How Do Dominoes Work?


The domino is one of the oldest toys in human history and has become a symbol of gamesmanship, patience, and logic. Players lay a series of dominoes on the table and then knock them over in careful sequence, competing with each other to see whose line of dominoes falls first. Some domino shows even feature domino builders creating amazing effects and reactions in front of an audience of fans. It turns out, though, that creating such elaborate domino lines and letting them fall takes more than just luck. To understand the domino effect, we need to turn to physics.

Hevesh, the artist behind the mind-blowing domino setups featured in this video, says that one physical phenomenon is key to her designs: gravity. As a domino is set upright, it has potential energy, or stored energy based on its position. As it tumbles down, the energy it has stored gets converted to kinetic energy—the energy of motion—and some of that energy is transferred to the next domino, providing the push it needs to topple over. The process continues, domino after domino, until all the pieces have fallen in a cascade of rhythmic motion.

Most modern domino sets consist of 28 tiles, although larger sets are available to allow for a greater variety of games. Each domino has a square-like surface with a pattern of dots on one side and is blank or identically patterned on the other, making it easy to identify its suit (either the number or a blank). Each domino also bears the identifying markings called pips, which are the same as those found on dice. Some pips are marked with numbers, while others are marked with a blank, or a zero.

Like playing cards, the different suits of dominoes have a variety of names, including blocks, doubles, and triplets. In most cases, the name of a suit corresponds to its numerical value; for example, all tiles with three pips belong to the suit of triplets. The most popular types of domino play are blocking games, in which each player takes a turn putting down a single domino until the chain reaches a predetermined length.

As the chains grow longer, it becomes more difficult to determine how to end a game. Usually, play stops when one player is unable to continue—this is known as “chipping out.” Alternatively, the winner may be determined by a contest between partners in which each plays all of their remaining dominoes until one or both cannot play anymore.

Dominoes are not only an entertainment tool, they’re a great way to teach children about basic principles of math and engineering. They can be used to create straight lines, curved lines, grids that form pictures when they fall, stacked walls, and even 3D structures like towers and pyramids. They can be simple or as complex as the builder wishes, but each one is a work of art.