Your ultimate guide to Mahjong

What exactly is Mahjong? I’m glad I asked that question for you.

Mahjong is a classic Chinese board game in which people memorize dozens of unfamiliar symbols and hundreds of combinations to arrange these symbols into. Mahjong is considered to be quite complex and has been called everything from “intriguingly intricate” to “inhumanely difficult” to “I’d rather chew my own face off than spend another minute trying to figure this game out.”

It’s a commonly held belief that Mahjong can never actually be learned by mortals. This is inaccurate. Mahjong can be very simple and—yes—almost fun. Learning Mahjong is as simple as learning the rules of the game and how to play it.

This guide will show you how.

Number Of Players

Mahjong can be played by any number of players that is equal to exactly four.

Horses And People

Like these guys, once they’re done toying with those ghastly hoofed animals.

What’s In The Box

Mahjong usually contains 144 tiles with different symbols like bamboos, circles, dragons, winds, flowers, other flowers that are called “seasons” for some reason, and sometimes animals that can also be seasons somehow. There is a helpful chart right here, which you can quickly commit to memory by using simple techniques like “pretending you’re studying for a final exam” and “not having a social life.”

The game also contains dice that are mainly used for tricking people into wrongly assuming that Mahjong is as straightforward as Yatzy.

Five Dice

Ha ha ha! Mahjong laughs at your silly games.

Finally, the game is typically accompanied by a manual that can be safely thrown out due to having been translated by someone not familiar with either English or the concept of constructing sentences.

Goal Of The Game

The goal is to assemble a winning hand of 14 tiles arranged into specific sets and combinations. It’s basically like Rummy, if Rummy were a cruel mental torture device disguised as a game.

Playing Cards On The Table

Mahjong continues to laugh at the silliness of your games.

Setting Up The Game

Put all the tiles face down, shuffle them, and build a square fort out of them containing a “wall” of tiles (two tiles high) on each side. That was fun, wasn’t it? Good! Your fun time is over now, it’s time to get down to Mahjong.

All players take turns to roll the dice. The one with the highest total score is the dealer and automatically the “East wind,” which is also always the “prevailing wind” when you start. Obviously.

The dealer rolls the dice again, adds the sum of the points to his previous winning points, uses the total number of points to count the tiles clockwise starting at the right edge from where he’s sitting, and takes four tiles into his hand from the place he lands on, thereby “breaking” the “wall.” Easy peasy.

Mahjong Breaking The Wall Diagram

Almost too easy, even!

You’re finally ready to start!

Wait, no. You’re not.

Each player now takes turns to take tiles in a sequence that varies depending on which rules you play by, so just do whatever works for you before somebody has to go home. When everyone has 13 tiles in their hand (and the dealer has 14 tiles), the game starts.

Playing The Game

Players take turns picking and discarding tiles from the wall. When someone discards a tile, players that can use this tile in a combination claim it by yelling “Pung,” “Kong,” or “Chow,” meaning “Pung,” “Kong,” or “Chow,” respectively. If nobody claims the tile, the game continues and other players draw tiles from the “wall” instead. This cycle goes on until somebody wins or until the heat death of the universe (whichever comes first).

Winning The Game

Once somebody has a complete hand, they announce this by yelling “Mahjong,” which usually wakes everyone else up from their involuntary slumber. Yes! You have a winner!


Now we get to the exciting part: the scoring!

Couple Kissing In Nature

Nope, that’s not it.

Not to discourage you, but there exists a separate article on Mahjong scoring, which in turn links to even more articles about the different types of scoring based on which rules you’re playing by, like some evil matryoshka dolls of never-ending madness.

You can expect easy-to-follow guidelines like “You get 2 points for any Pung that has been concealed in your hand, unless you’re currently the West wind and the South wind hasn’t played any Chows. If the player to your left is a Capricorn and is married, you get extra points for playing any season tiles.”

Winning The Everything

Wait, you didn’t think this was it, did you?

Ha ha ha. You’re hilarious.

Sit down! You have only played one hand! A standard Mahjong match lasts 16 hands, with players taking turns at being dealers and different winds (and sobbing uncontrollably and begging to please please please make the insanity stop already). Here’s a handy diagram:

Mahjong Hand Table

Mahjong laughs at your concept of helpful tables.
Source: Wikipedia

Don’t worry: You will usually find that—upon discovering that there’s more than a single hand—your friends will collectively attack you with nearby objects. You can look forward to a fun night of fist fights and trips to the hospital and/or prison. And isn’t that what life is all about?

Congratulations, you are now a Mahjong master!

Stay tuned for my other, more beginner-friendly guides, including “How to build your very own nuclear power generator” and “37 simple tricks to performing neurosurgery.”

21 thoughts on “Your ultimate guide to Mahjong

  1. I know some women who play this who offered to give me lessons. I had no idea how big of a bullet I’d dodged by declining. They play Bridge too–someday I’d like to learn that. (I hear it’s pretty complicated, too.)


    • I’m happy to have saved you from this unnecessary torture at the hands of your friends. Well, “friends.”

      No game should require its own Master’s education to be learned!


    • Then you’re well on your way, young grasshopper! Believe, and you too shall master the art of Mahjong.

      Also, this is quite uncanny…I literally just left a comment on your blog 2 minutes ago.


      • raeme67 says:

        Well thank you old soul in a young person and I have no idea where I am going with this? It started out sounding good. :/

        I saw your reply and have replied with my usual witticism or is that lack of wit? Whatever it is I have commented.


      • And so the plot thickens. We may never get to the bottom of this, but surely we won’t get to the edge of it either, which is more than can be hoped for and less than can be expected.

        Muffin tango!


      • raeme67 says:

        That clears it all up nicely. It may have something to with my lack of being medicated, but it all makes sense to me now.


  2. Natalie DeYoung says:

    I know nothing about Mahjong, and now realize it is much too complicated for my puny brain.
    I did, however, laugh while reading this.


  3. We played this in high school when we read “The Joy Luck Club” in my AP English class, but it wasn’t this complicated and now I feel like they probably lied to us about how to actually play it. Guess I’ll stick to my phone app, which basically turns it into a fancy game of match.


    • Ah, yes, the “solitaire” version played with Mahjong tiles. Think I tried that before. In any case, this is a lot more complicated than I remember this game being when I tried it years ago!


  4. but what about the flowers?! you have to include the flowers. =)

    i’ve played only a few times when my mother in law taught me, and i lost every time. when i played with her, she would let me win using the easier combinations.. but she said when she played with her friends, they couldn’t even score with the easy combinations, you HAD to get the more difficult ones to score.

    and interesting choices of images for your explanations… *.* ^_^


    • Oh but I did mention the flowers and how simple it is to use them. There are the flower flowers, the season flowers, the dragon’s-face-that-is-only-visible-during-midnight flowers…very straightforward.

      Yeah I actually recall playing Mahjong with my friend and his parents (who were Chinese) back in the day, but I definitely remember it as an easier game than this.


  5. Seeing as how I like games where I can just sit there and not think–not do anything, really–I suspect I best avoid this one. Sounds like a good way to trigger a migraine. Or a seizure.


    • What do you mean? I thought this guide demonstrated just how easy this game is and made it crystal clear! Maybe you’re just overanalyzing the 3571 pages of rules that Mahjong comes with?


Leave a comment, get a reply. That's how I roll.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.