Mahjong Rules

Mahjong is an intricate game originating from ancient China. This age-old, tile-based game is played by four participants and requires a unique combination of strategy, skill, and a dash of luck. Having gained immense popularity across the globe, Mahjong has various versions and adaptations. However, its core essence remains unchanged: to master strategy and achieve the winning hand.

Components Needed

Before immersing oneself in a game of Mahjong, players need to be well-acquainted with the game’s components.

Mahjong Tiles
  • Mahjong Tiles: At the heart of the game are 144 tiles, each adorned with specific symbols and designs. These tiles not only serve the purpose of gameplay but also narrate tales of Chinese history and culture.
  • Dice: These are not just for determining numbers but are pivotal in many game actions, such as determining the dealer or deciding the breaking point of the tile wall.
  • Racks: Beyond merely holding tiles, the racks are where players strategize and contemplate their next move, offering them a private space in an otherwise communal game.
  • Markers: As the game progresses, keeping track of scores becomes crucial, and this is where markers come into play.
  • Optional Equipment: A Mahjong table is sometimes preferred by avid players. It’s specially designed with slots and compartments for the tiles. There are also automatic shuffling tables and elegant coin-like scoring chips that enhance the overall game experience.

Goal of the Game

Mahjong is a captivating game that seamlessly melds skill, strategy, and a dash of luck. The primary objective is to craft a complete “hand” of tiles before your opponents, typically comprising four groups (a mix of sequences called “Chows” and three or four of a kind known as “Pungs” and “Kongs”) and a pair. Players must strike a balance between offense and defense, drawing tiles that inch their hand toward completion while cautiously discarding tiles to avoid aiding opponents.

Each player must form a complete set, known as a “Mahjong,” which consists of four groups of three tiles and a pair. Every player starts with 13 tiles and draws tiles sequentially, aiming to form these combinations. The intrigue deepens as many Mahjong variations offer special hands with unique combinations, enticing players with the allure of higher scores but also greater challenges. This blend of tactical gameplay and the overarching goal of forming a winning hand ensures Mahjong’s timeless appeal and replayability.

Tiles in Mahjong

A deep understanding of each tile type and its significance is crucial for mastering the game.

  • Suits: The suits, including Bamboo, Characters, and Dots, are akin to card suits. Each suit has nine distinct tiles, numbered from 1 to 9.
  • Winds: These are indicative of the cardinal directions: East, South, West, and North. They play a pivotal role in the formation of specific tile combinations.
  • Dragons: Enigmatic in nature, the Red, Green, and White dragons can drastically impact the outcome of a game.
  • Flowers/Seasons: Often played optionally, these tiles can provide bonus points, adding an extra strategic dimension.

Setting up the Game

Mahjong wall

Building The Wall

The commencement of the game sees players constructing a wall of tiles. Symbolically representing the Great Wall of China, this wall is two tiles high and 18 tiles long.

The art of building the wall in Mahjong is not merely an initiation to the game, but a symbolic and crucial procedure that sets the stage for the rounds to come. Every movement, from the shuffling of tiles to their meticulous arrangement, echoes centuries of tradition and careful strategy.

The Symbolism: Before delving into the specifics, it’s essential to appreciate the act’s significance. Much like the iconic Great Wall of China, which represents fortification and boundary, the Mahjong wall stands as a protective barrier, holding within it the possibilities of the game. This wall, like its historical counterpart, also indicates a beginning and a potential end, depending on how the game progresses.

The Initial Shuffle: As the game begins, tiles are placed face-down and shuffled by all players. The act of shuffling, often referred to as “washing” the tiles, is akin to stirring the waters of fate. The tiles move unpredictably, making the outcome of each shuffle unique. Every player engages in this, adding their touch and energy, which emphasizes the communal nature of the game.

Formation: Post the shuffle, each player then constructs a wall in front of themselves. The standard dimension of this wall is 18 tiles in length and 2 tiles in height, totaling 36 tiles. The process is systematic. Players pick tiles from the pool and start stacking them in sets of two, meticulously ensuring they remain face-down. This act is a delicate balance of speed and precision. While one doesn’t want to lag behind, carelessness might disclose crucial tiles, providing opponents with unintended information.

The Communal Effort: One of the most intriguing aspects of building the wall is the communal energy. Every player is engrossed in building their section, yet there’s a collective rhythm to it. The soft clinks of tiles, the gentle yet swift movements of hands, and the emerging walls signify the harmony amidst competition.

The Closed Universe: Once all players have erected their walls, they form a closed rectangle in the center of the playing area, symbolizing the universe of that particular game. It’s within this universe that destinies will intertwine, strategies will clash, and outcomes will be forged.

Wall Integrity: The integrity of the wall is sacrosanct. Throughout the game, as tiles are drawn, the wall gradually depletes but always retains its structural coherence. This is not just a rule but a reflection of the game’s essence – maintaining order amidst the chaos of strategies.

The Strategy Behind The Wall: On a more tactical note, experienced players often claim that the art of building a good wall can influence the game. A well-constructed wall ensures an even and smooth draw of tiles. Any irregularities, gaps, or misalignments might disrupt the game flow. Hence, while it might seem like a straightforward process, building the wall requires attention to detail.

Reverence to the Ancestral Game: This meticulous process of building the wall is also a silent nod to the game’s ancestry. Every tile laid, every wall constructed, pays homage to countless generations that have indulged in this game, refined its rules, and passed it down the corridors of time.

Step By Step Process of Building The Wall

  1. Gather All Tiles: Ensure all 144 tiles (based on the classic set) are present and face-down on the table to maintain their anonymity.
  2. Shuffling: Every player should participate in shuffling the tiles. This is traditionally done by using both hands to mix the tiles around on the table’s surface, often referred to as “washing” the tiles.
  3. Starting the Wall: Each player selects 34 tiles and arranges them face-down in a row that’s 17 tiles long and 2 tiles high. This forms a compact two-tiered structure, like a mini wall.
  4. Connecting the Walls: Players now push their individual walls to the center of the table, connecting them end-to-end to form a square. This square formation is symbolic of the Great Wall of China, hence the term “Building The Wall.”
  5. Ensuring Uniformity: Check to ensure that the wall has a consistent height and that no tiles are out of place or tilted. This uniformity is essential for the smooth progression of the subsequent phases of the game.
  6. Positioning: Depending on the game’s variant, the dealer (or “East”) might have their wall in a specific position, often facing them. In some traditions, the dealer’s wall will be the longer one when walls aren’t of equal length due to an uneven break in the wall later on.
  7. Ready for the Next Step: With the wall built and every tile in its place, players are now prepared for the subsequent phase: “Breaking The Wall”. This will mark the commencement of dealing and the game’s active phase.

Breaking The Wall

The break in the wall, which introduces an element of unpredictability, is determined by the roll of dice. The dealer’s roll sets the game in motion by designating which player’s wall will be breached and at what point.

While building the wall in Mahjong is an art steeped in tradition, strategy, and community spirit, breaking the wall symbolizes the infusion of unpredictability, fate, and the commencement of the true game. This act is not just a mere procedure, but an integral part of the game’s dynamics, introducing a ripple of chaos into the organized universe of tiles.

Embracing Chance and Fate: The concept of breaking the wall mirrors life’s unpredictability. No matter how meticulous and careful the preparation, the element of randomness always finds a way to assert itself. Similarly, in Mahjong, players might have strategies at the ready, but the break in the wall can either align with their plans or throw them awry.

Procedure: Once the walls have been formed, the dealer, also known as the ‘East’ player, throws two dice. The combined total of the dice determines which player’s wall will be breached. Counting begins with the dealer as one and moves counterclockwise. For instance, a total of 5 would mean the count reaches the player opposite the dealer.

Once the player’s wall has been chosen based on the dice outcome, the specific breaking point within that wall is further determined by counting the tiles from the rightmost edge based on the dice’s sum. For instance, if the dice total is 9, the dealer will count 9 pairs of tiles from the right and break the wall at that point.

Drawing from the Breach: This breach in the wall is where tiles will be drawn from, marking the beginning of the gameplay. It symbolizes the entrance into the game’s universe, and from this point onward, players embark on their quest to form the perfect Mahjong hand.

A Tactical Perspective: The breaking of the wall also introduces a tactical aspect. Experienced players often gauge their initial strategies based on the wall’s break. While it’s an element of chance, deciphering patterns or potential tile distributions based on the breach can provide keen players with a slight edge or, at the very least, a hint of what to expect.

A Ritualistic Break: Over the centuries, the act of breaking the wall has taken on an almost ritualistic tone. It’s a pause, a deep breath before the dive. The anticipation is palpable, and the table’s energy shifts from the cooperative act of building to the competitive spirit of the game.

Honoring The Unexpected: In many ways, the act of breaking the wall is Mahjong’s tribute to the unexpected. While skill, strategy, and experience play pivotal roles in a player’s success, the game, much like life, always leaves room for surprises. And it’s within this realm of unpredictability that some of the most exciting moments of Mahjong unfold.

Step By Step Process of Breaking The Wall

  1. Determining the Break Point: To decide where the wall will be broken, the dealer (often referred to as “East”) throws two dice. The sum of the dice will indicate the point of the break, counting from the right end of the dealer’s own wall.
  2. Counting the Tiles: Starting from the right end of their wall, the dealer counts the number of stacks (a pair of tiles) equivalent to the sum rolled on the dice. For instance, if a total of 5 is rolled, the dealer would count five stacks from the right end of their wall.
  3. Breaking the Wall: At the determined point, the dealer makes the break. They lift the stacks of tiles and places them on top of the adjoining stacks, creating a gap or “break” in the wall. This gap is where players will begin drawing tiles.
  4. Formation of the Dead Wall: In some variations of Mahjong, a section of the wall, typically 14 tiles long, is designated as the “Dead Wall” or “Kong Box.” This portion is set aside and is used exclusively for drawing replacement tiles when a player forms a Kong (a set of four identical tiles). If this variation is being played, the Dead Wall is set up immediately after breaking the main wall.
  5. Preparation for Drawing Tiles: With the wall broken, players are now ready to start drawing tiles from it, typically starting at the left of the break and moving counter-clockwise.

Distributing the Ensemble

After the initial setup and the breaking of the wall, the next pivotal step in Mahjong is distributing the tiles among the players. This phase sets the stage for the rounds to come, providing players with the foundational tools they’ll use to craft their strategies and seek victory. The distribution process, while straightforward, requires a systematic approach. Players select 12 tiles in three successive rounds and then two extra tiles. This ensures the dealer has 14 tiles to start, while others have 13.

The Essence of Distribution: Distributing the tiles is akin to dealing cards in a card game. It sets the initial conditions for the game, providing each player with a unique hand, which they will then use, modify, and restructure in the pursuit of a winning combination.

Steps to Distribute the Tiles

  1. Determine the Dealer: The game starts with a designated dealer, often referred to as the ‘East’. The dealer plays a crucial role in the distribution process.
  2. Draw from the Break: Starting from the break in the wall created during the “Breaking The Wall” phase, the dealer begins to draw tiles.
  3. Distribution Rounds:
    • First Round: The dealer draws four tiles (two stacks) for themselves, moving counterclockwise, with each player doing the same in turn.
    • Second Round: The dealer draws another set of four tiles, with each player following suit.
      Subsequent Rounds: This process continues until each player has 12 tiles.
  4. Final Draws:
    • The dealer then draws one additional tile, giving them a starting hand of 13 tiles.
    • The other players each draw one tile in turn, ensuring each of them also starts with 13 tiles.
  5. Reserve Tiles: The remaining tiles in the wall act as a reserve, from which players will draw during the game. These tiles are integral for game progression, allowing players to modify and optimize their hands.
  6. Setting Up the Hand: Players now arrange their tiles, often grouping them based on type or potential combinations. This initial setup helps players quickly assess their starting position and begin formulating their game strategy.

The Strategic Implications: The distribution phase, while seemingly procedural, has profound implications on gameplay. The tiles a player receives can set them on a clear path or challenge them to rethink and innovate with every turn. Experienced players often develop an intuition, gauging their potential moves and game trajectory based on their initial set of tiles.

Playing the Game

After “Distributing the Ensemble”, the game enters its main phase, where players actively engage in drawing, discarding, and forming their hands to achieve a winning combination. Here’s a rundown of the next step:

1. Initiation by the Dealer (East):

The dealer, or East, starts the round. They will draw an additional tile from the wall, making their total 14 tiles. After assessing their hand, the dealer will discard one tile, placing it face-up in the center of the playing area.

2. Drawing and Discarding:

Moving counter-clockwise, the next player will either:

  • Pick up the discarded tile if it helps them form a combination or a set.
  • Draw a tile from the wall if they do not want the discarded tile.

After drawing, the player will also need to discard a tile. This pattern of drawing and discarding continues around the table.

3. Forming Sets and Combinations:

As the game progresses, players will try to form specific tile combinations or sets:

  • Pungs: A set of three identical tiles.
  • Kongs: A set of four identical tiles.
  • Chows: A sequence of three successive numbers in the same suit.

When a player forms a set with a discarded tile from another player, they must declare it (for example, “Pung”) and expose the set in front of them.

4. Special Draws:

If a player draws a tile from the wall that allows them to form a Kong, they can declare it and then must draw an extra tile from the end of the wall. Similarly, if a player can form a Kong with a discarded tile, they declare, expose the Kong, and draw an extra tile.

5. Objective of Gameplay:

The main objective during this phase is for players to form a “Mahjong” hand, typically consisting of four sets (any combination of Pungs, Kongs, and Chows) and a pair. The first player to achieve this declares “Mahjong” and reveals their hand.

During this phase, strategic thinking, anticipation of opponents’ moves, and adaptability are key. Players need to balance their objectives, track the game’s progress, and make calculated decisions with every draw and discard. The dynamism of this phase embodies the essence of Mahjong, making it a game of both luck and skill.


While the rules of Mahjong might seem intricate initially, understanding the gameplay’s rhythm simplifies the experience.

  • Players can only claim a discarded tile if it aids in forming a complete set.
  • Post drawing or claiming, players must discard a tile to maintain a consistent count.
  • Sets that players declare are exhibited openly for opponents to see.

Finishing the Game

Completing a round of Mahjong is as ceremonious as its beginning. While the game’s primary goal is for a player to form a valid Mahjong hand, the game can conclude in various ways. Here’s a comprehensive look at finishing a game of Mahjong:

  • Declaring Mahjong: The most common way to finish a game is when a player forms a complete hand consisting of four sets (either sequences, three of a kind, or four of a kind) and a pair. Upon achieving this, the player declares “Mahjong”, revealing their hand to other players, thus ending the game.
  • Drawing from the Wall Ends: If all the tiles from the wall are drawn, and no player has declared Mahjong, the game ends in a draw or a “goulash hand.” In this situation, depending on the ruleset being followed, either no points are awarded, or players score based on the value of the sets they’ve managed to create.
  • Exhausting the Dead Wall: In variations where a “Dead Wall” or “Kong Box” is present, the game can end if these tiles are exhausted, especially if they’re used for replacements due to numerous Kongs being declared.
  • Special Declarations: In some variations of Mahjong, players can end the game by declaring specific conditions or special hands, such as “Thirteen Orphans” or “Nine Gates”. These are challenging hands to achieve but often carry high point values, making them a tempting target for skilled players.
  • Consecutive Draws: In certain Mahjong rulesets, if a specified number of consecutive draws (often four) occur without any player claiming a discarded tile, the game can end, acknowledging a stalemate.
  • Penalties and Errors: Sometimes, the game may end prematurely due to player errors. Common errors include erroneously declaring Mahjong, having an incorrect number of tiles, or revealing tiles accidentally. Such mistakes can lead to penalties, and in some cases, can result in the immediate end of the game.
  • Scoring and Counting Points: After the game ends, players move to the scoring phase. Here, each player’s hand is evaluated based on predefined point systems, taking into account the complexity of the hand, any declared Kongs, special tiles, or bonus conditions.
  • Rotation: Once the game concludes and scores are tallied, the role of the dealer rotates, typically moving counter-clockwise. A full session of Mahjong usually consists of multiple games, so this rotation ensures every player gets a turn as the dealer.

Finishing a game of Mahjong is a mix of achievement and reflection. Players assess their strategies, the risks they took, and the outcomes of their decisions. Whether victorious or not, every game’s end is an opportunity to learn, strategize, and prepare for the next exciting round.

Scoring and Counting the Points

Scoring in Mahjong can be intricate, as the game recognizes a myriad of combinations and patterns. The exact scoring can vary based on the regional variant and specific house rules. However, the following provides a general framework:

  1. Base Points:
    • Mahjong Hand: Awarded for a player who declares Mahjong.
    • Self-drawn: Extra points if a player wins by drawing the winning tile themselves rather than claiming a discard.
  2. Sets:
    • Chow (Sequence): Typically the lowest points as it’s easier to form.
    • Pung (Three of a Kind) of Simples: Awarded more points than a chow, especially if self-formed.
    • Pung of Honors (Winds or Dragons): Even higher points, reflecting their rarity.
    • Kong (Four of a Kind): Highest points among sets, given the challenge of collecting all four identical tiles.
  3. Special Patterns:
    • All Pungs: A hand consisting entirely of Pungs and a pair.
    • Mixed One Suit: Using tiles from only one suit plus honor tiles.
    • Pure One Suit: A hand using tiles from only one suit, without any honor tiles.
    • Seven Pairs: A rare hand consisting of seven distinct pairs.
  4. Bonus Tiles:
    • Flowers and Seasons: Usually, each of these tiles fetches a bonus point. Some rules award extra points if a player’s flower or season matches their seat wind.
  5. Ending the Game:
    • Winning off the Wall: Extra points for drawing the winning tile from the wall rather than claiming a discard.
    • Winning on a Kong, Robbing a Kong: Special circumstances that provide extra points.
    • Last Tile: Winning on the final tile draw or the final discard often yields bonus points.
  6. Penalty Deductions:
    • False Mahjong Declaration: Points are deducted if a player claims they have Mahjong, but their hand does not meet the criteria.
    • Incorrect Hand: If a player ends with too many or too few tiles, points are usually deducted.
  7. Doubles and Multipliers:
    • Certain conditions or special hands can double a player’s score, such as having a hand entirely of one suit or winning on a specific tile.
    • These doubles can compound, rapidly increasing the score. For example, two doubles would quadruple the score, three doubles would octuple it, and so on.
  8. Tallying:
    • After calculating individual scores, bonuses, and penalties, players compare their points. The difference is often settled in monetary terms or chips.
    • The overall winner may receive a bonus, and in some variations, there are payments between all players based on their relative scores.

Scoring in Mahjong rewards not only the game’s winner but recognizes the intricacies and complexities of each player’s hand. Mastering the scoring system is as essential as mastering gameplay, with strategic decisions often influenced by potential point values.

The Kong

A pivotal aspect of Mahjong is the “Kong,” a set of four identical tiles. Players who form a Kong are entitled to draw an additional tile from the wall’s end, introducing a strategic twist.

Hand End

The conclusion of a round sees the role of the dealer either retained or rotated. If the existing dealer wins, they continue in their role; otherwise, the dealership moves to the next player.

American vs. Chinese vs. British Versions

Mahjong’s global popularity has spawned multiple regional adaptations:

American: Deviating from the traditional, this version is guided by a frequently updated card of standard hands.

Chinese: Staying true to its roots, the Chinese version is often perceived as the original form of the game.

British (BMJA): A balanced blend of American and Chinese rules, the British version brings its unique flavor to the game.


With its roots deeply embedded in ancient Chinese culture, Mahjong is more than just a game; it’s an experience, a journey through strategies, and an exercise in cognitive skills. Each tile, each game round, narrates a unique tale. Whether you’re a seasoned player or just starting, Mahjong offers an immersive experience that’s both challenging and immensely satisfying. Dive in and be part of this legacy.