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Different Types of Mahjong Games

December 2nd, 2013 Games

Everybody's heard of the legendary Chinese tile game mahjong, and for a good reason. Mahjong (also known as mah-jongg) is fun and challenging- a great way to exercise the mind and get some friends together for a friendly competition. There are many variations of this game, depending on what country you're in, and different mahjong sets to go with each one. Though most internet mahjong games involve matching tiles of a similar number, the traditional version is far more complex and rewarding. Discover which type of mahjong is perfect for you below! 

Chinese mahjong
It makes sense that we're starting with the country of origin's rules for our first variation on mahjong, and some would argue that this is the only version to play. The 19th century game requires four players, and 144 tiles with 36 pieces. The three suits are bamboo, dots and characters (Chinese ones). There are also four directional tiles, which are represented by east, west, north and south. Additionally, you'll find three cardinal tiles, consisting of Red Dragon, Green Dragon and White Dragon. The optional tiles include two sets of four, marked as flower and seasons tiles.

To win mahjong, you'll need to complete a set, which entails obtaining four sets of three-of-a-kind or a same-suit sequence plus a pair. During each round, players alternate discarding tiles until someone wins. Three important terms you should know are chow, pung and kong. A chow is when you get three tiles of the same suit thanks to picking up a tile that the player to your left discarded. A pung is when you get a set of three identical tiles after you pick up another player's discarded tile. You must declare pung when you get it, and show other players the set that you've acquired, before discarding one of your tiles. A kong is when you have a set of four identical tiles. If more than one player is fighting over a discarded tile, know that if someone is going for a win, that has top priority. Furthermore, pung and kong are more important than chow. For a more comprehensive guide, the North American Mahjong Federation has official competition rules on its website.

Western (American) mahjong
Legend has it that mahjong first reached the United States due to the efforts of Ezra Fitch, one of the co-owners of the popular clothing label Abercrombie & Fitch. Today, American mahjong has its own rules, though it still retains many of the traditional Chinese methods of playing. The major difference is that an American mahjong set has 166 tiles (152 are for playing, the rest are spare). Eight of these tiles are jokers or wild, which are used as substitutes for other tiles when declaring pung, kong, quint (five identical tiles) or sextet (six identical tiles). Joker tiles can't be used when declaring a pair, so be careful when picking one up!

It is important to note that there is no chow in American mahjong. Another significant difference is that before the game begins, something called 'the Charleston' takes place. Each player chooses three tiles that he/she doesn't want and passes them to the player on his/her right. Then, everybody passes three undesired tiles to the person seated opposite him/her. Lastly, three tiles are passed to the person seated to the left of each player (if you are content with your hand, then you can just pass the tiles you received without looking at them). You aren't allowed to pass jokers during this period, nor can you use jokers to complete a pair or set when declaring mahjong. Yellow Mountain Imports has an easily understood guide to American mahjong for those interested in a more detailed description. 

Other types of mahjong
There are other types of mahjong that are less popular than the above two, such as Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Japanese versions. The number and types of tiles often changes between variations, so make sure you know which rules you're playing with before you start your game of mahjong!