’ thousands. Or some curly chips versus potato wedges.

  12. Meat Circus says:

    (a) Nobody knows the rules of dominoes.
    (b) Some people think they do, but they are wrong. Because of (a).
    (c) Battle Dominoes would be for the win.

  13. Hi!! says:

    “The Rook’s look, to some level, fails to explain him.”

    Aha, like the coast car in TrackMania Sunrise & United. I actually think that’s the reason so many people dislike it. It looks fast and agile, and is anything but. If it had been a truck, people would have “understood” it immediately, and just gotten on with it.

  14. Funky Badger says:

    CRIB AND CRIBBAGE ARE DIFFERENT!

    (Although you can certainly play both)

  15. MacBeth says:

    lol ur usin white dominoez with black dots. evry1 noes black with white dots are superior except blackdot fagz lol

  16. BooleanBob says:

    So this is how you play dominoes. I was always suspicious that real dominoes involved an esoteric and highly complicated set of rules, jealously guarded by wizened old men in pubs and working clubs, only passed down when a boy came of the right age (retirement), and that what I’d been doing with a set was the equivalent of using a deck of cards to play snap.

    Far from thinking these abstractions of dots to be universal and self-explanatory, for me, the systems, shapes and patterns they evoke suggest something deep and unknowable hides beneath the innocent facade. Truly, Domino, thy name is Mystery, and thine meaning lieth far beyond my ken.

  17. BooleanBob says:

    Meat and JonFitt’s posts only deepen my suspicions.

  18. Kieron Gillen says:

    I actually know what Boolean is on about here, and the idea of actual complexity versus perceived social complexity is an interesting one. May write on that later.

    KG

  19. James G says:

    @BooleanBob

    Same here, it does seem a bit simple doesn’t it. I had always thought it had another mode of play more akin to poker.

  20. jpearl01 says:

    Actually, I’m surprised that no one else has posted about it, but I used to play dominoes all the time with my father and brother. We definitely had a slightly more complicated system.
    So, it went like this: The basic strategy was the same, matching dots (I believe whoever had the highest double would play his domino first). You could play off that domino from either of the “double” sides, or the “single” sides, so you could go in all four directions. The complexity started by adding a point system, where if the dots at the ends of all 4 directions added up to be divisible by 5, then you “scored” that many points for your play. If you were unable to play, then you were required to pick a new domino from the pile that was left. At the end of the game (someone had no more dominoes) all the dominoes that were currently left in your hand were subtracted from your score, and the highest score won that game.
    Was I the only one that played that way?? Seems somehow unlikely…

  21. JonFitt says:

    @James G
    It almost certainly does.

    I think saying one knows how to play dominoes is a bit like saying one knows how to play cards.

  22. Esc says:

    @jpearl01:

    Yeah that’s how I play dominoes over here in the states. It makes the game much more complex, you have to make sure the dominoes you play won’t allow the next person to score off what you play, and you can infer the pieces they have by previous plays/passes and what is on the board. This style of dominoes is also very popular in prison, so I hear.

  23. Matzerath says:

    @jpearlo1
    I’ve only played Dominoes with the scoring system you mention. Playing it as simple pattern-matching seems ever so slightly retarded, which makes me wonder why I didn’t naturally opt for that variant previously.

  24. monolith says:

    One of my granddads played “dodge the Nazi bullets on the frozen steppes of Eastern Europe” and the other played “dodge the Nazi bullets on the burning sands of North Africa”. I’m pretty sure they would both have preferred a nice game of dominoes.

  25. Bret says:

    Playing Dodge the Nazi bullets?

    Man. They’ve been mining the whole WW deuce bit in gaming longer then I thought.

  26. BMorr says:

    I played dominoes with my dad when I was younger – a more complex version called Fives and Threes. The objective was to score precisely 60 points.

    You still match the dots when placing a domino but the if the sum of the two open ends is a multiple of 5 or 3, then the player gets awarded the value of the multiplier. E.g. if the sum is 5, you get 1 point as 1 x 5 = 5.

    Quite a complex game really. Rules and a software version

  27. BMorr says:

    Sorry…

    Rules and a software version at: http://www.sadmansoftware.com/fivesandthrees

  28. Radiant says:

    “Dominos motherfucker!”
    *careens forward and smashes the table with my hand and body*

  29. jpearl01 says:

    @Esc and Matzerath, sweet I knew I couldn’t be the only one. Just matching the dots does seem a little *too* simple. Also, you might be right about the prison thing, since it fits the model of my childhood. Growing up in Northern NY in a town of 5,000 people via the vehicle of strict christian upbringing was kinda like prison. Well, perhaps not *exactly*. Cigarettes weren’t currency or anything. But dominoes was about as exciting as it got. *shudder*

  30. Chiablo says:

    I don’t think Rook would look as good if he were a big domino. Although his death animation would be hilarious.

  31. etho says:

    @Bhazor: How could you play Go with just pen and paper? You need to be able to remove pieces from the board.

  32. Monchberter says:

    AAAAAAAAAARRGHHH

    Since when did RPS become social theory????

  33. sassy says:

    @Chiablo: Well Mr. Domino was pretty awesome looking (from a psone game called no one can stop Mr. Domino), actually they should have just made the whole game out of Mr. Domino esque characters

  34. ndef says:

    Just for the record: KG, I love this series. Keep it up!

  35. Andrew F says:

    What Boolean Bob is talking about is true in Mahjongg, if you’ve been playing the various PC solitaire versions of it.

  36. Bhazor says:

    Reply to Ethno
    New pieces/stones are dots and captured pieces are denoted with a cross over them in the capturing colour.

    We make our own entertainment out in the country.

  37. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    @…hmm…:

    Are you suggesting that Kebabs are on any level superior to pizza? That’s a scandalous claim sir!

  38. Clovis says:

    Wait, were you playing draw or block? I don’t think dominoes is actually as simple as it is being described. If every game ends without a draw/block then you are doing it wrong.

    I mean, the game is simple, but there is a bit of strategy. You don’t always just have one choice of what to play. Since the numbers are small you can quickly deduce what the other player has in their “hand” and manage to win.

    I really like “vanilla” dominoes. The variations do not make it more “complex”, just more convoluted. I remember being confused when I played dominoes as a kid, because it seemed way too easy. Later against a computer and then my wife I realized it was quite fun.

    I’m very interested to hear about backgammon, BTW. That is a truly misunderstood game. I find chess to be depressing because when you lose, you absolutely lose. The dice in backgammon give it some nice randomness, but there is a LOT of strategy in backgammon. If you don’t believe me, try playing against a good AI. You’ll end up losing 75% of the time.

  39. Ben Abraham says:

    @sassy

    I remember “No one can stop Mr. Domino”!! No one could stop him, unless you were a car and you ran him over or something.

    Wasn’t the game some sort of proto-”indie” game on the PS1 to show off some dev-kit or something? What a weird game to remember…

  40. Radiant says:

    No but seriously the only reason Dominos exist is so we can do Ice Cube impressions.
    And really you do need 4 people playing [RPS writers domino tourny?].
    Just have your codes pre thought up so you can help your partner!

  41. Radiant says:

    See if you can spot the codes in this game:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdDMD0bblMM&feature=related

    ps slam those bones!

  42. Jayteh says:

    Uh no, crib is a perfectly fine abbreviation of cribbage, even though crib somewhere may be another game (I suppose your referring to the pool game). My granddad taught me crib as well, however I never got as quick with my 15s

  43. veerus says:

    What about Go? Are there Go pieces in the box?

  44. Mark Stephenson says:

    @lack_26 You can find a variant of Mancala on several old school Nokia handsets. We called the game Bantumi. It was our obsession in the office after someone bought a Mancala set back from Africa so we decided to make a version of it for the phones. Still my favourite game I ever worked on.

  45. Kieron Gillen says:

    All the stuff on other Domino games is interesting. The funny thing about Dominos is that the rules sheet stated *this was dominoes*, while with cards, they stressed its nature as a device. I may come back to some of this stuff later – my domino ignorance is totally showing through, which is part of the exercise.

    KG

  46. BigJonno says:

    Bantumi? I loved that game!

  47. Meat Circus says:

    Fives and Threes. That’s how nana used to score dominoes when I played with her. I thought she was making it up.

    Bantumi is the only thing I miss about Nokia phones.

  48. Sinnerman says:

    Some people really get into their Dominoes, like Caribbean people who really slam them down.

    http://www.jamaicans.com/culture/articles_culture/dominoesjastyle.shtml

    What is this with exploring games like this though? Everyone knows that Rock Paper Scissors is the greatest game ever as it is the one that gave rise to the mighty RTS which is the highest form of strategy known to man.

  49. ...hmm... says:

    One would like to rescind one’s previous statement. One feels one has placed too much emphasis on the supposed superiority of kebabs over all inhabitants of the pizza kingdom, when this actuation was merely coincidental.

  50. Rudmer says:

    Based on the heated references to the game I am actually quite looking forward to the review of LUDO..

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