The Wonder of Domino

When most people think of domino, they think of the game in which players set up rows of rectangular pieces and then knock them down. However, the individual pieces in a domino set—also known as bones, tiles, cards, or spinners—have many nicknames and can be used for more than just playing games. For example, you can use them to create sculptures and other structures, or line them up to make a curved or straight domino construction. The term domino also refers to a sequence of events that cause something else to happen, or the effect of one action cascading to affect the whole. Today’s Wonder of the Day, inspired by Juan, asks us to consider the “domino effect.”

Dominos are rectangular tiles with a line down the middle separating them into two squares. Each half of the domino has a number of spots, or pips, that indicate its value. The values range from blank or no pips to six. A domino with the same number of pips on each side is called a double. The sum of a domino’s values is called its rank or weight. A heavy domino is usually higher in rank than a light domino, but this is not always the case.

There are countless domino games and variations, but the most common uses of dominoes involve positional play. In a positional game, each player in turn places a domino edge to edge against another, forming either an identical pair or some specified total. The first domino played in this way is sometimes referred to as an “opening” domino because it initiates the chain of play. The winner is the player who can continue to play dominoes in this manner until he or she reaches a point at which no more dominoes can be laid.

The domino game was first recorded in the mid-18th century in Italy and France. The name of the game comes from the Latin word dominus, meaning lord or master. A more obscure meaning of domino in English was a long hooded cloak worn together with a mask at a carnival or masquerade. The word also appears in French as dominus, and an even earlier sense of the word referred to a priest’s black domino contrasting with his white surplice.

Dominoes are available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Each variant has its own rules and scoring systems. In most cases, a domino’s value is determined by the number of pips on its edges and face. Some variants of the game allow the players to pick and play any domino from their hand, while others limit them to the lowest-ranking double. The number of dominoes in a hand is typically limited to seven. After a hand is complete, the bones are reshuffled and each player draws the number of dominoes required, normally seven. The player who plays the first bone of a new hand begins by picking and playing a domino that matches one of the open ends in the layout of the remaining bones. This is sometimes referred to as setting, leading, downing, or posing the first bone.