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Barticle's Introduction to Japanese Mahjong

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Mahjong is a traditional tabletop game usually played by four players at a square table; it originated in China but there are now countless variants worldwide. Most of the Yakuza games feature playable mahjong minigames that all use the same standard modern Japanese rules and scoring.

This article is not a full guide to mahjong - instead it aims to teach you the basics you need to be able to start playing the game. For more comprehensive coverage of Japanese mahjong refer to my Yakuza guides on GameFAQs or download my complete illustrated PDF guide to the rules and terminology of the game. (This article uses the predominantly English translations of terminology as given in Yakuza 2, Yakuza 4 and Yakuza: Dead Souls.)

I always welcome questions about the rules of Japanese mahjong so feel free to contact me directly with any queries (you'll find my email address in any of my online guides). - Barticle

TipEdit

Where you're given the option (e.g. in Yakuza 4 and Yakuza: Dead Souls) you should register for the mahjong tournament. This will cost you 50,000 Yen for registration but thereafter you can play as many tournament matches as you like for free (and have the chance to win various prizes worth much more than that) so it's very useful when you're learning.

TilesEdit

Japanese mahjong is played with a standard set of 136 tiles which is made up of four copies each of 34 different designs (4 x 34 = 136). The tiles are a bit like western playing cards - there are three suits with tiles numbered 1 to 9 - but there are also four Winds and three Dragons, collectively known as Honours.

Mahjong-tiles

You'll need to learn to recognise the Chinese kanji numbers on the tiles of the Craks suit (the ones with red and black markings) and the four characters on the Wind tiles (the ones with black markings).

FormatEdit

A standard match of modern Japanese mahjong is a "Half Game", played over two rounds (half the duration of a full game of four rounds in classical Chinese mahjong). In the first round the Prevalent Wind is east (東) and in the second round it's south (南).

At the start of the match each of the four players is allocated a Seat Wind (east, south, west or north) but these labels rotate around the table as the game progresses.

Each round is played for four hands and the Seat Winds shift at the start of each of these hands so, over the course of the round, each player gets to be each of the winds. This is complicated by the fact that an extra hand is played (without Seat Winds changing) whenever a hand ends in either a win for the current east player or a draw in which the east player has a "ready" hand (one tile away from being complete).

Rotation of Seat Winds during a Half Game
East 1 East 2 East 3 East 4 South 1 South 2 South 3 South 4
Player A East North West South East North West South
Player B South East North West South East North West
Player C West South East North West South East North
Player D North West South East North West South East

The first of the four info boxes in the centre of the minigame screen shows both the current Prevalent Wind (east or south) and the number of the current hand (1 to 4). Each player's current Seat Wind is indicated by the kanji next to their name using the same characters that appear on the Wind tiles.

Hand StructureEdit

Although it looks quite exotic at first sight, mahjong is played very much like a card game - it particularly resembles the game Rummy where your goal is to build sets of cards.

Mahjong-sets

You start with thirteen tiles and on each turn you draw another and then discard one. Your aim is to be the first player to make a complete hand composed of four sets and one pair. Each set can be a Chow (a sequence of three consecutive tiles in the same suit), a Pung (a triplet of three identical tiles) or exceptionally a Kong (four identical tiles).

(A Kong must always be formally declared to count as a set - you need to press the Square button to display the option for this. You then draw an extra tile to make up the shortfall in your hand.)

Mahjong-hand

Players take turns in counter-clockwise order. If an opponent discards a tile which you could use to complete a triplet then you use the "Pung" command to steal it, but the set and your hand will now be "exposed" and no longer "concealed". Similarly you can use the "Chow" command to take a tile from the player to your left to complete a sequence but again it will become exposed. It is often best to not steal tiles because you'll limit your potential for scoring and defence - keep your hand concealed and reject any Pung and Chow pop-up options that appear.

(However there are some situations when it's better to steal tiles. For example to complete a valuable hand more quickly, to get a cheap and quick win in order to retain your east Seat Wind or to give yourself a ready hand in a draw - see below for more info.)

Chows (sequences) are easier to make so you should usually aim to make four Chows unless you have a hand which obviously lends itself to making Pungs (triplets) or pairs. Keep the numbered tiles from the three suits, favouring ones that can make sets together, for example _45_ becomes a Chow with the addition of either a 3 or a 6. Groups of four or more consecutive suit tiles can be very versatile. Chows can overlap so 566778 in one suit counts as 567 and 678 sets.

In addition to the four sets, your hand will also need a pair of two identical tiles so make sure you keep a pair when you have one. (Any further pairs should usually be broken or discarded, although Japanese mahjong does also recognise a valid hand of seven unique pairs.)

Scoring ElementsEdit

To be able to declare a win your complete hand must also qualify for at least one scoring element. These are loosely equivalent to the combinations of Poker (two pair, full house, flush, etc) except in mahjong you can combine two or more.

The in-game help pages (accessed by pressing Triangle in most games or Circle in Yakuza 2) illustrate all the scoring elements that are recognised in the modern Japanese rules. You should have a general awareness of these but you don’t need to memorize all of them. The following ten are the commonest (starting with the most frequent) so these are the most useful ones to learn first:-

  1. Riichi - see below
  2. Pung of Dragons, Seat Wind or Prevalent Wind
  3. All Simples (Tanyao) - only suit tiles numbered 2 to 8 (no 1's, 9's, Dragons or Winds)
  4. Pinfu - see below
  5. Fully Concealed Hand - no exposed sets and won with a tile drawn on your turn
  6. Half Flush - only one suit and Honours (Winds and Dragons)
  7. Pure Double Chow - concealed hand containing two identical Chows
  8. All Pungs - all four sets are Pungs
  9. Mixed Triple Chow - three Chows with the same numbers (one in each suit)
  10. Seven Pairs - seven unique pairs (instead of the usual four sets and one pair)

The two most important scoring elements are Riichi and Pinfu. Most of the time you should be attempting to use both in combination (but hopefully with some other stuff too to boost your score).

RiichiEdit

Using Riichi is like making a wager that you'll win the hand. It has the following requirements:

  • Your hand must be concealed (so cancel any Chow or Pung commands)
  • Your hand must be "ready" (one tile away from being complete)
  • You must have 1,000 points available to pay for it
  • There must be four or more tiles remaining to be played

In order to display the Riichi command you need to press the Square button when it's your turn. (If you're unsure you can just get in the habit of pressing Square on every turn!)

After declaring Riichi you continue to take your turn but your hand is locked so you can only discard your drawn tile or declare a win with it (or use it to make a Kong set).

If you win the hand after declaring Riichi you get back your 1,000 points and you can claim Riichi in addition to any other scoring elements that are applicable. Riichi can be used to add the necessary scoring element to a hand that doesn't qualify for any of the others.

There could be two or more Riichi bets on the table and these will all be claimed by the next player to win a hand. In the event of a draw the bets stay on the table and will be collected on the next win. The number in the second box in the centre of the screen (bottom-left box in Yakuza 2) indicates the number of unclaimed Riichi bets left on the table from previous hands.

Winning a hand with Riichi gives two additional luck-based benefits:-

  • If you declare a win immediately after declaring Riichi (stealing the next discard from any player or using the tile you draw on your next turn) then you get the bonus scoring element Ippatsu
  • An additional Dora indicator (for the Underside Dora or Reverse Dora) is applied

To avoid wasting your 1,000 points it's best to use Riichi only when there are at least fifteen tiles remaining - check the counter in the fourth box in the centre of the screen (top-right box in Yakuza 2) - and when there are two or more different tiles that would complete your hand (all Yakuza games from Kenzan onwards have an indicator that appears when choosing Riichi which shows your possible winning tiles and how many of each are still in play).

PinfuEdit

Pinfu is the hardest scoring element to explain but it's also one of the most useful.

For Pinfu you must meet the following criteria:

  • Your hand must be concealed (so cancel any Chow or Pung commands)
  • All four sets must be Chows (which is the most efficient structure to use anyway)
  • The pair cannot be composed of the Prevalent Wind, your Seat Wind or any of the Dragons
  • The hand must be completed by making a Chow from two consecutive suit tiles, for example _34_

It sounds complicated but most of this should flow naturally from sensible play.

Mahjong-pinfu

DoraEdit

Another handy way to boost your score is with the Dora bonus tiles. The tile shown in the centre of the screen is the Dora indicator and the next sequential tile is the Dora and each one in your hand is worth one Fan. For example if the indicator is the 2-Dots tile and you have a pair of 3-Dots in your hand then you have two Dora worth two Fan.

The numbers wrap so a number 9 indicator will make the Dora number 1 in the same suit and the Dragons and Winds follow the sequences shown in the diagram below.

Mahjong-dora1

Here are four examples applying these rules:

Mahjong-dora2

If the player who wins a hand had declared Riichi then an extra indicator tile (for an Underside or Reverse Dora) will be revealed under the standard indicator and applied.

After the declaration of a Kong (quad) set an additional Dora indicator will be revealed in the row of tiles in the centre of the virtual tabletop. Now when a player wins with Riichi the extra Underside Dora indicators will be flipped under both the standard Dora indicator and the Kong Dora indicator.

(The additional Dora tile/s resulting from the declaration of a Kong can give a significant boost to the value of a hand so it's usually best to only declare a Kong when you are close to winning a hand and it can be very dangerous to do it after another player has declared Riichi since two extra Dora would be applied if they win the hand.)

WinsEdit

You declare Tsumo to announce a win with a tile you've drawn yourself - in this case all three opponents will pay a share of your winnings. Alternatively you declare Ron to win off an opponent's discarded tile - in that case the discarder pays the full amount.

Remember: in order to be able to declare a win you must have a valid hand structure and it must qualify for at least one scoring element.

If you have a ready hand that could be completed by any of the tiles that you've already discarded yourself then you are Furiten and you cannot declare a Ron win on any tile. You can still win by Tsumo or you can change your hand structure to escape the Furiten.

ScoringEdit

Each player starts a match with the standard total of 25,000 points each.

The value of a winning hand is calculated from its Minipoints (Fu) and Fan, but you can ignore the Minipoints for now. Each scoring element is worth one or more Fan and each Dora tile is worth one Fan too, so for example a typical winning hand with Riichi, Pinfu, All Simples (Tanyao) and one Dora scores four Fan.

The value of the hand is doubled once per Fan but with higher value hands a series of limits is applied to the points won, e.g. Mangan (5 Fan), Haneman (6 or 7 Fan), Baiman (8-10 Fan), etc.

If the supply of tiles is depleted without a win being declared then the hand is a draw. In this situation a total of 3,000 points is shared between the players who have hands that are Tenpai (i.e. "ready" hands, one tile away from winning) and these points are paid by the other players.

The player with the current Seat Wind of east receives 50% extra points each time they win so you should try to take advantage of your stints as east. You will "stay on" as east in an extra hand (additional to the standard four per round) whenever you win a hand or it ends in a draw where you have a Tenpai (ready) hand.

Every consecutive hand that results in either a win for east or a draw (regardless of ready hands) adds one to the Honba counter in the third box in the centre of the screen (bottom-right box in Yakuza 2). This indicates the number of 300-point bonuses that will be added to the value of any winning hand. When any player other than east wins a hand the Honba counter is reset to zero.

At the end of a match the player with the highest score wins but not before a final exchange of points between players is applied. Traditionally the amounts traded are symmetrical but in the Yakuza games they're skewed, typically with the player in 1st place gaining an extra 25,000 points, with 3rd paying 10,000 pts and 4th paying 15,000 pts.

DefenceEdit

Once you've won some points you'll want to keep them. If an opponent declares a Ron win off one of your discarded tiles then you pay the full amount for their win so sometimes you'll need to play defensively. If another player declares Riichi then you know they are only one tile away from winning and the safest action is to dismantle your hand so that you can discard safe tiles. This is a tough lesson to learn but sometimes you need to "lose a battle in order to win the war".

The best tiles to discard are ones that the Riichi player has already discarded (because they will be Furiten on them). It's also good to discard any tiles that you or the other players have discarded since the player declared Riichi (because the previous ones weren't taken for a win).

Defence is another good reason not to steal tiles from your opponents - the tiles in your exposed sets are locked so you have less to choose from when "folding" your hand like this.

Rule OptionsEdit

The mahjong minigame has the following four options:

  1. Half Game / Quarter Game - The standard Half Game is played over two rounds (east and south) while a Quarter Game consists of a single round (east). Confusingly in Yakuza 2 the terms Full Game and Half Game were used to refer to the same options!
  2. Kuitan - When the Kuitan rule is applied you can claim the scoring element All Simples (Tanyao) on an exposed hand (where one or more sets have been completed by stealing tiles).
  3. Two Fan Minimum - With this rule, whenever the Honba counter shows 5 or more your hand must have scoring elements worth two or more Fan for a valid win (Fan from Dora bonus tiles don’t count).
  4. Red Dora - This option replaces four of the number 5 suit tiles with special versions with red markings, each of which adds one bonus Fan to the calculation of the hand value.

Japanese CommandsEdit

The following commands written in katakana script are used in the original Japanese games.

チー chii steal a tile to complete a Chow set
ポン pon steal a tile to complete a Pung set
カン kan declare a Kong set or steal an opponent's tile to make one
リーチ riichi declare Riichi
ロン ron declare a Ron win on an opponent's discarded tile
ツモ tsumo declare a Tsumo win on a tile you drew yourself

CreditsEdit

Further ReadingEdit

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