Why Mahjong is a timeless classic

and why Gamers should give it a try

Nothing compares to the clickitty-clack of Mahjong tiles during play (Photo credits: Siuchak@BGG)

For all you Tichu, dominos or rummy fans, if you have never played Mahjong, you need to do yourself a favor and play Mahjong, right now. We are not talking about the inane computer Mahjong game where you select matching tiles to clear the screen. That has nothing to do with Mahjong. I am talking about the ultimate set collection game that has withstood the test of time. This is a game that is not for the faint-hearted nor the weak-minded. This is the game where age is no barrier. Your grandmother or your 12 year old cousin can easily beat the snot out of you and then some. What matters is not the age, but the passion for playing the game. Undoubtedly, Mahjong is often associated with Asian culture, particularly countries in the Asia-Pacific region. But you would be surprise to know that Mahjong has existed in the US for decades and is considered a game essential for building different communities. Mahjong also frequently serves as a forum for players to gossip, exchange rumors and bond over daily frustrations. The history of Mahjong is long and storied. If you don’t know the rules of Mahjong, click here and read about it

My own history with Mahjong started with friends from elementary school. Back in my schooling days in Malaysia, Mahjong was ubiquitous but not something familiar with my family or even my extended family. You see, growing up, I associated Mahjong with gambling, hence something to avoid. It had all the negative connotations that one could think of: a smokey gambling parlor filled with hard liquor, unsavory characters and all other possible vices imaginable. Perhaps that was why no one in my family knew how to play Mahjong and I was never exposed to it until I reached the tender age of….14. My friends though, they knew how to play Mahjong and they were pros. I was certainly exposed to the game through them and learned the rules, but was never able to achieve their level of mastery. I’d often lose badly and while we never really technically “gambled”, the loser often had to buy supper. Those days, cheap eateries were opened all night and we would walk over after a long night of gaming. I think my introduction to Mahjong back then was mainly to hang out with friends and chill. I never cared to get good at it and I certainly took the licking, but had nothing much to show for apart from the camaraderie.

The skills necessary to be good at Mahjong, and I mean really really good at Mahjong are not trivial. At the basic level, you can play Mahjong with friends and win simply by collecting the necessary sets to complete your wall. Nobody who plays Mahjong on any serious level, plays in that manner. Instead, wins are often combined by how many “tai” you collect. That is, not every set is equal and some sets are harder to collect and hence, worth more points, or “tai”. Obviously, some tiles are rarer and harder to collect, and thus, the sets formed from those tiles are worth more. It is possible for some combinations to be worth 30-40 points and beyond. In fact, in the advanced version of the game where gambling is involved, you cannot win the game if you do not achieve the minimum number of points. In other words, even if you complete your wall with all the necessary tiles, you won’t be able to “hu” or win your hand. Furthermore, different countries have different styles of play and the set collection differ not only in point total for combinations, but also in variety. Each country has evolved its own unique house rule, making the game truly a global phenomenon.

Veteran players with lots of experience, like my buddies from elementary school, can spot the probabilities of drawing specific tiles. Every tile you take, discard or steal from your opponent is information which can be used against used. There are tendencies in the game and experienced players can spot them and predict the pattern of play for specific players. To top it off, Mahjong scoring adds a strategic layer to game play. It is not just that the winner collects earnings from everyone on the table. Most of the time, the winner collect winnings from an opponent that plays a tile which completes the winner’s wall. In other words, there is usually one big loser in the table. This means that sometimes, it is more strategic to play to a draw, or to bait an opponent to play a losing hand. The psychology behind the game is vast and to play well, knowing player tendencies and behaviors can give you the edge.

There is nothing out there quite like Mahjong. In terms of Euro style gaming, this is clearly a set collection game, but with so many possibilities and variations. On sites like BoardgameGeek, I think card games like Tichu probably has that same feel in terms of devotion . Even then, I don’t even think it is an apt comparison. I tend to think that games such as Bridge or Hearts probably come closest to Mahjong in terms of fan base devotion. It is game that takes years to cultivate and is more than just a game for the people that play them. It is a game that bind people togther as a community such that they can spend a lifetime playing the game and never tire from it. I certainly think Mahjong has reached that pantheon of games that no other modern day game has reached. Not Ticket to Ride, not Monopoly or Rummikub. The game is amazing in its multi-layered strategy and complexity that I sometimes wonder why it hasn’t picked up a wider audience in our own gaming community.

These days, I still love playing Mahjong but I feel my skills regressing. Like everything else in life, practice makes perfect. The biggest drawback for Mahjong is that it requires exactly four players to play the game. There are 3 player rules (something which I learned from my elementary school buddies), but they are neither popular nor common. Instead, I now play Mahjong socially with my in-laws and the extended family. Not surprisingly, their skills way surpass mine and I routinely get licked. It’s not for the lack of trying either and certainly, after so many years of collecting sets in Euro games, it seems like nothing directly translates to Mahjong. I think the experience gap is just way too large for me to overcome. Almost every social gathering we have, each time we meet, there is Mahjong on the table. It is one of the ways we bond across generations.

Go pick up a game of Mahjong today give it a try. Chances are, you will get hooked too.

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