Fans 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.
Mahjong 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.