Dragon Scales are gaming pieces in common use throughout the Empire and beyond. They are triangular, supposedly representing the scales of a dragon's spine. They are usually made from wood but some are also made from ivory, metal or other materials. There are sets made from precious metals but these are art items rather than usable gaming sets.
The standard set of Dragon Scales consists of forty pieces. There are five "suits"; red, yellow, blue, green and black. Each suit is made up of scales numbered one to eight. One side of the triangle bears a coloured spot marking the suit (although the filigreed set given to some king or other uses precious stones), and this is commonly known as the "leading" or "head" edge. The other sides bear a number of notches denoting the numerical value of the scale (see sidebar illustrations for the most usual arrangement). You will note that the "one" of any suit bears a blank side, and a side with one notch. The side with the notch is the "base", and the blank side (or its equivalent in higher values) is the "trailing" or "tail" edge.
As well as the forty standard pieces there are additional "spirit" pieces. The number and type of these varies with region, and the role that they play in games, if any, also varies considerably. The most common spirit pieces are the four winds (North, South, East and West) and the five flowers (Moon Jasmine, Sickle Flower, Cherry Blossom, Chrysanthemum and Bamboo). Others may include Sun, Moon, Stars, the four Wanderers and various principles.
Dragon Scales can be used like cards, or dominoes, or Mah Jong tiles. The most common game is Skin, a form of triangular dominoes where opponents lay down their hands of scales one by one, matching number to number or colour to colour. The aim is to be the first to lay down one's hand. In the usual variant, each contestant has a hand of five tiles at any time, taking one off from the stack each go, whether or not they manage to lay down a tile. In this game, the blank face of the scales with the value of "one" are hardest to match up to (there only being five in the whole set) and so placing a one of any suit is known as "showing a blank" which is a term that has come to symbolise being given no options.
Four Winds is a game much like poker, using the forty standard tiles and, in the most common version, the four wind tiles. The idea is to collect a better hand than your opponent (or bluff them into thinking that you have). The name comes from the best hand in the game - all four winds plus one other piece.
Wheels is a pattern-making game, similar to Skin but more complex. The aim is to create a "Wheel", which is six tiles of the same colour arranged in a hexagon. The spirit tiles are used in this game to give extra effects like the ability to move your opponents scales, force them to remove a piece or to go again.
Tenora-Mishu, named after the goddess of inspiration who sends dreams via Moon Jasmine, is a discarding game similar to Old Maid or Rummy. The idea is to lay down one's hand of scales according to quite varied rules. Once one player has laid down their hand, the others get penalty points according to the scales still in their possession. The player ending the game with the least points wins. The game's name comes from the fact that the Moon Jasmine tile gives the highest penalty.
Many more games exist, from the highly complex "Four Corners" which plays a little like bridge, to the simple "high-low" games played in Llaza for a quick bet (two players cut a stack of scales. Highest draw wins).