Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Mahjong

By Richard Page 06 Jul 2017 4

You might remember a game you played on your Macintosh back in the 1980s using tiles with a variety of Chinese characters and images - seasons, dragons, coins and bamboo - stacked in a turtle-shaped pile. You may have fond memories of slowly digging through that pile by matching these strange symbols piece by piece. Mahjong is not that game.

That game, Mahjong Solitaire, originally titled 'Shanghai', was probably based on a children's game from China played using Mahjong tiles. If you search for Mahjong on the App Store or Play Store, that's what you're going to find: endless thematic variations of the same dull matching game piled atop each other like... well, you know.


The real game Mahjong is one of the most popular games throughout Asia, played among families and gangsters with equal passion. On the Lunar New Year, it is not uncommon for reunited families to engage in marathon multi-day sessions of Mahjong, for low or high stakes. Historically, Mahjong has been seen as a decadent and wasteful game, responsible for the fall of dynasties.

The game itself is a meld-making game for four players, similar to the card game gin rummy. There is a basic structure to the game that is standard throughout Asia, but there are innumerable regional variations in the rules for meld-making and scoring. Players draw tiles into their hand making matches of three- or four-of-a-kind or three suited tiles in sequence. A fourteen-tile hand full of matches (with one 'eye' or pair) wins the hand.

The actual mechanics of playing Mahjong on your mobile device are pretty straightforward. Just choose the tile you want to discard; if someone discards a tile you can steal, the game will prompt you. The tricky part is keeping track of the different tiles, which are marked partially with Chinese characters, as well as the legal patterns and bonus scoring opportunities you have within your chosen ruleset. Be sure to read the instructions before you play!

If you’re ready to get started with real Mahjong on your mobile device, here’s a few gems from the tile pile.


Mahjong 13 Tiles [iOS]

For a quick game of offline Mahjong on your phone against an AI, a good choice is Mahjong 13 Tiles. The tiles are large enough to see on a small screen and the controls are responsive. However, there is no online play, and losing too often will force you to buy additional chips with an IAP. If you want to dip your toe in Mahjong, though, this will do the trick. The rules are official Chinese.


Mahjong Time [iOS and Android]

One of the most popular places to play online is Mahjong Time, also available in a browser. Mahjong Time has clean and readable 3D graphics - no easy feat when you need to display an entire table full of tiny symbols on a mobile device. On a smaller screen you may be squinting a bit, especially before you become familiar with the tile designs. There are plenty of players, and a number of different rules/scoring systems are available. Unfortunately if also has a fairly annoying freemium pay system with two different currencies and penalties for not being a VIP member. If you win, you keep your opponents' chips minus a house fee that disappears for VIPs.  If you just want to play a few games a day and aren't too picky about your ruleset, you can get by on the drip of 'Dragon Chips' you receive daily, but serious players will be shelling out serious cash. Online 'training' matches are available, but if you want to play an AI, you'll want to look somewhere else. If you want to play Japanese riichi mahjong, this is also the best choice unless you want to learn some Japanese and get on the mega-popular Tenhou [Website, iOS and Android].


i.Game Mahjong [iOS and Android]

i.Game Mahjong is available in Hong Kong (13 tile), Taiwan (16), and Sichuan styles for iOS and Android. If you have a favorite ruleset that you are already familiar with, these are pretty good options for offline play against AI and online play. The interface and graphics are clean enough to play on a small screen on the go, but this is an older app so they are sized for smaller devices. The Lite version has really annoying ads, but full price is only a few dollars, so this is your best bet for an all-in-one game for a single payment.

That's all for our guide to playing Mahjong on your mobile. Richard is taking a break from this article series for a while now, but let us know what you thought of the articles and what games you'd like us to cover next if we resume.



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