It’s About Time You Learned How to Play Dominoes

Learning how to play dominoes is an essential skill for any bar games enthusiast. If you’re late to the game, this guide will give you a complete overview.

It is hard to imagine someone growing up without at least running across the game of dominoes.

As a kid, there is a good chance you learned a simple dominoes game.

You probably played it a few times, got bored, and moved on to more ‘adult’ bar games.

That is a real shame because games using dominoes are every bit as strategic and competitive as any card game, and a whole lot more boisterous. 

In this comprehensive guide on how to play dominoes, you will find out a bit about the colorful background of the game, learn the dominoes rules and strategies for a few of the more popular games (including block games, muggins and Cuban dominoes), and discover what to look for when buying a new set of dominoes.

It won’t be long before you are slamming bones with confidence. 

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Table of Contents

The Background of Dominoes

Dominoes Background

All it takes is a quick glance at a standard set of dominoes to see their similarity to six-sided dice. That’s not surprising when you think about the history of dominoes.

Most scholars believe the origins of modern dominoes came from a popular 12th-century gambling game in China.

The Chinese game used the tiles to represent civil and military ranks based on all the possible outcomes when throwing two six-sided dice.

But some researchers think dominoes has a much longer history stretching all the way back to ancient Egypt based on architectural evidence from a tomb in Thebes.

Regardless of where the game was first played, there was no record of dominoes in Europe before the early 1700’s.

That’s when the first domino sets began appearing in Italy, most likely arriving with merchants and missionaries returning from China.

Upon reaching Europe, dominoes was significantly altered from the more sophisticated Chinese game. The duplicate tiles were removed and replaced with tiles containing blanks.

The rules of existing dice and card games were then adapted for use with these new tiles.

Over the next century, the game spread to France, and eventually to Britain, and to the Americas.

Although dominoes may be relegated to the toy chest of children in most of the US and Europe, it is a favorite pastime in other regions, including parts of the Southern US and particularly in the Caribbean where locals play it passionately and competitively.

One reason for its popularity in this region is that fact that while cards and dice were seen by the Catholic Church as promoting gambling, dominoes never had the same connotation.

The origin of the name ‘dominoes’ has puzzled many players throughout the years. No one knows for sure when or how dominoes got their name.

The most probable theory is it came from the tiles’ resemblance to the black and white winter hood worn by French priests in the 18th-century called ‘domino,’ Latin for ‘master.’

How to Play Dominoes

Overview of How to Play Dominoes_Classic Set

Before delving into the rules of individual games, you will need to understand a few of the common dominoes terms. 

Let’s start with the basic anatomy of a domino:

A domino is a tile which is twice as long as it is wide.

The domino is divided into two equal square ends, usually with a line down the middle. Each end has a value based on the number of spots on the face of the domino.

The back of the domino is blank.

The maximum number of spots on each end depends on the total number of dominoes included in the set.

In a common 28 domino set, also called Double-Sixes, there are 7 different number values; one to 6 spots plus blanks.

Each number or blank is called a suit. Therefore, each domino, except for those with two of the same values, have two different suits.

Many sets of domino have a metal bump in the center of the domino. This is called the spinner, and it helps protects the face of the domino from scratches as well as make shuffling easier.

Dominoes Glossary

In learning how to play dominoes it’s helpful know the lingo. Here’s an overview of key dominoes terms:

Bones: Another name for dominoes. The term comes from when dominoes were made out of ivory or bone.

Boneyard: The common name for the reserve pile of dominoes players.

Block: Laying down a domino which results in your opponent needing to pass. 

Blocked Game: When all players have tiles remaining but are unable to make a legitimate move. This signals the end of a round. 

Cutthroat: Any domino game without partners.

Domino: One playing piece.

Dominoes: Playing pieces; Another term for to go out.

Double: A domino which has two of the same suit.

Doublet: Another term for a double. 

Draw: When a player needs to take an additional domino from the reserve pile because the player is unable to lay down a tile. 

Go out: When a player places his last domino to end a round. 

Handed: The number of players. It is written as x-handed game; a four-handed game has four players. 

Heads-Up: A game with two players. 

Heavy: A domino with a high value of spots on both ends.

Layout: The arrangement of played dominoes in the playing area.

Light: A domino with a low value of spots on both ends.

Shuffle: Mixing dominoes face down before dealing at the beginning of a game. 

Spinners: Some games allow players to lay tiles not only at each end of a double, but also on either side for a total of four tiles. When doubles are used this way, they are called ‘spinners.’

Suits: Each individual number plus the blank is considered a suit. Therefore, in a Double -Six set of dominoes, there are 7 suits (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and blank). In the same way, a Double Nine set has 10 suits (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and blank) and so forth. 

Tile: Another term for a domino. 

Train: Another term for the layout of dominoes in the playing area. 

Pass: Skip your turn because you don’t have a legitimate play.

Pips: Another term for suits.

Value: The total number of spots on a domino. 

Domino Rules For Popular Games

Just like cards, learning how to play dominoes can open up an endless variety of games.

Most of these games can be broken down into three main categories: blocking and drawing games, scoring games, and trick-taking games. 

  • Blocking and Drawing Games: In blocking and drawing games, the goal is to be the first to lay down all of your dominoes. Points are awarded once play is over and are based on the value of the dominoes left in a player’s hand. At the end of a certain number of rounds, the person with the lowest score wins. 
  • Scoring Games: In scoring games, players get points both during play, depending on how they lay their tiles, and at the end of the round. In a scoring game, the person who reaches a certain number of points wins the game.
  • Trick-taking Games: Trick-taking games closely resemble card games such as Euchre and Spades, The goal of these types of games is to outbid your opponents while being able to cover your bid by winning tricks. Most trick-taking games are played with a partner, and the winner is the team which manages to take the most tricks. 

How to Play a Block Game

This is probably the game that comes to mind when someone asks if you know how to play dominoes.

Because it is so simple and straight forward, it is an excellent game to start off playing. 

Number of Players: 2 – 4 players

The Equipment: A Double-Six set of dominoes. A way to keep score.

The Set Up: Each player draws a domino to determine who will go first. The heaviest tile wins.

Shuffle the dominoes and give 7 dominoes to each player in a two-handed game and five dominoes to each player in a three- or four-handed game.

Place the remaining tiles off to the side of the playing area.

The Block Game is usually played cutthroat, but you can use partners in a four-handed game if you desire.

If you are playing with partners, make sure your partner is sitting across the table from you. 

The Play: The player lays down any domino in the center of the playing area. The player to the left then lays down a domino from his hand with a matching end or pass if he cannot.

Players must lay down a domino if he is able to do so and doubles are not spinners. Play continues until someone dominoes, or until no one has a legitimate play. 

The Scoring: In a cutthroat game, the winner is the player who has the lowest value of dominoes left in his hand when the round ends.

In games with partners, the total value of both partners is added together to determine who is the winner of the round.

The winner receives a point total equal to the value of all opponents’ dominoes minus their own.

Cutthroat games are usually played to 61 points, while winners need 100 or more points when playing with partners. 

The Common Variations:

  • The player with the highest value double plays first.
  • The winner of the last round will lead in the next round.
  • Dealing a different number of dominoes to each player at the beginning of the round.
  • The points awarded to the winner are doubled if the last domino is any double, or the final domino could have been played at either end of the train.  

The Basic Strategy:

  • In a game with partners, lead with your strongest suit preferable the double. 
  • Try to finish your turn with the ends of the train showing suits which you control.
  • Keep track of ends of the train when your opponents pass.

How to Play Muggins Dominoes 

Muggins is a very popular scoring game where players try to end their turns with the total value of the ends of the train being a multiple of five. 

Number of Players: 2 – 4 players

The Equipment: A Double-Six set of dominoes and a convenient way to record points. A cribbage board makes scoring easier, but a pencil and paper work almost as well. 

The Set Up: Each player draws a domino to determine who will go first. The heaviest tile wins.

Shuffle the dominoes and give 7 dominoes to each player in a two-handed game and five dominoes to each player in a three- or four-handed game.

The remaining tiles are placed in the boneyard within easy reach of all players. Muggins is always played as cutthroat.

The Play: The leading player lays down any tile of his choosing.

All doubles are placed vertically, and the total value of both ends of doubles are used when scoring. The first double is the only spinner.

If the opening tile scores, mark it down to end the player’s turn. The person to the left can now place a tile with a matching number of spots on either end.

Record any scoring during play. 

Players who are unable to lay down a domino on their turn must draw dominoes from the boneyard until they are able to do so.

If a player can neither draw dominoes or lay one down, he is blocked and must pass without scoring any points for the turn. 

Play continues until one player dominoes, or no one can make a legitimate move. 

The Scoring: During play, a player can earn points by ending his turn with the open ends of the layout totaling a multiple of five (5, 10, 15, 20, etc.).

The player earns points equal to the total. For example, a player who finishes his turn with a total of five on the ends, he will earn five points immediately.

If the points earned during play allow the player to reach the required number of points to win, the game is over. 

At the end of the round, any remaining individual domino left in a player’s hand is rounded to the nearest multiple of five.

The points are then awarded to the winner of the round.

For example, in a two-handed game, the losing player has three dominoes left in his hand, 1-2, 2-6 and 0-1, the winning player gets 15 points: 1-2 rounds up to 5, 2-6 rounds up to 10, and 0-1 rounds down to zero. 

Head-up games are typically played to 250 points, while other games are played to 200. If you are using a cribbage board to keep score, each hole is worth five points.

The Common Variations:

  • Drawing additional tiles is against the rules. 
  • Not drawing the last two tiles from the boneyard in a two-handed game or the last tile if more people are playing.
  • A change in the number of points it takes to win. 

The Basic Strategy:  

  • Lead with the 5-5 or a scoring tile. 
  • Keep the ends of the layout low, especially if your opponent is close to winning. 
  • Play more aggressive early in each round by trying to score points. 
  • Play more defensively in the later stages of the game by attempting to block your opponent. 


Video Introduction to Muggins and Its Variations.

How to Play Cuban Dominoes

Baseball and dominoes are the national pastimes in Cuba. This simple block game uses a Double-Nine set, which is the most popular type of set in Hispanic countries. 

Number of Players: 4

The Equipment: A Double-Nine set of dominoes. A way to keep score.

The Set Up: Cuban Dominoes is a partner game. Partners are usually chosen at random using any method the players want.

Partners must sit opposite each other. Shuffle the dominoes and give each player ten tiles.

Place all the remaining tiles off the playing area as they won’t be used during the rest of the game. 

The Play: The player with the heaviest double lays down first. Doubles do not act as spinners, but are still played vertically.

The player to the right of the opener must match either end of the domino or pass.

In Cuban Dominoes you are able to pass even when you have a legitimate play. When all four players pass in a row, the round is over.

There is no drawing for additional dominoes. Play continues counter-clockwise until someone dominoes, or everyone is blocked from making a legitimate move. 

The Scoring: At the end of the round, both partners add the total of the remaining dominoes in their hands. T

his number is then given to the opponents as their score. A partnership wins when they reach a certain number of points at the end of a round.

Usually, the winning score is 150, but you should feel free to adjust it depending on your preference. 

The Common Variations:

  • Picking who leads by choosing one domino from those left over after dealing. The heaviest domino opens. 
  • Allowing the winning team to open in the next round.
  • A player with five or more doubles in his hand may ask for a re-deal.
  • If both pairs of partners reach or exceed the winning number, the partners closer to the actual number (the one with the lower total) wins. 

The Basic Strategy: 

Since your opponent’s score is based on the value of the tiles in your hand at the end of the round, lay down your heaviest tiles first.

Keep track of how many tiles of each rank are out there. This will help you to guess your opponent’s hand.

If you have very light dominoes and believe your opponents are blocked, you may want to pass even if you have a legitimate play in order to get a higher score. 


A Look at Dominoes in Cuba

There are many more ways to play with dominoes then just using them for competitive games. Math-based domino puzzles were popular pastime in French in the 1800’s.

If you find yourself with a set of dominoes and no one to play against, you may want to tackle a game of solitaire, or practice toppling or stacking.

People even use dominoes to tell the future!

What to Look For When Buy Dominoes Set

Once you learn how to play dominoes, you may quickly find that you want to own your own set. Dominoes come in a dizzying variety, materials, and price points.

Before choosing a set of dominoes, especially if you are spending more than a few dollars, there are a few factors you need to keep in mind. 

The first and most important thing you need to think about is how many dominoes you want in your set.

Double Sixes sets containing 28 tiles and Double Nines with 55 tiles are the most famous varieties, but sets with many more tiles exist.

In the US and Europe, most players prefer using Double Sixes, but Double Nines are the dominoes of choice in many Caribbean countries.

Unless you have a desire to play a specific game which requires a certain number of tiles, your best bet is to choose the set which is most popular where you live.

After you decide on the number of tiles you want in your set, your next consideration is the size of the tiles themselves. There are five main sizes:

Mini Dominoes – Approximately 1-3/16″  x 9/16″ x 3/16″

Standard Dominoes – Approximately 1-7/8″ x 15/16″ x 1/4″ thick

Professional Dominoes – Approximately 2″ x 1″ x3/8″ thick

Jumbo Dominoes – Approximately 2″ x 1″ x 1/2″ thick

Tournament Dominoes – Approximately 2-3/16″ x 1-3/32″ x 1/2″ thick

Many people find Professional or Jumbo dominoes to have the right combination of size, heft, and readability for everyday play, but smaller dominoes may be more appropriate for young children or for those who have a more limited playing area.

Tournament-sized dominoes can be unwieldy for everyday play.

Go ahead and try playing with several sizes of dominoes before deciding which size you prefer. 

Finally, you will need to choose which material you prefer for your dominoes. Dominoes are no longer are made out of ivory or bone but do come in a wide range of options.

Many manufacturers of cheap sets cut costs by choosing low-quality plastics or woods which are lightweight and flimsy, providing a less than satisfying playing experience.

Moderately and higher-priced dominoes are usually made from more substantial plastics or resins which have the look and feel of ivory.

If you appreciate the vintage or retro look, second-hand Bakelite dominoes are often available inexpensively online.

Wood or ivory, large or small, Double-Sixes or Double-Fifteens, dominoes are fun.

Now that you know how to play dominoes, just pick up a set and start playing today!

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