There are a few things you will need to know in order to play, enjoy, and win this game, so we've put together a few pages of introduction. Take your time with it, and remember: if you don't fully understand some detail, don't worry. Just move on, and it will all become clear as you go along.
THE BASICS... Mahjong is played with rectangular tiles instead of a deck of cards. Since the main object of the game is to assemble a hand of certain tiles, let's look at the different kinds of tiles you'll find. They're called the Characters, the Sticks, the Balls, the Winds, the Dragons, and the Red and Blue Flowers.
THE CHARACTER TILES... This suit is referred to in English as the Characters. The symbol in red signifies ten thousand, implying prosperity. The symbols in blue are the numbers One through Nine. There are four of each. I have marked them with Arabic numbers so that you won't have to learn to recognize the Chinese numbers.
THE STICKS... The second numerical suit is the bamboo Sticks. There are four of each. It's easy to figure out the value of these tiles; just count the twigs. There's a bird on the number One Stick.
THE BALLS... The third and last numerical suit is the Balls. Some people like to call these the Circles or Dots. It's very easy to recognize the value of each tile just by counting the spots. There are four of each of these tiles.
SETS... The object of the game is to arrange the tiles into "sets". Each player starts off with 13 tiles. With each turn you get to pick up a 14th tile, and then discard one from your hand. If you are the first player to collect 4 "sets" of three tiles plus a single pair of tiles, you win the hand. The types of tiles you've collected determine how many chips the other players have to pay you. Next I'll describe the three types of "sets" - Chow, Pong, and Kong.
CHOW... One type of "set" you can put together is called a Chow. This means a group of tiles (Characters, Sticks, or Balls) like the 3-4-5 of Sticks or 6-7-8 of Balls. Shown above is a Chow of the 1-2-3 of Balls. You can make a Chow from the fresh tiles you'll be picking up with each turn or from a tile discarded by the player on your Left IF (and only if) you are already holding 2 of the 3 needed tiles. Example - You are holding a 7 Balls and an 8 Balls. You may Chow the 6 or 9 Balls thrown by the player on your left.
PONG... A second type of "set" is called a Pong. This means a group of three identical tiles of any suit. Shown above is a Pong made up of the 5 Sticks. You can make a Pong from the fresh tiles you pick up, or from a tile discarded by ANY other player IF (and only if) you are already holding 2 of the 3 needed tiles. Example - You are holding a pair of the 9 Characters. You may Pong a 9 Character thrown by any other player.
KONG... The last type of "set" is called a Kong. This means a group of all 4 identical tiles of any suit. Shown above is a Kong made up of the 5 of Characters. You can make a Kong from the fresh tiles you pick up or from a tile discarded by any other player IF (and only if) you are already holding 3 of the 4 needed tiles. This "set" still counts as if it were only 3 tiles. Its purpose is to create a simple way of making use of a 4th matching tile rather than forcing a player to discard it.
THE WINDS... These are the four Winds: East, South, West, and North. There are four of each, and having a Pong or Kong of a Wind MAY add points to your hand. (More on this later...). I've marked them so that they are easy to recognize and I'll always put two images in the lower right corner to inform you of your extra point Winds for a particular hand.
THE DRAGONS... These are the Dragons: White, Green, and Red. There are four of each, and each Pong or Kong of a Dragon WILL add points to your hand. I've marked them so that you can distinguish them from the Winds.
A game consists of 4 rounds: the East round, the South, the West, and the North. Within a round, since the Winds rotate counter-clockwise, each player's seat is designated as the East seat, then the North seat, the West seat, then the South seat, as each hand is played, except that the Winds don't rotate if the player whose seat is East is the winner or if no one wins (dead hand). A complete game, then, is four rounds of four Winds each. This will be a minimum of 16 hands, and often many more. Remember this for later - The order of the Winds is East(1), South(2), West(3), and North(4).
For every hand that you play, a Pong or Kong of the Wind tile that matches your SEAT will give you 1 extra point if you win. The same is true if you have a Pong or Kong of the Wind tile for that ROUND. Watch the bottom-right corner, and try to collect Winds that match those images.
There will be four occasions during a game where the Round Wind and your Seat Wind will match. For example, at some point your Seat will be East in the East Round. A Pong or Kong of the East Wind would then be TWO extra points.
THE FLOWERS... These are the Red and Blue Flowers. There is only one of each. When you pick one up, it is automatically set aside and replaced by a regular tile. When the hand is over, the winner gets one point if they have NO flowers at all, or one point for any flower whose value matches their Seat. For example, the South player hopes to get the '2' flowers. All 4 of the red-numbered or all 4 of the blue-numbered flowers are an additional point.
TO HELP YOU WITH THE FLOWERS... For example, if your Seat happens to be North, you would get a point for each '4' Flower you picked up. As above, Flowers that have value for a player are always marked with a different color on the edge of the tile. This will be very helpful to you, because Flower points often make a crucial difference in the value of your hand. Remember - having NO Flowers at all is worth 1 point.
AND ONE MORE THING... When Flowers are set aside and replaced with another tile from the Wall, that tile is taken from the OTHER end of the Wall. The same is true if you have made a Kong (set of 4 tiles) and need to pick up a new tile to re-balance your hand.
Play goes counter-clockwise around the table unless a tile is thrown which someone can claim as a Pong or Kong. In that case, the turn jumps to their position. When it's your turn, you must decide which tile you want to discard, and the hand continues. For all players, those tiles Chowed, Ponged, or Konged are laid out for all players to see. Tiles picked up fresh during your regular turn are kept discreetly hidden from others.
PRIORITY... A claim to Win has priority over Pong and Kong. A claim to Pong or Kong has priority over Chow. Sometimes you may claim a tile (like for a Chow) and have it snatched away from you by a higher priority claim. Also, sometimes more than one player is waiting to Win on the same tile. If that tile gets thrown, then the first claiming player to the right of the thrower wins. For example, if South throws a tile that would let both West and North complete their hand, then West is the winner.
THE DICE... These are ordinary dice, and they are used to determine where to start taking tiles from the Wall. All three are thrown together onto the table between the rows of tiles. The total ranges from 3 to 18. The thrower (East) counts counter-clockwise around the table, from their position (1) to the position indicated by the dice total. For example, if you are East, then your row of the Wall would be the starting point for totals of 5, 9, 13, or 17. A total of 6, for example, would be the row to your right. When the row is determined, East counts from the end of that row by the same number of stacks of tiles, and starts from there.
Looking at the mahjong table from above, the Walls are the tiles stacked in two layers, eighteen stacks to a side. The dice, thrown by the East player, determine where to start taking tiles. This makes "planting rice" (loading the Wall) impossible. After everyone has taken turns getting their first thirteen tiles, and replacements for any Flowers they pick up, play begins. The dice are stored below East's name. The dice will move around the table, but a triangle will stay in place as a reminder of where the game began.
To win, keep your eye on what's been thrown and what's been exposed by your opponents. Don't be waiting to win on tiles that are already gone! Though the element of luck is great, the long-term winnings go to the player who pays attention and makes good choices on what to keep and what to throw. You must balance your desire to put together a high-paying hand with the need to "go out" (win) before the other players.
CLICK HERE FOR THE RULES FOR MAHJONG
AS PLAYED IN HONG KONG MAHJONG