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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 Ryū ga Gotoku / Yakuza games feature playable mahjong minigames that all use the same modern Japanese rules and scoring.

This article is not a full guide to mahjong - instead it aims to teach the basics you need to start playing the game effectively. For more comprehensive coverage refer to my Yakuza mahjong guides on GameFAQs or download my complete illustrated PDF guide to the rules and terminology of Japanese mahjong.

In an effort to make this article more accessible and applicable to the whole Yakuza series I've used common English terms where practical. Unhelpfully the mahjong terminology used in the English-language editions is inconsistent between titles but I've tried to list all variations here at least once. New terms are given in bold text where they're introduced and defined.

I always happy to help with questions about 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

TournamentEdit

Where you're given the option you should register for the mahjong tournament.

Registration will usually cost you 50,000 Yen (or 50,000 Mon in Ishin) but you can then play as many tournament matches as you like for free so it's very useful when you're learning. You'll also have the chance to win various prizes which are worth much more than your initial entry fee.

TilesEdit

Japanese mahjong is played with a standard set of 136 tiles composed of four copies each of 34 different designs.

The tiles are not unlike western playing cards - there are three suits with tiles numbered 1 to 9. In English the three suits are commonly known as Craks, Dots and Bams (Bamboos). There are also four winds (compass directions) and three dragons (colours) which are collectively known as honours.

Mahjong-tiles

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

Match FormatEdit

A standard match in the modern Japanese rules is a half game played over two rounds (a full game in classical Chinese mahjong has four rounds). In the first round the prevalent wind or round wind is always east (東) then in the second round it's always south (南). You can also play a quarter game with a single east round.

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 match progresses.

Each round is played over four hands and the seat winds rotate one place after each hand so that every player gets to be each of the winds over the course of the round. 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 had 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 current prevalent wind (east or south) and the number of the current hand (1 to 4) are always shown in the centre of the screen - this will either be in English (e.g. East 1) or Japanese (e.g. 東一局 or 東1). 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

Mahjong plays like a card game - it particularly resembles the game Rummy where your aim is to build sets of cards.

You start with thirteen tiles. Players take turns in counter-clockwise order around the table - on each turn you draw another tile and then discard one. Your goal is to be the first player to make a complete hand composed of four sets and one pair. (However a winning hand must also have at least one combination - see below.)

Mahjong-hand2

There are three types of set:

  • Chow (a sequence of three consecutive tiles in the same suit)
  • Pung (a triplet of three identical tiles)
  • Kong (a quad of four identical tiles*)

*In order to be counted as a quad set your four identical tiles must be formally declared - you need to press the Square button to display the "Kong" or "Kan" option for this. You will then draw an extra tile to ensure that you have enough to complete the rest of your hand.

Mahjong-sets2

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

In addition to the four sets, your hand will also need one 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.

Stealing Tiles Edit

It's possible to take a tile that an opponent has just discarded and use it to complete a set.

You can use the Pung or Pon command to take a tile from any opponent to complete a triplet set, for example when you have two red dragon tiles in your hand and another player discards a third one.

Similarly you can use the Chow or Chii command to take a tile from the player to your left to complete a sequence set, for example when you have 2 Dots and 3 Dots in your hand and you can take 4 Dots to make a 234 set.

A set made with a stolen tile is locked - the tiles can no longer be discarded. Also after you make your first steal your whole hand goes from being concealed to exposed.

It's often best to reject all steals and keep your hand concealed. In an exposed hand some combinations will score less (or even be completely invalid) and your potential for defence is reduced. However sometimes you might use steals to complete your hand faster as long as you can ensure that it has at least one combination.

CombinationsEdit

To be able to declare a win your complete hand must always qualify for at least one combination (also known as a scoring element in the localised Yakuza games). These are similar to the combinations of Poker (Two Pair, Full House, Flush, etc) except in mahjong you can claim two or more combinations in the same hand.

The in-game help pages (accessed by pressing Triangle in most games or Circle in Yakuza 2) illustrate all the combinations that are recognised in the modern Japanese rules. You should have a general awareness of these but you don’t need to memorise all of them. Certainly the valuable Yakuman (limit hands) are incredibly rare!

The following are the most common combinations (most frequent first) so these are the most useful ones to learn.

Riichi and Pinfu are the two most important combinations - most of the time you should be attempting to use both together (and hopefully with other combos and Dora bonus tiles to boost your score).

RiichiEdit

Declaring 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 steals)
  • You must have a ready hand (one tile away from being complete)
  • You must have 1,000 points available to pay for it
  • There must be at least four 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 turns but your whole hand is locked so you can only discard your drawn tile or declare a win with it (or use it to make a quad set if possible).

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

In the event of a draw any Riichi bets stay on the table and will be collected by the next player to win a hand. The number in the centre of the screen next to a bar with a single red dot indicates the number of unclaimed Riichi bets left on the table (each worth 1,000 pts).

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 combination Ippatsu.
  • An additional Dora indicator is applied (see below).

To avoid wasting your points it's best to use Riichi only when you have several turns remaining (check your discards or the tile counter in the centre of the screen) and when there are two or more different tiles that would complete your hand. All Yakuza games from Kenzan onwards have a pop-up indicator that appears when choosing Riichi which shows your possible winning tiles and how many of each are still available.

Triplet of Dragons, Seat Wind or Prevalent Wind Edit

Each triplet set of either red dragon, white dragon, green dragon, your current seat wind or the prevalent wind (see above) counts as a valid combination. If your seat wind matches the prevalent wind then it counts twice.

This will usually give a relatively cheap hand unless you can combine it with Dora bonus tiles or a Half Flush, however it's one of the easiest ways to get the combination required to declare a win. If you have two matching tiles you can steal the third to complete the set and, since the hand is already exposed, you might as well steal more tiles to complete the rest of it more quickly.

Mahjong-yakuhai

Tanyao / All Simples Edit

The simples are the suit tiles numbered 2 to 8 inclusive. If your hand contains no ones, nines, winds or dragons then it qualifies for this combination, however it can only be claimed on an exposed hand (with one or more stolen tiles) when the Kuitan rule option is applied.

This is another easy choice for novices to get the one combination required for a win.

Mahjong-tanyao

Pinfu / No-Points Hand Edit

Pinfu has the most complicated requirements but it's one of the most useful combos.

For Pinfu you must meet the following criteria:

  • Your hand must be concealed (so cancel any steals)
  • All four sets must be sequences (the most efficient structure to use anyway)
  • The pair cannot be made of dragons, the prevalent wind or your current seat wind
  • Your hand must be completed by making a sequence from two consecutive suit tiles, for example _34_

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

Mahjong-pinfu2

Fully Concealed Hand Edit

This applies to any concealed hand (no steals) which is won by Tsumo (using a tile you drew on your turn) so the sets and the overall hand are all completed without taking any tiles from your opponents.

Since a concealed hand is required for both Riichi and Pinfu this can often be combined with those.

Half Flush Edit

This is a hand containing only one of the three suits plus at least one triplet (or a pair) of winds or dragons - in other words the hand has two suits completely excluded. The value can be increased by including triplets of dragons, seat wind or prevalent wind.

Mahjong-honitsu

Pure Double Chow Edit

This combination requires two identical sequences (same suit and same numbers) in a concealed hand (no steals); since the tiles are displayed in numerical order, the two sets will overlap (334455 = 345 + 345).

This can often be combined with Pinfu.

Mahjong-iipeikou

All Pungs / All Triplet Hand Edit

This applies to a hand of four triplets and one pair. Quad sets can also be used instead of any triplets.

This can sometimes give a quick and cheap win if you have a hand with several pairs and you're happy to steal tiles, but generally it's not a great choice.

Mahjong-toitoi

Mixed Triple Chow Edit

This combo requires three sequences with the same numbers, one set in each suit.

This can also often be combined with Pinfu.

Mahjong-sanshoku

Seven Pairs Edit

An exception to the usual structure of four sets and a pair, this hand has seven unique pairs instead.

Since it has no sets it's not possible to steal tiles when building this hand.

Mahjong-chiitoitsu

Pure Straight / Full Straight Edit

This combination requires three consecutive sequence sets (123, 456 and 789) all in the same suit. Any of the four sets can be completed by stealing and any tiles can be used for the fourth set and the pair.

This can often be combined with Pinfu too, but never with All Simples (Tanyao).

Mahjong-ittsuu

DoraEdit

A 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. Each Dora tile in your hand is worth one double, for example if the indicator is 2-Dots and you have a pair of 3-Dots in your hand then you have two Dora worth two doubles.

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

When a player wins a hand after declaring Riichi an extra indicator tile (for an Underside Dora, Reverse Dora or Ura-Dora) will be revealed under the standard Dora indicator and applied.

After a quad set is declared an additional Dora indicator will be revealed in the centre of the virtual tabletop and then if a player wins with Riichi the extra Underside Dora indicators will be flipped under both the standard Dora indicator and the extra quad Dora indicator.

(The additional Dora tile/s resulting from declaring a quad set can often give a significant boost to the value of a hand so it's usually best to only make a quad when you're 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

When you have a ready hand (one tile away from being complete with four sets and a pair) and it qualifies for at least one combination there are two ways to complete it and declare a winning hand.

  • Tsumo is when you win off a tile you drew yourself. All three opponents will pay a share of your winnings.
  • Ron is when you win off an opponent's discarded tile. The discarder pays the full amount.

Declaring a win is sometimes referred to as "going out" or "calling mahjong" in English.

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 so you are no longer Furiten.

ScoringEdit

In modern Japanese mahjong each player usually starts a match with the standard total of 25,000 points each. If you're not playing in the tournament you'll need to buy your first points from the mahjong parlour receptionist.

The value of a winning hand is calculated from two numbers:

  • Minipoints or Fu - you can pretty much ignore these since scores are calculated automatically
  • Han or Fan - these are also known as doubles since each one will double the value of your hand

Each combination is worth one or more Han and each Dora bonus tile is worth one Han too, so for example a common winning hand with Riichi, Pinfu and Tanyao combinations plus one Dora scores four Han.

The value of the hand is doubled once per Han but with higher value hands a series of tiered limits or caps is applied to the points won, e.g. Mangan (5 Han), Haneman (6 or 7 Han), Baiman (8, 9 or 10 Han), etc.

If the supply of tiles is depleted without a win being declared then the hand ends in a draw. In this situation a total of 3,000 points is shared between the players who have ready hands (one tile away from winning) paid by the other players whose hands are not ready.

The player whose seat wind is currently east receives 50% extra points each time they win a hand so you should try to take advantage when you have the east seat. You will "stay on" as east in an extra hand (in addition to the standard four per round) whenever you win a hand or it ends in a draw where you have a ready hand.

Every consecutive hand that results in either a win for the east player or a draw will add one to the Honba counter in the centre of the screen next to a bar with eight black dots. This indicates the number of 300 pts bonuses that will be added to the value of any winning hand. When any player other than the east player wins a hand the Honba counter will be reset to zero.

At the end of a match the player with the highest score wins and then a final exchange of points between players is applied. Traditionally the amounts traded are symmetrical, for example with 3rd place paying 10,000 pts to 2nd and 4th place paying 20,000 pts to 1st. However in the earlier Yakuza games they're skewed, typically with 1st place receiving 25,000 pts with 10,000 pts from 3rd and 15,000 pts from 4th.

DefenceEdit

Once you've won some points you'll want to keep them. If an opponent declares a win off one of your discards then you pay the full amount for their win so sometimes you'll need to play defensively. If another player declares Riichi you know they're 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 combination All Simples (Tanyao) on an exposed hand (with one or more sets made by stealing tiles).
  3. Two Fan Minimum - With this archaic rule applied, whenever the Honba counter shows 5 or more your hand must have combinations worth two or more Han to declare a win. (Han 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 Han 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 an opponent's discard tile to complete a sequence set
ポン Pon steal an opponent's discard tile to complete a triplet set
カン Kan declare a quad set or steal an opponent's discard tile to make a quad set
リーチ Riichi declare Riichi
ロン Ron declare a Ron win off an opponent's discard tile
ツモ Tsumo declare a Tsumo win off a tile you drew yourself

Trophies and Achievements Edit

Ryū ga Gotoku 6 Edit

CP Achievements:

  • Achieve 1st place on all tables and tournaments
  • Win 5 hands
  • Win 10 hands
  • Win 30 hands

Trophy: Playboy

  • Play at all minigame playspots

Ryū ga Gotoku: Kiwami Edit

CP Achievements:

  • Win 10 hands
  • Win 5 hands at the Mangan limit (5 Han) or higher
  • Win 1 hand at the Haneman limit (6 or 7 Han) or higher
  • Win 1 hand with Ippatsu
  • Win 1 hand with Pure Straight
  • Win 100,000 pts in total (not in one match)

Trophy: Sexy Pon

  • Enjoy a game of mahjong with a hostess

Trophy: Extremely Fun Man

  • Play all minigames

Ryū ga Gotoku 0 / Yakuza 0 Edit

CP Achievements:

  • Win 10 hands
  • Win 5 hands at the Mangan limit (5 Han) or higher
  • Win 1 hand at the Haneman limit (6 or 7 Han) or higher
  • Win 1 hand with Ippatsu
  • Win 1 hand with Pure Straight
  • Win 10 million Yen in total (not in one match)

Trophy: What a Player

  • Play all minigames

Ryū ga Gotoku: Ishin! Edit

Completion:

  • Finish a match with 40,000 pts or more (before the final bonus)

Trophy: Man who Knows all the Games

  • Play at all minigame playspots

Friendship: Mahjong Parlour Resident

  • Play any four matches (exiting after each) then play one gambling match at the hard table.

Ryū ga Gotoku 5 / Yakuza 5 Edit

Completion:

  • Finish a match with 50,000 pts or more (before the final bonus)

Trophy: Life is Entertainment

  • Play all minigames

Kurohyō 2: Ryū ga Gotoku Edit

Completion:

  • Win ten hands

Ryū ga Gotoku of the End / Yakuza Dead Souls Edit

Trophy: Brainiac

  • Win one game each of mahjong and shogi

(See my Yakuza Dead Souls guides on GameFAQs for details of how to get very easy shogi wins.)

Completion:

  • Win one game on the expert table

(To unlock the expert table you'll need to play the fishing minigame at the harbour until you catch a humanoid zombie named Esper Ito! You'll then find him at various minigame playspots including the mahjong parlour.)

Ryū ga Gotoku 4 / Yakuza 4 Edit

Trophy: Seven Pairs

  • Win one hand with Seven Pairs

(Ignore the hugely misleading trophy description - the requirement is simply to win with Seven Pairs once.)

Completion:

  • Finish a match with 50,000 pts or more (before the final bonus)

Ryū ga Gotoku 3 Edit

(Sadly mahjong was one of four minigames that were cut from the localised Yakuza 3.)

Trophy: Exposed Dragon

  • Win one hand by stealing tiles to make all four sets and then completing the pair

Trophy: Minigame Master

  • Meet the completion requirements for all minigames

Completion:

  • Finish a match with 50,000 pts or more (before the final bonus)

Ryū ga Gotoku: Kenzan! Edit

Completion:

  • Finish a match with 50,000 pts or more (before the final bonus)

Ryū ga Gotoku 2 / Yakuza 2 Edit

Completion:

  • Finish a match with 50,000 pts or more (before the final bonus)

CreditsEdit

Further ReadingEdit

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