Variations may have far more complicated scoring systems, add or remove tiles, and include far more scoring elements and limit hands.
In many places, players often observe one version and are either unaware of other variations or claim that different versions are incorrect. Many variations today differ only by scoring:
- Chinese classical mahjong is the oldest variety of mahjong and was the version introduced to America in the 1920s under various names. It has a small, loyal following in the West, although few play it in Asia.
- Hong Kong mahjong or Cantonese mahjong is possibly the most common form of mahjong, differing in minor scoring details from the Chinese Classical variety. It does not allow multiple players to win from a single discard.
- Sichuan mahjong is a growing variety, particularly in southern China, disallowing chi melds, and using only the suited tiles. It can be played very quickly.
- Tianjin mahjong using normally 7 jokers, with special scoring such as joker-free, joker-waiting-pair, catch-5, dragon, joker-suited-dragon.
- Shenyang mahjong using 13 hands in a game, and Shenyang mahjong has a really fast speed on playing, which is matching the personality of North-east people in China. Also in Shenyang mahjong, the player must to have Bamboos, Characters, Circles and number one or nine in his hand. In addition, the players have to Pong before they Chow, so there is no chance to win even if some players win at the first time they have their hands in hand.
- Taiwanese mahjong is the variety prevalent in Taiwan and involves hands of 16 tiles (as opposed to the 13-tile hands in other versions), features bonuses for dealers and recurring dealerships, and allows multiple players to win from a single discard.
- Fujian mahjong, with a Dàidì joker 帶弟百搭.
- Shanxi mahjong, or Lisi (Raise Four; zh:太原立四麻将), the players must win with the first four blocks drawn which are placed separately in front of other. These four blocks cannot be touched until the player has a ready hand.
- Guobiao Majiang a rule of Mahjong founded by All-China Sports Federation in July 1998.
- Japanese mahjong is a standardized form of mahjong in Japan and is also found prevalently in video games. In addition to scoring changes, the rules of rīchi (ready hand) and dora (bonus tiles) are unique highlights of this variant. In addition, tile discards are specifically arranged in front of each player by discard order, to take discarded tiles into account during play. Some rules replace some of number 5 tiles with red tiles so that they can eventually get more value.
- Western classical mahjong is a descendant of the version of mahjong introduced by Babcock to America in the 1920s. Today, this term largely refers to the “Wright-Patterson” rules, used in the U.S. military, and other similar American-made variants that are closer to the Babcock rules.
- American mahjong is a form of mahjong standardized by the National Mah Jongg League and the American Mah-Jongg Association. It uses joker tiles, the Charleston, plus melds of five or more tiles, and eschews the Chow and the notion of a standard hand. Purists claim that this makes American mahjong a separate game. In addition, the NMJL and AMJA variations, which differ by minor scoring differences, are commonly referred to as mahjongg or mah-jongg (with two Gs, often hyphenated).
- Singaporean/Malaysian mahjong is a variant similar to the Cantonese mahjong played in Malaysia. Unique elements of Singaporean/Malaysian mahjong are the four animal tiles (cat, mouse, cockerel, and centipede) as well as certain alternatives in the scoring rules, which allow payouts midway through the game if certain conditions (such as a kang) are met.
- South African mahjong is a variant of Cantonese mahjong. It is very similar in terms of game play and follows most of the rules and regulations of Cantonese mahjong. However, there are some minor differences in scoring, e.g. the limit on the maximum points a hand can be rewarded is 3 or 4 fan depending on the house rules. A chicken hand (gai wu) is normally considered a value hand. Depending on the house rules flowers may also be used to boost scoring.
- Vietnamese mạt chược, with 16 different kinds of jokers for a total of 160 tiles. Modern variant include more jokers for a total of 176 tiles.
- Thai mahjong, includes the older Vietnamese tiles with another eight for a total of 168 tiles.
- Filipino mahjong, with the Window Joker.
- Korean mahjong is unique in many ways and is an excellent version for three players. One suit is omitted completely (usually the Bamboo set or 2-8 of bamboo) as well as the seasons. The scoring is simpler and the play is faster. No melded chows are allowed and concealed hands are common. Riichi (much like its Japanese cousin) is an integral part of the game as well.
- Pussers bones is a fast-moving variant developed by sailors in the Royal Australian Navy. It uses an alternative vocabulary, such as Eddie, Sammy, Wally, and Normie, instead of East, South, West, and North respectively.
- Three player mahjong (or three-ka) is a simplified three-person mahjong that involves hands of 13 tiles (with a total of 84 tiles on the table) and may use jokers depending on the variation. Any rule set can be adapted for three players; however, this is far more common and accepted in Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. It usually eliminates one suit entirely, or tiles 2-8 in one suit leaving only the terminals. It needs fewer people to start a game and the turnaround time of a game is short—hence, it is considered a fast game. In some versions there is a jackpot for winning in which whoever accumulates a point of 10 is considered to hit the jackpot or whoever scores three hidden hands first. The Malaysian and Korean versions drop one wind and may include a seat dragon.
There are variations that feature specific use of tiles. Some three player versions remove the North Wind and one Chinese provincial version has no honors. Korean mahjong removes the bamboo suit or at least its numbers 2–8 so that terminals can be used. Japanese mahjong rarely uses flowers or seasons. The seasons are removed in Korean mahjong, while Singapore/Malaysian mahjong has a third set of bonus tiles called animals and even a fourth called vehicles. Joker tiles are used in some versions. Some variations use counting sticks while others use chips, and some use pencils and paper for score keeping.
Japanese and Korean mahjong have some special rules. A player cannot win by a discard if that player had already discarded that piece, where players’ discards are kept in neat rows in front of them. Players may declare ready, meaning that they need one tile to win, cannot change their hand and win extra points if they win. Some rules may replace some of the number 5 tiles with red tiles, as they can earn more points. Korean mahjong does not allow melded (stolen) chows. Taiwanese mahjong adds three tiles to a hand requiring a 5th set to be formed, making a clean hand or all pong hand very difficult to procure. American mahjong has distinctive game mechanics and the article on American mahjong details these. Some differences include many special patterns, a different scoring system and the use of jokers and 5 of a kind.
Scoring in mahjong involves points, with a monetary value for points agreed upon by players. Although in many variations scoreless hands are possible, many require that hands be of some point value in order to win the hand.
While the basic rules are more or less the same throughout mahjong, the greatest divergence between variations lies in the scoring systems. Like the rules, there is a generalized system of scoring, based on the method of winning and the winning hand, from which Chinese and Japanese base their roots. American mahjong generally has greatly divergent scoring rules, as well as greatly divergent general rules.
Because of the large differences between the various systems of scoring (especially for Chinese variants), groups of players will often agree on particular scoring rules before a game.
Points (terminology of which differs from variation to variation) are obtained by matching the winning hand with different criteria scoring different values. The points obtained may be modified into scores for each player using some (typically exponential) functions. Some criteria may be also in terms of both points and score.
In many variations the dealer receives no scoring bonus and does not maintain his/her turn by winning or a dead hand.
In classical mahjong all players score points. Points are given for sets and hand composition and winning bonuses, doubled and redoubled for basic patterns. Sometimes a loser may score more points than a winner. Japanese mahjong has a complex scoring system with several stages of scoring, rules and exceptions, evening out scores and bonus points at the end of a match. Korean mahjong has a simple scoring system where only winner scores without any form of doubling.
Some variations give points for concealed hands, in which case no melds are made except by winning on a discard.
In Old Hong Kong Mahjong:
- Only the winner scores points.
- Winning hands are scored by totaling the point value of each element in the hand. Points are distinct from the actual payment received from each player.
- The winner receives points (also known as faan among some players) for:
- individual melds,
- the composition of the entire hand,
- how the hand was won,
- bonus tiles,
- special patterns,
- and a few other special criteria.
- In order to win, a player needs to have at least the minimum points agreed in advance (often 3).
- Bonus points are separate from the minimum points a player needs to win.
- If a player goes mahjong with a legal and minimum hand, his/her hand is scored by adding his/her points and bonus points together.
- The payment received from each player depends on three factors:
- the point value of the hand,
- if the player won from a discard or from the wall, and
- if the player was the dealer or not.
Some players accept wildcards (Chinese: 混儿，hunr) when playing Mahjong. The wildcards are decided at the beginning of the game. The wildcard can be the next tile after spreading tiles to all players or separately decided by a dice toss. Wildcards are not allowed to be discarded and can replace any tiles in Chows. Wildcards can’t replace any tiles in Pongs and Kongs. For example, if a character 4 taken out, then character 4 and the next number 5 can be used as wildcards in this round (When the tile showed, the tiles of the same pattern left only 3, so the next tile in the suit will be used as wildcards as well, adding to 7 wildcards for 4 players). Also, if a tile numbered 9 is chosen, then the number 9 and 1 are wildcards. Also, if the chosen tile is not in the simples, the wildcards are decided in rules:
|Wildcard tile chosen||Another wildcard|
|Red Dragon||Green Dragon|
|Green Dragon||White Dragon|
|White Dragon||Red Dragon|
The bonus tiles are not available for wildcards.
|Variation||Hong Kong||HK New||Classical||Japanese||Korean||Taiwan||Malaysia/Singapore||Three player mahjong J/K||American|
|Bamboo||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No or only terminals||Yes||Yes||No or only Terminals||Yes|
|Minimum Points (in variations units)||3f||5f||3f||1y||2p||7/10t||2u||3+||Varies|
Many variations have specific hands, some of which are common while some are optional depending on regions and players. One example is the Pure Green hand made of chows or pongs using 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 of bamboo and green dragon.
Japanese rule sets discourage the use of flowers and seasons. Korean rules and three player mahjong in the Korean/Japanese tradition use only flowers. In Singapore and Malaysia an extra set of bonus tiles of four animals are used. The rule set includes a unique function in that players who get two specific animals get a one time immediate payout from all players. In Taiwanese mahjong, getting all eight flowers and seasons constitutes an automatic win of the hand and specific payout from all players.
Four of the flower tiles represent the four noble plants of Confucian reckoning:
- and bamboo.
The other four flower tiles (or season tiles) represent seasons:
- and winter.
The animal tiles used in Malaysia, Singapore and local variations are the animals. They represent the cat, mouse, cockerel and centipede.
Number of tiles
All tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player then stacks a row of tiles two tiles high in front of him, the length of the row depending on the number of tiles in use:
- 136 tiles: 17 stacks for each player
- Suits of dots, bamboos, and characters + winds + dragons
- 144 tiles: 18 stacks for each player
- 148 tiles: 19 stacks for dealer and player opposite, 18 for rest
- 152 tiles: 19 stacks for each player
In the American variations it is required that, before each hand begins, a Charleston be enacted. In the first exchange, three tiles are passed to the player on one’s right; in the next exchange, the tiles are passed to the player opposite, followed by three tiles passed to the left. If all players are in agreement, a second Charleston is performed; however, any player may decide to stop passing after the first Charleston is complete. The Charleston is followed by an optional pass to the player across of one, two, or three tiles. The Charleston, a distinctive feature of American mahjong, may have been borrowed from card games such as Hearts.
A feature of several variations of mahjong, most notably American variations, is the notion of some number of Joker tiles. They may be used as a wild card: a substitute for any tile in a hand, or, in some variations, only tiles in melds. Another variation is that the Joker tile may not be used for melding. Depending on the variation, a player may replace a Joker tile that is part of an exposed meld belonging to any player with the tile it represents.
Rules governing discarding Joker tiles also exist; some variations permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of any tile, and others only permit the Joker tile to take on the identity of the previously discarded tile (or the absence of a tile, if it is the first discard).
Joker tiles may or may not have an impact on scoring, depending on the variation. Some special hands may require the use of Joker tiles (for example, to represent a “fifth tile” of a certain suited or honor tile).
In American mahjong, it is illegal to pass Jokers during the Charleston.
When a hand is one tile short of winning (for example:
|, waiting for:||,||,||or||,||as|
can be the eyes), the hand is said to be a ready hand (Traditional Chinese: 聽牌; Simplified Chinese: 听牌; Japanese: tenpai 聴牌), or more figuratively, “on the pot”. The player holding a ready hand is said to be waiting for certain tiles. It is common to be waiting for two or three tiles, and some variations award points for a hand that is waiting for one tile. In 13-tile mahjong, the largest number of tiles for which a player can wait is 13 (the thirteen wonders, or thirteen orphans, a nonstandard special hand). Ready hands must be declared in some variations of mahjong, while other variations prohibit the same.
Some variations of mahjong, most notably Japanese and Korean ones, allow a player to declare rīchi (立直, sometimes known as reach, as it is phonetically similar). A declaration of rīchi is a promise that any tile drawn by the player is immediately discarded unless it constitutes a win. Standard requirements for rīchi are that the hand be closedor have no melds declared (other than a concealed kong) and that players already have points for declaration of rīchi. A player who declares rīchi and wins usually receives a point bonus for their hand directly, and a player who won with rīchi also has the advantage to open the inner dora (ドラ, from “dra”gon) which leads to higher possibilities to match such a card, thus has more chance to grant additional bonus. However, a player who declares rīchi and loses is usually penalized in some fashion. Declaring a nonexistentrīchi is also penalized in some way.
In some variations, a situation in which all four players declare a rīchi is an automatic drawn game, as it reduces the game down to pure luck, i.e., who gets their needed tile first.
If only the dead wall remains (or if no dead wall exists and the wall is depleted) and no one has won, the hand is drawn (流局 liú jú, 黃莊 huáng zhuāng, Japanese ryūkyoku), or “goulashed”. A new hand begins, and depending on the variant, the Game Wind may change. For example, in most playing circles in Singapore, if there is at least one Kong when the hand is a draw, the following player of the dealer becomes the next dealer; otherwise, the dealer remains dealer.
Japanese mahjong has a special rule called sanchahō (三家和), which is, if three players claim the same discard in order to win, the hand is drawn. One reason for this is that there are cases in which bars of 1,000 points for declaring rīchi cannot be divided by three. The rule is treated the same as “abortive draws”.
In Japanese mahjong, rules allow abortive draws to be declared while tiles are still available. They can be declared under the following conditions:
- Kyūshu yaochūhai tōhai (九種么九牌倒牌): On a player’s first turn when no meld has been declared yet, if a player has nine different terminal (also known as major) or honor tiles, the player may declare the hand to be drawn (for example,
but could also go for the nonstandardthirteen wonders hand as well).
- Sūfontsu rentā (四風子連打): On the first turn without any meld declarations, if all four players discard the same Wind tile, the hand is drawn.
- Sūcha rīchi (四家立直): If all four players declare rīchi, the hand is drawn.
- Sūkan sanra (四槓算了): The hand is drawn when the fourth Kong is declared, unless all four Kongs were declared by a single player. Still, the hand is drawn when another player declares a fifth Kong.