Playing Mahjong Solitaire – Part 1 of 3

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:
– Circle,
– Bamboo,
– Character

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”.

Here are what Circle tiles typically look like:

Originally the circles represent copper coins.

Here is a set of Bamboo tiles:

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.

For characters, this is not the case. The number is written on the tile. This is a chance to learn Chinese numerals.

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

Flower tiles are subdivided into two groups:
– Seasons
– Flowers

Usually these will have an image, a Chinese character, and an Arabic numeral.

There are four different seasons:
– Spring
– Summer
– Autumn
– Winter

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

There are four different flowers in the game:
– Plum
– Orchid
– Chrysanthemum
– Bamboo

Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo

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

Honor tiles are subdivided into two groups:
– Winds
– Dragons

There are four wind tiles representing four different points on a compass. Each tile contains the Chinese Character representing that direction.
East Wind, South Wind, West Wind, North Wind

White Dragon, Red Dragon, Green Dragon

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.