Thursday, April 5, 2012

Games Around the World: Dominoes

Dominoes is a game nearly everyone played as a child and seems to be a familiar game to people on every continent. A tile or bone (named from their original construction) contains two values, each from zero (blank) to six represented by a number of dots. Each set contains one of every combination of tile making a set of 28, making for a easy to carry game.

As a travel game it is ideal. Most people know how to play and it is extremely simple to teach even with limited language, though some strategy helps with winning. Dominoes appears to be most popular in Central and South America (I have played in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia) though I played it a lot in East Africa too, especially in Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi (often with a set made from soapstone, some beautifully ornate). While as a child I always paraded the tiles on the table in front of me, in many games I played around the world, players cup the tiles in their hands more akin to playing cards taking sneaky glimpses at their tiles like they represent national secrets.

Games are played with great animation. Fierce concentration and studious silence is broken by the celebratory sharp crack of a tile slapped down on a table when a winning move is played. Like mancala and other games, the game is a great icebreaker when travelling and provides a great chance to meet with local populations. As a side benefit, it can teach numbers in the local language!!

While nearly everyone has seen and played dominoes, I will give a brief summary of the rules. While there are numerous variations, the basic game involves starting with a hand of seven tiles or bones (drawn from the evocatively named boneyard) and kept hidden from your opponents. Each game involves building a long line of tiles constructed by alternately playing tiles where the end value matches. That is, if the two ends of the line are a blank and a five, then you can play any tile where one of the values in your hand is a blank or a five. If you cannot match a tile, then you draw a tile from the boneyard and extend your hand. The object of the game is to lose all your tiles. If a game is blocked and no-one can play and the boneyard is empty, then the player with the least total dots left in their hand is the winner.

I overlooked a game called 42 in an American bar one night where the tiles were treated more like playing cards. Players make bids based on the value of their hands nominating trumps and playing out tricks where everyone plays a tile from their hand. Despite watching for a while I never worked out the game but it is a sign of the wide gamut of variations such a simple set of patterned tiles can bring.

Seek out chances to play games during your travels, some having deep cultural ties to the country or region.
For the duration of 2012 at the start of each month, Travel Wonders features a popular or characteristic game played during my travels. The previous two articles have looked at popular African game mancala and my own personal favourite that always travels with me, Pass the Pigs.

Photo Credits: wooden table play, black&white,


Barbara Weibel said...

When I traveled in Mexico for four months in 2010, I was constantly running into groups of men slapping dominoes on tottering tables. Sometimes they were on the sidewalk, other times on the seaside Malecon, and occasionally played in wooden shanties tucked between two retail stores, but no matter where they played, their delight was always a constant.

Mark H said...

@barbara: I only ever saw men playing and they did play very animated. I think good moves were celebrated with a hefty slap of the tile and a satisfied lean back in their chair.

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