Index / Gaming

Mahjong – My Journey

I bought my first mahjong set at the night market in Hong Kong. It was one of those big, heavy sets that come in an ornate, vintage-looking briefcase. I knew nothing about mahjong except that I had seen it being played in some Hong Kong movies. Getting it home to Finland turned out to be quite the chore.

The "English" rulebook that came with the set was indecipherable to me and to this day I am not quite sure what variant of mahjong it is trying to teach. The set remained forgotten and unused on a shelf for many years until I finally decided to make another go at it.

This time I armed myself with a book. The Great Mahjong Book by Jelte Rep managed to teach me Hong Kong Old Style. It also made me aware of the many variants of mahjong.

I liked many things in the Hong Kong rules, but was never completely satisfied with them. Nevertheless, it did open my eyes to the great potential in this game. Next I tried Zung Jung, having read about it on BoardGameGeek, but it was not for me.

In the end, after studying many other rulesets, I finally arrived at modern Japanese Mahjong (a.k.a. Riichi). I had been putting it off, because everywhere I looked people always talked about how complicated it was.

I would be lying if I said that it was a quick and easy process, but having digested some complicated board game rules before, it wasn't that bad. The largest problem was the lack of canonical information about the game in English. (But this is of course true of most mahjong variants.)

For whatever reason, the Japanese rules made very much sense to me. I especially liked how the rules encouraged defensive play. I also liked the Japanese style of tiles and having pleasing gaming pieces has always been important to me.

The one thing I wasn't overly fond of was the counting of Fu in the scoring. This seemed most like a relic from the past and a step back from HKOS. Luckily I stumbled upon David Hurley's site dedicated to the 3 player variant played in Hiroshima. In this variant you simply count the number of Han and check your score from a table similar to the limit table of the 4 player variant. (Sadly David Hurley's old site is offline, but it can still be accessed through the Internet Archive. His new site is a bit of a mess.)

Having made a few player aids I was relatively quickly able to teach the game to other people. As we often are one person short, the Hiroshima 3 player variant also sees a lot of table time and it is a lot of fun too.

Japanese Mahjong Resources

Player Aid

This is what we use in our games. Just add up the number of han and cross reference the correct column to find your score. This file contains versions for 3 and 4 player games. A few yaku are impossible to complete with the reduced tile set in the 3 player game and have thus been exchanged for other yaku. (E.g. Sanshoku Doujun for San Renkou.)

Yaku listed in the grey boxes require a concealed hand. Yaku in italics and with a dash before them drop one han in value if the hand is not concealed.

Note: This file is designed to printed 2-up on a horizontal sheet of paper (A4/Letter) which can then be cut in half.

Yaku List with Simplified Scoring Table and Tile Reference (PDF)

Rules & Strategy


Buying Japanese mahjong stuff outside of Japan is an expensive PITA. I bought my first Junk Mat and set of tiles from David Hurley (see above), but it looks like he's left that business. Later I purchased a Bat Mat and a set of tiles through a company specializing in procuring stuff from Japan. (I forget the company's name.)

The Junk Mat (love that name!) is a very good playing surface that is also very portable. The hard plastic borders come off and the neoprene mat can be rolled up and stored in a handy shoulder bag. The whole setup is very light. As my version included a set of tiles, the bag has pockets for the tile trays as well.

The Bat Mat is a gaudy yellow, stiff foam, playing surface that folds in the middle. It is quite functional, but not as aesthetically pleasing, or portable, as it's Junk sibling. As it is quite stiff it is not as demanding of the surface it is placed on. The cardboard box that it comes in doubles as a carry/storage case and features a carrying handle.

Both of my Japanese tile sets seem to be the entry-level Sango set produced by Taiyo Chemical. The wiki page I link to is somewhat dismissive of the Sango, but I see no problems with it and find it quite beautiful. The quality control seems to be miles ahead of any of the Chinese sets that I own. And I am known to be picky. ;)

As with everything the sky is the limit if you have money to spend. I am sure the more expensive sets are even nicer! Not forgetting the automatic mahjong tables! :D

Hong Kong Old Style

Here is a scoring reference sheet that I threw together. We use old casino chips to keep score, so I converted the points to fit these better.