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Mastering the tiles, unlocking victory: The art of Mahjong

May 31, 2023 China iGaming & Gambling

The classic tile-based Chinese board game known as Mahjong was created in or around Shanghai, China, around the middle of the 19th century. It’s a game that calls for some luck as much as ability. Mahjong has numerous variants, including Chinese Mahjong, Japanese Mahjong (also known as Riichi Mahjong), and American Mahjong, just like many other board games.

In general, no matter where Mahjong is played, the rules are the same. We can assist if you want to learn how to play mahjong.

What is Mahjong And How is it Played?

Mahjong is a four-person game that can also be written as Mah Jongg, Mah-jong, Mah Jong, or Mah-jongg. Some variations, however, provide three-person games. 136 tiles with 36 characters, 36 bamboo, and 36 circles often make up the game.

In each suit, there are four sets of tiles (1–9). 16 wind tiles, 12 dragon tiles, and 8 wild card tiles are also included in the game. It may also feature eight more tiles, each with four seasons and four flowers, depending on the edition. For fundamental Mahjong, these aren’t necessary, though.

Understanding the Tiles in Mahjong

Basic Mahjong sets include 166 tiles. Generally, 152 are used in gameplay, and the remaining tiles are spares. Learn more about each below.

  • Suits include 36 tiles of Circles, Bamboos, and Characters
  • Honors include 28 tiles (16 winds, 12 dragons)
  • Flowers and Seasons (if part of the game) include 4 flowers and four seasons
  • Wild Tiles and Jokers include 8 identical tiles

What is the Objective of Mahjong?

Being the first to obtain “Mahjong,” or a winning hand, is the game’s goal. You must arrange each of your 14 tiles into a pair plus four sets in order to accomplish this. Two symmetrical tiles are required to form a pair. A set can consist of three identical or matching tiles (also known as a pung, pong, or chow), three numbered tiles from the same suit in succession (also known as a chow), or four identical tiles (also known as a kong). It’s crucial to remember that a single tile can only be utilized in one set at a time.

How to Set Up For Mahjong

First, decide on a beginning dealer. Afterward, the four wind tiles are shuffled (lying face down) and dealt to each player. Once the players receive their initial tiles, they sit according to the wind direction they receive in clockwise order (i.e., North, West, South, East).

At this point, East Wind becomes the dealer. In some games, the dealer is determined by rolling the dice. Then, all remaining tiles are shuffled face down, and the player chooses 34 tiles to stack in front of themself face down. It should be two stacks of 17 tiles, creating a large square on the table.

Next, the dealer rolls the dice and counts as many tiles as the number they roll from the farthest tile to the right of their wall. They then must deal tiles from the left of that tile in clockwise order. Each player gets 13 tiles. The dealer receives the leftover tiles.

Once the players have their tiles, they can arrange them as they like. In many cases, players use racks to conceal their tiles from other players.

How Do You Play Mahjong Step by Step?

Now that you know the basic setup for Mahjong, you’re ready to start playing. Listed below are step-by-step instructions for playing Mahjong.

Step 1
The dealer (East Wind) discards one of their tiles, and gameplay begins—starting with the player to the left of the dealer. Each player decides which tiles to keep by seeing if they match any of the tiles in their hand. Remember, the goal is to form a set or meld (i.e., three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, or straight sets).

Step 2
Next, the South Wind draws a tile and discards an unwanted tile. They can choose a tile and consider keeping it. If they decide to keep the tile, they must discard another tile from their hand. If they don’t like the tile they selected, they can discard the one they picked up to the middle of the table.

Step 3
Suppose a discarded tile forms a pung (three of a kind). In that case, the person whose turn it is must announce “pung” and take the discarded tile. They can also claim tiles that help form a chow or kong (more on this later). Players must then reveal their meld and place it on the table.

This takes place in the order of the winds unless the discarded tile allows one player to achieve Mahjong. In that case, they can claim the tile regardless of order.

Step 4
If no player claims the discarded tile, the next person can choose a tile from the draw wall. Once picked and racked, no one else can claim the most recently discarded tile. It’s important to note that other players can still claim the tile if it’s been selected and looked at but not added to any player’s rack. Any tile not placed into a rack must be put back at the same place it was picked up from.

Step 5
Continue gameplay starting from the right. Generally, gameplay resumes from that player’s right whenever a player claims a discarded tile. That’s true even if it doesn’t correspond to the natural order.

Step 6
Suppose another player lays down a meld that includes a Joker. In that case, if you have a tile that can replace that Joker, you can put it down and pick up the Joker. For players familiar with how to play Rummy, this is a similar rule.

Step 7
Players try to configure their tiles into melds (tiles that can form a pung, kong, or chow). It’s important to note that in some variations of Mahjong, players can only have one chow in their hand at a time. Chows don’t equate to points but can help a player achieve Mahjong.

Further, the only time a player places a meld on the table during the game is when claiming a discarded tile. Otherwise, a player must wait to lay down melds until achieving Mahjong—a rule that is similar to Gin Rummy.

Step 8
Players can achieve Mahjong by forming four melds plus a pair. Achieving Mahjong requires all of the tiles in a player’s hand (i.e., 13 tiles, plus a discarded tile that is kept). Melds can include a pung, chow, or kong). Bonus tiles will add to a player’s points at the end of the game.

Winning and Scoring in Mahjong

In a simplified game of Mahjong, a point is awarded to the person who archives Mahjong first. The scoring and point system, however, vary according on the Mahjong game being played.

Players may, for instance, score each hand independently and give the victor 20 more points.

The Protocol for Announcing Mahjong:

Players must announce “I’m calling” when they are one tile short of Mahjong.
When a set is completed, players must show their tiles and announce “Mahjong.”

If a hand doesn’t actually achieve Mahjong, that player is disqualified from gameplay, and the round continues.

Play 4 – 16 rounds of Mahjong or until the agreed-upon score is reached, rotating the dealer in each round. The score is calculated at the end, and the winner is announced.

Since there are so many different ways to score a game, it’s best to agree on a scoring system before starting play. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a lot of confusion and arguing.

How Do You Play Mahjong For Beginners?

Mahjong might be difficult for novices to understand. However, the simplest way to comprehend the game is to imagine it as a card game played with tiles, similar to Gin Rummy or Rummy, but instead of cards. You’ll quickly become an expert in Mahjong once you understand the vocabulary.

What is the Trick to Playing Mahjong?

Mahjong is a game of skill and luck. While luck can lead you to victory sometimes, that isn’t always the case. Generally, when playing Mahjong, you should keep the following strategies in mind.

  • Have a plan for your tiles, and stick to it.
  • Change your strategy when necessary.
  • Avoid taking the first discarded tile unless it can help you immediately achieve Mahjong.
  • Hold on to pairs. They can help you later in the game.
  • Avoid leaving gaps in your tiles when organizing sets on your rack. It gives other players too much information about your strategy.

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