How to Play Mahjong

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How to Play Mahjong

Anncine Lin, Staff Writer

Mahjong is a traditional Chinese game that is played with tiles. I know that there are many Chinese families who have bad impressions of the game due to a history of gambling with their ancestors. However, when putting that aside, mahjong can be a very fun and rewarding game as it is a complex strategy game that strengthens your cognitive skills and encourages you to think more.

There are many different types of mahjong tiles:

Number Tiles (four tiles of each number)

Tiles with circular shapes on them. The picture on the tile shows the number (ex. 5 circles means it’s the number 5), similar to suits in a deck of cards.

Tiles with bamboo shoots on them. Similar to the circular ones, the picture on the tile shows the number of bamboo shoots.

Tiles with characters on them. These use the Chinese symbol for each number to tell you which is which.

Character Tiles (four of each specific type)

Tiles with the four directions on them (North, East, South, West). These are also represented using the Chinese character for each.

Flower tiles: these are optional, but when played with them they may give extra points.

Season tiles: these are also optional, and also give extra points if drawn.

Mahjong is always played with four people. To set the game up, each person should build two rows of 18 (without the flower and season tiles, then stack two rows of 17) tiles and stack them up. This is called the “wall”. The person who starts rolls three dice, adding up the numbers. Then, starting with themselves, the person counts out the number they roll on the dice to decide how to take the tiles. For example, let’s say the number rolled was a 14. The person who rolled the dice would be number one, and they would continue to count counterclockwise until they reach the person who is number 14. The person who is number 14 then counts 14 tiles from the right of their wall and breaks it. The person who rolls the dice is the one who starts taking tiles. Using the same case, person number 14 counts 14 tiles and breaks the wall. On one side of the break there should be 14 stacked tiles, and on the other side, there should be four (18 stacked tiles in total). Tiles from the four sides are taken and continue clockwise (as the other side would be the break). However, the order of taking the tiles (for people) is counterclockwise. Each time someone takes tiles, they take two stacks of two (four tiles). Once each person has 12, the first person (the one that rolled the dice) takes two and the other people each takes one more. It’s a little confusing, I know!

To play, players draw a tile and throw one out. To start the game, the person who has one extra tile throws one out. At any time in the game, each person should have 13 tiles (except when they win). The object of the game is to create three sets of three and a pair. The sets of three can be created in two ways: three of the same tile or a run of three tiles. Both of these have to be in the same suit. For direction tiles, only three of the same tile is allowed, since there is no set numerical order. Flower and season tiles aren’t included in the sets. If you draw one of the two, put it out and take a tile from the opposite direction of the side that you regularly take tiles from. To make three of the same tile, you can take tiles that other players throw out, but you can only do so when it’s a completed set. If you “eat” another person’s tile out of turn, you skip whoever was originally supposed to go after. Contrary to a set of three, however, a run of three can only be completed using tiles from the person to go before you. Similarly, though, it must also be a complete set. Each player continues to build up their hand. The last tile a player needs to win can be taken from any player. Scoring is very flexible and can change depending on how people want to play it, so there is no set rule for scoring.

Similar to chess, mahjong is a complex game that depends heavily on strategic thinking. Players have to be careful to pay attention to the tiles that have come out. In addition, gameplay usually progresses very fast. If you don’t pay attention you can very easily miss a tile that you could have taken to “eat”. Lastly, according to Shen-Li Lee, an author from Figur8, playing mahjong “requires considerable mental finesse just to play it,” therefore being an “excellent mental workout”.

Hopefully, this article was able to explain how to play mahjong as well as the pros of playing the game. If you do end up starting to play, good luck and have fun!