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Tips on Buying Mah-Jongg Tiles


If you are interested in buying a Mah-Jongg set (either to play the game of Mah- Jongg or to play the game of Shanghai), there are many places to shop. You should base your selection on: (1) the type of Mah-Jongg you wish to play; (2) whether or not you can read the Chinese characters of the Craks suit without Arabic numerals; (3) what looks and feels nice to you. If you buy a beautiful set but can't use it to play, that's probably not the best set for you. So make sure you know what you need and want. Different sets are comprised of different numbers of tiles, and may or may not come with specific special tiles.

If you want to play American Mah-Jongg, or if you want to play Western rules, you need an American-style Mah-Jongg set -- 152 tiles. In addition to the standard 136 suit tiles and dragons and winds, you need eight Flowers/Seasons and eight Jokers, four racks, and chips. American Mah-Jongg sets can cost more than twice as much as Chinese sets due to the need for these extra parts. Some people use the blank tiles (which often come in addition to White Dragons and Flowers) as Jokers, usually by applying decals.

If you want to play Chinese Mah-Jongg, you will find a wide variety of plastic or bone-and-bamboo tile sets at board game stores or toy stores. To play Chinese Mah-Jongg, you do not need hard-to-find Jokers. You just need a standard 144-tile set (in addition to the standard 136 suit tiles & dragons & winds, there are also 4 Flowers & 4 Seasons). Most Chinese sets also do not come with racks or chips. Just choose a set that looks attractive to you and is of a pleasing size and material (and, assuming you cannot read the Chinese characters on the Craks, make sure that the set has Arabic numerals).

If you want to play Japanese Mah-Jongg, you may need to buy a Japanese set-but only if you play with Red Fives (otherwise you can use a Chinese set or a Western set, and just not use some of the tiles). Japanese sets are comprised of just the basic 136 tiles (the suits and dragons and winds-no Flowers or Seasons). If you want to play with Red Fives and you are not inclined to paint them yourself (or if sometimes you won't want Red Fives on the table), you need to make sure that the set also comes with the Red Fives. Note that Japanese Mah-Jongg sets usually do not come with both White Dragons and blank tiles (in Japan, blank tiles are used for White Dragons), and may not come with eight Flowers (Japanese players do not play with Flowers-you may get four Red Fives and only four Flowers in your set). If you get a Japanese set, it can be used for Chinese Mah-Jongg as long as you use the blanks for White Dragons or as long as you play without using the Flowers (or you might have to use the Red Fives as Flowers). If you use blank White Dragons, you might want to buy a set in which the tile backs are colored differently from the tile fronts-it's a dead giveaway to everybody if you get a blank and turn it over to look at the back. Finally, Japanese sets do not have Arabic numerals on them -- so you and your friends need to be able to read the Chinese numerals on the Crak tiles.

In Malaysia 88 tile sets are for sale. These sets are not suitable for any of the games in Shanghai: Second Dynasty.

If you want to play Singaporean Mah-Jongg with "Cat catches Rat" play, make sure you have those special tiles! If you have a Singaporean set, use the Cat and Rat and Fisherman and Fish (or Old Man and Bag Of Gold) as Flowers and you can play Chinese Mah-Jongg just fine.

Speaking of Flowers. Mah-Jongg sets come with a bewildering variety of "Flowers," "Seasons," and "trades." If you play American style, just use any 8 of those and call them all "Flowers." If you don't use Flowers, no problem. If you play MJ with Chinese/Western Flowers, though, you need all your Flowers/Seasons/trades to be numbered from 1 to 4. If they're not numbered, how can you tell which seat they correspond to? You may have to write numbers on them. Better to buy a set that comes with all the tiles you need for your style of playing.

Q: "What the heck is the deal with these blank tiles?"
A: If your set has blank tiles, the blanks are either white dragons, or the blanks are extra tiles which you can use as replacements or Jokers. Some sets' white dragons have a black rectangular design, or a black-outline picture of a dragon. If the set does not have those tiles, then four of the blanks are white dragons. Here's the breakdown of a tile set:

- Suit tiles (1-9, craks & bams & dots: 4 of each tile) -- 9 x 3 x 4 = 108
- Wind tiles (E,S,W,N: 4 of each tile) -- 4 x 4 = 16 (added to 108, total now 124)
- Dragon tiles (4 each green, red, white -- the white dragons /may/ be "blank") -- 3 x 4 = 12 (added to 120, total now 136)
- Flowers & Seasons (4 each, for a total of 8) -- added to 136, total = 144
- Some sets also come with Jokers (8 are needed by the American/NMJL game; I'm not sure how many Jokers are normally used in Western/Wright-Patterson when Jokers are used) and/or extra Flowers and/or extra blanks.

If your set has extra blank tiles, it is a good idea to swap the spares with the white dragons every now and then, and use them in play. If you don't, and you eventually must use a spare, you don't want it to look too obviously new.

One minor consideration in choosing a Mah-Jongg set for purchase is the backs of the tiles. There are three types of tile backs: white, color, and bamboo. White backs can cause confusion if your White Dragons are blank (as per the Japanese style)-then when you draw one of these, if you turn it over to see the other side, everybody will know you have a White Dragon. For this reason, I prefer tiles with colored or bamboo backs. Bamboo backs look nice and seem authentic, but because they're rounded, they don't stack as well as flat-backed plastic tiles. Shanghai (the solitaire tile-matching game) can be played with real Mah-Jongg tiles, and the flat-backed plastic tiles are best for this purpose.

Some players think that bone-and-bamboo tiles are "more authentic" and therefore more desirable than plastic tiles, but in my opinion plastic tiles are better to play with. Greater uniformity and easier stacking are important in play.

Q: "How do I tell if my set is bakelite or catalin or celluloid or plastic?"
A: There is an excellent description of how to identify your tiles' material at The Maj Exchange, http://beachsite.com/majexchange/id.htm. The mysterious "scrubbing bubbles" test is also explained!

Q: "I have an ivory set. How much is it worth?"
A: Whoa, calm down a sec. Your set is most likely not ivory but rather cow bone. I have heard that the ivory tiles do not yellow with age, as cow bone tiles do. Take a look at http://beachsite.com/majexchange/id.htm for a definitive description of ivory vs. bone. Another good site is http://members.aol.com/pungchw3/mj168-01.htm.

Q: "I have an antique MJ set from the mid-1800's, complete with original English instructions. How much is it worth?"
A: No way!!! That's impossible. The game of Mah-Jongg /may/ have been played as early as the mid-1800s (although this is doubtful), but sets were most definitely not manufactured for foreign export until after 1911 when the game was made available to the Chinese public. The earliest known documented writings of a game similar to Mah-Jongg are from the 1890s. It may have been played with cards (not tiles) prior to 1900-1911. The first sets for export to the West were made in the 1920s. That means that tiles did not have Arabic numerals (1,2,3,4...) or Roman letters (E,S,W,N...) on them until the 1920s -- and there were no instructions written in English until then either. You may indeed have an antique set, but you're going to have to re-evaluate the set's age.

To actually determine the worth of your set, you'll have to have it appraised. Or maybe it would be easier to just check out the sites where sets are sold, look for a set similar to yours, and see how much it goes for. Your set must be complete, or the value is /greatly/ reduced.

Many stores that sell board games can order a Mah-Jongg set for you if they don't have them in stock. Just make sure you know what you'll be getting. If you live in a large city, there may well be Chinese or Japanese import shops, where the chances are very good that you'll find a selection of Mah-Jongg sets for sale.

There are various sites on the Internet where you can find Mah-Jongg sets (but probably not tables!) for sale. You can use your Internet Search utility to locate such sites. Whenever shopping over the Internet, use caution when giving your credit card number and mailing address.


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