You may know this game as ‘Chinese Chess’. It’s played on a similar board to Chess and some of the pieces move in a similar way. The key difference with the board is that the pieces move on the intersections of squares rather than the squares themselves. The middle of the board also has a river and this influences how some pieces can move. The goal of the game remains the same and that is to put the opposing general (king) in checkmate.
There is a rule in Chess that I find similar to the game of Cricket. I’m not sure if this is a ‘British’ influence on gaming, or purely coincidence. The rule is if there are no moves you can make then the game ends in a draw. In Xiangqi, that player who cannot move loses. This makes it more likely that a win/loss result will occur.
I feel the draw of Chess draws a parallel with Test Cricket where you have to defeat the other team. For readers who don’t know Test Cricket or Chess. Consider a game of Basketball, keep all the rules the same and the duration of the game the same. The single difference is: the only way to win is to score 80 points. If you don’t score 80 points before the time is up, the game is a draw. It changes the dynamic as teams that are losing can use defensive tactics and ‘play for a draw’.
Anyway, back to Xiangqi. Here are the pieces.
General - like the King can only move one square. Unlike the King the General is confined to the palace, a group of positions on each side of the river. There is the special flying general move, of course, which allows one general to attack the other general.
Advisor - These also can’t leave the palace. As there are two of them and the palace is only nine spots, it does get crowded. They can only move diagonally.
Elephants - Move two nodes diagonally. And only two. They can’t move if another piece is in the way. They can’t cross the river. Elephants also never forget, that’s why they drink.
Horse - Moves like the horse in Chess. Can’t move through other pieces, so that’s a one difference.
Chariot - Moves like a rook.
Cannon - Moves like a Chariot (rook) but captures by jumping a single piece. You can swap Cannons for Horses at the start of the game.
Solider - Moves like a pawn, you only have five of them instead of eight.
The tiles have different symbols for each side. This means that the red general piece looks different from the black general piece. Of course. I find this the hardest part of learning the game, or even just watching people play in the street. Remembering which tile is what.
Mah Jong is said to be the root of all rummy games and it plays similar to rummy, or perhaps, rummy plays similar to it. There are many variations of this game Japanese, Taiwanese, Hongkonese, Shanghaiese and a Western version. The Western game I’ve been playing most of my life as my Nana was an avid player. The game played in China is a gambling game, like poker. The Western version has less of this although you can still play for money.
The game requires you to form a hand of fourteen tiles and you start with thirteen from the deal. You can think of the tiles as cards and the game will still play the same. The ‘deck’ of tiles are four walls of tiles that represent the Great Wall of China. Of China because you might be confused with all the other great walls.
There are five types of tile grouped into suits. The first three suits are: Bamboo, Circles and Characters and for each of these suits has 36 tiles; representing the numbers 1 to 9 with four copies of each. The other two suits are winds and dragons which are also known as honour tiles.
There are four winds (East, South, West, North) and three dragons (Red, White and Green). The Hannibal ‘Red Dragon’ symbol is the same one from the game. The symbol is just the Chinese character for ‘middle’. It’s the middle dragon. It happens to be red. It’s less exotic now that you know this. There are four copies of each wind and dragon.
You may have noticed that the four winds are the compass points but in the reverse order. For our compass North is most important and we go clockwise. For the Chinese, East Wind is the most important. We live on a sphere so it’s arbitrary really. There are additional rules about being East wind that can raises the ante just for that player. The winding of the compass is the opposite to how we do it in the West. Play also goes in this direction (counter-clockwise).
The object of the game is to form a hand involve four sets and a pair. A set can be a four-of-a-kind (a Kong), a three-of-a-kind (a Pung) or a run of three e.g. 3, 4, 5 (A chow). All of these are in the same suit. You can include pungs or kongs of winds and dragons into your hand too. You can have as many chows in your hand as you want but they don’t contribute to your basic score. Winds and dragons score well but, having none is known as a purity hand. That also scores well.
As you will see, most things score well.
You’re basic score is counted using a system that assigns tiny points for each of the pungs, kongs and chows. Then you get score doubles and your score gets out of control. A limit is enforced to scores from getting silly. A double is given for a variety of reasons: purity hand (no honours), all honours, concealed (no discards claimed), a pung or kong of the wind of the round, a pung or kong of your wind, all chows, no chows, going mah-jong of the last tile, etc. If you go mahjong, you get points equal to your score. The other players pay you your score. East wind pays double and scores double.
Play takes the form of picking up from the wall and the discarding a tile. The tile you discard can be claimed by another player if they can form a set with it. If another player does claim your tile then play moves to them and they discard. This can cause players to skip turns. Because of this there is a caveat on claiming a discard for chows. Only the player to your right can claim a discard for a chow. It was going to be their turn next and so, no-one misses a go. A tile that is not claimed is dead and takes no further part in the game. The dead tiles are still visible on the table though and it helps to know what is out there. The Japanese variant means that if you discarded a tile, and then you need that tile to win. You can’t use that tile to win. You should have thought of that before you discarded the tile. Not knowing this rule and playing online Mah Jong in the gaming towers of Japan meant I lost games I had thought I won.
The game of Mah Jong has a variety of rituals that I like. The first is shuffling the tiles which is down by turning them over and then moving them around. It’s called “twittering the sparrows” and it does sound like birds twittering. When I play with family everyone helps but the Chinese variant only has North and South wind do this.
You then need to form your walls; a mini-game when I was younger and playing with my brothers: who can build their wall the fastest. You then break the wall by rolling two dice and counting from East wind around. That person then rolls the dice again and adds the numbers up including the first roll. Count from right to left the number and then remove the two tiles at that spot. These go on the left side and represent the tiles used when claiming kongs or playing with flowers (non-Chinese variants). The tiles are then dealt in groups of four starting with the East wind and going counter-clockwise. East wind always deals. In Western games it’s considered rude to deal to yourself first but it’s not in Mah Jong. East wind is dealt one extra tile as they start the game by discarding. It is possible to go Mah-jong as East wind on the initial deal. This scores the limit which is the maximum you can get in a single game. And because you’re East wind I think you get paid double too. I’m not sure I’ve never achieved this.
If the player who is East wind goes Mahjong then they remain East wind. If anyone else wins then the East wind goes counter-clockwise to the player who was just South wind. The game starts with the wind of the round as East (also known as prevailing wind). When the first player becomes East again then the wind of the round changes. The wind of the round becomes South, then West, then North. If you play long enough for every player to have played each wind for each wind of the round then the session is over. Yes, this can take hours. A no-result game doesn’t cause wind-movement (keep your sniggering to yourself). At a minimum it’s sixteen games for a session.
The Western version has lots of special hands that end up becoming the focus rather than forming an ordinary mahjong. The original game does have a handful of these special hands or special occurrences and they all have excellent names. Here are some of the best and they are all hard to get.
Three Great Scholars - A pung or kong of each dragon plus another pung and pair.
Four Blessing Hovering Over The Door - A pung or kong of each wind and any pair.
The Thirteen Unique Wonders - One of each dragon, wind and the 1 and 9 from each suit. Any tile paired. I used to play this hand a lot as a child. It’s hard to get but scores the limit.
Heaven’s Blessing - Going mahjong from the deal as East Wind.
Earth’s Blessing - Going mahjong off the first discard from East Wind.
Gathering The Plum Blossom From The Roof - Only possible when you have a kong (or flower) and need to get a replacement tile and that tile happens to be the plum blossom (five of spots) and that allows you to go Mahjong right then and there. The important thing is that in-between claiming the kong and when you pick up the replacement tile you announce that you are fishing. Going mahjong without announcing you are fishing is poor form and can disqualify your hand.
Plucking The Moon From The Bottom Of The Well - Only possible when you draw the last tile from the wall and that tile happens to be a one spot (the moon) and this allows you to go Mahjong.