Mahjong – the best game you don’t play (and maybe should)

In recent months, I’ve fallen to a particular addiction – to the game of Mahjong.

I like a range of games, from venerable heavy-weights like Go, through modern classics like Dune, then to the other end with games like Space Poo (my kids used to like it…) But Mahjong hits the spot in a number of areas, and for those reasons I encourage you to take a  closer look.

What follows is (I hope) enough detail to whet your interest, but without repeating too much info you can get elsewhere. Sources of further info are listed at the end.

One point to make clear right away:  I’m not talking about the Solitaire game where you’re matching pairs of symbols on a stack of tiles,  which gets sold as “Mahjong” on certain gaming platforms. That’s something completely different, and has  little to do with the real game of Mahjong.

So, why Mahjong?

For my money, Mahjong is a great balance of calculation and chance, and fast-moving too.

Each round takes only a few minutes, but the experience is solid: there’s little dead-time waiting for opponents to move and you need to track every move. The sequence of play can also jump around, meaning one or two players might effectively be denied their turns in certain situations. Full games take place over several rounds, so like with poker there’s always a risk of falling behind and always a chance to catch up.

The calculation aspect is non-trivial, but feasible within normal time constraints (with practice…).  Effectively, it’s matching patterns and considering relative probabilities. Calculating these and acting accordingly is a skill that needs to be developed. There’s a big difference between new players and skilful players, so there is something non-trivial to be learnt as you get deeper into the game. I’m a middle-rank player currently – clearly better than the beginner ranks but still can get taken apart by players from higher ranks.

Then there’s the chance element. The next tile to be drawn is random. Does it help you? Does  it increase your chances of losing to someone else? How does it affect the probabilities? Do you just want to leave it to luck or feeling?

The novelty aspect is worth mentioning too. At the start, it’s fun to be playing with different game pieces and learning the relevant Chinese numbers and letters. With time, this novelty and unfamiliarity will fade, and you can process the symbols without a second thought. But this familiarity doesn’t diminish the game, nor would it if the symbols were replaced with more familiar ones (Western letters and numbers, in my case) – though for aesthetics, it’s nice to have the originals. And Mahjong tiles feel so good to handle, in a way that flimsy bits of cardboard don’t compare.  I miss playing in person!

Versions of Mahjong

There are many variants of Mahjong. I’ll mainly be talking about the main Japanese one, “Rīchi Mahjong” (or in ascii, Riichi, since the first i is long). Mahjong seems to have emerged from similar card games around 200 years ago, then spread through many east Asian countries  and developed with their own local rule sets – though still retaining key core rules.  There’s a great survey of the major variants by Scott Miller called “Mahjong From A To Zhú”, see https://www.amazon.com/Mahjong-Zh%C3%BA-Scott-D-Miller/dp/1105654982 and other retailers.

A good starting point is the “Old Hong Kong” version. It’s pretty much the vanilla version, with most of the standard rules and a relatively simple scoring system. It’s the version I started with, before moving onto Riichi. In the following,  I’ll start with the Hong Kong framework then cover the refinements added in Riichi.  Apologies if I’m committing a terrible sin by just saying Riichi when I should be saying Riichi mahjong, though I think the meaning is clear in the context.

Other notable versions include “Competition Rules” (for international, competitive play with quite precise rules and scoring) and “American Mahjong” (an adaptation of an earlier version, with some new ideas added).  The wikipedia page is a good source of more info, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahjong.

Vanilla Mahjong

Hong Kong Mahjong is played with 144 tiles. Eight of these are unique “flower” tiles which provide certain bonuses in scoring (they aren’t used in Riichi).  Of the remainder, each type of tile is repeated four times.  There are three suits (stones, bamboo, characters), each with values 1 to 9. Then there are seven un-numbered “honour” tiles: east wind, south wind, west wind, north wind, green dragon, red dragon, and white dragon. Hence 144 = 8 + 4 * (9 + 9 + 9 + 7).

At the start of each round, tiles are shuffled face down, stacked in 2-layer walls, then starting hands dealt to the four players.  Play begins with the dealer (which usually rotates each round) and proceeds ANTI-clockwise.

Vanilla Mahjong is played with a hand of exactly 13 tiles. Your aim (except in rare cases) is to  develop your hand into four sets of three tiles plus a matching pair. Each set is either three identical tiles (eg. three red dragons, or three of the 4-stone tiles), or a run in the numbered suits (eg 1-2-3 of stones, or 6-7-8 of characters).

But, you might have noticed: 4 times 3 plus 2 = 14, but the hand size is 13.  You get the 14th tile by drawing a tile on your turn – after which you need to discard any tile to get back to a hand of 13. Or if it’s not your turn, you can grab a tile that another player has just discarded. To complete a run or sequence, you can declare ‘Chow’ and take the tile just discarded by the player  to your left (immediately preceding you, in the anti-clockwise play order), then display the run and discard a different tile from your hand.  To complete a triple of identical tiles, you can declare ‘Pong’ and take the tile just discarded by any of the other players, regardless of turn order – and display the triple then discard another tile as  before. Note  that play restarts from you, not from the previous player – so one or two players are effectively  skipped over and miss their turns.

Finally, if the last discarded tile completes a valid hand, you can steal it from any player – whether it completes a pong, chow or the final pair – you don’t have to wait for your predecessor to complete your chow.  The fatal blow is swift.

Building a valid hand is only part of the process: it must also meet certain scoring conditions.  The exact conditions depend on the rule-set and the terms agreed by players (eg high value hands only for serious games, or lower points for a faster and more casual game). Certain configurations have their own points value, eg medium points for a hand of pungs (and one pair), higher points for only using one suit.  The points you win come from the other players. If you drew the winning tile yourself, the others share the point loss. If you won from a player’s discard, that player pays the whole debt. It’s important to avoid playing into someone else’s winning hand!

There are a few other scoring combinations outside of the 4 * 3 + 2 pattern. Most common is seven pairs (7 * 2) which I see every few weeks of play. Then more exotic ones like Nine Gates or Thirteen Orphans,  which give you maximum points. You definitely don’t want to discard into one of these!

Strategically, you should be looking to build good-scoring hands whilst avoiding discards that feed into hands that opponents could be building. Or to know when to abandon that plan and switch to careful defense mode and limit your potential losses. You can sometimes get clues on what opponents are doing by the tiles they have exposed through Pong or Chow, and sometimes from what tiles they are discarding. Sometimes, you can’t.

Riichi Mahjong

So why Riichi? I like Riichi for the structure and refinement it provides, plus the extra opportunities for big scoring and an added dash of excitement. The winning hand types are easier to memorise, at least the ones you are more likely to see in real play. Then the Riichi rule allows a slightly wider range of winning hands, but at a risk.

Riichi is played with the core 136 tiles (no flower tiles). 14 of these form the “dead wall” so don’t get drawn in normal play. After dealing 13 tiles each, this leaves 70 tiles to draw. Tiles in the dead wall are used for several things: four are replacement tiles for when someone declares a ‘Kong’ – four of a kind, five ‘dora’ are used to identify bonus tiles during play, and five hidden ‘uradora’ tiles for post-play bonuses. Optionally, one of the ‘5’ tiles in each suit is coloured red, and using it in a winning hand gives another points bonus.

Play proceeds much as for Hong Kong, allowing Pon (Pong) and Chi (Chow) if you want to let other players see those parts of your hand. But there are benefits to biding your time, building your hand and not exposing too much information.

Part of this is due to the Riichi rule: if you get to a point where you are one tile away from a winning hand, and as long as your hand is still closed (no Chi/Pon declared), you can declare ‘Riichi’ and place a nominal bet. This tells the other players you are one away from winning, and are pinning your chances on them discarding the tile you need to win or on you drawing the last tile you need – without being allowed to make further changes to your hand. It’s a bit like a power play – your opponents now need to be particularly careful, and your threat can cause them to abandon their own plans for winning that round.

Play continues as normal with the next player, but on your turns, since your hand is now locked, you can only draw a tile and discard it if it’s not a winning tile. If you draw the winning tile, everyone else pays the points and you reclaim your bet. If you win off a discard, the unfortunate player pays you the points and you reclaim your bet. But if someone else wins in the meantime, you lose your bet and could also end up paying more if your enforced discard is a winning tile for them. Notice that after making a Riichi bet, you no longer have the ability to play defensively! So you need to win that bet quickly, and certainly should not go for Riichi when your odds are very slim, like when most of the tiles you need were discarded earlier. Waiting to see if your bet paid off can be quite… intense.

Declaring Riichi itself contributes to the points value for your hand, so Riichi is also a way of winning with a hand that would not otherwise meet the normal minimum points value. But you can also declare Riichi with a high value hand. Your opponents will need to take this possibility into account. Defending against a Riichi bet is not impossible. Players can’t win on a tile they’ve already discarded, and tiles discarded since the bet was made are also safe, so it’s safe to discard more of these. But beware that these tiles can be winners for your other opponents too. Stay alert at all times!

Other ways of winning include: a triplet of any dragon, a triplet of the “wind of the round” or of the wind for your seat (both rotate during a match), having all triplets and no sequences, only using one suit – up to rare max-point hands like triplets of all three dragons or of all four winds. I got the three dragons hand once. I’m still smiling about it. The player who discarded that last dragon also probably remembers it (it was not a good move, especially since I already had two dragon triplets on the board).

As mentioned before, there are various bonuses available to increase scores. Red 5s and the normal dora tiles are targets to aim for during play, if they help towards a feasible winning hand. After winning, the uradora tiles are revealed and if they match anything in your hand, you get a further bonus. This latter bit is pure luck, very nice if you benefit from it but terrible if your opponent benefits and you end up paying more points to them.  I’ve had unexpected game victories from this (more points than hoped for) and also harsh losses (where the hit on my points was worse than expected).

So to summarise: Riichi is a nicely structured variant of Mahjong, easy to get started with, with plenty of opportunity for deep and fun play. You’ll also find a good number of opponents online (see below).

Mahjong as a game design

Considering Mahjong in the wider picture of game design, I think Mahjong (especially Riichi) hits a particular sweet spot. It seems like just the right number of good ideas which work together nicely as a whole.

Many good games have a few elements which work well together, but also have some elements which stick out or feel a bit contrived (eg adding complexity for little gain) or start to get boring on repeated plays. Great games are ones which don’t have those weaknesses, and still feel fun & rewarding after lots of plays, several times a week for weeks at a time.

I enjoy Mahjong now much more than I ever enjoyed Go, or indeed any other game. Go is a fine game of course, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of it being a competition over who can “compute” more (including knowing a series of basic positions and techniques). Same for chess-like games too. Yes, it’s true that some of this applies to Mahjong, in that it too can be reduced to computations on probabilities and making decisions based on those probabilities, but playing Mahjong still feels a bit more hopeful and more human, is what I’m trying to say. This may say more about me, I know.

Incidentally, Mahjong is not immune to the advances of AI. In the past year one computer system has been performing at the level of top human Mahjong players, if not now above them, showing a very high ranking on the Tenhou server (see below). The paper at https://arxiv.org/abs/2003.13590 is very interesting reading – especially the similarities and differences to the techniques used to play Go.

I only discovered this development just now! But I don’t think it dents my enthusiasm for Mahjong, not yet anyway. It still feels good to sit down with three other people (albeit online at present) and have fun with a game we all like. And I still feel optimistic about improving my skills at the game – it doesn’t feel like being on an asymptotic crawl up to machine performance.

Right, I’m off to play more Mahjong now.

 

Some reference info

It’s good to get playing as soon as possible. Quite a few online apps have computer opponents for you to try first, if you’d rather get some practice before facing other humans.

For Hong Kong style, I enjoyed using “Mahjong Time” at https://mahjongtime.com/. It also supports competition rules, American style, and Riichi plus a few others.

For Riichi, the top server is Tenhou, at https://tenhou.net/. It’s primarily in Japanese, but there has been recent work in adding English translation. Plus there’s a browser plugin to help with translation in some other parts of the interface. An excellent book by Daina Chiba on Riichi Mahjong Strategy explains how to get started on Tenhou, before moving onto advanced material. See https://dainachiba.github.io/RiichiBooks/ for this and other useful info.

If you have a Nintendo Switch, Riichi is one of the “51 Worldwide Games” in the recent release, see https://store.nintendo.co.uk/nintendo-switch-game-digital/51-worldwide-games-digital-download/12529837.html. It’s a fair implementation, with decent support material.

Then there’s MajSoul, at https://mahjongsoul.yo-star.com/. The gameplay and support (including tutorials) are excellent, and it is a good place to get started with Riichi. There are both web and mobile versions too, and the mobile version is great on tablets. But… the Manga aspects can sometimes be too much, though coming back after a spell on Tenhou, it feels a bit more restrained now. See what you think.

Finally, “Reach Mahjong” by Jenn Barr is a good introduction to Riichi. See http://huntingtonpress.com/reach-mahjong/ for details. It also has a detailed glossary of Japanese terms.

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