happyponyland.net / Mahjong / Getting Started

Getting started

If you would like start playing mahjong, you pretty much have three options:

If you are in Sweden you can contact me and I will try to help you get in touch with a group. Currently (2021) there are players in Stockholm, Linköping, Uppsala, Göteborg, Malmö, Västerås and probably other cities as well.

Picking a ruleset

Which rules should you learn?

I suggest starting with whatever your friends are playing ("When in Rome..."). Finding players is difficult enough as it is, so you want to stick with what is most popular in your area to get the largest number of potential players. Some mahjong sets come with an rulebook included in the box, which usually describe some quirky or antiquated variant no one else has ever heard of. It is best to ignore these and learn one of the established rulesets.

You might also have personal reasons for choosing some specific set of rules; e.g. if you are into japanese culture and know riichi is the one you want to play (because you watched "Akagi"), or you might be traveling to Hong Kong and hope to play there with the local rules, and so on.

My personal recommendation is to play riichi (Japanese mahjong). It's the most popular kind of mahjong outside of China. It's quick to play and has a couple of twists to keep it interesting. It will start you off with a strict and disciplined playstyle that meshes well with other variants; switching to riichi from a sloppier style is more difficult. There are plenty of online resources and pretty much all mahjong videogames are riichi-based (for example the Yakuza series have mahjong minigames that many players enjoy).

There is also MCR ("Mahjong Competition Rules", also known as "Chinese Official"), which is a well balanced and flexible system. It's mostly used for tournament play in Europe but not really that common elsewhere (the chinese don't care about it). The downside of MCR is that they are very much competition rules; the official rulebook is mostly concerned about formalities and makes little effort to explain how you actually play it, but with the help of online resources - such as the site you are reading right now - you should be able to get a solid grasp of it.

Materials needed

You'll need a mahjong set, of course. There are plenty of online stores offering them, so I won't maintain a list. It mostly comes down to personal taste; pick a set with a design you like that is within your budget. Expect to pay 30-60 EUR/USD for a quality set + shipping; I paid 400 SEK for my first. On auction sites you will often find "luxury" and "vintage" sets that cost a lot more, but these won't necessarily make the game any more fun to play. Just get a cheap one that you can afford to lose. You might also encounter mahjong sets in asian import stores, and (seldomly) in regular gaming stores.

Which set should you buy?

You also need a table. Ideally this should be square, about 85x85 cm, with a soft surface. There are special mahjong tables with a raised edge to make wall building easier, but they are hard to find and not really useful for much else.

Portable bridge tables are the next best. New ones go for 100-150 EUR, but I know surprisingly many who have gotten theirs for free (from older ex-bridge players, etc). You can also use a general-purpose folding camping table as long as it is large enough. IKEA "LACK" tables are slightly too small, unfortunately. If your climate allows you can use tables in public parks. If you're feeling super ambitious you can even build your own table (I did).

If you only have a regular (kitchen, etc) table you should cover it with cloth; this helps reduce clatter and protects the surface of both tiles and table. Poker mats, or any other medium-thick wool cloth, work well for this purpose. Avoid stretchy fabrics as you will be pushing the tiles around. You might want to find some clamps to keep it in place.

There are also "junk mats", a rubber-like sheet lined with a plastic frame. These are very comfortable to play on, but if you're on a tight budget or just getting into mahjong you might want to leave this purchase for later (they're about 50 EUR).

Finally, there are automatic mahjong tables that will shuffle tiles and build the walls for you, but these cost over 1000 EUR! They are used in mahjong parlors, so obviously you want to play a lot of mahjong if you are to purchase one for your home.

You need four chairs. Having two extra chairs or stools placed diagonally between players is useful to hold papers, tea mugs, snacks, etc.

You should prepare a printed rule book, as well as a couple of reference score sheets (one per player - if you're playing MCR, I recommend using my scoresheet). You should also have some scrap paper and a pen to keep scores unless you are using scoring sticks.

A pocket calculator (or a calculator app in your cellphone) could come in handy for double-checking scores. You might be h0T sTuFF at arithmetic, but when you are playing five consecutive two-hour sessions at a tournament you want to save what little energy you have left for the actual game.

Next: Mahjong basics