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Clarifying Mexican Train Dominoes rules and questions during gameplay

Odds are everyone who plays Mexican Train Dominoes enough with a physical—or even digital—set will encounter some unusual questions and scenarios like these.

“If all of the dominoes of a single value except the double are played and covered, doesn’t that mean the person holding that last double loses?”

In other words, if all the two-pip dominoes are played and you draw the last one, which happens to be the 2|2 double, doesn’t that mean you can’t play it? And the answer is yes. You’re at least eliminated from playing all of your dominoes, but it doesn’t mean you’re automatically the loser that round.

Mexican Train Dominoes is scored by the lowest pip count, traditionally after three games. In this example of you holding a 2|2 domino, your opponents may be able to play all of their dominoes, meaning at least one could have a 0 score. But you may still have the second-lowest.

Additionally, the game may end with a block and no one can play all their tiles. In this scenario, you could still be the winner by having the lowest score compared to your opponents.

“If the Mexican Train hasn’t begun yet and a player can’t play early in the game, does that player have to open their train even if it’s not started either?”

This scenario can happen early in the game. Assume the Mexican Train has not started yet. Also, assume your personal train hasn’t started yet, either. What happens if you can’t play on the public Mexican Train or your train and you have to pass? Does your train—which isn’t even on its first tile—have to go public, too?

Traditional rules would say yes, you have to open your train. But house rule variations are wide open on this and may encourage players to skip the train entirely. This is how our Mexican Train online game and Mexican Train apps work. Our ruling is “if you can play, you must play. And if you can’t play, then your line opens even if it and the public Mexican Train hasn’t started yet.”

Who knows, maybe someone else can open your train for you and set you up for a better move next time.

“When you start a game, do you play one tile at a time or as many as possible?”

This is another question that comes up from an infinite well of house rule variations, specifically in “speed rules” that aim to shift the strategy and make the game move faster.

Traditionally you play one domino at a time unless you have a double. If you play a double on your first play (which can be a good Mexican Train domino strategy, by the way), then play another. If you can lay multiple doubles in a row to string moves together, even better.

Some house variations let players play as many dominoes as they can on their opening play. Then gameplay reverts to one domino at a time. Our online Mexican Train Dominoes game plays with the traditional rules of only one at the start.

“If you have a playable domino, can you choose to draw from the bone pile anyway?”

If you’re feeling lucky and want to play chicken with the boneyard, you could opt for a house rules variation to draw a domino and ignore your perfectly playable tile.

However, when you play Mexican Train online or in our apps, the traditional rules apply. The digital game knows you have a playable tile, so you’ll need to play it.

You might question why you’d want to skip a perfectly playable domino in favor of drawing from the bone pile, but there could be some strategy to it. One possibility is if your train has an end you can play on with an available domino, and you know your next two or three plays all line up neatly with the dominoes you have. But if an opponent plays a double that you’re forced to cover, this could ruin your plans. You could opt just to draw and hope for the best than knowingly destroying your chain of plays.

“If someone plays a double that’s the last of it’s numbered kind late in the game, shouldn’t you count the tiles to know it’s even coverable?”

In other words, if it’s late in the game and there are maybe only a dozen dominoes left in the boneyard and someone lays a 6|6, how do you know there are even any six-pipped dominoes left to cover it?

Traditional rules say you can ignore covering the double in this scenario, but yes, you would have to count the dominoes to know for sure you can ignore it.

There are three ways to count this during gameplay that would be fair to players:
  1. Have someone else not playing the game check the dominoes in the boneyard for available inventory or,
  2. Count all the available dominoes already played to ensure there’s at least one left in the boneyard.
Absent that, you could turn over all the dominoes in the boneyard for all players to see and then turn them back over and rigorously shuffle the pile.

This is a relatively obscure situation and not likely to happen frequently in most games. One benefit to our online Mexican Train games is the game always knows whether there’s an available tile in the boneyard or not.

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