Mah Jong is a Chinese game of disputed origin. Despite the popular Western myth that it is thousands of years old, it was actually invented during the Tai Ping Rebellion (1851-1864), although it is not certain who the inventor was. It was introduced to the West while it was still evolving by, among others, Glover, Wilinson and Culin in the 1890s, and became popular in the West after the 1920 publication of Babcock’s book Rules For Mah-Jongg (the hyphen and extra ‘g’ allowed Babcock to trademark the name). As a result of these many introductions, a large number of variants were created.
There has been a tendency over time towards greater complexity in the rules, resulting in a game that is harder for beginners to learn while involving little more skill than the more simpler variants. In response to this, new variants have arisen in the Far East with very simple scoring systems. Unfortunately, these new variants depend much more on luck than skill.
Safalra's rules were created with three main aims:
- The rules should share the features that are common to other variants.
- The scoring system should emphasise skill rather than luck.
- Subject to the above, the scoring system should be as simple as possible.
It should be noted that these rules were not created for gambling; additional rules would be needed to be added to avoid collusion.
Mah Jong tile sets have varying numbers of tiles, but almost all sets will include the following:
- 36 ‘bamboo’ tiles — four of each number from one to nine (the ‘one bamboo’ tile usually has the image of a bird on it)
- 36 ‘character’ tiles — four of each number from one to nine (these have the Chinese character ‘wan’ at the bottom, and the numbers in Chinese characters at the top)
- 36 ‘circle’ tiles — four of each number from one to nine
- 16 ‘wind’ tiles — four of each wind (north, east, south and west - these are written in Chinese characters)
- 12 ‘dragon’ titles — four of each dragon (green, red and white - the green dragon has the Chinese character ‘fa’, the red dragon has the Chinese character ‘zhong’, and the white dragon tile is blank)
In Western tile sets the English numbers or names are usually also on the tiles.
The bamboos, characters and circles are the three suits. A tile belonging to one of the suits is called a ‘minor tile’. A wind or dragon tile is called an ‘honour’, or sometimes ‘major tile’.
The Object Of The Game
The object of the game is to complete a hand consisting of four ‘groups’ of tiles and a pair of identical tiles. Each ‘group’ consists of either three or four identical tiles (called ‘pung’ and ‘kong’ respectively), or three consecutively numbered tiles in one suit (called a ‘chow’). All minor tiles (if there are any) in the hand must belong to the same suit (either all bamboos, all characters, or all circles). When a player has completed such a hand, she or he calls “Mah Jong”, that game is finished and scores are calculated. All players score, but the player who completes his or her hand scores a bonus and has extra opportunities to double his or her score, and so usually scores more highly.
The Assignment Of Winds
The players choose their seats around the playing surface. Each player throws two dice, and the player whose total is highest becomes East Wind. The player on East Wind’s right is South Wind, the player opposite East Wind is West Wind, and the player on East Wind’s left is North Wind. Note that this is the reverse of the arrangement of directions on a compass, and it helps to make markers or a wind wheel to help players remember their winds (some sets come with these).
Constructing The Walls
Players now shuffle the 136 tiles, face downwards, and then each player builds a wall, 17 tiles long and two tiles high in front of them, keeping the tiles face downwards. The walls are pushed fowards so that the corners touch, making a square, as shown in the diagram below.
The Distribution Of Tiles
East Wind now throws two dice to decide which wall to breach and where. Counting East Wind’s wall as ‘one’, and counting anticlockise (East–South–West–North) the wall to be breached has the same number as the total of the two dice; that is:
- East Wind’s wall if the dice total one, five or nine
- South Wind’s wall if the dice total two, six or ten
- West Wind’s wall if the dice total three, seven or eleven
- North Wind’s wall if the dice total four, eight or twelve
Counting pairs of tiles from the right-hand end of that wall, the pair of tiles corresponding to the total of the two dice, and the seven pairs to its right, are called the ‘kong tiles’ (if there are too few pairs of tiles to the right, tiles are taken from the next wall to the right). For example, if East Wind throws a total of five on the two dice, the appropriate kong tiles are highlighted in the following diagram (East Wind is sitting to the lower left; six of the kong tiles are on South Wind's wall).
When a kong tile needs to be taken (described later), the top tile of the leftmost pair is taken, then the tile below it, and so on (there are always enough kong tiles). Usually the pair of tiles on the left are placed on top of the kong tiles — once these have been taken, the next pair is placed on top, and so on (while there is room), as shown in the following diagrams (the numbers indicate the order in which the kong tiles are to be taken). The first diagram shows the 16 tiles, the second diagram shows where to place the pair of tiles, and the third diagram shows the arrangement after seven have been taken.
The players now take their hands. Tiles are taken in a clockwise direction, starting immediately to the left of the kong tiles. Each player (in the order East–South–West–North) takes four tiles, then each takes another four, and then another four, and then one, and then East Wind takes another. South, West and North winds now have 13 tiles, and East Wind has 14. Continuing the example from above, the following diagram shows the arrangement of the tiles after the players have taken their hands (the six kong tiles from South Wind’s wall have been moved round to line up with the rest of the kong tiles).
Each player now stands his or her hand in front of himself or herself, making sure the other players do not see the faces of the tiles. Each player can arrange the tiles as she or he sees fit, but should be aware that experienced players may notice where discarded tiles were placed in the hand and try to deduce information about the tiles held.
The game now beings. If East Wind holds a kong (four identical tiles) in his or her hand, she or he announces this ‘concealed kong’ of tiles (by saying, for example, “concealed kong of white dragon”). The four tiles are then placed on the playing surface in front of him or her so that the other players can see them. One of the four tiles, usually the rightmost, is then turned over, to show that the kong was ‘concealed’ (entirely within the player’s hand). One of the kong tiles, mentioned earlier, is now taken (otherwise East Wind would have too few tiles to complete his or her hand). If more kongs remain in East Wind’s hand, each of these is declared in the same way, with kong tiles being taken.
If East Wind’s hand is now complete (as described above under ‘The Object Of The Game’), then she or he calls “Mah Jong”, the game is over, and scores are calculated (as described below under ‘Scoring’).
If East Wind’s hand is not complete, she or he discards one of his or her tiles, by placing it into the square inside the walls and calling its name (for example “three characters”). Other players may ‘pung’, ‘kong’ or ‘mah jong’ and claim the discarded tile (described below). If no player claims the tile, it becomes dead (and cannot later be claimed), and play continues with the next player anticlockwise (who takes a tile, and then repeats the process described in the two paragraphs above).
If there are no tiles left (except the kong tiles), the game is declared ‘dead’ and no scores are calculated.
If a player has two tiles in his or her hand identical to the tile just discarded, she or he may call “pung” and claim the tile (remember that a complete hand must not mix the suits, so the player may not want to claim the tile). The player then places these two tiles, and the discarded tile, on the playing surface in front of them, and then discards a tile. This tile may be claimed by another player; if it is not, play continues with the next player anticlockwise from the player who ‘punged’ the tile.
If the player later draws the fourth tile, she or he may add it to the exposed pung and take a kong tile. This only happens if the player draws the fourth tile from the wall, and not if another player discards it.
If a player has three tiles in his or her hand identical to the tile just discarded, she or he may call “kong” and claim the tile (remember that a complete hand must not mix the suits, so the player may not want to claim the tile). The player then places these three tiles, and the discarded, tile on the playing surface in front of them. The player takes one of the kong tiles (which may result in a concealed kong the player should declare as desribed above). The player then discards a tile, which may be claimed by another player; if it is not, play continues with the next player anticlockwise from the player who ‘konged’ the tile.
If a player can use the discarded tile to complete his or her hand (as described above under ‘The Object Of The Game’), she or he may call “mah jong” (the player need not call “mah jong” if she or he is waiting for a higher scoring hand). The player exposes the tiles in his or her hand on the playing surface in front of them. Any pungs concealed in the hand have one tile (usually the rightmost) turned over to show the pung was concealed. If the discarded tile completed one of the pungs to complete the hand, that pung does not count as concealed and does not have one tile turned over. The others players then expose their hands (marking any pungs as concealed), and scoring is calculated (as described below under ‘Scoring’).
If one player calls “pung” and another calls “mah jong”, the player calling “mah jong” claims the tile. If two or three players call “mah jong”, the player whose turn would have come sooner claims the tile.
After The Game
If the game was declared ‘dead’ (no-one called “mah jong” before the tiles were used up), no score is calculated and if the players desire more games the instructions above are repeated. If a player called “mah jong”, scores are calculated, then if the players desire more games the player who called “Mah Jong” becomes East Wind and the instructions above are repeated.
First calculate the base score and then double the appropriate number of times. Note that chows do not score.
For all hands
- Double once for each pung or kong or a dragon.
- Double once for a pung or kong of the player's own wind.
For the winner’s hand only
- For winning: 16
- For the pair being either dragons or winds: 1
- Double once for a hand of all honours (no minor pieces).
The maximum obtainable score is 2592 (if a player calling “Mah Jong” has a concealed kong of his own wind, concealed kongs of each dragon and a pair of another wind).
Appendix One — Two And Three Player Variants
The two or three player variants are played with ‘dummy players’ — play passes through the dummy players and the dummies cannot be East Wind. In the two player variants chows are disallowed is it would otherwise be too easy to complete a hand. In the three player version there are only 12 kong tiles, and in the two player version there are only eight kong tiles.
A ‘miniature Mah Jong’ variant can be played by two players. Two of the suits (usually bamboos and circles) are not used and the walls are only eight pairs of tiles long. Games are very quick, and dead games are about as common as in the usual four player Mah Jong.
Appendix Two — Variants
The International Mah Jong Rules are now widely regarded as a mistake. The renaming of the pieces and introduction of other new terms means they are unlikely to ever become widely used.
- International Mah Jong Rules at Amazon.com
- International Mah Jong Rules are not currently available at Amazon.co.uk (for British readers)
The British Mah-Jong Association has published Know The Game: Mah-Jong as part of A & C Black’s ‘Know The Game’ series: