Majiang or as its know in England Mahjong is China’s Texas Hold Em, by which I mean its popularity, not so much the actual form of the game. Although a lot of people will have heard of this game, I doubt many who have never visited China would really know the true way its played.
Our Majiang table at the back of the living room.
The most common variation of this game that you see outside of China is the “Solitaire” version, this is simply a game where you find matching pairs and taking them away until you get rid of all the tiles in as few moves as possible. The other is much more similar to the actual game, but has point scoring for every move and different winning hands. <WARNING PERSONAL OPINION> For me neither holds any interest, they’re usually played by people that like bridge, ha!
This is not Majiang, but a spin off game not from China
Now the original game still played here in China is both simple and really complex at the same time! Confused? Let me explain. The basic idea of the game isn’t far off a card game called rummy. The rules do also vary slightly from one city to the next, but the principal is all basically the same. Wenzhou majiang has four players, and each player has 16 tiles. Long story short there is four suits like playing cards, each suit is the numbers one through nine, but all in different styles. For example one set is traditional Chinese characters for numbers one through nine, another set is big round dots from one through nine and so on. The basic idea is that every time its your turn you draw a tile from the wall (I’ll explain later) and if its useful for you keep it and choose a tile you have already that you don’t need and through it out into the middle of the table for all the others to see, every turn you must first draw a tile and throw one out. If the tile you draw is useless just through it straight away, you must always have 16 tiles. So now like rummy you need to collect sets, in total you need five sets of three and a double. The double must be two identical tiles and the sets of three can be either a run of numbers i.e. 234 or 567 all of the same suit. The other way is three identical tiles. As you have sixteen tiles and to win you need seventeen, the idea is on the final turn that you win on you take in a tile but don’t throw one out. So far so simple!
A set of tiles, and shots of playing.
For the purpose of this post I’ll just keep it simple or it’ll go on forever so heres a few key parts:
- The wall – this is lines of tiles, four in total one in front of each player and stacked two tiles high, this is where you draw from.
- Pong – If you have two identical tiles and someone throws out another one identical, you shout pong and take the tile, you then reveal those three for everyone to see and the person to your left is next, regardless of where in the round it was before.
- Chi – This is if you have for example a 3 and 4 of the same suit and the person to your left throws out either a 2 or a 5 allowing you to make a set of either 234 or 345, same as with a pong you lay the tiles flat revealing them to everybody and the game continues from the person to your right.
- Fortune tile – At the start of the game dice are rolled and depending on the number it depends on where you start taking the tiles from. Another roll selects a tile from the wall to be turned over for everyone to see, this tile then becomes the fortune tile. If during the game you draw a tile thats identical then you can use it as whatever you like, for example if you had 34 you could place it as a 5 to make you a set of 345, if you had two identical 5’s you could use it as a third 5 to make the set of three.
- Gang – This is a relatively rare move when you already have a set of three identical tiles and a forth comes either from you drawing yourself or another player throws out , just like the rest you announce it reveal the tiles and take another, but this time from the opposite end of the wall. This is also a great opportunity if you are playing for cash to get money. If its gained from drawing the tile yourself every other player pays you, if its from somebody else throwing out the tile, just that player pays you.
A typical street game that is a regular sight wherever you are in China.
Majiang is a very social game, with lots of people playing it every day. Many retired people play it in parks during the day, or in the housing complexes at night. Its played by both young and old people. And is a huge part of the culture here. Its also a great excuse just to hang out, have a few beers and generally shoot the breeze. The locals are always really surprised to learn that foreigners like to play it also, so regularly we get invited to play with them. This is usually a bad idea, they are quick as lightening and although a simple enough game in principal, trying to take it all in and strategize all at quite a fast pace takes some getting used to. All the same its great fun!