Gaming Mahjong

The magic in the tiles

Written by Jenn Barr

This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of World Gaming magazine.

Professional mahjong player Jenn Barr from Reach Mahjong explains the incredible range of mahjong tiles that are available in the market place.



I remember the first mahjong set I ever bought. I had learned to play eight months earlier and I was about to graduate from Sophia University in Tokyo. An impoverished college student, I eventually saved up and after extensive research I found the perfect set. The backs of the tiles were sea-green and the faces were made up of pink, blue and yellow. The day the set arrived I set it up right away and there it stayed, ready for me to practice at any time. These were Japanese tiles and my life literally changed forever. When I studied in Taipei I got a sparkly blue set of Chinese-style tiles. I put them to use every week while I taught mahjong to fellow students at college.

My first two sets of mahjong tiles are still in my collection and remain my favourites. Obviously, the most popular reason to purchase a mahjong set is to play mahjong. But to dedicated players like myself, mahjong sets become a thing of beauty and collectable items. They represent what mahjong and the mahjong community means to me.

There are many different mahjong tile sets just as there are many different mahjong rules. You can adapt most sets to your rules (or vice versa) but you’ll make it easier on yourself if you get tiles that are designed for the rule set you play.

For Chinese games you will need a set that includes at least eight flowers. For American, Malaysian and some European games you’ll need jokers. For Singaporean and Malaysian games you’ll need animal tiles and for Japanese games you might want scoring sticks/bones and red fives. Chinese sets come with blank tiles in case one of the normal tiles cracks or is lost. You should know exactly what you are looking for before you blindly purchase a mahjong set. It is quite common to buy a set simply for its artistic merit alone.

Players that mainly play mahjong online may look for ornate or novelty mahjong tile sets. There are sets representing the zodiac, sets made of bamboo, and even a set made completely of silver (valued at US$40,000).



One of the most special sets is the clear set. This set contains four copies of each tile in the deck. An exciting mahjong comic called Akagi, out of Japan, has gained popularity throughout the world. One of the games played in this comic, dubbed washizu mahjong, uses a set where three out of the four tiles of each type are clear, meaning your opponents can see most of your hand. Instead of building walls, tiles are put in a dark bag or in a special table with a hole in the center. Players must wear gloves to draw tiles so they can’t read them by touch. This game has become so popular that the first official washizu tournament was held in the Netherlands in 2010 and appears to have become an annual event.

Some tournaments even design their own tiles. A wonderful example of this is the biannual Open European Mahjong Tournament where new sets of tiles are specially created for each tournament. The flower tiles in each of these sets are designed to the theme of the host nation.

There are many different manufacturers and types of tiles but finding exactly what you want is sometimes problematic. If you walk the streets or markets of China you will find small shops selling nothing but mahjong tiles but most have a very limited range. In many parts of the West you find generic sets specific to your region in toy or game shops, if you’re lucky.

As with many things, the internet has revolutionized buying mahjong sets. There is a vast range on offer with corresponding prices (from US$10 to US$40,000). The downside is that you don’t have the luxury of looking at or holding the tiles before you purchase. My suggestion is you do your research and I am sure you will find the perfect set which means something special to you and will bring you hours of fun.