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All Honors: Talking about Mahjong


behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
so here in denver, we've had a storefront around for a few years which is focused on arcade games and anime merchandise. but the owner is also a huge riichi mahjong fiend and picked up a few tables, including one of those fancy automatic-shuffling ones, and has been running games and occasionally tournaments for quite a while.

i have never actually played there, since i was always more focused on rhythm games and a little intimidated to get started, but i always meant to; i picked up a version on switch earlier this year (the touhou themed one...which i heard from someone else briefly had actual matchmaking before everyone stopped using it and went back to other clients. i'm not a huge fan of most of the art or presentation, but it does have a lot of funny gimmick rulesets, and one of the best artists drew the cool werewolf lady, so it's not all bad) and started playing it with a bit on my bus commutes. obviously with the whole "not going out" thing learning something low-key i could play at home and hopefully eventually again in real life was really appealing, so i started taking it a bit more seriously, and after i felt like i was starting to get a handle on it went online. and obviously got totally crushed for a bit. but i've been alternately practicing and reading up on strategies for a while now, and improved a lot. as i understand, the switch clubhouse games has this as one of the many included games, and it seems like one of the better places to start, though final fantasy xiv online and maybe the yakuza series have it as an included minigame (though i heard it was localized out of the latter at least once, so maybe that's not the place to look), as well as online clients like mahjong soul (a free to play but gacha-based version which has full english support, and was the basis for a tournament which i entered earlier this month, coming 48th out of about 256 players) or tenhou, one of the longest running and most prestigious services online for the game, with a huge population and many of the most competitive players in the world.

of course, although i understand this to be one of the more popular and competitive variations in the world, i hardly want to limit this discussion to only one version, since there's many rulesets, and "house rule" type hands even within them, which i don't know much about and would certainly enjoy hearing about just as much. even the weird solitaire thing is fine, i guess. i can't imagine i'm the only person with an interest in this, so. here's a thread.

tonight on soul i accomplished an ultimate lucksack achievement: winning a game by bullying a player into negative points before anyone else has had a chance to become the dealer. felt evil, and amazing.
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as i understand, the switch clubhouse games has this as one of the many included games, and it seems like one of the better places to start

It does have it, and it appears to be a few varieties. But I've never played it and Clubhouse Games didn't explain it much so I was completely confused.


Are there resources you'd especially recommend for learning the fundamentals of riichi mahjong? Free/online or (English) books, I don't mind either way.


Worthless Physicist
I've been interested in figuring out Mahjong for a while, and got really sad when the pandemic threw a huge wrench into my plans. I think through a few games and resources, though, I have the basics down. I'm really grateful that there's all these online games that do the scoring for you because I haven't memorized the values of hands. I also don't fully grasp all the details of the concept "Furiten", though in my brain it's a state of "ha ha look at this loser". I'm going to tell people what I think I've learned, and I hope that spines corrects me.

Here's what I think's fundamental. Outside of a very limited set of special scenarios, a winning hand is always the same 'shape', and the objective of each round of the game is to be the first to complete a valid winning hand. At this point, players pay out, reshuffle, and there's another round. A round might also end by players running out of tiles.
Mahjong tiles are no different from cards, except they stand up on their own so you don't have to hold them. Also there's a wonderful tactile sensation. The game is basically Rummy, in that a hand is composed of 'sets' or 'melds'.
A winning hand almost always has his form: Four sets, one pair. I think the idea is that the pair is bookending the sets. Okay, so whats a set? It's either three of a kind, four of a kind, or three in a row. A three in a row has to be in the same suit. Nobody cares if you got a two of bamboo, three of circles, and four of numbers. It has to be two, three, four, all of bamboo. In the rare event of a "four of a kind" there's a special pile you draw from to replace, so that the game still takes the same number of rounds at maximum. A four of a kind, fundamentally, is just a more "powerful" three of a kind. Now, when I say three of a kind, it has to be exact. In poker and rummy, you can get away with having a six of hearts, six of diamonds, six of clubs. In Mahjong, you can't do six of numbers, six of wheels, and six of bamboos. They don't match. Well, they do for bonus scoring chances, but not at the basic idea of the making of a hand. A three of a kind is a six of wheels, a six of wheels, and a six of wheels. However, the game has four of every single tile, so there are four copies of "six of wheels". If this were draw poker and there were a central discard pile, it would be hard to keep track of which ones have been discarded. But instead, your discards lay out in front of you. Card counting is really easy! It's actually important! There's a tiny window where someone can pick up your most recent discard, but even when claimed by another player, it will still be face up!
I find a lot of the rounds I win ending with me having three sets and two pair, and waiting to pick up one last tile to turn one into a set, and the other pair will be the last part I need.
I guess a thing that confuses some people is that your hand has 13 tiles in it, when it's not your turn, but you need 14 to win. On your turn, you draw a tile (usually from your personal draw pile), thus having 14. If this completes a winning hand, then the round ends. If it doesn't, you must discard a tile, and the round continues. Unless there's a time-over ending (no tiles left in the 'deck'), you never compare your hand to someone else's.
Alright, so if you can build a hand entirely out of self draws, that's great. You even can call out "Riichi" when you are one away from having a winning hand, almost like Uno. If your last tile to win is from someone else's discard, it isn't everyone who pays you; it's only them. If Riichi happens, and you don't win the round, you lose some points. But you can pick up somebody's discards. You have to prove that you're making use of it, by putting the rest of the 'set' it belongs to, face up. If you're watching a mahjong game online, and you see a player with only 7 tiles instead of 13, it's because they've got two face-up sets of three, that the camera isn't showing you.
If you want to make a three in a row, you can only do so by grabbing the latest discard of the player to your left. A sideways tile will denote who this discard came from, and the two tiles you had to make this set also go face up. This is called "Chii" (Chow in chinese)
If someone discards a card that you have two or three identical of in your hand, you shout "Pon" or "Kan" (Pung or Kong) to claim that discard. Anyone can do this, not just the player to the right of the discard. As with Chii, you reveal your relevant tiles, face up for everyone to see. This actually disturbs the turn order, which is neat.
If you would win the game, the discard is yours. Otherwise a Pon/Kan takes priority over a Chii.

Wow, I meant for this to be short, but I'm kinda bad at being succinct, even after having practiced.

I'll be quick
Furiten. If the tile that you need to complete your hand is already in your discard pile from earlier, it's a lot more difficult to win. You're sanctioned from taking particular actions, such as claiming discards.
Scoring. Generally, more similar things are good? If you have a hand of only bamboo Pon, it gets more points than a mixed hand would. I'm sure there's a chart. Clubhouse Games' Riichi Mahjong lets you see what all of these are.
Special hands. These two hands are only possible through self-draw. One is called Seven Pairs, which is self-explanatory. Four of a kind does not count as two pair, in this instance. The other one is called Thirteen Orphans, and it's the 1 and 9 of each suit, and one each of all seven honor tiles. In order to be complete, it needs one extra copy of one of these thirteen.

I actually got into mahjong from a manga that got me super excited, called "Reform without a wasted self-draw; the legend of Koizumi" about the former prime minister of japan beating a bunch of world leaders in mahjong. His "signature move" is called the "Rising Sun" which is just Thirteen Orphans except you shout out RISING SUN when you reveal it. He also literally cheats to achieve this, and nobody seems to actually care. At one point somebody comes up with a solution to his cheating, they use it once to punk Kim Jong-Il, who got a mechanical hand to cheat, and then never return to it.
The manga taught me literally nothing about mahjong, though, but it spurred me to eventually buy a Hong Kong Mahjong switch game, which I played a fair amount.


(he / him)
I'll admit to being somewhat interest in mahjong, being a board game collector and having a set in my collection from even before I really started getting into games. Since it is a somewhat older set, it's lacking red fives, but it's otherwise quite capable. But I haven't really gotten into it since it feels a little bit like a 'lifestyle' game like chess or go is, and I just haven't dedicated time to it.

Despite the fact that Riichi mahjong is by far the most popular ruleset (and there are a few minor variants even there), I'm still curiously intrigued by the Zung Jung scoring set. All of the patterns are fairly logical and easy to remember, and its additive scoring simplifies out some of the trickier aspects of riichi. I'm pretty sure there's no yaku requirements or furiten in Zung Jung either, which makes it a little easier to learn. On the other hand, it seems like it's a pretty dead ruleset in terms of player base, so it feels like a bit of a dead end. But it still feels like a friendlier start than diving into the wild world of riichi right away, and I'd probably want to introduce my other boardgaming friends to the Zung Jung ruleset if I wanted to try to scratch my itch in real life.


Discovered Construction
Are there resources you'd especially recommend for learning the fundamentals of riichi mahjong? Free/online or (English) books, I don't mind either way.

I found several good youtube videos that walk you through the basics and watched a few games of LPers playing on Clubhouse games to get a feel for it. The online games tend to move fast. Clubhouse will tell you how many pieces you are away from a winning hand but not how it has calculated it and it won't warn you when you're about to make your hand illegal, but once you have done it, It does tell you what is wrong. Also my experience so far has been that the players aren't Riichi masters. Mahjong Soul on mobile holds your hand less and the players are better on average, but there are always lots of people to play with.


behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
haha, whoops, i don't remember to check this board often and forgot about this thread a bit. for first-level learning i ultimately just alternately played a lot of hands and read the wiki at http://arcturus.su/wiki/Main_Page to get used to basic concepts of "how do i win?" and "how do i not lose?". it does have a lot of japanese-terminology-written-in-english (despite there being english terms for most things, which can be seen on the site) but that seems kind of common for most resources. overall i think it's best to understand the "shapes" of winning hands (the four sets of 3+one pair thing mentioned above being true in almost every case) first, and not worry about specifics of scoring like how much things are actually worth till you get used to that.

overall, i think the post above tries to run through the rules in a pretty thorough manner. if you want to know how to approach hands to start with, here's IMO the top "tiers" of hands you'll likely be able to rely on finishing the most often:

highest tier: honors/yakuhai, all simples/tanyao, riichi

honors are a set of three of one kind of dragon (the plain white, or green/red kanji tiles), or the wind that matches the round (usually east, if you're playing short games to start out; full games add a second round of dealerships where the round wind is south) or your seat relative to the dealer. once you get three of any of these, you can call anything else that helps you win. generally if you have a pair in a starting hand you're set, but they tend to get discarded very fast (they're not "safe" and unlike numbers don't match with anything but themselves), so while you'll occasionally regret getting rid of a lone one early yourself it's often considered better not to keep them like that. if you're feeling greedy, can't figure out any other way to finish the hand, or have other obvious discards (1s and 9s far away from other numbers, winds that will be of no use whatsoever, etc.) you can try to hang in there for a second one until a second discard makes it a clear dead end.

all simples: sort of the opposite, a hand with no honors, 1s, or 9s. so you just keep discarding those till you can start making stuff out of your 2-8s, then clear those out as necessary. in most rulesets this is a valid open hand, so you can also call once you're sure you can make it happen.

riichi: get to 1 away without calling anything. this is not always possible, but some hands are going to rely heavily on it (say, you get three 1s in your starting hand; you can't really get rid of them unless you have a clear plan b, but they're not generally valid to open the hand with either). if you have a win condition aside from riichi, you can also just keep your hand "closed" but not tell anyone you're about to win; generally riichi has the opportunity to score so many more points you would rather just use it, but a service like soul will tell you if you have another yaku you can win with, and sometimes being sneaky or leaving yourself able to defend pays off.

second tier: straight through, all triplets/toitoi, seven pairs/chiitoitsu

straight through: 123, 456, 789, all in the same suit. if you have two from each set (say, a 23 4 67 9), you can think about starting to call them. can be a little tricky to see since sometimes it'll look like "oh, i have a 234 already!" but this is a really common fast hand to pick up wins in tournaments. or otherwise, i just didn't realize how useful it was till i started watching other people play. really converts a lot of tough hands to something winnable very quickly.

all triplets: this one can be a little hard to complete since you're generally trying to match off four-five pairs, and can get deadlocked if other people are holding onto a couple of the same pairs hoping to do the same thing (or using the things you need in their own hands otherwise), but it's very easy to see. you have 4-5 pairs in your hand and people start putting down stuff you can call. you shouldn't expect to always be able to win if this is what you're going for, but it's pretty easy to go for and gets much easier if you can form an entire set or two in your hand to start from, so it's nice to have up your sleeve when you're trying to figure out ways to win. it's simple to discard for too, since you just focus on throwing away stuff you can see on the table (on the assumption you're less likely to get a second one).

another nice thing about this hand is that it's virtually impossible to permanently furiten (become unable to ron since you discarded a winning tile earlier) yourself on. hands with a lot of sequences, especially if they build in the same suit, can easily hit pitfalls where something you got rid of since you thought it was useless at the start suddenly blocks you from winning at the very end.

seven pairs: the only common exception to the sets of 3 thing. you can't call anything (that would make a set of 3). often, this is what happens when you can go for toitoi but then nobody discards what you need, and then suddenly you have six pairs and can riichi on it to make the last one. (you don't have to riichi it though. often you might want to discard the wait for something you can get easily, or that will score higher) otherwise, it's about the same concept.

after you get used to that stuff you can start remembering tricky stuff; most other yaku are "only" worth more points and will already overlap things like "win with no calls" (a bunch of yaku only work if your entire hand is closed. such as pinfu, which i will not explain at this time. therefore you won't be building them "just to win", you will probably just start out noticing you got extra points for it for a while, and eventually you can try to game your hand that way for scoring purposes) or "call sets of honors" (half flush doesn't technically require calling an honor which you can score on, but you would rarely do so only to make such a hand). yakuman are an entirely different beast, but you're unlikely to make them in the time period you'll spend trying to memorize the entry level stuff. and at the same time, they're fun, so i think a lot of people find them a really exciting and attractive thing to memorize and a good incentive to play.


the only book-like thing i've read is this, which i got linked after the tournament i was in. https://dainachiba.github.io/RiichiBooks/

it's largely written from the assumption that you know the legal ways to finish hands and is aimed a bit more at a very structured/tactical approach to defense (when/how do you focus on defending versus...not) and offense (finishing hands faster and/or for more points). personally i'm a bit of an impulsive player and i won't do the "best" thing if something else seems attainable but more fun, but it's really helped me a lot in some of the more ambiguous situations where i would generally get frozen up uncertain of which approach/viewpoint of the hand i should focus on.
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behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
also, on a related topic that doesn't quite go into that post...people who are just starting up on electronic clients (myself included) get very hooked on the shiny buttons that show up. while of course after a couple hands where you find yourself unable to actually win the hand it'll become clearer that considering whether to call pon/chi is often based on whether or not you need to do or not do it to finish your hand (again, actively calling is better for honors and triplets, usually fine for simples, but otherwise causes problems), it's probably worth noting that calling kan usually makes your hand a lot weaker (in terms of both ability to defend and in many cases, finish, due to the information it gives players even if you can't actually use the tile for both a triplet and a sequence), even if you naturally draw all four of them, and that goes doubly if you're converting a triplet in your hand to a kan with someone else's tile. it does frequently raise the score for the winner of the hand. if you're in a strong position already it's not as bad. if you already called pon and draw the fourth one it's also usually fine, unless you're in full defense mode and know it's totally safe to get rid of instead.

and you get an immediate draw from it. if you're at tenpai (have the ability to win), and the tile from that wins you the hand, it's a yaku, so you get extra points. but more importantly it's stylish as hell, so i always go for that when i get the chance.

but still, you gotta watch out for the kan button. it's not your friend. it's everyone's friend, and that's terrifying.
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Worthless Physicist
I moved around a few things on my phone and other devices so I could download Mahjong Soul. My phone is basically a Dragalia Lost machine that happens to have a little space for other apps.

Feel free to hit me up on Mahjong Soul, my ID is 115619045.

Now that I've been playing games that tell me when Furiten happens or when it WILL happen, or openly say "no yaku" I've had a more frustrating time but I'm learning more.
The first game I played would just not let me draw tiles I had a right to play without telling me why, or create circumstances where I thought I had won but had no yaku. I guess the idea that my hand HAD to be one of the Named Hands if it wasn't a Tsumo or Ron hadn't fully sunken in yet.
I guess I've hit that state where the more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know.


(he / him)
I'm not an expert by any means, but...
I guess the idea that my hand HAD to be one of the Named Hands if it wasn't a Tsumo or Ron hadn't fully sunken in yet.
(bolded for emphasis)

I'm not quite sure what you're saying here, since the method of going out is mostly orthogonal to being able to go out. Tsumo is the method of going out by your own draw, while Ron means going out by someone else's discard. Winning a hand means going out by one of these two methods, outside of that very rare case of the dealer drawing a pat hand at the very start.

Being eligible to go out, however, requires assembling at least one yaku, or "named hand". In other words, you need to have yaku (dora and red tiles don't count) in order to call tsumo or ron.


behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
right, your hand always needs to be able to declare that it's *something*. for the most part this means building toward some kind of plan, and coming up with a good one is the center of the game, because in many cases the correct play is very clear if you have a reason for it. of course your plan also needs to be able to adapt to the changing state of the game, both your draws and what other people seem to be doing, but still.

there are a set of yaku based on how you got the tile; again, the draw you get from a kan is an eligible finisher for the hand, as is the last available tile before the hand would end as a draw (either as a ron from another player, or a tsumo if you were the one to draw the wall's last tile). a fully closed hand can win on tsumo as its only yaku (even if you didn't riichi and don't have another one), however, you'd usually riichi if possible because it's worth at least one more han and allows you to call ron. (there are a few reasons not to do this, but starting out i strongly recommend basically always calling riichi. it lets you stop thinking!)

mostly, you should try to get a constructed yaku, at least until it becomes necessary to fully defend. if you manage to pick up a bonus win via the river tile or whatnot that's great, but it's not really a solid plan for aiming to win. (i have had a couple hands where i tried to reach a no-yaku tenpai to keep my dealership and then drew the winning tile, winning a hand that gave fewer points than taking the payments likely would have...)


Worthless Physicist
Well, I guess what it means is my initial understanding was even lesser than I thought it was. Thanks so much for helping out.