What Is Domino?

Domino, or dominoes, are a set of flat tiles with a line in the middle to divide them visually into two squares. Each square has an identifying pattern on one side, with the other blank or bearing from one to six spots (called “pips”). A single domino has inertia and won’t move unless something pushes it. When a domino does fall, it converts its potential energy to kinetic energy and transmits that energy to the next domino. This energy continues traveling from domino to domino until the last one falls.

Physicist Lorne Whitehead demonstrates that when a domino is set up correctly, it can knock over objects about one-and-a-half times its size. The key to this domino effect is placing the tiles in a well-matched pattern. The tiles must all touch each other and have the same number of pips on each end to make the setup work.

The game arrived in Britain in the 18th Century, possibly through French prisoners of war, and became popular in inns and taverns. In North America, Inuits play a game of domino with bones that seems to be an imitation of Western games rather than a native invention.

A basic domino set, called a double-six set, contains 28 tiles that can be laid on their edges in two rows to form straight lines or curved lines. The tiles can also be stacked in 3D structures such as towers and pyramids. More complex domino sets have more than two rows and include a variety of shapes.

Traditionally, dominoes have been made from wood or ivory and decorated with colored inlaid pips. In modern times, they’re often made from polymer such as plastic or ceramic clay. Some people still prefer the look and feel of natural materials, though, so there are also a number of sets available in stone (e.g., marble or granite); soapstone; other woods such as oak or ash; metals like brass and pewter; and even glass.

When a player can’t lay a tile, she “chips out.” The partners then continue to draw and play tiles until the entire stock is used up or one partner has all of the remaining tiles. Then the winner is the partner whose combined total of spots on his or her remaining tiles is the least.

Hevesh, who creates the mind-blowing domino setups, follows a version of the engineering-design process to design her installations. She considers the theme or purpose of an installation and brainstorms images or words that might be incorporated. She then draws a diagram that includes the pieces she wants to use and makes arrows showing how they would go down. If she needs more detail, she uses a magnifying glass to look at the tiles. As the domino set grows larger, identifying the pips can become difficult. To make them more readable, some large domino sets use Arabic numerals instead of pips.