Mahjong Rules (American Version)

If you want to know what the Mahjong rules really are, then this is the post for you. Learn how to play Mahjong, some different game variants, and our top tips for becoming a Mahjong Master in this guide. 

Mahjong has been around since the 19th century and is a hugely popular online solo game, but with so many variants, it can be difficult to know how to play it offline

Here’s where we help! 

Traditionally Mahjong is played with 2-4 players, but it can be played with other numbers. It is easy to learn how to play Mahjong, although it is challenging to master the game fully. 

You will likely have heard of Mahjong and know the basic premise, but if you want to find out all about this Chinese tile game, then read on to find out more! 

What is Mahjong?

Mahjong Game Info image

Mahjong is a Chinese tile-based game developed in the 19th century before spreading worldwide at the start of the 20th century. Commonly, Mahjong is a small group game played with 4 players, but there are variants of the game with 2 or 3 players. 

Online, Mahjong is a popular solo game. 

Mahjong is a game that combines skill, strategy, and luck, and for this reason, it is similar to the Western card game Rummy. 

Although many Mahjong sets and tile variations exist, the game uses tiles that feature Chinese symbols and characters. Traditional Mahjong tiles are made of bamboo, ivory, and bone, but most tiles in circulation today are acrylic. 

Number of Players: 2 to 4 players.

Ages: Recommended 8+ 

Difficulty: Medium

Length of Play: Dependant on the Variant, Between 30 – 120 Minutes 

Similar To: Dominoes, Santorini, Azul

Main Objective: Be the first player to match a hand to the hand shown on the scorecard and to shout ‘Mahjong!’ (American Mahjong). 

Why We Love it: Mahjong is a real thinker and great for keeping the brain sharp. It has been proven to improve cognitive ability and even to help with loneliness. We love the challenge of trying to master the game and that it can be played at a novice level and advanced, making it great for all abilities. 

RELATED: Mahjong strategies

A Brief History of Mahjong

Although a fairly old game, Mahjong isn’t as old as many people think, and when we compare it to games such as Kubb, it’s relatively new. Mahjong began in China in the mid to late 1800s and played on American soil in the 1920s. 

In 1949 Mahjong was banned in its native China, as it was said to be encouraging gambling which was outlawed entirely. However, the game became legal again in 1985, minus the gambling element, although today it is common for people out of China to play it for money. 

Mahjong is growing in popularity in the US and is even a popular game amongst celebrities such as Julia Roberts, who says she plays the game once a week and considers the concept to be ‘creating order out of chaos. 

Today there are many variations of the game, with different rules applying to each. Traditionally, Chinese Mahjong uses 136 tiles; Hong Kong Mahjong has the same number of tiles but different rules in scoring and play. 

In the US, it is often called Western or American Mahjong and played with 152 tiles. Korean Mahjong is more fast-paced and played with 104 tiles. 

This article will focus primarily on the American way to play Mahjong

What You’ll Need to Play Mahjong – The American Version

To play American Mahjong, you will need an American Mahjong Set and a tabletop or a cleared floor if playing without a table. 

The set should include:

  • 4 tile racks 
  • 3 dice
  • 100 counters/money chips
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There are also be scorecards produced by the National Mah Jongg League, which are updated annually. 

Inside your set, you should find 166 tiles; 152 will be used in the game, with the rest being spares. 

Tiles are divided into 4 groups:

Suits: Divided into Circles/Dots, bamboo, and Characters. There are 4 of each type in the set. 

Honors: Winds and Dragons, 4 of each in both sets. 

Flowers/Seasons: 1 copy of each tile

Jokers/Wild: 8 identical tiles 

Before you start playing, ensure that you remove extra wilds, seasons, and any extra jokers.

Scoring sticks or coins are used to keep track of points and scoring, and you can assign yourself their value and distribute how you want. 

How to Play Mahjong – The American Version

American Mahjong is played with 4 players. 

The game’s objective is to be the first player to declare ‘Mahjong!’ by creating a hand that matches a hand on the scorecard exactly. 

Understanding the rules and gameplay of Mahjong is pretty straightforward, but it is not so easy to become a master of the game. So first, let’s look at setting up the game before we look into how to play American Mahjong. 

Setting up the Game

Setting up the game sounds more confusing than it is; it goes like this:

#1 Place 152 tiles face down in the center; all players help to mix the tiles up.

#2 Each player placed tiles face down, in front of their rack: 2 high and 19 long, to build a wall. 

#3 Players roll the dice, and the player with the highest total becomes the dealer, known as East. This makes the player to their right South, the player next to the West, and the final player North.

#4 ‘East’ rolls and puts aside 2 columns of tiles (from right to left) to match that number – this is called breaking the wall.

#5 East then takes the 1st 2 columns of tiles. Counterclockwise around the table, each player takes the following 2 columns until each player has 12 tiles. 

#6 East then takes 2 additional tiles, the 1st and 3rd tiles from the top row, equalling 14 tiles. 

#7 Each player, in turn, counterclockwise, follows this process but only takes 1 tile instead of 2. 

#8 Players then arrange their tiles on their racks. 

#9 Players then decide on 3 tiles they don’t want and pass them faced down to the player on their right. This process is known as the Charleston and continues through to #11.

#10 Players then decide on 3 more tiles they don’t want out of their rack and pass them faced down to the player sitting opposite them. 

#11 Another 3 tiles are decided to give away and passed, faced down, to the player to the left. Steps #9, #10, and #11 can be repeated if all players agree. This is known as a Courtesy Pass

Mahjong Rules 

Mahjong isn’t a game with a heavy set of rules, possibly because of the number of variants; it is generally a pretty relaxed game. However, sometimes mistakes can be made during play which does result in penalties. 

Some of these for American Mahjong are as follows:

  • A tile being announced incorrectly will mean the tile can’t be taken back. 
  • A tile being called when no exposure has been made will mean the call is retractable. 
  • If there are either too few or too many tiles in a player’s hand, their hand is rendered dead (out of the game). 
  • 3 players or more having too few or too many tiles means the game must be replayed. 
  • A player’s hand is deemed impossible to play by themselves, and another, when shown, will result in their hand being declared dead
  • Someone shouts Mahjong incorrectly and exposes their hand, which means their hand is dead and they must pay the winner of the game. 


Each player’s goal is to win the game by being the first to yell ‘Mahjong!’ after correctly creating a hand that matches a hand on the scorecard exactly. 

Here’s how to play the game. 

Drawing and Discarding Tiles 

Remember, East has 14 tiles at the beginning of the game. They can start by discarding 1 tile, giving other players the chance to claim this tile for themselves. 

The next player then draws a top tile from the wall, taken from where the wall’s breaking was left. They can either place it into their hand and choose another tile to discard or discard the new tile. 

The discarded tiles name is announced and placed face-up on the center of the playing area. Caution is advised here as players will see the tiles you discard, and over time, this could build a clear image of the kind of hand you’re trying to develop. 

Play continues in this way for each player until it is interrupted by a call. 

Calling Tiles

The tile most recently discarded can be claimed/called by any player. This should be to complete a combination of an exposed hand, such as a pung, quint, kong, or sextet. 

  • A tile can’t be called to complete a combination of the hand that needs just a single tile. 
  • A tile can’t be called to complete a pair – unless it completes a Mahjong hand. 

If someone calls to take a discarded tile that doesn’t lead to a win, whatever combination it makes should then be exposed on top of the player’s rack for all other players to see. 

Joker Rules 

Jokers can substitute any tile in a sextet, quint, kong, or pung, but they cannot be used to complete a pair in a hand. 

If someone has an exposed combination with a Joker used to substitute a tile and has the tile being substituted, you can exchange this tile for the Joker if the other player agrees. 

Game End 

The game ends when a player matches their hand to a combination on the scorecard and appropriately calls Mahjong. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How is American Mahjong Different from Chinese Mahjong?

American Mahjong uses racks to hold players’ tiles, ‘Hands of Rules’ scorecards, and Jokers. It has many distinct gameplay mechanics not found in Chinese Mahjong, such as The Charleston, and it is played with 4 players only

How Many Variants of Mahjong Are There?

There are 6 primary versions of Mahjong: American, Honk Kong, Chinese, Taiwanese, European Classical, and Riichi Competition. Hong Kong Mahjong, also known as the Cantonese version, is the most popular version, similar to American Mahjong. 

There are other acknowledged, although less popular, versions of the game including, Dutch League, Canada Mahjong, British Official, Australian, Korean, Japanese Transitional, German, Italian Official, French, Chinese Classical, and Chinese Transitional. 

There are many other variants not considered official versions, so really, we aren’t entirely sure how many variants of Mahjong there are! 

How Popular is Mahjong?

According to Jiang Xuanqi, the secretary-general of the World Mahjong Organization, more than600 million people worldwide play Mahjong. 

There are around 605 million people who play Chess globally, so Mahjong is a pretty popular game. 

Alternative Games to Mahjong

Although a board game, Santorini balances strategy and intensity to remedy it similar to Mahjong. This is a much quicker game to play and simple enough for children to join in with.

Azul is an award-winning abstract strategy game, just as mentally challenging as Mahjong and with similar beautiful artwork. Players score points by placing tiles that match a pattern criteria, and 2-4 players can play the game. 

If you like Mahjong, then we’re sure you’ll love Onitama. This is a deceptively simple game with easy-to-understand rules, but it can take a lifetime to master it, similar to Mahjong. 

For more inspiration similar to Mahjong, make sure to check our game guide for Rummikub rules.

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