How Dominoes Work

Dominoes are square pieces with a pattern of dots, called “pips,” on one side and blank or identically patterned on the other. Each domino also features a central line or ridge that is not part of the pattern of spots. Dominoes are used to build a sequence of plays, which form a game. The first player to reach a designated goal wins the game. The most common games are block and scoring games, and a domino set may contain any number of players from two to eight or more.

Lily Hevesh began playing with dominoes when she was 9 years old, using her family’s classic 28-piece set. She loved setting up the tiles in straight or curved lines and flicking them over, watching the entire sequence of dominoes tumble one after the other. Now, at 20, she’s a professional domino artist who creates stunning setups for movies, TV shows, events, and her own YouTube channel. She has even built a domino installation for a music video by pop star Katy Perry.

Domino art can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be — from a grid that forms pictures when it falls to 3-D structures like towers and pyramids. But no matter what the design, there’s a scientific principle at work that’s key to ensuring each piece of the domino effect works: gravity.

As each tile is played, it falls on top of the previous domino and begins a chain reaction that grows in length as the series of plays continues. The end of each domino showing a number is called its face, and if the domino has no number on one of its faces, it’s known as a zero or blank suit. Domino chains can grow very long, and if any of the dominoes fall off of the table without a clear next move, the chain is blocked.

The most common domino sets commercially available are double six and double nine. Larger sets exist, but are mostly used for special purposes. The largest extended sets introduce additional pips on each end of the dominoes, allowing for more unique combinations of ends and thus more possible tiles.

After the dominoes have been shuffled, each player draws the number of tiles permitted for his or her hand according to the rules of the game being played. The player with the heaviest double (or the highest single, if applicable) makes the first play. If the hands are tied, a new game is begun by drawing tiles from the stock.

The word domino is derived from the Latin dominus, meaning “lord” or “master,” and originally denoted a type of hooded cloak worn with a mask at a carnival festival or masquerade. The word has also been linked to the French term for a cape worn by a priest over his or her surplice. In its most recent sense, the word domino is most commonly applied to the game of dominoes.