Last night Mark and Kristen invited us over for dinner. They fixed some awesome curry and provided wine and beer and told us of their recent trip to Laos. After dessert Becky and I busted out the Mah Jong.
We had told Mark and Kristen before that we wanted to introduce them to this game. They live only a block or so away, and Mah Jong is a perfect “hanging out and chitchatting” game. You can play just a hand if you wish, or run a full-on marathon session.
Most Americans know of Mah Jong only as a computer game where you have to clear a board of tiles by removing pairs. I don’t know anything about the origin of that game, but that’s not Mah Jong.
Not that it’s easy to pin down what Mah Jong is. Like Mancala, Mah Jong seems to be a game system more than an actual game. There are a million different rulesets. I’m pretty sure, though, that we play the “standard” game.
Mah Jong is a rummy game. Tiles come in several suits: Bamboo “bam”, Coins “dots”, and Characters “crack”, numbered 1 through 9. There are also three dragons, four winds, and season and flower tiles. The object is to collect four sets of three of a kind (“pung”), four of a kind (“kong”), runs of three (“chow”), and a a pair. The first to do so declares “Mah jong!” and then points are counted up.
It’s the points part where things get wild. The points are all over the place. In scoring a Pung, for example, it makes a difference if it’s “concealed” or “exposed”, if it’s 1s or 9s (terminals), dragons or winds, it’s all worth different points. The flowers and seasons are worth bonus points. Going mah jong is worth 20 points. Having no points is worth 10 points.
And then, if you meet certain criteria (having your own season or flower, having a pair of your own wind or the prevailing wind, etc) you get a double, which multiplies your score by two. You can get several doubles in one round, and each time you multiply your score, so often a player can grab a ludicrously high score. All is not lost when that happens, however, as any player can pretty much do the same the next round.
It all seems a lot more complicated than it really is, though. We use cheat sheets for the scoring, and the playing is a pretty simple process.
Of course, there’s also the aesthetic pleasure of the game. Tile sets are often quite gorgeous, especially the really fancy ones. Ours is an inexpensive bakelite set, but still pretty nice. The tiles look like little petit-fours, good enough to eat, but have a satisfying weight and feel to them. The little “click” you get as you play them and move them around is delightful.
And like I said, it’s a very light, very social kind of game. They enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to spending more summer evenings on the porch listening to tunes, drinking some beer, and yelling “pung!” and “kong!” and “mah jong!”