Every Mahjong player knows that before they play with someone new, everyone needs to acquaint themselves with the rules. Now that the Singapore government has sanctioned Mahjong and PA is even holding tournaments, I thought it would be good to get an idea of what exactly is Singapore Mahjong. I come from Malaysia and learned Mahjong in UK from my mother. She in turn learned it from her father who was a scholar from China, emigrating just before The Cultural Revolution. My uncles played the "classical" game which I naturally came to learn but it has few adherents nowadays.
Now that I'm living in Singapore, I have decided to start a Mahjong documentation effort, where I hope to pen my thoughts, maybe for a future book. There are a few books out there but I haven't found an english one which focuses on Singapore style mahjong in particular. If you are not a Mahjong "tourist", you might be unaware that there are many ways to play it, some of them quite alien even though they come from similar roots of the game when it became popular worldwide in the 1920s.
That is the game my uncles played; but as it became less popular, we came to play many variants as time went by, amusing ourselves with the game's seemingly spontaneous evolution. Different flavours require different strategy and some changes now and then keep things interesting. Mahjong is a game about harmonizing, so if you're going to be experimenting with your own house rules, it's good to understand the underpinnings of the game so that your unique recipe doesn't ruin the flavour of the original.
This game, sometimes called "Classical Mahjong", has some claim to being the most balanced (some would claim perfect) form of the game, having been refined and matured over many years in the rich culture and traditions in which it was invented. Most of the classical rules have some symbolic, historical or academic origin, traceable ultimately back to the Book of Changes or Book of Surprises. However, Mahjong, like Chinese cuisine, has adapted itself wherever it has taken root, and I've been fortunate to have been able to observe how many variants have evolved. The successful ones have introduced changes to ensure that the essence of the original is not lost whilst still addressing local inclinations. The unsuccessful ones created unplayable or superficial games which have died a natural death.
I have recently had the pleasure of observing my wife, who is Singaporean, play with our Singapore friends and this blog will be a record of the rules I see them use (our house rules) as well as those we've played in other places in Singapore. I am still very much intrigued by the sheer variety of rules being used so please feel free to add your comments in the interests of recording the unique Singapore style of play.
The key differences of Singapore style from other styles is the use of 148 tiles (4 additional bonus tiles to the classical set which are called "animal" tiles), and instant payouts for patterns that are declared for flowers, seasons and animal tiles during play.
Let's start with some basic rules:
Many local players may not realise it but different parts of the world play with different number of tiles. So for the record, Singapore style is normally played with 148 tiles composed of 3 suits of numerals 1 to 9 making up 36 tiles each, 4 of each of red, green and white dragons, 4 of each of east, south, west and north winds, 4 seasons, 4 flowers and 4 animals. Western sets, in particular, may not have the 4 animals but they can use their jokers or blanks as long as they are marked so that two pairs can be distinguished.
Some may play with additional sets of 4 jokers and some with additional sets of 4 bonus tiles (e.g. arts or instruments). Details of the tile set and can be found at www.singaporemahjong.com/rules
4 players sit at a the sides of a square table about 3 foot by 3 foot. The 4 winds are put face down on the table and each player picks one. The one who picks east picks his place, then the others will arrange themselves around him in an anti-clockwise fashion according to the card selected in the order south, west and north.
One exception is when couples play, the partners should sit opposite one another so as to be less able to assist their partner who sits next in turn by providing chows.
The one who picks east will also start as dealer.
Building and Breaking The Wall
East and west build 19 stacks whilst south and north 18 stacks. Two dice are thrown by east and the total is counted in a counterclockwise fashion starting with east as one to determine the wall which has to be broken. Multiples of 4 indicate north, 1 less (e.g. 4x2-1=7) indicates west, 2 less (e.g. 4x3-2=10) indicates south and 3 less, east.
Some house rules add some fun by paying out to the dealer when doubles are thrown and, optionally, a penalty that the dealer has to pay if doubles are thrown three times in a row if the deal has not changed. Usually the basic amount is the same as for a normal kong (see below).
The player indicated to break the wall throws the dice again and adds to the number thrown by the dealer and breaks the wall so that there are that number of tile stacks are left on the right. Sometimes, this can be more than the length of the wall since a total as high as 24 can be thrown (which means that north breaks the wall in front of west, leaving six tile stacks on west's right since six plus his own wall of 18 tile stacks makes 24).
A shorter form is east throws three dice and the indicated wall is simply broken so that the number of tile stacks remain on the right.
Play has been described at www.singaporemahjong.com/rules
so it won't be repeated here. Instead, I'll focus on some of the key differences between Singapore style and Classical style. Singapore style mahjong will payout when a player exposes certain tiles. The exact magnitude of these payouts are chosen before the game and is usually based on a multiple of the payout for a kong.
The same payout as a kong is given to gaining own flower and own season (optionally also prevailing flower and prevailing season), cat and mouse animal tiles, and rooster and worm animal tile. If the pair is gained simultaneously when the original hand is dealt, the payout is double. If all the flowers are collected or all the seasons are collected or all the animals are collected, the payout is quadrupled.
When choosing the payout for a kong, consideration should be given to how that might change play strategy. If the payout is too high, it will cause players to retain pairs in the hope to kong. This effect can result in a game which is imbalanced.
If no player goes out (obtains mahjong), it is a draw, play has come to the point where there remains only a predetermined number of tiles still in the wall. This number is usually 15 but can be less. The last tile drawn does not have to be discarded (so it cannot be claimed for game by another player. If the last tile completes a kong, it may be declared but it may be strategically better not to do so as a kong can be robbed and the player has to pay for all the others. If the last tile is a bonus tile, it can be declared to obtain a payout. House rules determine whether the player can continue to draw replacements for bonus tiles once the minimum number of tiles are reached, most commonly not.
In Classical style, the drawn game ends quite differently. The absolute minimum number of tiles left is one because there is no artificially set minimum for tiles left in the wall. However this minimum varies according to the number of kongs that have occurred, since replacement tiles from kong are taken from the a non-replenishing 8 stacks of tiles on the right hand side of the wall break determined at the beginning of play. These 8 stacks, known as the kong box, is not used for replacing bonus tiles (that's done at the live end of the wall). If there are so many kongs that all the tiles in the kong box are used up, the game has ended in a draw. Otherwise, there will the number of tiles left in the wall as 16 minus the number of kongs in the game.
Why 16 you may ask? Well, it's easy enough to see the significance, since if 16 kongs had occurred in the game and each hand can only have 4 sets and a pair, every player will have had to kong their sets. 16 is the maximum number of kongs possible for a 13 tile hand that goes out on the 14th tile. A kong is considered a special event as it is the rarest set that can be completed and completely removes a specific tile from play. The kong box is a reserve of tiles to remain concealed. Only if a player has the luck or fate to kong is he given the privilege to reveal one of its tiles. (16 may also represent the hidden central sector of the 9 sectored mahjong square, a simile of the Lo-Shu square, and the eight formations in the Book of Surprises which represent central Chinese traditional philosphical ideas).
The next section describes how this difference evolved.
- www.sloperama.com - Tom Sloper's website. Tom Sloper is an international mahjong authority who has won tournaments and held workshops. This site provides details of many variants of mahjong around the world (but not Singapore). His latest book, The Red Dragon and West Wind, looks like a must-read if you're interested in the history and play of the American and Official Chinese variants.
- www.singaporemahjong.com - research and rules collected (though not all implemented) for the online game - a great resource for the basics.