This guide is meant to be used to help introduce new players to the game of riichi mahjong. Advanced terms and rules are omitted here in the interest of accessibility. After much experience teaching brand new players, I believe this is the best method to start playing and understanding the game quickly. Be forewarned that in order to fully grasp all the intricacies and strategies of Japanese mahjong, players should find locals in their own area to play with and learn from. There are also many mahjong resources available online as well as websites that feature online play. (Links at the end of the page)
Japanese mahjong, also known as riichi mahjong, is a style of mahjong developed in Japan in the early 1900’s. It borrows many of the rules from traditional Chinese mahjong with some additions and omissions.
A Japanese mahjong set consists of 136 tiles containing 3 suits containing 4 sets of tiles numbered 1 - 9 as well as 4 wind tiles and 3 dragon tiles. Points are scored with point sticks in denominations of 10,000, 5,000, 1,000 and 100. Each player starts a standard game with 25,000 points. A set of dice are also needed and the game is usually played on a mahjong mat or table. Links to mahjong supplies at the end of the guide.
Pin (Circle) Suit
Winds (North, East, South, West)
Dragons (Green-Hatsu, Red-Chun, White-Haku)
10,000 Point stick
5,000 Point stick
1,000 Point stick
100 Point stick
Starting A Game
The game is broken up into hands, each of which has one player acting as the “dealer”. In a normal game each of the four players will get to be dealer twice.
Players in mahjong compete to complete hands consisting of 14 tiles each of which consist of runs, sets and pairs. A completed hand has FOUR runs or sets and a PAIR as well at leas ONE YAKU (win condition). Click here for a beginners guide to yaku! Upon completing their hand the player announces the completion to the other players and the hand ends and is scored.
Round Order (East 1, East 2, East 3 East 4, South 1, South 2, South 3 South 4)
Initial turn order is decided by having each of the four players turn over one of the four wind tiles to determine their seating position for the entire game. The EAST SEATED player then rolls the dice to determine the TRUE East player.
Basic Turn Order
In mahjong turns are taken in a counter-clockwise manner until all tiles are exhausted or a player with a valid hand declares a winning hand. Play proceeds in the following fashion.
Draw a single tile from the wall towards the dead wall.
Check for win conditions (4 sets of runs / sets and a pair + one yaku)
Discards any tile face up into the discard pile from upper-left to bottom right in rows of six at a time.
All players have an opportunity to call on the discarded tile
If no players call on the discarded tile the next player
Exceptions (Calling Tiles)
There are four types of calls that you can make in mahjong: chi, pon, kan, and ron. Calls must occur after a player discards (step 3) and before the next player draws a tile. You must be quick and observant to call a tile.
Calling Tiles Except For “Ron” Opens Your Hand And Disqualifies You From Certain Win Conditions Which May Make Your Hand Difficult To Complete. In General It’s Best To Not Call Unless You Have A Plan For A Yaku First!
Chi (Making A Run)
“Chi”ing or calling a tile to make a consecutive run can only be taken from the player seated to your LEFT, i.e. they are right before your turn. You may make a run out of any three tile for example if the player to your left discards a 2 of bamboo you can call it if you have the 1 and 3 of bamboo
Pon (Making A Set)
“pon” is the more useful for new players as it can allow for simple yaku. Any player may pon from any other player immediately after their discard to complete a set of 3 of the exact same tile.
Kan (Making A Quad)
“Kan” operates the same way that a pon does except it calls on the fourth tile in the set instead of the third. Like a pon, kan opens your hand.
Ron (Winning From A Discard)
Calling “ron” is a call that ends the hand and must be preformed before the next player draws their tile. After calling ron the score for the hand is calculated and the player who was called on must pay the entire cost of the hand.
You Cannot Win Off Of Another Player If The Winning Tile Is In Your Discard Pile Or If Any Of Your Waiting Tiles Are In Your Discard Pile!
Finishing A Hand
A hand is completed if a player declares victory by completing a hand of 14 tiles consisting of 4 sets or runs of 3 tiles as well as a pair as well as having at least one yaku. If the dealer wins the hand they remain dealer and get a BONUS hand called a honba.
The game ends when all players have completed 2 rounds as dealer not including bonus hands, East 1, East 2, East 3, East 4, South 1, South 2, South 3, and South 4.