Basic equipment: chips, tiles and dice.
Mahjong houses provide a convenient venue for Mahjong old hands. This is a typical scene of Mahjong house in Wan Chai, Hong Kong.
Mahjong, can be played either with a set of Mahjong tiles, or less commonly, a set of Mahjong playing cards (sometimes spelled ‘kards’ to distinguish them from the list of standard hands used in American mahjong); one brand of Mahjong cards calls these Mhing). Playing cards are often used when travelling as it reduces space and is lighter than their tile counterparts, but are of a lower quality in return. In this article, “tile” will be used to denote both playing cards and tiles.
Many Mahjong sets will also include a set of chips or bone tiles for scoring, as well as indicators denoting the dealer and the wind of the round. Some sets may also include racks to hold tiles or chips (although in many sets the tiles are generally sufficiently thick so that they can stand on their own), with one of them being different to denote the dealer’s rack.
Computer implementations of Mahjong are also available: these allow you to play against computer opponents, or against human opponents on the Internet.
A set of Mahjong tiles will usually differ from place to place. It usually has at least 136 tiles, most commonly 144, although sets originating from America or Japan will have more. Mahjong tiles include:
- Circle suit: named as each tile consists of a number of circles. Each circle is said to represent copper (tong) coins with a square hole in the middle.
- Bamboo suit: named as each tile (except the 1 Bamboo) consists of a number of bamboo sticks. Each stick is said to represent a string (suo) that holds a hundred coins.
- Character suit: named as each tile represents ten thousand (wan) coins, or one hundred strings of one hundred coins.
- Wind tiles: East, South, West, and North.
- Dragon tiles: red, green, and white. The term dragon tile is a western convention introduced by Joseph Park Babcock in his 1920 book introducing Mahjong to America. Originally, these tiles are said to have something to do with the Chinese Imperial Examination. The red tile (“中”榜) means you pass the examination and thus will be appointed a government official. The green tile (“發”財) means, consequently you will become financially well off. The white tile (a clean board) means since you are now doing well you should act like a good, incorrupt official.
- Flower tiles: typically optional components to a set of mahjong tiles, often contain artwork on their tiles.
Setting up the board
Shuffling of the Mahjong tiles is needed before piling around the table.
All players throw three dice and the one with the highest total would be the dealer.
Players picking up their own tiles after rolling the dice.
The following sequence is for setting up a standard Hong Kong (or Singapore) game. Casual or beginning players may wish to proceed directly to gameplay. Shuffling the tiles is needed before piling up.
Prevailing Wind and Game Wind
To determine the Player Game Wind (門風 or 自風), each player throws three dice (two in some variants) and the player with the highest total is chosen as the dealer or the banker (莊家). The dealer’s Wind is now East, the player to the right of the dealer has South wind, the next player to the right has West and the fourth player has North. Game Wind changes after every round, unless the dealer wins. In some variations, the longer the dealer remains as the dealer, the higher the value of each hand.
The Prevailing Wind (場風) is always set to East when starting. It changes after the Game Wind has rotated around the board, that is, after each player has lost as the dealer.
A Mahjong set with Winds in play will usually include a separate Prevailing Wind marker (typically a die marked with the Wind characters in a holder) and a pointer that can be oriented towards the dealer to show Player Game Wind. In sets with racks, a rack may be marked differently to denote the dealer.
These winds are also significant as winds are often associated with a member of a Flower tile group, typically 1 with East, 2 with South, 3 with West, and 4 with North.
All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles two deep in front of him, the length of the row depending on the number of tiles in use:
- 136 tiles: 17 tiles for all players
- 144 tiles: 18 tiles for all players
- 148 tiles: 19 tiles for dealer and player opposite, 18 for rest
- 152 tiles: 19 tiles for all players
The dealer throws three dice and sums up the total. Counting counterclockwise so that the dealer is ‘1’, a player’s row is chosen. Starting at the right edge, ‘sum’ tiles are counted and shifted to the right.
The dealer now takes a block of 4 tiles to the left of the divide.
The player to the dealer’s right takes 4 tiles to the left, and players (counterclockwise) take blocks of 4 tiles (clockwise) until all players have 12 tiles for 13-tile variations and 16 for 16-tile variations. In 13-tile variations, each player then takes one more tile to make a 13-tile hand. In practice, in order to speed up the dealing procedure, the dealer often takes one extra tile during the dealing procedure to start their turn.
The board is now ready and new tiles will be taken from the wall where the dealing left off, proceeding clockwise. In some special cases discussed later, tiles are taken from the other end of the wall, commonly referred to as the back end of the wall. In some variations, a group of tiles at the back end, known as the dead wall, is reserved for this purpose instead. In such variations, the dead wall may be visually separated from the main wall, but it is not required.
Unless the dealer has already won (see below), the dealer then discards a tile. The dealing process with tiles is ritualized and complex to prevent cheating. Casual players, or players with Mahjong playing cards, may wish to simply shuffle well and deal out the tiles with fewer ceremonial procedures.
In the American variations, it is required that before each hand begins, a Charleston is enacted. This consists of a procedure where three tiles are passed to the player on one’s right, followed by three tiles passed to the player opposite, followed by three tiles passed to the left. The dealer can demand for a second Charleston, followed by an optional pass to the player across of one, two or three tiles. This is a distinctive feature of American-style Mahjong that may have been borrowed from card games.