Kymberly loves to dive into many hobbies: productive gardening, crafting, sewing, reading, and everything Japanese.
Although the west is more familiar with the solitaire tile-matching game, mahjong is a rummy-like tile game from China, originally for four players. Korean and Japanese versions have rules for both three and four players.
History of Mahjong
No one really knows when or by whom mahjong was developed.
One set of rumors suggest that Confucius developed it in 500 BC, but another suggests it morphed from a similar card game in the Ming dynasty (from 1368).
The third set of rumors place its development into the 1800s, by either army officers or noblemen.
As mahjong includes a form of gambling (for money or prestige), the Chinese government banned it in 1949. The prohibition was lifted in 1985, as long as the game was played without the gambling elements.
The Many Different Scoring Systems of Mahjong
It seems that each country has developed its own mahjong scoring system, sometimes even using a different set of tiles!
Note: There are 13 and 16 tile hand variations in many of these systems, which can change the scoring rules.
Chinese: The "Original" Scoring System
A score based on the winner's hand and method of winning is first calculated, then the base score is doubled based on the "trump" tile or rare combinations of tiles. The losers pay these points to the winner, with the losing east player paying double.
It is claimed that the more complex mental arithmetic, especially with all of the doublings, is great for preventing dementia in older players.
This scoring is based on the classical system, but there are more doublings and special hands.
This is also based on the classical system, but with lower base scores and fewer special hands.
This version features an incredibly high number of special hands to remember, doublings, and higher values for rarer winning hands.
This uses a system similar to the classical system but modified for the different tiles in Singaporean mahjong sets.
This system features a base number of points for a winning hand, or points based on the combination of melds (whichever is higher), plus points for the particular tile you were waiting on, rounded up to a multiple of ten; this is somewhat simpler than the classical system. Japanese mahjong also uses a different set of tiles.
This version avoids using most or all of the bamboo suit tiles, seasons, and jokers, making the game much faster and suitable for three players. However, many points are based on extremely rare (and seemingly arbitrary) special hands and winning draws.
The Babcock scoring system provides a score-card listing specific winning-hand combinations and their scores. Only hands with these score-cards (changing by the year they are released) can win.
The Need for Simple House Rules
I started playing mahjong with a house-rule variant of the classical system—but only when someone else was tallying the points (my head always tallied wrongly!)
When I needed to track the points in each round, I needed to create a simpler system (or revert to a calculator - too slow). I needed a set of house-rules that I could easily explain in a language that wasn't my mother tongue and would work for three or four players.
Starting a game
Assign the winds to each player in an anticlockwise direction. These winds move anticlockwise after the hand has been won.
Dealer is the east wind.
Note: If playing with 3 players, leave out the 2-8 of bamboo and the north wind tiles. Players will be east, south and west.
Building the Walls
Players build a square from the tiles, four walls, with tiles piled two high, with any extras piled on top of the dealer's wall.
- 3 player - 14 tiles form the base of each wall.
- 4 player - 18 tiles form the base of each wall.
Dealing Out the Tiles
Dealer hands out tiles, starting with his wall. Each player should have 13 tiles in his hand, with the dealer taking an extra tile.
To start play, the dealer must choose and discard one tile (returning to 13 tiles).
The Wind of the Round
The wind of the round moves anti-clockwise, once all the players have been east once in the round.
For example, the wind of the round follows this pattern:
- 3 player - E E E · W W W · S S S
- 4 player - E E E E · N N N N · W W W W · S S S S
The aim is to have a hand full of melds, such that it allows you to go 'out' - declare mahjong.
Chi - a run of three consecutive numbers in the same suit.
- If making a chi from a discarded tile, it must be a discarded tile from the person directly to the left of the player.
- Alternatively when making a chi to go out (mahjong), you can pick up any discard.
Pong - three of the same tile.
Khan - four of the same tile.
- If you have a khan in hand (hidden), you should declare it.
- Once a khan has been declared, you will receive an extra 'replacement' tile.
Pair: you will also need one pair (two of a kind) to win the hand.
What to Do in Each Turn
- You must decide whether you want to use the previous player's discard, OR take a new tile from the wall.
Note: You can only take the most recent discard.
- If you took a discard to form a meld, you must display this meld openly.
- If the tile drawn from the wall forms a meld in your hand (hidden), you do not have to declare it, unless it is a kong (4 of a kind).
- If the tile drawn from the wall was special (flower or season), you must display this special tile, and then draw another 'replacement' tile.
- If the drawn tile (from the wall or discard) completes a winning combination of melds, declare mahjong and display all of your tiles.
Or, choose a tile to discard.
Then the turn passes to the next player.
Note: You can be skipped if a discard is picked up for a pong or khan by the players to your right!
Point values are kept low, with few or no doublings to keep the mental arithmetic simple, and the game moving quickly.
Choose the highest point group for each meld (don't score the same meld multiple times).
Winning hand - The player who won the hand receives their points from each losing player. They do not have to pay any points to the other players.
Losing hands - Each losing player receives their hand's point value from the other losing players.
No winning hand - If no-one wins, and all the tiles in the wall have been taken, each player pays all other players' scores.
Tip: add up all the scores at the end of scoring - it should be zero (or you've made a mistake)!
Variation - If east wins, double the winning hand score. If east loses, they have to pay double
- pong (three of a kind) of bamboo / circles / numbers, with values 2 - 8
- each flower or season
- a pair of dragons
- a pair of own winds or a pair of the wind of the round
- winning the hand
- pong of winds or dragons
- pong of bamboo / circles / numbers 1 or 9
- khan of bamboo / circles / numbers 2 - 8
- khan of bamboo / circles / numbers 1 or 9
- khan of dragons or winds
- pong of own wind or wind of the round
- khan of own wind or wind of the round
- pong of a wind that is both own wind and wind of the round
- khan of winds that are both own wind and wind of the round
Bonus points reward rarer hands.
There are fewer variations in these house rules than in other common scoring systems - easier to remember and faster to calculate!
- two identical chi melds (example: 2 x 2-3-4 bamboo)
- each hidden pong (not in the winning hand)
- all 4 flowers, or all 4 seasons
- all chi melds + 1 pair, or all pong melds + 1 pair
- only one suit (all bamboo, circles, numbers or trumps)
- no trumps (only bamboo, circles, and numbers)
- winning with a tile from the wall
- hidden khan (a khan meld from tiles in hand or wall, not including a discarded tile)
Tips for Buying a Mahjong Set
- Look for good quality tiles, with even sizes and weights. This makes building walls and shuffling easier.
- Good, clean printing makes the tiles easier to read.
- Plastic tiles will last longer than bamboo/bone.
- Check that your set contains the extra tiles you want - flowers and seasons are typically included in 'classical' sets, birds in Singaporean sets, jokers in American sets, and red bamboo / circle / number 5s in Japanese sets. Some sets also contain 4 blank tiles.
- Sets will often contain two small dice, a wind of the round indicator and scoring sticks or chips (especially in Japanese sets).
- Tile racks make moving tiles around and building walls easier and neater.
Your house rules
Have you ever created your own modified mahjong rules?
Which system did you base them on?
Let us know in the comments below!
Ann on December 29, 2018:
How do use blanks in a game of mahjong?
Ann on December 29, 2018:
How do you use blanks in a game?
email@example.com on July 18, 2018:
I play with about 7 asian women and I am a white man learning the game and I am having a challenge with changes that they make in the scoring when they mahjong but when I mahjong the scoring changes I am looking for the simplest way of understanding the scoring system
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on August 18, 2016:
Wind of the round is not necessarily tied to dealing. Each round has a different wind as 'trump' for bonus points - east, south, west, north. As the three player version has no north tiles, the wind of the round proceeds = east - south - west - east ...
I hope this helped!
Lisa on August 14, 2016:
Thank you for these simplified rules Kymberly! I have a question; I don't understand the part about the "Wind of the Round." Is this part of dealing? Any help you can give would be appreciated!
peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 14, 2015:
you sounds like a professional mahjong player. I started to learn when my friend taught me, years years ago
Ken Kline from Chicago, Illinois on December 01, 2014:
I have only played the solitaire version on my smart phone. And i find it does help me with visual recognition which I feel is an important mental agility exercise for people over 50.
I will have to return and learn the rules.
Great hub! Voted up!
gypsumgirl from Vail Valley, Colorado on February 15, 2014:
I love your hub! It brought back many memories of my childhood, watching my parents sit down for hours with their friends to play mah jong. It was an experience every Hong Kong/Chinese child went through. Well written!!
LongTimeMother from Australia on February 11, 2013:
Ah, this year I know what to ask for when Mother's Day rolls around. I never knew how to play mahjong but loved watching the elderly ladies at a table in my favourite restaurant in China Town as they clattered through a game.
I will master the rules thanks to you, and start lubricating my brain with calculating the score. Great hub. Voted up.
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on February 08, 2013:
dilipchandra12 - thank you! It's a great game, although it can get intense at times!
Dilip Chandra from India on January 21, 2013:
Thank you so much, i have learnt something about mahjong today. I do not even know how to play this game. Great hub with good info. Thanks for sharing. Voted UP and shared.