Mahjong is not the solatre game that used to be installed on windows. It’s a 4 player set collection game played across East Asia with awesome chunky tiles that are so satisfying to clack together. Traditionally they are made of bone, these days often plastic and they come with three main suits; bamboo, coins, and characters, then some special tiles; dragons, and winds. I want to talk about specifically Japanese ‘Riichi’ Mahjong. Best shouted REEECCHH like a squirrel in mortal danger.
In China, Mahjong is a family game, very similar to rummy, played by families whilst they await New Year dinner. In Japan Mahjong is Yakuza gambling parlours and emotional anime cartoons. The later is more exciting.
Mahjong is a popular Manga and Anime topic
If you took 4 player rummy, a tea ceremony, but with blocks rather than tea, and a 3 page long scoring system and glued them together you’d end up somewhere near Riichi Mahjong.
I always relied on those I was playing with the remind me of the ceremony rules, usually anime fans in a pub somewhere in Leeds. You roll off to decide who deals, count backwards around the table, roll again to decide where to cut in the 4 walls that make up the deal etc. Its rather complex and has little impact on the games strategy, but does set the atmosphere in a big way. If you stripped the theatrics out Mahjong you would lose something.
In essence you have a hand of 14 tiles, each turn you draw from the wall and discard one. You are trying to make sets of 3 or 4, or runs of three. In basic Majhong any sets will do, all that matters is going out first. Once you turn all of your hand into sets, you flip the hand open and score. In addition to drawing from the wall, you can call other people’s discards if they let you finish a set that you lay open. Sounds familiar if you’ve played rummy.
In Riichi you need a Yaku, a specific scoring combination to go out. There are dozens of different Yaku combinations. Some such as Riichi are fairly easy, just collect a closed hand (never call someone elses discard) and bet 1000 points on going out first, others such as the 13 orphans are very hard to get. Some only apply if you are the dealer, or sitting in a specific position in relation to the dealer (the winds). The decision points hinge around whether to go for multiple Yaku and massively multiply your points or try and get out quick, as only first to finish scores.
The Yaku scoring system. I've been playing Mahjong for a few years and have never scored most of these.
Like rummy, the game balances greed against risk. A major advantage of the Japanese Riichi rules over regular Mahjong is that watching other players discards is more meaningful. If you can deduce what Yaku they are aiming for, you can avoid helping them, or even predict how close to going out they are.
The scoring can be pretty wild. If the winning player completes their hand by drawing from the wall, everyone else pays an even split to their score from their pool of chits (everyone starts with 30,000). However if the winning player draws their last tile from your discard, you pay them their entire score. This can be more than 10,000. This can result in wild swings in score, with last place becoming first place etc.
Whilst it takes quite an effort to learn the scoring system is what makes them game. Realising you can get a Yaku combination you’ve never got before is a massive payoff, both in points and satisfaction. On top of this, it’s a great lazy afternoon game, hang out with 3 friends get some drinks, listen to some jazz and run down the clock to Mahjong.