Monday, November 26, 2007

Mah-Jongg, nu?

After twenty-something years, my grandmother finally taught me how to play Mah-Jongg. I have to mix a traditional game review with a nostalgic anecdote for the ages, so please bear with me and enjoy the ride. (And yes, I do know that some spell the game mahjongg or mahjong or the hyphenless mah jongg, but fie on you. I also refuse to call it "Maahj.")

Mah-Jongg (BGG, BUY ME! WP) is not the computer solitaire game played with a set of Mah-Jongg tiles, but the name has stuck. With its familiar "Turtle" configuration, I know that game as "Taipei," after a computer version I played many moons ago.

Mah-Jongg itself is a four-player non-partnership set collection game a bit like rummy, usually played for money. You've probably seen the special tiles you use to play: four each of Winds, Dragons, three suits — Bams, Dots, Cracks — numbered one to nine, Jokers, Flowers, and Seasons. Different versions of the game omit the flowers, seasons, or jokers, and different versions have different scorings and hands. I've only played two hands using the American rules, so please understand that I'm not reviewing the entire world of Mah-Jongg.

One schtick in the version I played is that the legal hands and point values for the hands change annually. I'm not sure why this is done, apart from to generate revenue or sustained interest. Imagine if you're playing poker and one year you can make a 2-4-6-8-10 straight and next year you can make an A-3-5-7-9, and you sort of see the angle. Since we only had one card to pass among the four of us, play dragged a little. I suspect that avid players might learn the hands more readily, or simply have enough player aids so each player doesn't have to share. Hands can get pretty nuts (such as 333 666 6666 9999 in two different suits or FFFF NNNN E W SSSS etc etc.) and I suspect the real skill of the game is knowing what to keep before the Charleston and how to keep your hand flexible over the course of play.

Much like chess, it's impossible to talk about Mah-Jongg without mentioning the quality of the equipment. You can get plastic, bamboo, even antique ivory if you can afford. I learned on my grandmother's vintage set of faded Bakelite tiles rescued Post-Katrina. She never wanted to repaint them, so one Red Dragon looked red and another was dark blue or black. A few of the suited tiles had portions with no paint entirely. I liked the cool feel of the tiles under my fingers, smooth clicks and clacks as I passed tiles in the ritual known as the Charleston (like Hearts (BGG, WP) or Flaschenteufel (BGG, BUY ME!)- some left, some across, some right). But at the same time, I see through the tiles as actual tiles but instead see them as randomizers. In fact, someone has made a deck of Mah-Jongg cards so you can play the game without lugging around a full set, but you still need to manage a hand of thirteen cards. I don't know if they make bridge-sized Mah-Jongg cards.

Did I enjoy Mah-Jongg? No, but I'm not really a fan of rummy games. I get pretty frustrated waiting for one exact card/tile to make my hand, and seeing my hopes dashed as it gets discarded by an opponent.

Did I enjoy playing Mah-Jongg? Yes.


Pete the Brit said...

I went through a 10 year phase of playing Mah Jong and still pull out my set on occassion. I am consistently amazed by the weird points system used by players in the U.S. I have always used the scoring system developed by the British Mah Jong society which are also the ones used for international play :)

goulo said...

I'm with you. Mah-Jongg always strikes me as a game with cool clacky pieces in need of an interesting enjoyable set of rules. I've played it a few times lately, and the game itself is overly long rummy with absurdly baroque chrome.