Japanese Mahjong


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Rating: 4.6/5 (68 votes)
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FunnyManJapanese MahjongFans of Robert Asprin's writing may recall a game called Dragon Poker, an insanely complicated game where the rules change depending on the day of the week, number of people playing, and which direction you happen to be facing. After learning to play Japanese Mahjong, I think I may finally know where Asprin got the idea.

Odds are good that at some point you've played a game of Mahjong Solitaire, the game where you remove accessible pairs of matching tiles until (hopefully) none are left. It's played with a standard set of Mahjong tiles, but beyond that, has absolutely nothing to do with Mahjong.

As far as gameplay is concerned, this game is far more similar to Gin Rummy. Your objective is to build melds out of your 13-tile hand—either runs of adjacent ranks in one suit or multiples of a single card. Unlike Gin, if you win the hand, your final hand includes the card you drew, so it contains 14 tiles. Runs, called "chii", must be 3 tiles long, but sets can have 2, 3, or 4 tiles. A 2-tile set is a special non-meld called the "toitsu" or "eyes", and you need exactly one to win the hand. A 3-tile set is called a "pon". A 4-tile selt is called a "kan", and you draw an extra tile as soon as you form one. This means that the four melds you make could potentially contain 16 tiles, for a final hand size of 18.

Japanese MahjongMahjong has three suits: dots ("dot"), bamboos ("bam"), and characters ("crack"). In dots and bamboo, the rank is simply the number of objects of that type on the tile. Characters are harder to recognize, but thankfully, Taro Ito has been kind enough to put the rank on their tiles for us. In addition to the three suits, there are four Wind directions (again kindly marked N, E, S, W), and three types of Dragon (red, green, and white). Each tile has four copies, allowing for one kan each. In addition, there exist 8 optional tiles: four Flowers (bamboo, orchid, plum, and chrysanthemum), and four Seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter), each with only a single tile. These optional tiles are not included in Taro Ito's version of the game, however.

Each turn, you draw one tile and discard one tile. Winning on your turn is called "ron", and has its own button. When someone else's turn ends, if their discard would complete a meld, you may claim it by pressing "chii", "pon", or "kan", depending on which type of meld you want. If the discard would let you win, the button is instead labeled "tsumo".

Winning, however, is not as easy as four melds and the eyes. If you just go by the rules above, you will often be told that you have no multiplier when you try to win. Japanese Mahjong uses "yaku", or winning conditions, and there are a lot of them. You need at least one to win, but the more you get, the higher your score. A full list with examples is given on the game's page or Wikipedia, but I've had success with these:

  • Don't claim any discards until your last tile (called a closed hand), and have two of the same run.
  • Have a closed hand and declare "richi" (ready) when you only need one more tile.
  • Have no 1's, 9's, or special cards.
  • Have the three straights (1,2,3), (4,5,6), (7,8,9) in one suit.

If that's not confusing enough, you can always try to puzzle out the scoring system. Getting multiple yaku increases your han (score multiplier), but fu (the base score) is a completely different set of conditions, including whether you have wind tiles that match your wind (which changes whenever the dealer loses a hand) or the prevailing wind (which changes whenever your wind has cycled through all four possibilities). It also depends on whether you were waiting for a single type of tile or multiple ones.

Fortunately, this is a computer version of the game, so if you can't quite wrap your mind around the scoring system, it's not a big deal. Just try to get as many yaku as possible and let the computer score for you.

Analysis: With a classic like this one, there's not a lot to be said about the game itself that hasn't been said repeatedly and in several languages. If you already know the game or are in the mood to stretch your mind, Japanese Mahjong should keep you busy for a few hours. As far as this newbie can tell, Taro Ito has done a fine job of recreating the game in flash and providing challenging opponents.

I'm especially grateful that this version has been translated into English, because the game is more than hard enough to learn when you understand what you're reading. It would have been easier to learn if the Mahjong terms themselves had been translated, but it would also detract from the atmosphere of the game.

Play Japanese Mahjong

44 Comments

Japanese mahjong must be very different than the mahjong I learned to play years ago and fell in love with. I think it's just normal (Chinese) mahjong that I know... I'm having a bit of trouble with this one =S I'm going to force myself to get to know it, though, because I'm a Japanophile <3

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Craziness....the more I play it, I get a little better.

And yes I did read the wikipedia entry,

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Ahhhh old school! Best learned over a bowl of chips, three good friends who will crush your fingers while shuffling ivory blocks, and a beverage of your choice. Then the rules start to make sense.

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I heard about this game during the summer.

In real life, I play Chinese- specifically HK style- Mahjong at friends' houses. There's definitely a lot more ways to score in this Japanese version, but at the same time, the score values are lower. Also, I've never heard of "riichi" before this. I could pick up on the rules pretty quick though; it's not significantly different.

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On the site I learned to play regular Mahjong, we would say riichi just as a polite way of letting everyone know you only need 1 tile to win. Also to blow everyone's minds when you get to say it after only a few turns, or even at the very beginning! xD

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I can't wait to try this. I used to play a beautiful Mah Jong game called Four Winds. It's still available I think. I looked it up just the other day. It got me thinking about how difficult it is to find Mah Jong on the Internet now that the name has been hijacked by the pointless pairs game. If anyone knows of any other 'proper' Mah Jong implementations I'd love to hear.

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I had a great Hong Kong Mahjong (PC) game I played for years - I am looking forward to playing this one. And I'll look for Four Winds too.

I thought the reviewer's problem was more that he was unfamiliar with any form of Mahjong (as played with real people and tiles or on a computer), so he was put off by pungs, chows and kongs which are just the jargon of the game.

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If anyone enjoys this game, make sure to check out the genius anime Akagi. Yes, it's about Mahjong and is actually unbelievably exciting.

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Mahjohng is a merciless game where you can lose alot of money. You should play me in it sometime. I'll be happy to take away your monthly wages.

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I'm sure this game is great if you have some prior Mahjong knowledge, but for me it's just too bewildering.

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This game follows the same rules as one particular style of chinese mah jong. Could you please confirm whether this is actually Japanese? I understand it may be difficult for you to distinguish but for asians its pretty important.

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Winning on your turn is 'tsumo', winning on another player's discard is 'ron'.

I'm pretty sure the game shouldn't wait for player response the player can act on one of the other player's discards (chi, pon, kan, ron). Because of that the game has slowed down significantly enough to be training aid for those who have just started reading the Wikipedia links.

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Gah, this can swallow a person whole for hours.

Once you've familiar the rules, there's an anime called "Akagi" that'll hit home with any Japanese Mahjong fan. Dare say you'll come away learning something with each episode.

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o-vey! I haven't even played this yet but you mentioned Dragon Poker and Robert Asprin and now I need to go and dig those books out. Hence the o-vey as I have no clue where they are. I will now tackle this mahjong and hope that it's not as difficult as I'm being lead to understand.

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It seems a bit buggy to me. I know how to play mahjong. And there are many times when I can win (and there's a button to click too), I get a "No Multiplier" message. (I was actually lucky enough to get/chance to get the card to win 3 times, but alas it wouldn't let me.)

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JIGuest-- This appears to be a particular Japanese variant called "Riichi" Mahjong. Much different from the Japanese mahjong I first learned, but very clearly described in The Great Mahjong Book by Jelte Rep (Tuttle, 2007), right down to the wacky scoring for drawn hands.

Amarei-- Not buggy that I've noticed--Riichi Mahjong requires you to have at hand worth at least one double (not counting doubles for Dora) in order to go out. So, it may be a bit of a tease in making you the offer to begin (but otherwise, how would you learn?), but it's legitimate in refusing to let you take it.

FunnyMan-- Nice find, but I'd like to speak with you about getting my afternoon back!

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I played a lot of mahjong in my youth, alough a bit differntly styled, I guess chinese.

Most notabilty this game implementation makes the game IMHO more different to understand than it is. For example when we finished a game, we used to put the tiles in the sets under each other, so its easy to see how the sets are worked together.

Other than that, we had different names, that is "Pong" was a 3-set, "Kong" a 4-set, "Tschau" a 1-2-3 series, and "Mahyong" a finish. Also in our game there were flower cards within where they arent in here. Actually they do not alter the game in its core, only give extra points if you are lucky to get them.

In playing I notice the big difference, that the computer players seem to want to finish as fast as possible, even if its a low value game. I don't know if its optimal, or just to try to score big time, and win less in compensation. We had for example a gentlemans agreemen not to finish a game, without at least having only 1 color suit, that is getting your points doubled once, if you only have 1 color. Doing a quick winning game with several color suits was extremly evil, and could get you socially outcast for the rest of the week :)

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I wish there was more explanation of the mechanics of game play. The rules are clear enough, the issue I have is that the interface does not always clearly tell you what actions are needed to make things happen the way you want. For example, if you want to take a discarded tile (chii) but the tile can complete a triplet in more than one way, it is NOT clear how to choose which tiles form the triplet. All it says is "select tiles." If you think that the tiles you select are those which will become the triplet, you are WRONG. The tiles you select are retained in your hand!

Also, I find that the multiplier rule is far too strict for beginners. It would be more enjoyable to play, I think, if there was a choice of difficulty setting, and the rules relaxed accordingly.

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I have a puzzle here. My hand currently looks like this:

Numbers:
4 5 5 6 7 7 7 8 9

Circles:
1 2 3 3

Just drawn: 1 Circle

The computer says I am now one away. Which tile must be discarded? This confuses me.

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anonymizous September 19, 2008 11:10 PM

Sparrow - what's wrong with this hand that it comes up with a "no multiplier" error?

There are 3 sets already set off to the side (6,7,8; 7,8,9; 6,7,8;), There's a pair in my hand, and the last dealt tile would make another set. I would thing this would be a winner. But an error pops up claiming "no multiplier."

Here's what I see (before I get the error).

http://img219.imageshack.us/my.php?image=tsumonomultiplierhh9.jpg

I discared the 1 of bamboos, and the next hand, another player got a 4 of bamboos. So, that makes another set, and a pair in my hand—It comes up as a "Ron." Again, clicking "Ron" comes up with the "No Multiplier" error.
http://img90.imageshack.us/my.php?image=ronnomultiplierpx5.jpg

I've had a few hands that seemed very similar—I had pairs, sets, everything that would make a winning hand, and it'd come up with the "no multiplier" error. Very disheartening, and makes me want to find another version that either a)didn't "tease" you with unwinnable hands, or b) allowed you to win when you actually HAD winnable hands.

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anonymizous September 19, 2008 11:21 PM

Sorry for 3 consecutive posts, but I kept playing this hand. I matched the one set with someone else's 4 of bamboo. That leaves a pair in my hand.

Now, you win with 4 sets and a pair. That's what I have.
I'm confused.

http://img440.imageshack.us/my.php?image=shiiwithpairck4.jpg

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anonymizous, this would finish you with 0 points. Which is an illegal win AFAIK... I don't know for sure, but if you have only streets as sets, you'd need at least a pair of dragons in the hand to finish/win. But it might as well be, that you cannot win anymore in this situation...

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As said, if you play with real people, its often considered a peccadillo to finish with an extremely weak hand, giving you very low score just ending the round as early as possible. This game requires you to have 1 multiplier at least, to get a minium decent score...

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If you scroll down past the instructions, you'll find a list of requirements for earning a "fan" or double. Riichi mahjong (the variant here) requires your hand to meet one of these conditions in order to go out. The Pin-Fu hand (all sequences) that you were trying to go out with must be concealed--that is, you can't have picked up any of your opponents discards to build it.

Calling Riichi is the basic fallback method of earning a double for an otherwise undistinguished hand, but this also requires a concealed hand. Hence there's a strong emphasis on building hands without picking up discards. And you'll want to make sure you're on the road to one of the other doubling hands before picking up that first discard.

For examples, if you're able to pick up a set of dragons or your lucky wind, or if you can work on a hand without using any honor tiles, ones, or nines, those will let you pick up discards and still go out.

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This variant of Mahjong is too luck-dependent. It discourages picking up discards, and as a result, it emphasizes luck of the draw to build a hand (with minimal strategy in selecting what tiles to discard). By contrast, the Taiwanese and Chinese rules of gameplay (from which the Japanese version is clearly derived) are much deeper in strategy because picking up discards is much more common, more scoring variants are possible, and one has to be much more careful about what can be discarded.

When I play this variant, I find myself consistently passing up opportunities to score, because once I do, the hand loses all flexibility and the game becomes about getting lucky. In fact, it is often the case that when playing with others, it is considered bad etiquette to try to score big hands all the time--that symbolizes greed and demonstrates poor gamesmanship.

This version simply relies on too much luck. It goes against the entire reason for playing Mahjong.

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I agree atomic. It's just the usual Chinese mahjong feeling that makes it so special. Say you have 3 balls, 5 bamboo, and 2 characters, and you decide to go for the bamboo only double, and start throwing balls, you can be certain you will only draw balls in future. :)

Or when you have 2 of your lucky wind, and ask yourself... now who of the other might have the other two? Will he/she throw them? Do I not begrudge him/her for having the three of a kind if I start to throw first? Then you decide, okay I want to win and they won't throw that wind either. You throw with a generous face expression. No reaction... next round you draw the third of the wind. You just threw out points for nothing. :)

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God, I love this game! And there is so many things to improve, you'll always learn something new.

I too recomend the anime Akagi for the ones who is really into the game. It's kind of unique.

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I got something I didn't see in the explination well i'll start from what it wrote
Riichi 1 fan
Tsumo(self picked and fully concealed)1fan
dora 3 fan
ura-dora 1fan
6 Fan Haneman
3000ten 6000ten I see the Yakuman whats a Haneman??

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I think I found a bug in the program. I tried winning with this hand,

http://i400.photobucket.com/albums/pp84/sirabc/mahjong.png

which is Jun-Chan (3 fan exposed: 2 fan).

I got the message, Furi-ten, which means I tried to win with a tile I previously discarded.

Nonetheless, great program. Is there a place to report bugs?

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A correction.

There is no bug. I only learned the rules of japanese mahjong a few days ago. I tried winning with a 9 sticks, but my hand could also win with a 6 sticks, which was something I discarded. To get out of Furi-ten, I need to switch the 9 sticks with, e.g., a 1 character.

The Furi-ten rule is very strict. If I'm waiting on a 2 sticks and a 5 dots for the win, but I've discarded a 2 sticks, then I can't win on the 5 dots until I change the 2 sticks win. But self-picking either for the win is allowed.

Here's a link to a rules page and a good explanation on Furi-ten.

http://www.mahjongtime.com/mahjong-japanese-rules-4.html

So now I say, great great game!

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N.Nescio May 24, 2009 7:10 AM

Though the review is written well (in the lexical sense), it shows a glaring lack of research due to the assumption that mahjong is a pairs game. To quote, "Odds are good that at some point you've played a game of Mahjong Solitaire, the game where you remove accessible pairs of matching tiles until (hopefully) none are left. It's played with a standard set of Mahjong tiles, but beyond that, has absolutely nothing to do with Mahjong." . A simple search with any search engine with the terms 'Japanese Mahjong rules" or going to wikipedia would greatly aid this article.

Though this comment is written well (in the lexical sense), it shows a glaring lack of reading comprehension due to the assumption that the review indicates that mahjong is a pairs game. To quote, "Odds are good that at some point you've played a game of Mahjong Solitaire, the game where you remove accessible pairs of matching tiles until (hopefully) none are left. It's played with a standard set of Mahjong tiles, but beyond that, has absolutely nothing to do with Mahjong." . A simple understanding of what was written or going to wikipedia would greatly aid this comment.

They're your words, so don't blame me for any insults in there.

The section you quoted was, as it said, talking about Mahjong Solitaire, because most people have played it and needed to understand that Japanese Mahjong, which the review is about, is a completely different game. And the only one which can accurately be called "Mahjong", though Mahjong Solitaire often is. -FunnyMan

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hurafloyd February 3, 2010 9:34 AM

Hi guys, I'm new at playing Mahjong, I have an issue.

My hand looks like this:
[1][1][9][9][1][1][7][8][9][WD][WD][GD][GD]-[GD]

Im supposed to have a chantaiyo with tsumo (even so, I dont understand why I couldnt win before) but I cant win the game, why? My hand was concealed and I never had the chance to call out Riichi. I followed the idea shown in Wikipedia for a chantaiyo, but I couldnt win T_T...any ideas? :(

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@ Hurafloyd

Your hand isnt complete, your need 4 Sets of 3 or 4 tiles and one pair. But have only 2 sets of 3 and 4 pairs!

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7h3d4rkw0lf February 23, 2010 12:30 PM

Watched an anime called Saki, wanted to learn the game, learned it, playing nonstop for the last week, getting better by the day, happy, :D

yeah, good game lol but the scoring system is hard to get in the beginning, I suggest just going along and trying to learn the better hands first, THEN learn how the hell you get those 12000, 3600, 32000, etc points lol

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CataclysmMansion March 6, 2010 2:57 PM

I also watched anime "Saki". I like it very much. Desided to learn to play and finally found this page. Hope to hop into the game quickly. Besides, I am from Lithuania.

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Don't Know May 22, 2010 10:58 AM

can me anyone say why i cant ROn or Tsumo?

it say all time: no multiplizer...

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awesome game, I'm beat. I really can't tell if the tiles I have are good enough to win.

Beginner haha, but I won, just ONCE, it's great.

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japanese mahjong is the best, i learned it while in japan.
concerning the game introduced here:

it's meaningless as there isn't shown the number of the remaining tiles which you need to consider your actions :(

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there're times when i can RON the game but the it said i'd no multipliers, can anyone help me to explain? thx

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As many have said here, this game follows the japanese rules of Mahjong (Riichi). Does anybody know about a program or site that has this game in its original rules from China? They differ tremendously from those here (IMO the Riichi rules are incredibly unfair when compared to the chinese...) Thanks!!

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izayoisakuya911 Author Profile Page April 9, 2012 11:47 PM

I think it's pretty sad that I started playing because I saw Saki.

Still, I'm having a lot of fun.

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