Friday, February 12, 2010

Mahjong, hanafuda, and other Japanese games

With the imminent release of Yakuza 3, I’ve been playing through Yakuza 2 – and I’ve discovered I quite like playing Mahjong in it.


While I like western card games and Chess (sort of), the intrinsically exotic nature of Asian card/board games has always fascinated me. Unfortunately, living in the west has allowed little opportunity to be exposed to them, outside of foreign films and the occasional videogame. One of the most prominent examples is the Ryu ga Gotoku series, or Yakuza games, by Sega. Another English example is 42-in-1 All Time Classics (aka Clubhouse Games in the USA), a fantastic compilation for the Nintendo DS with a selection of really awesome classic games, complete with comprehensive guides to make learning easy for newcomers.

Join me as I briefly examine some of Asia’s various games, and the easiest methods for learning to play them. Click the names for a Wikipedia link and further explanation of the rules.

One of the things that really irks me is how in the west you’ll find games claiming to be Mahjong, when if fact it’s just a crude version of “snap” using Mahjong tiles. This is weird, and to me makes westerners appear slightly stupid. They’re captivated enough by the imagery of the game, enough to make use of the tiles, but lack the motivation to learn it and just go off and do their own thing.
Having seen Mahjong being played in countless Hong Kong action films, not to mention the ludicrous number of Mahjong games available on every system available, even arcades, I’ve always wanted to try it. Unfortunately it’s extremely complicated and so seldom if ever reaches the west - I seem to recall that Shenmue 2 on the Dreamcast allowed you to play Mahjong, but Sega removed this from the British localisation, presumably because it would have been too much effort to teach it to gaijin players.
Remedying this is the fact that Yakuza 2, also by Sega, not only features Mahjong in English, but it also comes with a fairly decent guide, which is enough to teach you the basics. Rules for the game vary, and Yakuza 2’s are perhaps slightly different from those you’ll find elsewhere (according to a guide I’ve read, they’ve been simplified), but basically you’re given 13 tiles and then each of the 4 players takes turns to pick up and then discard a new tile. Your aim is similar to poker: you want your entire hand to be made up of complete sets before ending the game. A set constitutes either 3 or 4 of the same tile (for example 3 or 4 tiles each featuring 7 bamboo trees), or you need a run in the same suit, for example 1/2/3, and so on, based on the suits which each contain 1-9 numbered tiles. There’s also a few unique tile sets which don’t adhere to the numbering system, instead featuring a kanji which represents a coloured dragon or a wind direction.

So basically you need a full house of 4 complete sets, plus a pair. For example, 1/2/3 - 4/5/6 - 7/8/9 - Dragon/Dragon/Dragon/ - and a pair of 3s in a different suit. You’re then out and that game ends.

You can either keep waiting to pick up the correct tile and then discard a useless one, or you can pick up your opponent’s recently discarded tile - but only if it completes a set you have, and if you do, you’re forced to display this complete set. Different combinations yield different scores, and this is where things get complicated. Yakuza 2’s Mahjong guide is over 20 pages long, listing the various scoring combinations and multipliers you can get. You also need to achieve a qualifying score combination, but this is fairly easy to get.

The best multiplier is when you don’t pick up opponents’ tiles, and complete your hand simply by picking from the deck and discarding. This is called a concealed hand, because you don’t have to reveal anything. So most games boil down to you focussing on your deck and making clever choices with regards to what you keep from the main deck. There’s obviously a lot more to it, and there are some clever tricks, but that’s the basics. You need a mathematical brain to work out the odds of getting your required tile, and a keen player keeps his options open. (having a 3/4 is better than having a 5/7, since with the former a 2 or 5 will let you win, whereas with the latter you’re stuck waiting for the 6)

Afterwards you steal points from your opponents, and so it continues for about 8 hands. The best thing about playing it in a videogame is that the computer handles all the complex scoring. Often I’ve finished a hand with more multipliers than I’d realised. It’s well worth learning to play, and the easiest way would be through Yakuza 2. There’s also a good FAQ on GameFAQs which covers the extra rules not mentioned in Yakuza 2 (you can’t pick up an opponent’s tile if you’ve declared Riichi and the tile you need to win is in your discard pile).
I’m not sure if Yakuza 3 features Mahjong, but if it does, hopefully it gets localised and is not cut out. Pictured here is Mahjong Kakutou Club for PS3, by Konami. Here meanwhile is a rather nifty guide.

Having been aware of Shogi since learning Chess, this should have been easy to learn. It’s basically the same concept of a board of military figures, each with their own specific movement pattern. You can also promote characters, much like in Chess and Chequers.

Unfortunately while Chess has physical pieces with their own defined shape and colour, Shogi simply has small wooden chips with the piece’s name written on it in Kanaji - sometimes very elaborate Kanji, difficult for the western eye to discern. As such it’s a complete mystery to me. I’ve tried repeatedly to practice it, with easy computer opponents, but after a few minutes the indistinct text becomes blurry and my brain finds it impossible to calculate the situation at a glance. At least with Mahjong each piece is visually distinct and coloured for easy recognition (well, except the Wind pieces, but they constitute only 4 symbols).

If you want to learn how to play, avoid the Yakuza 2 version which has no tutorial (and has REALLY blurry kanji), and instead get 42-in-1 All Time Classics for the Nintendo DS. It has an extremely good guide. There’s also Shotest Shogi on XBLA (pictured).

I first became interested in Go (aka: Igo) when I read that Hiroshi Yamauchi of Nintendo was a keen player, and enjoyed testing Western businessmen he met, if they knew how to play. Losing not too badly apparently impresses him, according to David Sheff’s Game Over book.

Each player takes it in turn to place their coloured stone on a grid. So long as your stone either has an empty space adjacent to it, or has a stone of the same colour along side it which is adjacent an empty space, those stones are alive. Basically image that each stone represents a platoon - if they’re completely surrounded, they’re dead and are removed from the board. The game ends when both players feel there are no further moves to be made.

Unfortunately it suffers from the same problem that makes me sometimes dislike Chess - the need to think ahead by several moves. This never works for me, because if I set up an ingenious 20-step plan for victory, it’s entirely reliant on my opponent not doing anything to upset it. So if they do something 15 moves in which doesn’t fit my template, out goes the complicated plan and my patience.

Thing is, with Chess you can wing it a lot of the time, and so I play on the fly. I’ve heard that’s how Chess players who take on multiple opponents do it - they focus only on each move at hand and ignore long-term strategy. You can’t do this with Go – you need to look ahead, I’m told, by sometimes 50 moves. By the time I’ve seen the strategy my opponent has been planning, it’s too late and everyone is dead – there’s no sending the Queen to the frontline to sacrifice herself and freak the opponent out. There are no gung-ho moves in Go and the value of any single stone is only built over considerable time.

Which is a pity, because conceptually I love the game. No complicated rules about what pieces do what, just black stones and white stones on a grid. A battle for territory where each placed piece remains stationary until capture. It’s kind of poetic. I’ve played a few games with a Japanese friend’s father, and I’ve dabbled in various game versions, from the Famicom to the DS, but I’ve never found one in English (except online versions), and I’ve never found one that I was comfortable enough with to really practice on.
Do any HG101 readers have a console version of Go they’d recommend? I’d love to find an English version for a handheld system, or even an intuitive Japanese title for PS3. Apparently 1 in every 222 people on Earth plays Go!


Ahh, now this is my favourite, more so than any of the above. I learned this on my first trip to Japan, playing it wherever I wandered, like some kind of card-playing Ronin.
A Japanese woman with hanafuda tatoos

There are 12 suits, based on each month of the year, each containing 4 cards. Every card has a visual representation, like a man in the rain, a stork, or just plain flowers, so they’re easy to memorise. Two players take it in turns to pick a card from the deck, and then either match one of the cards in their hand with one of those face up on the table, or discard one from their hand. You match cards of the same suit, so if there’s 2 September cards on the table, you need one of the other 2 September cards to pick one on the table up.

The fun comes from the scoring combinations. To win a game you need to achieve at least one scoring combination (for example: Wild Board, Wild Deer and Butterflies - or Sake Cup and Full Moon). After that you can either continue playing until you get another combination, or end it there to receive your scores for that combination. Continuing is risky though, since if the opponent then gets a combination, he’ll receive double the points.
I first played it while wearing loose jimbei, sipping warm sake and eating chilled raw horse meat in a small mountain town, while outside the cicadas buzzed in the hot night air – there are few other things to do in Japan which, to me, convey such an authentic atmosphere. As the game of choice for the nation’s organised criminals, there’s a certain satisfaction when getting into a really good game and discussing the poetic merits of each score combination. This was also the card game that made Nintendo’s fortune in their early days, and they still manufacture it.

For added fun, it’s said there are as many rule variations as there are Japanese towns, and inventing your own scoring combinations for play with friends is encouraged, as long as everyone is happy with them.
Videogame wise there are nearly as many Hanafuda games as Mahjong available, though the best is in Clubhouse Games on the Nintendo DS, which is in English with a great learning guide. The rules and scoring combinations are pleasant and authentic, and the computer takes care of things like scoring, even going so far as to make cards in your hand flash if they can be paired up with something on the table. This is perfect, as it allows beginners to learn it very quickly. It also features online play, so you never need feel bored with the computer AI!

If you have any interest at all in card games, you owe it to yourself to learn Hanafuda, which is supremely satisfying to play.


  1. I surely have known better instead of saying "I know how to play Mahjong". Now i find myself looking like a complete moron. I knew the M.A.M.E. games seemed different, but didn't bother to check why i needed so many buttos. Thanks to your guide, now i can do the right thing: avoid it. Nah, just kidding. It seems i'll have to do a little research first. Thanks.

  2. Yakuza got me interested in mahjong, too, though it wasn't Yakuza 2 but Kenzan where I first got into it. And I bet that at least 10 of the 80 hours I put into Yakuza 3 was spent playing mahjong.

    Now I spend ridiculous amounts of time playing a flash-based version of it.

  3. I've picked up traditional Mahjong quite a few years ago (ps, I wanna burn everyone who things the solitare version to pick matching tiles is even Mahjong). I even bought a set of tiles one christmas from Sears, but good luck fining it now though.

    Anyone who want a decent ENGLISH 4 player mahjong game to play, try even just the demo version of 4 Winds Mahjong. Not graphically superior and (what I find) easy opponents.

    Though after playing that, I've been able to play old consol japanese versions on systems as old as the Sega Master System.

    Go... another game I have a secret fantasy about. I've studied and have been amazed by it for a good few years now. I even went out and spent 4 months of my waking life trying to study it, since a particular english GO wiki has become so convoluted it's impossible for a beginner to pick up the web site to learn basic techniques and strategies. Though I did find THIS to be a super starting block for anyone willing to learn:

    But good luck finding a console game. Even the most currently powerful Go AI (named GNU) can only play up to a about Ameture level. A Go pro can laugh at the face of the AI. Although able to get for a internet Go client, it's simply too hard to go up against for a beginner, as the easier modes of GNU are just the base AI making random mistakes on the occasion.

  4. Of course, then there's the most intellectually rigorous and traditional Japanese game of all: Pachinko.

    Seriously, though, your mention of Sheff's "Game Over" made me reflect that it's still the high bar for investigative video game journalism. Nothing else published since had come close, which is very depressing, considering how much the games industry has grown since 1991. Practically every game magazine in the 90's shamelessly stole information from that book, without attribution. Part of Sheff's success, I think, was his outsider's perspective. Nearly everything published since has been from the fan's point-of-view.

  5. I got into Go a little bit because of the kids' manga Hikaru no Go. I'd recommend that to beginners too, as I ended up playing the Japanese GBA Hikaru no Go games. They're very simple and easy to learn/customize the computer's level. The FAQs on GameFAQs together with the game and casually picking up some strategies from the manga was pretty cool, and the only way I didn't find Go so horrible daunting.

    Unfortunately though, I don't know of any Go games in English either :S

  6. Me and my bro are like RABID Nintendo fans, and he entered the Club Nintendo thing, and we bought so many games he got an official Nintendo hanafuda set! It's the coolest thing ever, you should get one if you have the chance.

  7. I practice with Aya Go. It lets you go back moves, it gives you recommendations, and can be a nice tool. Also, the problems at are really great.

    The thing about Go is... thinking ahead in "moves" is not recommended. You want to think ahead to predict general shapes and borders. Because there's just TOO MUCH going on, thinking ahead in such concrete terms is pretty much impossible.

    I mean, I'm like 10kyu now (which isn't terrible) and I don't think ahead very much. Building a strong style of play and an instinct for the game is much more important than predicting future discrete possibilities.

    I agree, it takes a long time for the game to click. But once you have it, you have it for life. And then it gets awesome! :D

  8. I was actually introduced to "proper" mahjong first by my grandmother. I use quotes around proper because instead of the standard sets and runs that you go for the mahjong I learned uses a card that lists out the valid hands that season. There are a few that resemble a standard game of mahjong and others that form interesting patterns. But the gameplay is the same; four players, taking a single tile and discarding, and having to reveal a completed grouping if you take a tile someone has discarded, with the point bonus for going completely concealed. It seems to be quite popular among old Jewish women; my grandmother gets together with her girlfriends once a week to play.

  9. I'm playing at 1d (european) in Go...and it's not really concrete move-by-move thinking, as Aquin said. It's interesting that it's a lot based on strategy and actually intuition since there's often several moves which seem about equally good to play, much more interesting than chess in my opinion.
    The best way to practice it would actually be to play against human opponents (and use human teachers). There's more than enough online servers out there, like KGS or IGS.
    But if you can't cope with opponents doing things you don't expect you should go back to playing Super Mario or so and leave games versus real people to others xDDD

  10. The commenter above who linked to Interactive Way To Go is right, it is an excellent tutorial. In fact, my perception of Go is a bit different than yours above. It is less a game of thinking in advance (though there is some of that) than of higher-level strategy. Planning move for move, that is tactics, but having an overall plan that guides your individual moves, that is strategy. In this, Go is more strategic than Chess, while Chess is more tactical than Go.

    It is true that there the best computer players cannot compete with even above-average go players, but for a beginner this may not be a drawback. A way to start learning the game is to download igowin.exe, from the website of professional Go training program Many Faces of Go, at:

    I do not think that GNU Go is the strongest Go player out there, but I hear it's pretty good.

    In my opinion Shogi is primarily less-elegant Chess with confusing pieces; I tend to look down upon it.

    The game that the West most often misapprehends as Mahjong is, actually, not a variant of Snap, which is barely a card game at all. The earliest popular version of that game, now often called Mahjong Solitaire, was Activision's Shanghai, but I seem to remember hearing the original game being featured on ancient multiuser PLATO systems. PLATO was a hotbed of early gaming; Freecell also got its start there.

    Hanafuda, to my knowledge, is not properly termed a game. It is a term for a deck of those special cards, and many different games can be played with it. The one included in Nintendo's Clubhouse Games is called Koi-Koi.

  11. Howdy, just passing through! I came across this post from a Google search.

    I'm the author of the GameFAQs guide to the mahjong minigame in Yakuza 2 mentioned above so I'd just like to thank Sketcz for the free publicity! (At least I hope it's free!)

    I also have guides on that site for the mahjong and hanafuda minigames in Kenzan and Yakuza 3 in the same series, although I'm sorry to say that both mahjong and shogi have been removed from the new version of Yakuza 3 localised for the West that was released last week.

    Both the hanafuda games are still in though - you can play koi-koi and oicho-kabu - along with the dice-based gambling games chou-han and chinchirorin (cee-lo).


    PS Click on my ID above for a link to my guides index.

  12. It's not a console version, but in 1991 there was a MSDos title released called Nemesis The Go Master. It's abandonware now, and I've played it a bit. You can adjust the computer's strength and board size to your preference. I'd like it more if it did first capture rules (so I could practice on that level a bit).