Mahjong is a Chinese game about lining up tiles in a mathematically perfect fashion. The table must have a fucking lip, and making a lip out of balsa wood is unacceptable. You can only truly play Mahjong on a manufactured table. They take their Mahjong seriously, enough to bet money on it, and to have clockwork tables that shuffle and deal rows of tiles under the surface like something out of a James Bond film. The 'match-2' version you play on your computer isn't Mahjong in the exact same way that Solitaire isn't Poker; it's called 'Shanghai' by white people and "that stupid game white people play" by the Chinese.
If you're gwailo, easiest way to explain this game is: it's almost exactly like Gin Rummy. You wanna make three-of-a-kinds and straights, the tiles have suits and ranks like playing cards, and you can pick up discards from the middle of the table.
But, since we're talking Asians here, the game is miles more complex than a card game about alcohol. Compare the differences of structural variety between 52 cards and 137 cards.
There are several versions of Mahjong: Japanese Riichi, Hong Kong, classic (Hong Kong with flower tiles), American (which only elderly Jewish women play) and Korean 3 player. However, the core rules are the same. Players take tiles from "The wall" and add them to their hand while discarding a tile. Simply put, the game is like a race, where players try to "complete" their hand quicker than others, while trying not to discard a tile that will cause another player to win the round.
A basic complete hand has four combinations of tiles which are either three of a kind, four of a kind or a sequence of three tiles (i.e. 1,2,3) in addition a "head", which is a pair of tiles. Apart from the head, you can call the other combinations from other players' discards, unless it's the last incomplete thing on your hand . The special hands include all kinds of silly combinations; Such as having seven pairs. Important note: You can't win with a tile that you discarded earlier in the game. The rules on this aspect range from house to house.
Points are determined by how the player won the round. If another player threw away a tile that you grabbed and completed your hand with, that player has to pay the amount of points your hand was worth; If you claim the tile from the wall yourself, the price is split with the losers!
Mahjong is central in the Manga and Anime Legend of Koizumi, which is a series about former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and various world leaders (and the Pope, and Hitler) playing Mahjong as part of political negotiations and TO DETERMINE THE FATE OF THE WORLD. It's a combination of the "card games decide everything" thing from Yu-Gi-Oh combined with Fist of the North Star. It is badass, funny and even tearjerking at times. Go look it up. NOW.
Luck, Statistics or strategy?
Regarding reading discards: To interpret hands on what players throw out beyond a shallow estimate is like trying to achieve immortality. Unless you're some sort of interdimensional demon, just forget about it.
But what you can do is use the mighty powers of probability and statistics to your advantage. Doing so, you have a better chance of predicting what is the most plausible, rewarding and fastest hand you could strive to from your beginning hand or should you fold it, if you think your needless discards will cause another player to win.
Some argue that success in Mahjong is based on "flow" and demons. Which is supposedly very evident in high-stakes games, where everyone has a great hand but one poor bastard is going to lose his left testicle at the end of the round. The aforementioned statistical thinking opposes this school of thought.
One tiny thing you can do to tip the odds in your favour is to not get overconfident, don't get too greedy. Let's say the other players look like they're one tile away from winning. In your hand there's 679 of circles; which one do you discard? Bear in mind that a lot of times people are waiting for a tile to complete their hand, it's going to be between 1 and 9. Not all the time but I'd say ~70% of the time. So, you throw out the nine, even though it could get your as some extra minipoints, and wait for a 5 or 8 of circles. A related point is tile versatility, which comes from how many things a tile can form a combination with: 1s and 9s can only form a combination with 3 kinds of tiles (including the tile itself) (2,3;7,8)2s and 8s with 4 (1,2,4;6,7,9) and 3-7 with the most: 5. Honor tiles such as dragons and winds contain the worst versatility: 1. Holding onto tiles with high versatility enables you to gain combinations faster from draws while low versatility tiles make your hand sluggish and slow but more expensive.
Another small trick is to immediately decide what kind of hand and strategy you're going for right from your starting hand. Calculate how many tiles you need in order to win. Less or equal to 3? Go for it and fuck everything else; More than 4? Play defensively: Collect "anchors" and throw away tiles you're quite sure are safe.
Regardless of your strategy: The main point in Mahjong is not to have the best hand, but to lose the least amount of money.
How to play?
The Set and what to do with it
The entire set consists of 144 tiles. That's including the flowers and seasons. Here's the suits:
- Characters 1-9x4: "Money tiles", outside the people's republic, or "man-tiles" These tiles have a chinese number on the top part and a red symbol on the bottom. Western sets have western numbers carved into the upper right to help out; but is it that hard to memorize 9 numbers?
- Circles 1-9x4: "Pin-tiles" They look like colourful plates. The amount of circles on the tile corresponds its number.
- Bamboos 1-9x4: "Bams"! There's a special hand involving these tiles and the green dragon. Known in Japanese as "Sou" tiles.
- Dragons R, B, Gx4: Think of them as the picture cards in the ol' 52. They can only be melded in pungs or kongs (3 or 4 of the same). The term "dragon" comes out of western influence. They're supposed to be like "flesh, nature and spirit". "Chun", "Hatsu" and "Haku" in Nipponese.
- Winds N,E,W,Sx4: And their oriental counterparts. Like dragons, they can only be melded in pungs or kongs. You get bonus points for claiming your own wind or the main wind (East in most cases).
- Seasons and Flowers: There's only four flowers and seasons in the whole set. You can be smart and not use these at all. In gameplay, you can announce your flower/season tiles and trade them for normal tiles. So literally: Playing with them is like playing without them
The basic game requires four players. So get four of your friends or just azn people (they cannot resist a game of mahjong) and sit around a small square table that has a lip. Take out your $50 tile box and remove the flower and season tiles, because no-one uses those. Done that? Okay. Now shuffle the cards around, gradually turning them backside up. Make sure to make a lot of noise; it's a part of the tradition of Mahjong. Arrange the tiles in rows of 17 and stacks of two. Be sure to use the lip to straighten the stacks. This makes four walls with 34 tiles each.
Determine the dealer (East), thus the other wind directions. East throws two dice and counts counter clockwise East being one. The player the dice indicate will throw the dice again and cut his/her wall by the indicated number. From that number of tiles from right to left, count 7 (14 tiles) These are the "dead tiles" or "wang tiles", if you prefer. They will not be used in the game in this variation.
Starting from East, take turns grabbing four tiles per player left from the dead wall until you all have 12 in front of you. Now east takes two and the rest take one. East will now have 14 tiles in front of him/her, the rest have 13. East puts one of his/her tiles in the middle of the walls. You can view this tile as "I will not use this tile to win the round" for that specific player. The turn passes to the right, he/she takes a tile from the wall counter-clockwise and puts one tile in the middle. Now you know the plot.
Like mentioned earlier, you don't have to keep your hand concealed; you may call all your combinations from the discards. These combinations will be set aside to indicate your calls. If you called 3 of a kind and pull the fourth one from the wall, you may turn it into a kong/kan (four of a kind). You may also do this if someone discards the fourth tile. If all players declare a kan, the game ends in a draw, but we'll get to that later. Two players called on the same tile? chii<Pon<kan<win. After claiming a kan, take a replacement tile from the wall.
You can also declare a win even if your hand isn't ready and face the penalty, otherwise known as Chombo. This is considered a tried and true tactic if you aren't sure of the safety of your discards, therefore being afraid of paying a hefty sum to a player whose hand you suspect is more expensive than the penalty (usually 8000 points). Bear in mind, people will get wind of you if you do it too often and will consider you a dick.
You can determine the payment on different hands by looking up the standardized competition rules.
Certain criteria cause the game to end in a draw, these include:
- No one had a ready hand after the last tile was drawn
- Each player discarded the same wind tile consecutively
- Player's hand consists of 9 terminal (1 and 9) and honour tiles
You are not forced to declare abortive draw due to this and can go for the 13 orphans super expensive hand
- As mentioned earlier, each player calls a kan/kong
- Four players declare riichi (riichi mahjong)
- Three players declare ron (It's bad enough when you get ronned by two people)
Ineligibility to win or "furiten"
Otherwise known as "you fucked up" or "pay attention, moron" As mentioned earlier, actions or lack thereof hinder or negate your eligibility to win the round with your current hand, even if it is a ready hand. Furiten commonly happens, when the player had too much to drink and thought he was playing canasta. Here are examples of what makes one Furiten.
- You threw away that very tile
- You threw away a tile which is related to a sequence (i.e. discarding 1 on a 2,3 wait makes you ineligible for 4)
- You passed that tile when a player discarded it, negating your eligibility for the turn
Exception to the aforementioned is drawing the tile from the wall, except in the case of:
- Your hand is garbage (does not pass minimum hand criteria)
- All the tiles that enable you to win have already been discarded by other players(duh)
But I don't get it!
Okay, in Poker, you have a hand called a "full house". In a hand of 5 cards, you have 3 of a kind and a pair. In Mahjong, the basic hand is a full house. It has a pair and 12 other tiles which, unlike poker, can contain three-tile numeric sequences. Every hand in mahjong needs a pair to be complete much like a full house in 5 card poker.
But, hey. You mentioned something like 7 pairs. What's that about?
Like poker; you have shit like flushes, straights etc. In Mahjong, they're a bit different, like: 7 pairs (pretty easy), 13 orphans (super hard), all greens (nightmarishly hard), nine gates (pretty hard) and 4 big winds (running from a bear). There's even a hand that isn't a hand at all but requires you to discard nothing but honors, 1s, and 9s, and the game has to end in a draw. Just look up what qualifies for a completed hand in mahjong, discard wisely and get murdered by Yakuza bosses. There's not really much to it.
Why do you need a lip to play Mahjong?
Into the types of Mahjong
Like all card games, there's more than one way to play Mahjong. Here are the most played variations.
- Japanese Riichi: Arguably, the most popular form of Mahjong. Mainly due to its mango influence. This variation is very clinical compared to the other versions. For example: The furiten rule has bigger role, because every player places his/her discards front and center. This way, there is no doubt on what tiles the player is furiten for. (Furiten means tiles the player is not eligible to win on)
There is also the 'dora', or a bonus tile which gives an extra point per each you have in your winning hand. The dora is one number after the dora indicator, which is flipped in the dead wall. 4 pin for the dora indicator means 5 pin for the dora, so on.
The main difference between other forms and riichi is the "riichi rule". Riichi (Or "reach" among amerifats) is when a player is one tile away from winning the round, has not called any tile (concealed hand), and decides to place a bet of 1000 points on the table. The player cannot alter his hand any further after this. You don't have to do this; but keep in mind that a hand has to adhere to specific criteria in order for it to be a qualified hand, and riichi is one of them. Easiest way to achieve this sort of hand is to have a triplet of dragons, your seat wind or east wind.
Both furiten and riichi are especially important since with the exception of self draw wins, the one who feeds the winner pays in full, and thus 'defending' or 'folding' by playing tiles that you know the opponent cannot win on is an essential part of the game. Riichi'd players are easier to defend against due to the fact that you know they're about to win, and they can't change their waits.
- Washizu: This is a variation riichi from the Arawak indian stick and pantomime theatre show Akagi, which uses a special Washizu set of mahjong tiles. What makes it special is the fact that 3/4 of the tiles are transparent, so players are able to see each-others' hands. Because of this transparency, walls are not made but, instead, tiles are drawn from a pouch, while wearing leather gloves so the players are unable to feel the tile value. Whether you want to play this with the blood machine or not is up to the group.
- Hong Kong: Filthy Chinese communists play this one. Tiles are tossed in the center willy-nilly and so the furiten rule is harder to uphold. Everyone pays even if they are not the one to feed the winner, which means being passive will lead you to bleeding out. It can also be played with straight discards.
- American: Same as classic, but contains flower as well as "joker tiles". Joker tiles act as wild cards, because "muh poker". Was a huge, huge hit in the 1920s (the fact that the post-deal tile passing -- similar to Hearts -- is called a "Charleston" should tell you something). This form of mahjong, due to the joker tiles, contains all kinds of madness like quints and sextuplets as well as moronic combinations based on American culture i.e. "Civil War": 18611865 NNN SSS. Due to some odd twist of fate, the majority of American Mahjong players are old Jewish women. I'm not even joking.
- Shanghai: The Solitare/Patience equivalent. If you bought a damn tile set just to play this, then you are beyond saving and must be dealt with accordingly. No, but really, a great way to turn a mahjong player into a raging, blood-crazed lunatic is by uttering the following: "How do you play mahjong with other people? I thought it was a single player game on Windows." A nice time-killer if nothing else, but do at least try to branch out and give the other modes a spin, for fuck's sake.
- Riichi mahjong client, with an english UI in the high likelihood that you're not fluent in Japanese. Only works in .html unfortunately.
- Mahjong Soul, a fully English mahjong client with the kind of "entry-level weeb" presentation sure to appeal to the widest possible audience, provided you're not already super-interested in Mahjong to begin with.
- A basic mahjong strategy for gaijins. Lots of interesting tidbits if you're interested in the real meat of the game.
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