Many years ago, a beloved and slightly unconventional aunt gave my family an unusual gift. She would do this occasionally. (Do you have a person like that in your family? Are you that person in your family?).
As a child I assumed it was a boring briefcase, although it wasn’t quite the right size or shape.
When we opened it up, we found it contained a beautiful set of tiles, for a game I had never heard of. The game was called Mahjong.
It’s decades since we opened that case, but I still remember how exotic the contents of that case seemed to my young eyes. The tiles contained symbols and characters I did not understand. When I picked the tiles up, they were a good weight, and they made a pleasing clicking noise when I placed them on a table, or on top of each other. Simply holding them in my hands was very satisfying.
The ‘real’ game of Mahjong (of which there are many variations across regions and cultures) generally requires four players.
However, there is also a single player game, called Mahjong Solitaire.
In this article, we’ll cover the traditional Mahjong tiles used in Dogmelon’s Mahjong solitaire game.
Before we start: don’t worry if you mix up your East winds and West winds, your Orchids and your Plums. You don’t need to learn any Chinese characters to play Mahjong Solitaire, as you’ll see in part 2. This is background information only, to possibly provide additional depth and richness to your Mahjong play.
There are three suits:
Each suit contains nine ranks, 1-9. To refer to a particular tile, the rank comes first, e.g. “7 Circle”, or “3 Bamboo”. Note that we don’t say ‘of’, as we would with ordinary playing cards, eg “Queen of Hearts”.
Originally the circles represent copper coins.
Note: the 1 Bamboo is traditionally shown as a bird, sometimes called ‘the sparrow’. It is often shown sitting on a branch.
The ‘bamboo’ sticks are originally supposed to represent strings that tie copper coins (with holes in them), but these were mistaken for knots on bamboo plants, which gave the English name.
So far, with Circle and Bamboo, you can tell a tile’s rank by counting the items on the face.
The red character at the bottom (WAN) means “many”, or “myriad”. The black character above is the chinese numeral.
The 5 can be written either as 伍 or 五 – you’ll see both.
Originally the wans represent 100 strings of coins (the strings of coins mentioned in the ‘bamboo’ description).
Flower tiles are subdivided into two groups:
Usually these will have an image, a Chinese character, and an Arabic numeral.
There are four different seasons:
There are four different flowers in the game:
If you have trouble telling Seasons and Flowers apart, the color of the writing (both the Chinese character and the Arabic numeral) will give you a clue.
Honor tiles are subdivided into two groups:
The white dragon can also be shown as a blank white tile. But this could be confused with spare tiles in a set, so usually the white dragon is shown with a border around it.
It’s hard to do justice to Mahjong tiles in such a brief introduction.
There are regional differences in sets (Singaporean sets also contain animal tiles, American sets contain jokers, etc).
There are also many different materials (plastic, bone, bamboo, stone).
These days most sets are machine-made but there can be handmade sets as well.
And of course, part of the beauty of Mahjong is the unlimited variation in tile designs. There are artists who specialize in designing tile sets. There are also themed, non-traditional tilesets, but here we’ve only covered traditional tiles.
Next post, we’ll look at how Mahjong Solitaire is played.