MEXICAN TRAIN DOMINOES

as played in Great Harbour Cay, Bahamas*


© 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 Ernesto ("Ernie") Martin


Overview. Unlike conventional dominoes, where you normally play with a partner, here you play by yourself. On each round, each player will play on his own dominoes train, where he will try to slough off all of his dominoes -- each player's train start at the center of the table and grows radially out towards the player. The starting domino number is known (first round starts with a 12, second round with an 11, etc.). So your first job when you pick up your dominoes, is to arrange them to make the longest train possible. We call those dominoes which you can't make part of your train "stragglers" and you will try to slough them on the Mexican Train (a separate train where anyone can play) or on one of your opponent's trains, if it becomes "open" when he misses a turn. With that as an overview, let's get to the detailed instructions.

General. Mexican Train is usually played with Double Twelve Dominoes, consisting of 91 dominoes. A set typically includes a cradle (with a slot for a center domino and eight radial slots from which the players' trains will start) and "markers" to identify "open" trains (see figure). Although two to ten may play, four to eight is best. A full game, with the first round starting with the 12 domino and the last round with the blank domino, will take about 3 hours. Half a game (from domino 12 to 6) will take half the time. As in most dominoes games, the objective on each round is for you to get rid of all your dominoes or, failing that, to end up with the smallest count possible. Here are the rules:

Shuffling the dominoes. Place the dominoes face down on the playing surface and move them around to shuffle them.

Dealing the dominoes. Determine the number of dominoes to be drawn by each player:
2 to 4 players - 15 dominoes
5 to 6 players - 12 dominoes
7 to 8 players - 10 dominoes
9 to 10 players - 8 dominoes

Draw pile or bone yard. The remaining dominoes are set aside to be drawn as needed by the players. This is called the "draw pile" or "bone yard". For players convenience, there may be more than one "pile" on the table; however, each players is free to make his or her draw from any of the "piles".

Center domino. The first round begins with the player having the double 12 in their hand placing that domino in the center of the table (in the center slot of the cradle, if one is available). If no one has the double 12, the player with the highest 12 places that domino in the center of the table. If no one has a 12, all dominoes are put down and reshuffled. Succeeding rounds use the same procedure, with the second round starting with the double 11 (or highest 11), the third round with the double 10 (or highest 10), etc.

Assembling your dominoes. After the center domino has been placed in the center of the table, each player then assembles their dominoes (hidden from the other players) to form a personal train. Each player's train must begin with a domino that matches the domino number being played in the center of the table. Your second domino must match the other end of the first domino, and so forth (for instance, on the first round, where the center domino might be the double 12 or the 12-10, you arrange your dominoes 12-5; 5-3; 3-11; 11-7; etc.). You're assembling your "train". You might have several "trains", all of them starting with the right number (in this case, 12), so your goal is to make the longest and highest count train that you can; the ultimate train is one that uses all possible dominoes in your hand. Since this seldom happens, the remaining dominoes that do not fit into your train are called "stragglers" and how you get rid of these is covered later.

Start of play. Play begins as soon as all players have assembled their trains. The player who earlier placed the center domino (and who has one less domino than the other players) starts the play, placing the first of his train dominoes (the 12-5, in the example above) radiating outwardly from the center domino towards him. Play continues clockwise around the table. Your train is yours alone, and it will not become "open" for others to play on it until you have been unable to play (see "Player can't play" below).

The Mexican Train. A wholly separate train -- the Mexican Train -- runs around the table and may be played on by any player in turn. It may be started by any player who has played at least once on his own train and must begin with the same number as the center domino (example: 12 in the first round, 11 in the second round, etc.). The following players may then play on the Mexican Train by matching a domino to the number on the "off" end of the domino (example: if the Mexican Train on the second round begins with an 11-3, the next player then plays a 3-7; then 7-9; etc.). Each player has the option of playing on their own train or on the Mexican Train (even if they haven't yet been able to play on their own train), using the Mexican Train to "slough off" the straggler dominoes that do not fit into their personal train.

Player can't play; open train. When a player cannot play anywhere (their own train, the Mexican train or the "open" train of another player), then they draw a domino from the bone yard. If they cannot play that domino on the board, then they place a marker on the last domino of their train (or on their assigned spot, if they have not yet played any dominoes) to indicate that this train is now "open". Any player can then play on this "open" train with the marker, offering yet another opportunity to get rid of stragglers. There is one exception: a player cannot play on someone else's train until his second turn, i.e., he must have first played (or failed to play for lack of the proper number domino) on his own train at least once. The open train is closed only when its owner can play on it, at which time the marker is then removed and no other player may play on that train.

Doubles. If a player plays a double on any train (which is placed sideways on the train), he must then play another domino of the same number on that same train (e.g., the double 4 followed by the 4-6). If the player cannot play this second domino to "close" the double (and the term "cannot" means exactly that, because if he has a matching domino, he must play it**), then he draws a domino from the bone yard. If he still cannot play on the double, he then marks his train as open. The next player must now play on this "open" double, following the same rule (pulling from the bone yard if necessary, and marking his train if he can't play). If he can't play, then it's the next player's turn to play on the double, and so forth. In short, an "open" double may not be left on the table, and no one can play anywhere until the double is covered. Note, however, that a player can go out with a double without having to play another domino.

Last domino. As play proceeds, any player who is down to one domino must give notice to the others at the time he plays his next-to-last domino. This is usually done by tapping the remaining domino against the table, and must be done before the next player makes his play. If he fails to give notice before the next player plays, he must draw a domino from the bone yard (or miss his next turn if no bone yard dominoes remain). No notice is required if a player goes out with two dominoes, as will happen with a double and a following same-number domino played together.

End of a round. When one player has played all their dominoes or the round is stymied wherein no player is able or will be able to make a play, the round ends. A round does not end when the bone yard is depleted, and players can continue to play with what they have. And, of course, if there are dominoes in the bone yard, play continues even if all players are unable to play for several turns; in this case, players keep drawing from the bone yard until the pile is empty, at which time the round ends. The only exception to this is if it can be shown with certainty that no more dominoes can be played, such as it occurs when someone plays the double 5 and a count of all played dominoes shows that there are no more 5s left, either in the pile or in players' hands; in that case, the round ends when such a determination is made, even if the pile is not empty.

Scoring; Double-blank. When a round ends, the players must add up the total of their remaining dominoes and give that total to the scorekeeper (example: if remaining dominoes in your hand are 3-5, 11-12 and 10-7, your score is 48). The Double-blank counts 50, so getting rid of it is important.

Winner. When the agreed rounds are completed (12, then 11, etc.), the player with the lowest total score after all rounds is the winner.


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*Played by many in Great Harbour Cay, Mexican Train dominoes is believed to have been introduced to the island by Toti Martell's brother, Benny. Over the past couple of years the game has developed slightly differently from the version played by Benny in Idaho. This page provides instructions for the version played on the island.

**This is required so a player cannot leave a double open on purpose, a strategy designed to force one or more subsequent players who can't cover the double to open his train (allowing others to play on it and possibly disrupt it) and may cause a player to cover the double with a domino from the center of his train (thereby breaking it).




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