Chicken Scratch: A domino game for any age

My grandmother came to visit two months ago. It was the first time she’d visited us in Madison, and I wanted to plan something special. We went to Olbrich Gardens for their Blooming Butterflies event, and we went out to lunch. Later we all got together for Chinese takeout and games. I brought an assortment of kid-friendly, family-friendly games for the 13 of us, ages 0 to 95. It turns out that we didn’t need any of them, though, because my amazing grandma travels with her own set of dominoes. We played Chicken Scratch Dominoes together, with kids sitting on laps and happy conversation all around. Here’s how to play this domino game that’s great for all ages.

Do you have a set of dominoes that comes with one of these things?

Domino "station" for domino game

This game is what it’s for.

Set up

Start by finding the double blank, and put it in the middle.

Pointing to the double blank. If you don’t have the wheel thingy, just pretend it’s there.


Turn over and shuffle the rest of the dominoes. Each player takes seven, placing them on edge so only they can see them. The remaining dominoes are the draw pile (also called the “boneyard.”)

Each turn

On your turn, you either play a domino or draw one from the pile. If you can play the one you draw, play it; if not, add it to your dominoes. The goal is to be the first person to play all of your dominoes.

Making the chicken feet

In Chicken Scratch, if there’s an open double on the board, you must play a domino there. That means at the beginning of the game you have to play a blank in one of the spokes off the center wheel. Once those openings are full, you can play by matching any open domino.

Play dominoes end to end, except for doubles. Those go at an angle, and then players must place 3 dominoes to make the chicken foot.

If you play a double, play it at a 90 degree angle, making the start of a new “chicken foot.” Everyone must play on the chicken foot until the 3 possible spaces have been filled.

Game end and keeping score

Keep playing until one player runs out of dominoes or no one can play. Low scores are good. Count all the dots on your remaining dominoes to total your score. You can buy a fancy scorepad, or just use a regular piece of paper.

The next round begins with the double 1  in the middle.

You could play 12 rounds. One per player is good, or just however many you feel like playing. Here’s a Wikipedia version of the rules that links to other domino games like Mexican Train dominoes. (They call it Chicken Foot, not Chicken Scratch.)

Bonus: This domino game teaches math

  • Looking at and recognizing a number of dots on sight is an essential math skill called “subitizing.” It’s why you can look at the X-shaped pattern of 5 dots when you roll a 5, or the 2 rows of 3 when you roll a 6, and you know what the number is without having to count them individually. For younger players who can’t count too high, domino sets often use colors as a cue to help them see what matches.
  • My Grandma gave me this strategy tip: to lower your score (which is good), use your highest-numbered dominoes first. Adding up your score at the end is a good time to practice counting, adding, matching up things that make 10, etc.–whatever’s age appropriate. And remember, it’s okay to make score adjustments.

Do you have a favorite domino game? Add a comment below.

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