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Introduction to Video Game Mahjong
(or, How to get to the Hentai)

So you're an anime fan, or gamer, or horny bastard, and you want to crack the code of those mysterious mahjong games. Here's your chance. There's a method to the madness, and you'll find that the game is alot easier than it seems.

Language notes


Mahjong originated in China, not Japan, meaning that many of the actions and items in the game have irregular Japanese sounds. Instead of using the original Chinese words (or the, IMHO, horrendous English equivalents), I have chosen to use the Japanese pronunciations (and writings), since this article focuses on the Riichi (Japanese) style. The sole exception is the use of 'mahjong' (Chinese) versus 'majan' (Japanese).

History (the Boring Stuff™)


The Pieces:


Much like cards in the west, mahjong has no game board. Instead, it utilizes thick white tiles, sort of like anemic, squat dominos.

These are placed on wooden holders Scrabble-style to form your hand, while the rest are used for drawing and various other purposes.

The tiles are divided up into three numbered suites and two honor suites:

Shuupai
Pinzu

Souzu

Manzu

Tsuupai
Kazehai (Winds)

Sangenhai (Dragons)

It's not a big deal that you memorize the correct names of everything. I myself call them bamboo, circles, winds and dragons. The only thing you need to understand is how to tell them apart.

Needless to say, the tiles with kanji (Chinese characters) will present the most problems. The manzu pictured here have numbers by them for reference, but when it comes to the real game, you'll be left in the dust, so those are important to memorize. One, two, and three are easy, since the number corresponds to the number of strokes. Watch out for seven and nine, and for six and eight, since at first glance they may look alike. Four is easy to identify from it's box-shape, while five usually appears as a large mess of strokes, making it also easy to point out.

For begginner mahjong, the Winds and Dragons are a bit harder to recognize, but luckily, they're not very important when it comes to differentiation (more on that later). Understand that the Dragons are colored (White, Green, Red) while the Winds are black.

Dice are also used to determine who goes first, and small white sticks are used to keep track of money and bets.

The Setup


This would be an incredibly long section to write about if we were playing table-top mahjong with real tiles. Luckily, we're using modern technology to do all the hard work for us!

In some games, you'll see a hand moving around stacks of tiles (or the tiles just moving themselves). This is the setup, the beginning of the game in which the tiles are tossed, mixed, then restacked into walls, one for each player. This is also the stage where the dealer is determined, which affects money payouts later; that primarily concerns four-player games. 90% of mahjong video games are two-player, so this is of no big concern to us.

To put it all in a nutshell, all 136 tiles are mixed up, in a bag or a box or whatever (imagine how you mixed up tiles in Scrabble). The tiles are divided into two-tile-high walls among the two players. A portion is set aside as "dead tiles" which are unused in the game. One of those tiles is flipped up to reveal the Dora indicator. The rest are used to draw from. The players should then be left with thirteen tiles.

Combinations


This is the heart of mahjong: creating combinations. You create combinations of three (or two, or four) in your hand. The idea is to make your entire hand a series of combinations. The first one to do so is the winner.

Combinations are divided up like so:

Jantou: A pair of the same number/type and suite

Juntsu: A set of three increasing values of the Shuupai (numbers)

Koutsu: A set of three of the same number/type and suite

Kan: A set of four of the same number/type and suite

Seeing as how there are only four repitions of each tiles in the game, getting a Kan is relatively rare (kind of like getting a four of a kind in poker), however, they are worth more points.

As a beginner, you should concentrate on the Mentsu (the three-tile combinations) and the Jantou. Usually, a winning hand has four Mentsu and one Jantou.

Here we have a juntsu of manzu (7, 8, 9), a juntsu of pinzu (4, 5, 6), a jantou of souzu (1, 1), a koutsu of souzu (4, 4, 4), and a koutsu of wests. Now THERE'S a tongue twister!

In any case, all of the tiles in this hand form to make a series of combinations. This is a winning hand.

Gameplay


Alright, now that you have a basic idea of the pieces and what they do, it's time to get into the actual gameplay.

A full round of mahjong consists of eighteen turns. A turn consists of drawing one tile and discarding one tile, with the ability to steal your opponent's discard in that turn. You and your opponent go back and forth until one of you declares Tsumo or Ron, or if no one has a winning hand, until the eighteenth discard, when Tenpai or Nouten are declared (I'll talk more about declarations in a second).

Stealing
At the beginning of your turn, you have thirteen tiles in your hand. If your opponents last discard can make a combination with your tiles (and you feel that you need that tile), you declare Chii (for a Juntsu), Pon (for a Koutsu), or Kan (for a, errr, Kan). Your tiles that make up this combination are set aside, face up, while your opponents tile is turned sideways (or in the case of videogames, colored differently) to indicate which tile completes the combination. Once you've stolen a tile from your opponent, your hand is said to be Open.

Of course, you don't have to steal a tile. By stealing, and in turn by making your hand Open, special rules are enforced as to which tiles or actions you must have/do in order to win. Sometimes it's best to ignore what your opponent has put down, even if it completes a combination. Closed hands are easier to win with... so long as there's a bit of luck on your side.

Declarations
I've mentioned several times about declaring actions. These actions relate to stealing, betting, and winning (or not winning). They tell your opponent about how you want to use their discarded tile, or that you've won:

  • Pon (ポン) - Stealing action. With Pon, you declare that you are making a koutsu of the last tile discarded. (Of course, you need to have a two of the same tile already in your hand)
  • Chii (チー) - Stealing action. With Chii, you declare that you are making a juntsu of the last tile discarded. (Once again, you need to have two consecutive tiles of the same suite already in your hand)
  • Kan (カン) - Stealing and declarative action. Kan is sort of special in the fact that you can declare kan with tiles that are already in your hand. When you draw a tile that forms a four of a kind, you can declare a Kan, which will set those tiles aside with the outer tiles face down. When you do this, your hand is still closed. Of course, if you steal to make a Kan, your hand is open.
  • Riichi (リーチ) - Riichi ('Reach') is the namesake of this style of mahjong. When you have several combinations in your hand, and you only need one more of a specific tile to win, you can declare Riichi. By doing this, you bet an extra 1000 (shown by the appearance of a 1000 point stick), and let your opponent know that you're about to win.
  • Ron (ロン) - If your hand is Ready, that is, if you only need one more tile to win, and your opponent discards the tile you need to win, you may declare Ron, which will form a combination with her discarded tile, thus making you the winner. Note that by stealing like this (when your hand is Ready), you do NOT need a special to win, as opposed to normally stealing.
  • Tsumo (ツモ) - If your handy is Ready (only one more tile to win), and you draw the needed tile on your turn, you declare Tsumo, making you the winner. Remember that if you've stolen a tile from your opponent during the game, you need a special to win.
  • Tenpai (テンパイ) - If, after eighteen turns, neither of you win, your hands are revealed to find out who was closer. If you had several combinations and only needed one more tile to win, you declare Tenpai. This affects the total point outcome.
  • Nouten (ノーテン) - This is the opposite of Tenpai. If need more than one tile to win at the end of the round, you declare Nouten.

Arcade Mahjong


There's a couple of important things to know before you start playing mahjong in the arcade (or emulated, as the case probably is). First of all, the controls. There are primarily two styles of mahjong controllers.

Controls
One is the kind you're most used to, which consists of a directional stick and a couple of buttons. In game, you control a small cursor to select the tile you wish to deal with, while a menu can be brought up to select an action (pon, chi, etc). This game, Jan Jan Paradise 2, is in that style:


'modoru' - Return, 'Tsumo' - Win!

A far more common variation is unique letter- and function-based controller. In this style, there are fourteen buttons, labeled A through N, with five function buttons (pon, chi, kan, riichi, ron/tsumo) and a start button. To draw your tile, you hit N, and to discard your tile, you hit its corresponding letter. When you see a steal opportunity, or to declare riichi, or to ron/tsumo, you also hit its specified button. A good example of this is the Neo-Geo mahjong controller. This style is considerably less time consuming, and is used by far more games. The game below, Wakakusamonogatari Mahjong Yonshimai, is in this style:


Specials
Another important concept to arcade mahjong is how stealing affects your chances of winning. In order to win the round when you've stolen a tile from your opponent, you MUST have a Special of some sort. The specials are:

  • Declaring a successful Riichi
  • Having a koutsu of the Tsuupai
  • Having a kan of the Tsuupai

In other words, if you steal from your opponent, you either need to declare Riichi (when/if you can) or have a combination of Tsuupai (the winds and dragons). Note that you automatically have a special if you steal a Tsuupai to form a kan or koutsu.

Example Game


Alright, time to put all that nonsense into a visual form that makes sense. We'll be using Bishoujo Janshi Pretty Sailor for the examples here.


And in this corner...


Here is your average mahjong game layout, with most parts marked. You start by drawing your tile...


...by hitting 'N'. An 8 Circle. Note that the Dora indicator is also an 8 Circle, but don't forget that the Dora actually counts for the NEXT highest tile, which means that you need a 9 Circle to get the extra points. Now would be a good time to pause the game ('P' in MAME), and take a moment to think over your strategy. You have a 2 and 3 Manzu, which means you only need a 1 Manzu to make a combination. It'd be wise to keep them. Your Bamboos will be a tough choice a little later on; you already have a Juntsu of 5, 6, and 7. But there's also a Jantou of 7's, and then that dangling 9. If you wait for an 8, you'd have another combination. There's a similar problem with the 4's, 5, and 6 of Manzu. You need to take all this into consideration before you choose which tile to discard. You already have a 7 Circle, but there's an extra East as well. IMHO, it's pretty equal to discard either the East or one of the Circles. With East, there's a chance of extra points at least, so...


... Goodbye, 8 Circle. Your opponent draws and discards her tile, and then it's back to you...


...where you draw a 3 Manzu. If you were to keep the 2 Manzu, you'd have ANOTHER dilemna about Koutsu versus Juntsu. A couple more turns go by...


...and you decide to drop the East in favor of a 6 Circle. Guess that 8 Circle WOULD have come in handy. Oh well. You draw a 4 Manzu, giving you a koutsu. But which tile to discard? ...


... That 9 Bamboo is still only tentative in conjunction with the 7, while you at least have a guaranteed juntsu of 5, 6, and 7 Bamboo. You dump the 9 Bamboo, and...


... It seems your opponent discarded the last 4 Manzu in the set, giving you the opportunity to make a kan of 4 Manzu. Hit the Kan button to declare it, and the computer will mark the tiles. Remember that you must make your declarations on discarded tiles BEFORE your draw your tile! ...


... Whenever a kan is declared, an extra Dora indicator is flipped, which means your chance for extra points increases. Here, the Dora is 9 Circle and 1 Circle (9 rolls over to 1). You draw your tile to find a 7 Manzu, which would give you a juntsu of 5, 6, and 7. But now you have to discard a tile. Will it be the extra 3 Manzu, or the extra 6 Bamboo? Your opponent hasn't discarded any of those, which means there could still be any number of them out there. Here is where Lady Luck comes into play. It's a pretty even decision, so we take a chance and discard the 6 Bamboo (at least our Bamboo juntsu is still guaranteed)...


... You draw your tile to reveal a 3 Manzu! What luck! Lets see, that's a kan of 4 Manzu, a koutsu of 3 Manzu, a juntsu of 5, 6, 7 Manzu, and a juntsu of 5, 6, 7 Bamboo. Now, you need one final jantou. Your remaining tiles are a 6 and 7 Circle. Once again, it's a pretty even decision as to which one should be discarded. On whim, lets discard the 7 Circle...


... A couple turns go by of drawing and discarding useless tiles, until... a 6 Circle! That's it, that's 4 mentsu and 1 jantou. Hit the Ron/Tsumo button...


... A WINNER IS YOU. You've declared Tsumo, meaning your hand was completed on a drawn tile.


Enjoy the goods!

Written by Ryoga Masaki - 2/15/03
ryogamasaki@gaijin.co.jp