How Do Dominoes Work?


Dominoes are a cousin of playing cards and an ancient tool for game play. They are used for games of chance and strategy, as well as to create awe-inspiring displays of domino art. But how do the pieces really work, and what forces affect how they fall?

Dominos are rectangular blocks that separate one side into two squares with an arrangement of dots, called pips, on each. These identifying marks are affixed to either end of the piece, which can be blank or identically patterned on each half. Dominoes can be used in a variety of ways, including blocking, scoring, and positional play. In some games, dominoes are placed side-by-side and their exposed pips must match: for example, two dominoes with matching ends might be arranged to form a square or diagonal line. In these types of games, the dominoes are scored based on their exposed pips.

Lily Hevesh has been playing with dominoes since she was 9 years old. Her grandparents had the classic 28-pack and she loved putting them in straight or curved lines before flicking the first one, watching as the rest fell. Today, Hevesh is a professional domino artist and has more than 2 million YouTube subscribers who watch her intricate creations. She has also crafted setups for movies, TV shows, and events—including an album launch for Katy Perry.

Hevesh begins each installation by making test versions of her design. She then films the tests in slow motion to check how the pieces work individually and corrects them when necessary. Once she has the smaller sections figured out, she adds the bigger 3-D arrangements. Hevesh says she is most inspired by the way her dominoes move and the sound they make when they are knocked down.

She is also inspired by the way dominoes are set up for displays and shows. She watches videos of domino artists competing for the most spectacular set-up before a live audience and says she admires how the performers can “make thousands of unmoving dominoes come together to create a stunning effect or reaction.”

Dominoes need friction to make them move. When a domino slides against another, or its bottom slides against the surface on which it sits, energy is transferred between the pieces and converted to heat and noise. This energy is the force that causes a domino to move forward and push the next domino in its row.

Dominoes can be arranged to create a grid that forms pictures when they fall, stacked walls, or 3D structures like pyramids and towers. They can also be sculpted into shapes. Some designers even create tracks to race cars down, or use them in 3D sculptures and architectural displays. The earliest written evidence of dominoes dates to the mid-18th century, but the word itself may have been inspired by earlier senses of the phrase: in English and French, domino was once synonymous with a long hooded cloak worn over a priest’s surplice, and the Dominican order was founded in part to circumvent religious proscriptions against playing cards.