Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
Published December 10th 2010
Confucius says: playing Mahjong is good for wallet if first it's good for your mind.
OK, he didn't really, but there is a line of thinking that suggests that this most famous of Chinese philosophers is the brains behind this challenging game of skill and strategy – with an element of chance thrown in – which is challenging Poker as the gamers weapon of choice.
The traditional version involves four players, and a rather complex looking set of 152 tiles that are something like Rummikub tiles but with more complicated pictures on them. In the set there are 28 'Honour' tiles, 108 'Suit' or 'Common' tiles and eight 'Bonus' tiles. The pictures are actually Chinese characters and symbols, which differentiate them into groups, something like the suits of playing cards. Unlike playing cards Mahjong has three suits: one which looks like dots, one which looks like lines, or bamboo, and one with characters. Each of these suits has all the numbers up to nine. If you can't read Chinese it's not a bad idea to get a score at the end, you don't use them in play, if you draw one you just get to keep it and improve your score.
The point of the game is also similar to Rummikub, the winner is the first player to lay all their tiles onto the table in sets, which will be three sets of three or four tiles, plus an identical pair. The sets of three or four can be identical triplets (three threes for example), or quadruplets, or in sequence: 1,2,3; 5, 6, 7; etc. In Mahjong terminology, a set of quadruplets is called a Kong, a set of triplets is called a Pung, a set of twins is called Eyes and a sequence of tiles is called a Chow.
To play get your four players around a table – it's easiest if you use a square table as the game is laid out in a square. At the very beginning of a game all the tiles are tipped face down on the table and rummaged around a bit. Players then stack two row of tiles in front of them that are two tiles high and 18 tiles long. These rows are then pushed together to make a square and this becomes the tile wall – a suitably Chinese title.
To work out who goes first for the first game – which is called having the prevailing wind - the three dice are thrown by each player and the one with the highest score is the dealer, who is said to have the east wind, which is always the prevailing wind at the beginning of a set of games. The player to their right gets the south wind, the player opposite the dealer is west and the player to their left is north. At the end of the game, unless the dealer wins, the player to the right of the dealer gets the prevailing wind, or the advantage of going first.
Once the dealer is decided, he or she rolls the dice again and use the number they roll to count along the edges of the tile wall counter clockwise, with the dealer's portion of wall being number one. The wall they finish on is the first to be dismantled. Then they count the same number rolled along the wall and this is the point they start dealing tiles from, taking the first two stacks of tiles for them selves and then dealing two stacks to each player until they have 12 in front of them. The dealer then deals another two stacks to themselves then deals single tiles to the other players until the dealer has 14 tiles and everyone else has 13. Bonus tiles are then turned over to face everyone and new tiles taken from the wall.
The 'board' is now set up and the game commences. Many beginners find the set up the most confusing bit, so don't be put off.
The dealer starts by taking one of their tiles and discarding it into the 'courtyard' which is the space in the middle of your walls. Once a tile hits the courtyard it's fair game for anyone who can make a Kong or Pung out of it, however when they do this they have to show those tiles to the rest of the group and discard another tile into the courtyard so that they still have the same number of tiles in their hand. If no one can use it in a set then the player whose go it is next may choose to pick it up from the courtyard and use it to make a Chow. They must also show their set, and discard another tile when doing so. Only the person whose go it is next is allowed to use a tile to make a Chow.
Replacement tiles are taken from the wall. When you take a tile from the wall you can choose to keep it and discard another tile, which you do by placing it face up in the courtyard or you can discard the same tile.
Play always continues to the player on the right of the player who last placed a tile into the courtyard, so it needn't follow in strict order.
If you're good at math you might have noted that you need 14 tiles to win but you only ever have 13 in your hand – it's that tile you draw that makes all the difference. Which is why it's a game of luck as well as skill. Because once a tile going into the courtyard has been refused by the person to the right of the person who discarded it the no one else can touch it. And once the wall is depleted that's it, and if no one has won then you have to start all over again.
To win, you need three combinations and a pair. The three combinations could be anything: two Pungs and a Kong, or one Pung a Chow and a Kong, or three Chows etc. Unless you need to display your tiles in order to claim on from the courtyard you can keep them hidden from other players.
It may sound complicated, but once you're there behind your tile wall it starts to make a lot more sense.
Once you get the hang of it there's a scoring element to it as well, which makes it even more like Rummikub, or Gin Rummy - so if you can play one of those games you're off to a good start learning Mahjong. May the prevailing wind be with you.