How to play mahjong

Board Games

Mahjong games are notoriously long and known to go on for hours. In fact, the longest mahjong marathon recorded was 33 hours of play.

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Rules of mahjong

If you want to level up your strategic, tactical, observational or memory skills, or simply have fun with a group of friends, then mahjong is the game for you.

This centuries-old game is not only one of the most popular games in Asia, but it’s also very easy and fun to learn. While there is an element of luck involved, there’s a lot of skill and technical know-how needed, too. However, to get really good at the game, you’ll need to understand what mahjong is and all the rules of the game.

What is mahjong?

Mahjong was invented in the 19th century in China and in today’s world, has a large number of variations depending on where it’s played. In traditional mahjong, four players play the game. However, in regional variations in Japan and Southeast Asia, three players are enough for a game.

Homwom 106 Tiles Rummy Game

Mahjong is very similar to the card game Rummy. However, in mahjong, players use tiles instead of playing with cards. A mahjong set typically consists of 144 tiles that have specific Chinese characters on each tile. Normally, a game starts by having four players sit around a table. Next, the tiles are shuffled, almost like a deck of cards, and divvied out to each player using special rituals.

Not unlike poker, mahjong aims to make matching sets and pairs. While there are many different styles and methods of scoring, players usually start by matching a hand of 14 tiles and call the game. Next, you’ll check your hand for “melds,” which consist of three or four identical tiles, followed by “eyes,” which is a pair of two matching tiles. For a winner to be declared, a player must get a hand or tile set consisting of four sets (melds) and one pair (eyes).

Steps for playing mahjong

Get prepared

Before you begin, you need four players at the table and a pen and paper to record the score. Next, count the tiles to make sure you are working with a complete set. You can do this by racking the tiles along the edges of the table to make sure each piece is there. Your mahjong set should have 144 tiles. Within this set are tiles including suit tiles, honor tiles, flower or season tiles and joker and wild tiles.

Just like poker, mahjong has suits. There are three suits: dots (or circles), characters and bamboo. Each mahjong set contains 36 tiles per suit (36 character tiles, 36 bamboo tiles etc.). Within these 36 tiles in every suit, each tile is numbered from one to nine.

The remaining tiles are honor or bonus tiles. Dragon and wind tiles are the most common types of honor tiles. There are three sets of four dragon tiles and four sets of four wind tiles. The last two sets of bonus tiles have either flowers or the four seasons on them. Depending on the rule set you are using, these bonus tiles may or may not be played.

Kick off the game

To kick off, all the players roll a set of dice. The person with the highest roll is the dealer for that round; the person to the dealer’s right goes first. The dealer’s job is to first lay down all the blocks in the middle of the table. All the players help the dealer by shuffling them around, then the dealer gives each player, including themselves, 13 tiles.

The rest of the tiles stay in the middle of the table face-down in orderly lines. This pile is known as the draw pile. Throughout the game, each player must have 13 blocks assigned to them.

Next, the players pick up and discard tiles to create eyes or melds. A meld works like a set in Rummy. The three types of melds that matter are the pong, kong and chow. A pong is a set of three identical tiles. A kong is four identical tiles and a chow is three suited tiles in a sequence. Like poker, this means three of a kind, four of a kind or a straight in a poker game.

Call mahjong

When the hand kicks off, the player to the right-hand side of the dealer draws a single tile from the pile and discards the tile face up in the middle of the table. Whether it’s their turn or not, any other player at the table can pick up a tile and form a pong or kong meld. However, to create a chow meld, the tile must be discarded by the person sitting to your left-hand side. 

If you use a discarded tile to form a meld, it must have been discarded and shown to the group. If, however, a player picks up a tile from the draw pile and creates a meld, they don’t have to show it to the group. Strategy and observational skills come into play at this stage of the game. Immediately after a tile has been discarded, the player to the right-hand side has the next turn.

To win the game, a player must complete a mahjong hand, which comprises an indicator of four melds and a pair.

What you need to buy for mahjong

John N. Hansen Travel Mah Jong

John N. Hansen Travel Mah Jong

This travel set contains everything you need to play the American version of mahjong, including 166 tiles, color racks, chips and a handy rule book. It’s a perfect way for beginners to get involved in learning the game.

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HOMCOM 4-Player Portable Folding Mahjong Table

HOMCOM 4-Player Portable Folding Mahjong Table

If you want to take your mahjong playing a bit more seriously, this foldable four-person playing table gives you a dedicated space for you and your friends to improve your skills.

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A Mah Jong Handbook: How to Play, Score, and Win

A Mah Jong Handbook: How to Play, Score, and Win

If you’re ready to get deep into the advanced rules and playing strategies of mahjong, this book can take your skills to the next level. You’ll learn everything there is to know about wall building and other offensive and defensive playing techniques.

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Lauren Farrell writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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