I will be the first to acknowledge that my fondness for Japanese arcade mahjong games is one of my more… rarefied quirks, and that any time I post about them I am basically screaming into the void in the vain hopes of finding other fans so we can be mahjong buddies and go on adventures together.
With that in mind, I thought maybe I should put together a short article on how to play them, in hopes of infecting others with this particular affliction.
So, here we go.
Let’s start with defining what I mean by arcade-style mahjong.
Proper mahjong – not mahjong solitaire, which is the tile matching game most people think of when they hear the word – is a game sort of like gin rummy, normally played with four people and at least 16 hands per game. Each player starts with a fixed number of points, usually 25000, and wins and losses result in the points getting passed around the table. At the end of the game, the person with the highest number of points wins.
Arcade mahjong games are much simpler and are usually just you vs. the CPU. Generally your goal isn’t to run the CPU out of points so much as it is to get a certain number of wins before they can run YOU out of points, though taking all of the CPU’s points is usually a quick path to victory. (And certainly satisfying.)
This guide is designed to teach you a very abbreviated subset of the rules – basically, all you need to know in order to play mahjong at an entry level and win. If you’re reading this as someone who is already familiar with the game, please don’t point out all of the stuff I’m leaving out.
But, before getting into how to play mahjong, you need to know the game pieces, so let’s start with a quick overview of the tiles.
Japanese mahjong has three numbered suits, one set of four “winds” tiles, and one set of three “dragon” tiles. (Chinese versions of the game add some more tiles, so you’ll see season and flower tiles in a Chinese mahjong set or game.)
The three suits are:
“Sou”, which is represented by pieces of bamboo.
Note that the one of this suit is normally shown as a bird rather than a single piece of bamboo.
“Wan”, which is… well, it’s a counter for tens of thousands. There’s no good mnemonic here. Just think of them as “number” tiles, I guess.
These may have Arabic numerals or just kanji. A side effect of playing mahjong is that you will probably learn the kanji for 1-9 very quickly.
And, finally, “Pin” which you will probably just think of as “balls”
The four winds are:
From left to right: East, South, West, North. You don’t need to know anything more right now.
The three dragons are:
White, Green, and Red dragons. In a lot of games, the white dragon is a completely blank tile. I’m just using pictures of the tiles from my own set here, and my set happens to have a decorative border on the white dragons.
Finally, three terms that you should know. A sequence of three numbered tiles in order is a “chi“, a three of a kind is a “pon“, and four of a kind is a “kan“. You may also see these as “chow, pung, and kong” which are the Chinese terms for the same things.
There are four of each tile in a mahjong set, by the way.
Some chi. Wan 1-2-3, Sou 7-8-9 and Pin 3-4-5.
Some pon and a kan. Sou 5-5-5, Wan 7-7-7, 3 x Red and 4 x West
A four of a kind isn’t automatically a kan, by the way. If you had 4 5 6 6 6 6, you could see it as a 4-5-6 chi and a 6-6-6 pon. If you draw a four of a kind, you will usually be prompted for whether you want to convert it into a kan or keep it as-is.
Arcade mahjong is 2-player, which makes things much simpler than four-player versions of the game. Each player starts out with 13 tiles. The first player draws a tile. If it makes a winning hand, they declare their win. Otherwise, they decide whether to keep it or discard it. If they keep it, they must discard another tile from their hand to stay at 13 tiles.
The next player can either draw a tile or react to the most recently discarded tile by melding it into their own hand to complete a chi, pon, or kan. If they meld a discard into their own hand, they must put the resultant chi, pon, or kan down, face up, so the other players can see what they used the tile for. They then discard a tile, and this repeats until either someone reaches a win state or all of the tiles are used up.
Many games will prompt you whenever you can take your opponent’s tiles for your own hand. It’s not always the best thing to do, and I recommend against it in most cases. More on that later.
(Technically, completing a kan means that you now have a 14-tile hand. You can have 15, 16, or even 17-tile hands if you keep making kan. Having kans instead of pons can improve your final score but is not needed for most win conditions.)
How to Win
The default winning hand is one consisting of four chi, pon, or kan, and a “pillow” made up of a pair of tiles.
Sou 1-2-3, Wan 4-5-6, West x 3, Pin 6-6-6 and Sou 6-6
Another easy one to keep track of is a hand made of seven pairs. You can’t use any of your opponent’s discards for this, unless you are taking their tile to complete your seventh pair to win.
Pin 1-1, 6-6, and 8-8, Sou 6-6, Wan 2-2, West x 2, Green x 2
Your goal is to collect tiles to make up one of these two winning hands, but there is a catch. A winning hand must also include at least one “yaku”, which is sort of like a score multiplier. A seven-pairs hand always has one yaku, so I will ignore that and cover three of the simplest yaku that you can aim for when building up a standard hand of chi, pon, and a pillow.
1) The closed-hand yaku. (menzen) If you build your hand using only your own draws, this is called a closed hand and gives you one yaku. This is easy to build, because you simply ignore every time the game gives you the option to pon or chi off a discard – unless you are taking your opponent’s piece to complete a winning hand.
Conversely, a hand built using any of your opponent’s discards is called an open hand.
2) Pon-of-Dragons Yaku. (yakuhai) Simply having three of any dragon tile means that you have one yaku and therefore a viable hand. This can be closed or open – if you have two white dragons and your opponent drops a white dragon, feel free to pon off it.
3) All-Pon Yaku. (toitoi) Make a hand of four pons and a pillow, either closed or open. If you start your hand with a few pairs, this can be a good hand to aim for, especially if the CPU discards some of the final tiles you need early on. If you are lucky enough to build a closed hand of all pons, it’s suu ankou which is worth a ridiculous number of points.
There are two kinds of wins in mahjong, and most games will pop up a message to let you know that you can “Ron” or “Tsumo”. A Ron is when you complete a winning hand using your opponent’s discard. If you complete a winning hand using only your own draws, this is called a “Tsumo”. There’s no difference between these two kinds of wins in 2-player mahjong, though they are important for scoring in 4-player mahjong.
So, to sum all of this up, the easiest strategy to follow is to simply ignore your opponent’s discards and try to build a winning hand using only your own draws. If you happen to luck into a three-of-a-kind of dragon tiles, feel free to go crazy taking their tiles to build up your chis and pons. Finally, if you are waiting on a single tile to make a winning hand and your opponent discards that tile, grab it for a victory.
Watch what the CPU does, and what tiles have already been discarded! If you have two of a tile and there are two of the same tile in the discards, you’re not going to be getting a third of that same tile to make a pon. Likewise, you will probably see that the CPU discards all of its wind and dragon tiles very early in the match, and this is a very good thing to do as well unless you start with at least a pair.
One final thing – if you have a closed hand and draw a tile that puts you one tile away from winning, you can declare “riichi”. You then select a tile from your hand to discard, and from that point on you are locked into waiting for the tile that will give you a win state. This gives you one more yaku, so it will boost your final hand. “Riichi” sounds a lot like “Reach” so you will often see Japanese mahjong called “Reach” mahjong. Likewise, if your opponent calls “Riichi”, you know they are on the verge of winning.
Hopefully this is useful. I had fun writing it, even with the constant sound of the voices in my head screaming about all the stuff I was leaving out. It’s intended to demystify mahjong and let you get some basic wins – if you wind up enjoying the game and want to know more, there are lots of resources you can use to dig in deep.