I know that Mexican Train is a friendly game, often played with family and friends, and that winning is not critical or terribly important. What is important is the social aspect of the game: talking, laughing, and having fun.
Having said that, I also know that there are people out there who would really like to become better at this game. Especially if the friendly people you play with are winning more often than you are and you are starting to become distraught and depressed over it.
Winning the game of Mexican Train Dominoes is not as hard to do as you may think. There are some simple tips that can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the game. Weather you are a beginning player, an intermediate player, or an advanced player, you will still benefit from these strategic tips.
Mexican Train does have a lot of rule variations that are used throughout the world, however most of my strategic tips apply to all the most popular rule sets and I’ve noted in the text where the strategy may vary for different rules.
Organize your dominoes into the best possible train
Of course, every hand starts by “dealing” a number of dominoes to each player. Depending on how many people are playing, this number can vary from 7 or 8 to 15 or so. The actual number is not relevant. But it is very important to organize your dominoes into the best possible train before starting play.
Once the starting double has been played, by you or anyone else, you build a train with your remaining dominoes that starts with the same pip value as the opening double and connect as many dominoes as possible to that train.
To truly calculate the best possible way to organize a player’s dominoes, one would have to consider every domino that has been played so far, and do quite a bit of math in order to calculate odds. The best play at any point in the game is dependent on what has been played up to that point. As this is unrealistic, I prefer to “approximate” the best train by using these 3 basic rules:
- The train with the most dominoes is best.
- Given 2 trains of equal length, the train with the most points in it is best.
- Given 2 trains of equal length and equal point value, the best train has higher point value dominoes placed as far forward in the train as possible.
Play your spares first whenever possible
Playing a spare is your first order of business. If there is no possible play from the spares, then play from your train.
If you have spares, then play from the end of your train whenever possible
This is very important! Your first choice is to play from your spares, but your second choice is to play from the end (caboose) of your train. You’ll find lots of times where you play from the end of your train, and suddenly one of the spares can fit onto the end. This has the same effect as playing a spare.
Watch for opportunities to change your caboose
If the last domino in your train is a 10-4, and one of your spares is 10-2, and you can play either on an opponent’s marked train (when I say “marked train”, I mean a players’ train which is open for anyone to play upon), or on the Mexican train, play the 10-4, and move the 10-2 to the end of your train. If someone goes out before you do, you have saved yourself 2 points. This is such a common occurrence, that during the course of a full game, you are likely to save yourself dozens of points.
If you have spares, and the Mexican (or community) train has not been started, and one of your spares (or your caboose) can start it, then start it!
The Mexican (or community) Train is the most common place to dump your spares. You can’t do that if it has not yet been started. So given a choice of playing on an opponents penny, or starting the Mexican train, start the Mexican train. But this is only if you have spares to play. If all your dominoes are in your train, then you don’t need the Mexican train, so don’t start it.
Know when to play on your own marked train vs. another train when you have a choice.
Sometimes you will be faced with a choice of playing a domino on your own marked train, OR on another player’s marked train or the Mexican Train. You don’t want to play on your own train, thus removing your penny, unless you have another domino you can play on your own train.
For example, let’s say you have only one domino left, the double-6, your train is marked (a penny is on it), and it is your turn. You cannot play the double-6 so you must draw. You draw a 10-8. Let’s say the end of your own train is a 10 and the end of the Mexican Train is a 10. So you have a choice. You can play the 10-8 on either your own train (removing your penny) or on the Mexican train.
The correct choice is to play the 10-8 on the Mexican Train, not on your own. This will keep your own train marked and available to the other players thus improving the chance that you might play the double-6 and go out.
If the Mexican train is stuck, i.e., nobody is playing on it, and you do not have any spares, then don’t play on the Mexican train from the end of your train. You want it to remain stuck so the other players cannot play on it either.
If you have a choice of playing a domino on one of two opponents’ marked trains, choose the opponent with more dominoes to play.
If you do not have any spares, so you are just playing out your train, and the end of your train would fit on an opponent’s marked train, don’t play it. Why unstick an opponent?
If you’re playing with the rules that say doubles do not have to be covered, here is another tip: Play doubles as soon as possible – even from your train.
You should play a double as soon as possible. Playing a double from the middle of your train does not destroy the integrity of your train. It just lowers the point total of your hand. When someone else goes out, you don’t want to be caught with a double in your hand that you could have played earlier in the hand.
There certainly luck involved in Mexican Train, but luck has a tendency to even out over time, with everyone getting their fair share of good luck and bad luck.
So, although my strategic tips won’t guarantee a win every time, they do promise to improve your game and most likely, improve it to the point that you are winning more often than your opponents.