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Here’s how and why some dominoes differ in style, numbers, and history

A brief history of domino tiles begins with Chinese dominoes

We've spoken before about the history of Mexican Train Dominoes' name. The game's name conjures racist undertones, and by some definition, it should. But dominoes — in all their forms — have developed with the people and cultures that export it to new lands.

Most domino games evolved based on war and troop movement

Much of domino history is lost to time. But there is agreement that domino games began in China during the Song Dynasty as early as the 11th or 12th century. These domino games take a form we might recognize today with a traditional six-pip (dot) style domino tile.

There is little agreement on the origin of the term "domino" (either Latin's 'dominus', or 'master of the house', or based on a half-mask common in ancient Chinese culture). European-style dominoes may have evolved as a word because of their similarity to a hooded cape with black and white lining worn by French priests.

Like languages and diseases, many variations sprang up in different periods at different times. European dominoes originated in Italy in the early 1700s. Chinese dominoes evolved in the Asian subcontinent's vast geography to accommodate different strategies, tile starts, designs, and domino sets.

There is a theory that the 1918 flu epidemic originated in Kansas. Supposedly a farmer contracted the flu from a pig. The farmer was then drafted into the Army and shipped out with units of men that spread far and wide to Europe, Asia, Macedonia, and South America. Because of the virus's lengthy incubation period, the disease lay dormant and then emerged in the colder winter months simultaneously.

So it goes with dominoes and games. Chinese scripture suggests Hung Ming, a Chinese soldier, came up with the idea for dominoes using 32 domino tiles, perhaps as a way to pass the time. The British were introduced to a variation of dominoes that used 28 domino tiles by French prisoners of war, who likely got it from Italian soldiers in the early 1700s. Where the Italians got the idea is a mystery, but the slave trade and exploring ships are likely sources.

When playing domino games, you’re either blocking or scoring

The play style between European style dominoes and Chinese dominoes is similar:

These same strategies share themes with domino games that are offshoots, like Mexican Train Dominoes or Chickenfoot. Gameplay involves players moving to play their last tile before the game ends. But that's where the similarities ended.

Each domino has been assumed to mimic the results possible from throwing two six-sided dice. One half of each domino is set with the pips from one die, and the other half contains the pips from the second die. Chinese dominoes also mimicked "civil" and "military" suits or styles. Chinese dominoes were historically longer than western ones.

French philosopher Michael Dummet believed the tile's identity mattered most in western variations, with no concept of matching pips to the same number on the other player's tiles. Rather, players combined strategies from dice games for scoring purposes that led to victory.

Most domino games are either "blocking" or "scoring" games.

Domino tiles made of unusual materials further shaped games

Just as troop movement shaped our language, health, and culture in an era before flight and online interaction, dominoes evolved with dominant cultures. European dominoes expanded with the European powers of France, Spain, and Britain — coming eventually to new worlds like the Americas.

As the popular pastime spread, people used whatever materials they had available to them to create domino tiles. Stones and wood were common synthetic materials among Chinese dominoes and European-style dominoes. There is evidence Eskimos have made domino tiles out of bones. At one point in many royal histories, Kings and Queens sometimes used men on large open stages or fields as single domino "tiles."

The colors of the pips also evolved based on materials available to individuals and cultures. It's not unreasonable that six pips became common because of the size of available tiles. White pips or black pips were likely the most common color combinations because of the relative ease of creating white or black dyes or paints. Colored pips likely started with more common red, green, and blue dyes before including harder color combinations to create, like purple or violet. Double blank tiles (for a zero tile) probably made for easy production of at least one of the tile pairs.

As popularity expanded in cafes, coffee houses, and pubs worldwide, variations increased, especially as materials became easier to work with. Double nine, twelve, fifteen, and even sixteen sets enabled other players to join in larger sets at the table.

Gameplay has evolved over many centuries, with people able to play individually against computers or other players online. Domino sets continue to evolve with intricate accessories and, like chess sets, come in a variety of styles, materials, and are either mass-produced for cheap production or forged with a sense of craft. The most expensive domino sets are made of gold and diamonds, held in a marble case and are valued at $153,000.

If you don't have $153,000 for 28 dominoes, you can get a double-twelve domino set for free with our Mexican Train apps and online gameplay.

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