Thursday, September 11, 2008


I've been brainstorming over a westernized version of Mah-Jongg, using poker-style playing cards rather than tiles with characters and symbols that most Europeans and Americans might find obscure and hard to tell apart. Here is what I have come up with so far. It will require some specialized cards, however. I would be interested in hearing from anyone able and willing to design them!

The cards: First, there are four sets of Aces through 9's in all four traditional suits. This is to say, there are four sets of spades from Ace to 9, four sets of clubs ditto, four sets of hearts, four sets of diamonds. This actually expands on Mah Jongg's three numerical suits (dots, craks, and bams); but I figure, western card players are already familiar with 4 suits, so why not use them?

Then there is one set of cards, from Ace to 9, in a fifth suit. I'm thinking "crowns." Nice, gold-colored crowns, with three points across the top. Neither red nor black, but easy to recognize and in keeping with the theme of royalty that one finds in the face cards. And because the face cards are royalty, there is no need for face cards in the suit of crowns. They're not really valuable cards anyway. You'll see why later.

Next, each traditional suit will have one of each of the following face cards. Of course there will be Kings, Queens, and Jacks. But there will also be 4 Bishops, 4 Fools, 4 Horses, and 4 Wenches - one of each in diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades. Whoever designs these should make sure to include a B, F, H, or W in the corners, just like the K, Q, and J of the other face-cards. Keep the distracting detail to the minimum; all one needs is a stylized image that can be instantly distinguished from the other denominations.

If, by the way, there is a consensus that "fools" and "wenches" are too politically incorrect, one could substitute something less offensive, like "dogs" or "cannons," etc. I like the medieval touch, though. It makes me feel like I'm fabricating a venerable tradition. The purpose of these 7 face-card denominations, if you must know, is to replace Mah-Jongg's 4 winds and 3 dragons with images the western card-player will readily understand. At least, I hope he will.

Finally, there are 12 non-suit "bonus cards" - 4 flowers, 4 birds, and 4 trees. I am suggesting that we go with varieties of the above that we dumb-ass westerners can immediately identify, even in a stylized form. I suggest letting the flowers be rose, tulip, lily, and daisy. Let the birds be crane, swan, eagle, and owl. And let the trees be oak, pine, birch, and apple. These will stand in for the flower (and season, etc.) tiles in original Mah-Jongg.

Then, to create another axis of association (so that each flower can be grouped with a particular tree and bird), I would suggest including a suit symbol on the edge of each card. Thus, for example, the rose, crane, and apple could all be associated with clubs; the tulip, eagle, and oak a with hearts; the daisy, swan, and birch with diamonds; and the owl, lily, and pine with spades.

I believe that adds up to 193 cards. The 4 sets of A-9 in the 4 traditional suits add up to 144; the 1-9 of crowns makes 153; the 12 bonus cards make 165; and the 28 face cards make 193. Which is exactly the number of cards we need!

Dealing: This, then, is how they get dealt. Each of the four players does his part to shuffle the cards, cutting and passing portions of the deck as needed. The "dealer" then deals 13 cards to each player, plus a fifth "blind" hand of 13 cards. The remaining cards are dealt into 8 face-down stacks of 16 cards each; or, space permitting, 16 stacks of 8. These "stock piles" are arranged in a C-shaped "wall" around the center of the table, with the "blind" pile face-down at the "back" end of the wall. I would recommend arranging the blind at a right angle to the stock piles, so that it can be easily distinguished. Discards will be piled face-up at the "front" end of the wall, opposite the blind.

Playing: Each player's turn begins with drawing one card, either from the top of the pile remaining nearest the "front" end of the wall, or (in special circumstances) from the top of the waste pile.

If the player finds a crown card in his hand, or draws it from the pile, he may lay it down in front of him and draw a replacement card from the "back" end of the wall. It is not necessary to form "books" of crown cards. They have no scoring value. Their purpose is to furnish players with an excuse to draw from the back of the wall. Bonuses may be awarded for playing certain combinations of crown cards (evens, odds, 1 and 9, etc.). I leave that in the creative hands of whoever essays to play the game.

Likewise, the flower, bird, and tree cards can be laid down and replaced from the back of the wall. Obviously these "bonus cards" are also worth bonus points, unlike the crowns. If this was Mah-Jongg, it would probably be the type of "multiplication bonus" where you need a table of powers-of-2 to figure out your score. I suggest making each bonus card, by itself, worth a nice sober figure like 10 points. But if you get 2 associated with the same suit, it becomes 100; all 3 of the same suit are worth 1,000. Likewise, 2 bonus cards of the same type (flower, bird, or tree) are worth 100; 3 are worth 1,000; and all 4 give you the "maximum score" of 10,000 points for your hand. Other special-scoring combinations I leave to the discretion of the players.

The remaining cards - those with the traditional poker suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades - are played as in a specialized form of Rummy. The object is to "go out" with a combination of 14 cards, including the last card drawn, consisting of 4 "runs" or "books" of 3 cards each and one "pair"; or perhaps some other special winning hand, as the players may agree among themselves.

Acceptable "books" and "pairs" may contain: (1) A-9 cards of the same suit and denomination; or (2) face cards of the same denomination, regardless of suit. A "run" consists of of any 3 sequential cards of the same suit in the ascending order A...9-F-W-H-B-J-Q-K. There's a sop to feminists: the wench ranks above the fool. And to animal-rights activists: the horse ranks above both!

If the player happens to draw a fourth card to go with any book, he has a "tome." However, in order to be able to complete the books and pairs necessary to go out, in addition to holding his tome, the player must draw an extra card from the back of the wall. Thus a player may go out with more than 14 cards.

No matter whose turn it would ordinarily be, if any other player discards a card you need to complete a run, book, or tome, or to win, you can pre-empt the next player's turn and claim the discard for yourself. You must declare "Run!" or "Book!" or "Tome!" or "I win!" when you do so. If more than one player claims the same discard, it is awarded to the one with the highest claim, in the descending order of Win-Tome-Book-Run. Multiple claims to the same discard based on a run are decided in favor of the run containing the highest denomination. Multiple claims based on the same run are prioritized in order of play beginning with the dealer. After picking up a discard, you continue as if it was your regular turn; then play passes on to the player after you in order of play. So it is possible, and even likely, that some players will miss turns.

Runs, books, and tomes that include a card drawn from the waste pile must be laid down for the other players to see. These are "open" sets. "Closed" sets of cards arise entirely from cards dealt at the beginning of the hand and/or drawn from the wall. Because tomes require you to draw an extra card from the back of the wall, you should probably lay them down too; but turn the top card face down to indicate that it is a "closed" tome. Closed runs, books and tomes will be worth more points, come scoring time, than the open ones.

The hand ends either when someone "goes out," or when a "no-winner" is declared. A no-winner takes place when all cards have been drawn from the wall, leaving only the "blind" or "dead hand," which is never to be played. The players may agree on other circumstances requiring a "no-win" situation, such as all 4 players discarding the same face card, 4 tomes being declared, 3 players needing the same card to win, etc.

Once a hand ends, everyone's score is counted and recorded. If the dealer goes out or there is no winner, he continues to deal for the next hand. If anyone else wins, the next player in order of play becomes the dealer. The game lasts as many hands as necessary, until each player has "lost the deal" once (or an agreed-upon number of times). Each time all four players lose the deal can be designated as a round.

Scoring: The basic score is 10 points for going out, 10 points for each open book, 20 points for each closed book or open tome, 50 points for each closed tome, plus the scoring previously described for the bonus cards. Books and tomes composed entirely of face cards score double; a pair or run of face cards scores 5 points. Other bonuses can be worked out before game play begins, by consensus of the players. These could include varying numbers of bonus points for: a hand made up entirely of runs and a pair; all Aces and 9s; no Aces or 9s; all face cards; all red cards or all black; all cards of the same suit; books of the same denomination in all 4 suits; go out by making a pair; go out by drawing from the wall; go out by drawing from the back of the wall; go out by drawing last available card; go out on your first turn; completely hidden hand; 7 pairs (a hand you can go out with); 9, 12 or 14 sequential cards of the same suit; multiple tomes; etc. etc. etc. Make up your own, or see Parts One, Two, Three, and Four of my "Mah Jongg for Dummies" posts for ideas.

You could make the game even more Mah-Jongg-like by giving each player, at the beginning of the game, a special counter representing one of the four suits. So one player is always associated with hearts, another with spades, etc. Then, analogous to the "seat wind" concept of the original game, bonuses for face cards and bonus cards could be added or multiplied according to whether they matched the player's "seat suit."

Other Asiatic rules could be adapted to Euro-American usage. They are negotiable. Some of the more interesting possibilities include:
  1. Waiting: When you declare that you only need one card to win, and you will discard anything that you draw unless it enables you to go out. Let's say it doubles your score if you go out; you get a 100-point penalty if you don't go out; and anyone whose discard enables you to go out is penalized 100 points.
  2. Sacred Discard: If you need a card that you previously discarded to win, you may openly declare it a "sacred discard." This warns other players against discarding the same card. Otherwise you must wait until you draw that card from the wall, or look for another card to complete a different book. If you draw someone else's discard to win after failing to declare "sacred discard," you forfeit 5,000 points. If someone discards it after you make this declaration, they pay the same penalty.
  3. Penalties may be levied for reneging on a declared win, book, tome, or run (unless corrected before the next player draws), failing to lay down what is supposed to be an open book, tome, or run, or not holding enough cards to go out (apart from bonus cards and an extra card for each tome).

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