This guide is meant 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, we 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. Please check out our links to other mahjong resources as a start.
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 sticks in denominations of 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 100, and sometimes 500 points. 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. You can find some links to mahjong supplies here.
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
The 500 Point stick usually has the same dot pattern as that of the 100 Point stick but with a different colored background, typically green.
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). A win condition is something special about runs, sets, and pair that makes it a little more rare. You can find a pretty complete list in our beginners guide to yaku. Upon completing their hand the player announces the completion to the other players, the round ends, and the hand 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 two dice to determine the TRUE East player. The sum of the dice is counted off starting with one at the roller of the dice, two for the next player on the right, and continuing around the table in counter-clockwise order as seen from above.
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 a brief opportunity to call on the discarded tile as described below. If no players call on the discarded tile, the next player picks up a single tile from the wall to start their turn.
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 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 discard right before your turn. You may make a run out of any three tiles of the same suit. For example, if the player to your left discards a 2 of bamboo, you may call it if you have the 1 and 3 of bamboo. You may not call “chi” for tiles discarded by other players. Note that chi’s can only be made with the bamboo, character, or circle suits; the wind and dragon tiles cannot be used as a run.
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 performed 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! If you are one tile away from winning and you see that “waiting” tile in your discard pile, be patient and hope that you draw the waiting tile you need from the wall.
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. Sometimes, the combination of tiles in the hand will meet the conditions of several yaku. In many of those cases, the additional yaku means the hand is worth more points in the scoring. Scoring is complex and is a combination of han and fu. The han are determined by the yaku and the way the hand was completed (e.g., with the first tile drawn, with the last tile drawn). You can see the han values for many of the basic yaku in our guide for beginner mahjong players. The fu are determined by the composition of kan, pon, and chi’s plus the final tile that completed the hand, see the Guide to Counting Fu.
If the dealer wins the hand they remain dealer and get a BONUS added to the next hand which is called a honba. Winning a hand as dealer also means you receive more points (you also end up paying more points as dealer if another player wins by self-draw). So it’s an advantage to keep winning when you are dealer and increasing the honba. When another player wins, the honba are cleared and the dealership passes to the next player on the right.
Our club web site has a handy scoring tool to compute the points for a hand once you know the number of han and number of fu that it is worth.
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. This set of at least 8 rounds is called a “hanchan”. A hanchan typically takes anywhere from 1 to 3 hours depending on the speed of play, the number of times the dealer wins which adds an extra round, and the number of “null” rounds where no player wins.