Taiwan 16-Tile Mahjong Rules

Mahjong ( májiang [pronunciation guide]) is an ancient Chinese game, probably dating back thousands of years. I learned to play it while living in Taiwan (Republic of China), so the rules I'll summarize are going to be closer to the original Chinese rules than the significantly modified Western version of the game. (You might be interested to compare these rules with the variation of Mahjong played in Hong Kong.)

Many thanks to Steve Lin, Annie Cheel and Pam Didner for help in remembering the rules and helping me translate my Chinese notes.

Note: By "Mahjong", I am referring to the ancient four-player game, not the solitaire game (often called "Shanghai" or "Taipei" or even "Mahjongg") which is popular on computers. The solitaire game uses the same playing pieces as Mahjong, but otherwise bears no similarity to this game. (About like the similarities between the Western games of Poker and Canfield Solitaire--they both use the same cards, but are vastly different games.)

Object

Mahjong is quite similar to the game of Rummy. (At least that's what people have told me. I haven't played Rummy yet, so I have to take their word for it.)

The object of the game is to obtain a collection of "tiles" to form a specific hand before your opponents do. The tiles you hold are then scored up and totalled. After several hands are played, the player with the highest score wins. (Some play Mahjong for money, much as you would Poker, where the "score" is paid in nickles, quarters, $100 bills, whatever.)

The Game Pieces

Mahjong is played with:

Seating

The four players sit around a square table, with each seat representing one of the four compass directions. This is often referred to as "facing the East (South, West, North) Wind". There is no small amount of opinion (even superstition) among some players as to which wind gives them the best luck in playing the game, so to be fair, the players need to find a mutually-acceptable method of determining who gets to sit in which seat.

(You'll notice that the "wind" directions don't correspond with the true compass directions--they are symbolic names for the four wind directions, and this arrangement of East, South, West and North is used consistently throughout Mahjong.)

If nobody really cares where they sit, then you simply sit wherever and start playing.

Other methods include drawing one of each of the "wind tiles" from the game:


[EAST / SOUTH / WEST / NORTH]

Place them face down, shuffle them, and let each player draw one at random. Some groups like to roll dice to see who gets to pick a tile first (and so on, ad absurdium).

Once all players have chosen their seats, they proceed to set up the game.

Setting the Game Parameters

The players must decide on two things before beginning to play the game:

Starting Points

The customs for giving out starting points varies and really doesn't matter much, as long as everyone is given the same number of chips, counters or points to begin with. Often, people start with 2,000 points. Of course, if you're playing for money, people start with however much money they bring to the table.

If you use standard Mahjong counters, 2,000 points is given out using 29 counters of the following denominations:

QuantityValueMarkings
1022 black dots
81010 black dots
91001 red dot
25005 red dots

Some sets use colored "coins" which you can also use to keep score. Here's one possibility:

QuantityValueColor
102blue
810green
9100red
2500orange

Turn Sequence

The game progresses for the previously-determined number of rounds (usually four, or a multiple of four), after which the scores are tallied and the player with the highest score wins the game.

Each round has a wind associated with it, called the "round wind", which influences the score of certain hands (see below). For the first round, the round wind is East.

The person sitting in the East chair is the first dealer.

Each round consists of four or more hands. The hands progress according to these steps:

  1. Building the "Wall"
  2. Dealing the Starting Hands
  3. Play of the Hands
  4. Scoring and Payoffs

If the dealer wins the hand, he or she remains the dealer for the next hand. Otherwise, the person to the dealer's right becomes the dealer for the next hand. The round is over when the fourth player finishes his or her turn as dealer (by losing the hand).

At the beginning of each new round, the round wind shifts one seat counterclockwise (i.e., the round wind for the 2nd round is South, followed by West, and finally North).

Ending the Game

When the predetermined number of rounds have been played, the game is over and the player with the highest score is declared the winner.

No-Win Games

If all the tiles (except for the 16 dead ones) are used up but no player has a complete hand, the hand is a draw, and a new hand, with the same player as dealer, is started. Since there was no winner, no payoffs are made.
You may wish to print out a Reference Card of Chinese characters used on Mahjong tiles.
Copyright © 1997, 1998 Steve Willoughby / steve@alchemy.com