How to Play Mahjong

Mahjong, the world-famous Chinese board game played with tiles originated in or near Shanghai, China in the mid-19th century. It is a game that requires both skill and a bit of luck. Like many other board games, mahjong has multiple variations, including Chinese Mahjong, Japanese Mahjong (also called Riichi Mahjong), and American Mahjong. Generally speaking, the rules of Mahjong are the same regardless of where it’s played. If you’re ready to learn how to play Mahjong, we're here to help. In this article, you will learn:

  • The objective of Mahjong
  • How to set up the board and Mahjong tiles
  • How to play Mahjong step-by-step
  • How to play Mahjong for beginners
  • What’s the trick to playing Mahjong
  • Where to practice Mahjong online

Ready to get started? Continue reading to learn the basics of Mahjong. By the end of this guide, you will be prepared to take on family, friends, and competitors from all over the world.

What is Mahjong And How is it Played?

Mahjong (sometimes spelled Mah Jongg, Mah-jong, Mah Jong, or Mah-jongg) is a four-person game. However, some variants allow three-person gameplay. The game usually includes 136 tiles with 36 characters, 36 bamboos, and 36 circles.   The tiles are separated into four sets (1 – 9) in each suit. The game also includes sixteen wind tiles, 12 dragon tiles, and 8 wild card tiles. Depending on the version, it may also have eight additional tiles with four seasons and four flowers. However, these are not necessary for basic Mahjong.

H2: Understanding the Tiles in Mahjong

Basic Mahjong sets include 166 tiles. Generally, 152 are used in gameplay, and the remaining tiles are spares. Learn more about each below.

  • Suits include 36 tiles of Circles, Bamboos, and Characters
  • Honors include 28 tiles (16 winds, 12 dragons)
  • Flowers and Seasons (if part of the game) include 4 flowers and four seasons
  • Wild Tiles and Jokers include 8 identical tiles

What is the Objective of Mahjong?

The objective of the game is to be the first to achieve“Mahjong,” or a winning hand. To do so requires arranging all 14 of your tiles into a pair plus four sets. Making a pair requires two symmetrical tiles. A set can be three of the same or matching tiles (also called a pung or pong) or a sequence of three numbered tiles from one suit (also called a chow), or four of the same tile (also called a kong). It’s important to note that a single tile can’t be used in more than one set at a time.

How to Set Up For Mahjong

First, decide on a beginning dealer. Afterward, the four wind tiles are shuffled (lying face down) and dealt to each player. Once the players receive their initial tiles, they sit according to the wind direction they receive in clockwise order (i.e., North, West, South, East).   At this point, East Wind becomes the dealer. In some games, the dealer is determined by rolling the dice. Then, all remaining tiles are shuffled face down, and the player chooses 34 tiles to stack in front of themself face down. It should be two stacks of 17 tiles, creating a large square on the table.   Next, the dealer rolls the dice and counts as many tiles as the number they roll from the farthest tile to the right of their wall. They then must deal tiles from the left of that tile in clockwise order. Each player gets 13 tiles. The dealer receives the leftover tiles. Once the players have their tiles, they can arrange them as they like. In many cases, players use racks to conceal their tiles from other players.

How Do You Play Mahjong Step by Step?

Now that you know the basic setup for Mahjong, you’re ready to start playing. Listed below are step-by-step instructions for playing Mahjong.

Step One

The dealer (East Wind) discards one of their tiles, and gameplay begins—starting with the player to the left of the dealer. Each player decides which tiles to keep by seeing if they match any of the tiles in their hand. Remember, the goal is to form a set or meld (i.e., three of a kind, four of a kind, or straight sets).

Step Two

Next, the South Wind draws a tile and discards an unwanted tile. They can choose a tile and consider keeping it. If they decide to keep the tile, they must discard another tile from their hand. If they don’t like the tile they selected, they can discard the one they picked up to the middle of the table.

Step Three

Suppose a discarded tile forms a pung (three of a kind). In that case, the person whose turn it is must announce “pung” and take the discarded tile. They can also claim tiles that help form a chow or kong (more on this later). Players must then reveal their meld and place it on the table.   This takes place in the order of the winds unless the discarded tile allows one player to achieve Mahjong. In that case, they can claim the tile regardless of order.

Step Four

If no player claims the discarded tile, the next person can choose a tile from the draw wall. Once picked and racked, no one else can claim the most recently discarded tile. It’s important to note that other players can still claim the tile if it's been selected and looked at but not added to any player's rack. Any tile not placed into a rack must be put back at the same place it was picked up from.

Step Five

Continue gameplay starting from the right. Generally, gameplay resumes from that player’s right whenever a player claims a discarded tile. That’s true even if it doesn’t correspond to the natural order.

Step Six

Suppose another player lays down a meld that includes a Joker. In that case, if you have a tile that can replace that Joker, you can put it down and pick up the Joker. For players familiar with how to play Rummy, this is a similar rule.

Step Seven

Players try to configure their tiles into melds (tiles that can form a pung, kong, or chow). It’s important to note that in some variations of Mahjong, players can only have one chow in their hand at a time. Chows don’t equate to points but can help a player achieve Mahjong.   Further, the only time a player places a meld on the table during the game is when claiming a discarded tile. Otherwise, a player must wait to lay down melds until achieving Mahjong—a rule that is similar to Gin Rummy.

Step Eight

Players can achieve Mahjong by forming four melds plus a pair. Achieving Mahjong requires all of the tiles in a player's hand (i.e., 13 tiles, plus a discarded tile that is kept). Melds can include a pung, chow, or kong). Bonus tiles will add to a player's points at the end of the game.

Winning and Scoring in Mahjong

If playing a simplified version of Mahjong, the player who archives Mahjong first receives one point. However, the scoring and point system depends on the version of Mahjong being played.   For instance, players can score each hand separately and award the winner an additional 20 points.

The Protocol for Announcing Mahjong:

  1. Players must announce “I’m calling” when they are one tile short of Mahjong.
  2. When a set is completed, players must show their tiles and announce “Mahjong.”
  3. If a hand doesn’t actually achieve Mahjong, that player is disqualified from gameplay, and the round continues.
  4. Play 4 - 16 rounds of Mahjong or until the agreed-upon score is reached, rotating the dealer in each round. The score is calculated at the end, and the winner is announced.

Since there are so many different ways to score a game, it’s best to agree on a scoring system before starting play. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a lot of confusion and arguing.

How Do You Play Mahjong For Beginners?

Mahjong can seem very confusing to beginners. However, the best way to understand the game is simply to think of it as a card game like Rummy or Gin Rummy but played with tiles. Once you get the hang of the terminology, you’ll be a Mahjong expert in no time.

What is the Trick to Playing Mahjong?

Mahjong is a game of skill and luck. While luck can lead you to victory sometimes, that isn’t always the case. Generally, when playing Mahjong, you should keep the following strategies in mind.

  • Have a plan for your tiles, and stick to it.
  • Change your strategy when necessary.
  • Avoid taking the first discarded tile unless it can help you immediately achieve Mahjong. Hold on to pairs. They can help you later in the game.
  • Avoid leaving gaps in your tiles when organizing sets on your rack. It gives other players too much information about your strategy.

Where to Practice Playing Mahjong Online

Are you ready to play Mahjong? We’ve got you covered. Choose from our unique selection of fantastic online Mahjong games below:

Play from your phone against real competitors for your chance to earn money (where available). Once you’ve played our Mahjong games, you’ll be ready to impress your friends, family, and business partners with your skill, strategy, and hopefully, luck!   Sources/References:

Related Games
MahjongBest Mahjong for Mobile
Mahjong Solitaire CubeClear fast, but plan ahead!
Mahjong Solitaire: Tile MasterSolve tiles, win prizes!
Mahjong Solitaire ChallengeClassic Mahjong solitaire
Ultimate MahjongCan your brain handle this?
Explore Genres