The simple black-and-white domino certainly deserves a place in the pantheon of classic game designs, somewhere alongside Bicycle playing cards and the Staunton chess set. Traditionally made out of ivory or bone—the latter giving the individual tiles their colloquial nickname—the domino itself, like the games it’s used for, has served people well for at least a few centuries. Still, inevitably, conventions get flouted and traditions die out. We no longer kill elephants, for example, to make things like billiards balls, piano keys, and, yes, dominoes. And occasionally, someone comes along and says, "Maybe a domino doesn’t even need to be a rectangle."
That bold step was one taken by designer Derek Welsh, who recently designed two new sets of dominoes, Semaphor and Oblique, in collaboration with the Glasgow-based design outfit Graphical House. Both are a little bit radical in their own way.
The Semaphor set is made from birch ply and eschews the standard domino dots in favor of various markings that split the sides of the tiles into triangles, rectangles, and squares. Instead of matching numbers, presumably, players match patterns—a full open side with one of its kind, a bisected one with another bisected one, and so on.
Oblique upholds the convention of a domino with up to six dots, or pips, on each side—though in this case, they’re especially tiny pips—but it’s noteworthy for its departure from the most fundamental aspect of the domino’s form: its rectangular shape. The Oblique tiles, hand-cut from Douglas fir, are defiantly slanted parallelograms, resulting in zig-zagging lines of play. If your standard game of dominoes proceeds at right angles, like the old-school mobile phone classic Snake, Oblique’s games end up looking a bit more like the real, scaly article.
Despite how heretical some might find the designs, Welsh and Graphical House had intended to do something unconventional from the start. When they were figuring out what they wanted to collaborate on, Welsh explains, they chose the domino, "as it reflects many principles of design, grid structures, graphic markings, and numeric systems." Basically, they didn’t go into this thinking about sitting on the porch passing time with your grandpa; the project was always about looking at the way dominoes convey information and engender certain types of game play, and then taking those things in a slightly new direction.
"We had planned to design one set," Welsh says, "but through several meetings it became clear we had two very different designs which both brought an alternative approach to the game." Maybe not alternatives we all want to play, but certainly ones that are nice to look at.
[Hat tip: It’s Nice That]