Reputedly played by Noah to pass time aboard the ark, honed by a princess bored of her court duties, popularized by Confucius on his travels circa 500 BC, and reserved for centuries to Chinese royalty (on pain of execution, no less), Mahjong's complex-looking tiles and intricate rules are steeped in enough myth and history to impress just about anyone.
Mah Jong (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
For all its inscrutable Chinese charm, no credible documentation of Mahjong exists prior to the latter part of the 19th century. In other words, poker, a comparative newcomer in the traditional games world, is likely more venerable than Mahjong.
But don't let that put you off; modern though it is, Mahjong is still good times once you cut through its confusing veneer.
First, let's get one thing clear. We're talking Mahjong, the four-player game, not Mahjong Solitaire, the popular solo Western matching game that often crops up on online game sites like Yahoo!. They share a tile-set, but that's about it.
Mahjong sets have only three suits, marked with circles, bamboo sticks, or Chinese characters. Each of the three suits has 36 tiles, all numbered between one and nine, with each number occurring four times in a particular suit. Unlike a deck of cards, Mahjong sets have a lot of duplicate tiles.
Still with us? In addition to the three suits, Mahjong sets have smaller groups of special "honor" tiles that don't belong to any suit. These are wind tiles -- which carry simple blue Chinese characters, and come in fours, corresponding to the points of the compass -- and dragon tiles, which vary in appearance from set to set, but come in threes and are usually colored red, green, and blue. Each honor tile also occurs four times in a set.
So, to summarize: three suits of 36 tiles each, and a total of 28 honor tiles. Math freaks will have already noted that adds up to 136 tiles, although Mahjong sets generally have eight extras that score bonus points and are optional. For the sake of simplicity, we'll assume you're not using them.
The set up
Mah Jong tiles (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
To set up the game, first the tiles are shuffled by piling them face down on the table and randomizing them with the hands. (Incidentally, the noise this produces, which supposedly sounds a little like the twittering of sparrows, may have given the game its name.) Then each of the four players uses the tiles to build a wall in front of him or herself, 17 tiles long and two tiles high. Some say that's symbolic of the Great Wall of China, and should have no gaps to keep dragons out (or dragons in), but that sounds entirely too convenient to us.
Dragon containment notwithstanding, players start by drawing a hand of 13 tiles from the wall. The objective of the game is to assemble "melds" — or groups of tiles -- constituting either three identical tiles (a "pung"), four identical tiles (a "kong"), or a numerical sequences of three tiles of the same suit (a "chow"). Get four melds and a pair, and you have a winning hand.
So how's that done? In turn, each player draws a tile from their wall, adds it to their hand, and then discards one tile into the center of the table, face up. Normally, play passes to the right, but if another player discards a tile you need to complete a pung or a kong, you can steal that tile, lay down your meld, and play passes to you. (That general set of rules will probably sound familiar to many; it's not so very different to gin rummy.)
The first player to complete a winning hand, perhaps unsurprisingly, wins, scoring points depending on the overall complexity of their hand. Hands where all the melds are in the same suit score high, for example, and so do pongs and kongs composed of dragon or wind tiles.
Scoring specifics vary greatly, but inevitably only the winning player scores points, and in the event nobody completes a winning hand before running out of wall tiles, the game is declared a draw and re-dealt.
So, ready to go play for real? Hold on a sec. Jumping straight into a tabletop Mahjong game probably isn't the greatest idea at this point. Although we've covered the fundamentals, actual Mahjong sessions will use their own set of conventions and quirks, and if you muscle in on someone else's game you'll probably end up committing some terrible Mahjong faux pas.
Fortunately, you won't have to go too far for low-stress alternatives. Yahoo! Games has its very own online version of Mahjong, which'll pit you against three fellow Yahoo! users. If you'd rather hone your skills against a computer, this downloadable version should run on any Java-capable computer including PC and Mac. iOS and Android versions exist, too, although you'll have to dig through lots of solitaire games to find them. Try Mahjong and Friends on Android and Mahjong-HD on iOS to get started.