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My initial idea of having manga about all styles of mahjong.
Because of mahjong anime, I gained an interest in Japanese mahjong. And because I played so much Japanese mahjong and continued to consume anime and manga based on it, I began to wonder what it would be like if there was a series based on having to play all of the different styles of mahjong which exist around the world. This has led me to do some research and even attempts to play other styles of mahjong, and in fact the first post I made on this blog about other styles of mahjong was about Singapore-style. At the time, the only way I could play it was a single player java program, so no matter what my speculations about strategy and gameplay were the result of a very limited experience.
Since then, I’ve been able to find a website which allows me to play some form of Singapore mahjong against human opponents, and through it I’ve been able to put to the test some of my musings on Singapore mahjong from that post. Looking back, the post turns out to have been decently accurate, but I am of course still very much a beginner at it, so I wanted to find someone with more perspective and experience. That’s how I came across Singapore Sparrows, site dedicated to mahjong in Singapore (primarily the MCR—more on that another time—and Singapore styles), and through it managed to have an interesting and enlightening conversation concerning the similarities and differences between Japanese and Singapore mahjong.
I recommend reading the entire post as well as my follow-up comment, but to summarize I asked the blog owner Edwin a series of questions about strategy in Singapore mahjong, especially because the Singapore style has far fewer hands than Japanese and therefore the hands felt comparatively less fluid. Edwin brought up the fact that not only does Singapore mahjong have things called bonus tiles which can net you points just for drawing them, but it has more bonus tiles than probably any other style of mahjong, and so in his opinion the bonus tiles function in a capacity similar to cheap hands in Japanese-style such as tanyao and iipeikou.
Thinking about the function of bonus tiles, I speculated that rather than fulfilling the role of those smaller value hands, they were more akin to calling riichi: ways to empower worthless hands and give them some teeth and a chance to win. The big difference is that with bonus tiles they are the catalyst to deviate your hand into something simpler, whereas calling riichi always exists as an optional goal, beginning vs. end, but both carry risks unique to each version of the game.
Now, when considering how this would impact a narrative about a game of Singapore mahjong, the flower tiles really are wild cards, and I could see some maverick of a hero taking a risk to get just the right bonus tiles he or she needs, a foolish move normally, but one that the hero recognizes is the only path to victory. Along with all of that animal tile imagery of cats eating mice and chickens eating bugs, panels could be filled with really elaborate nature imagery.
Another fascinating point brought by Edwin was the way in which pinfu (or ping hu) hands in Singapore mahjong really influence the way the game is played. If you play riichi mahjong you may think pinfu hands are important because of how quick and probable they are, but their potency is nothing compared to Singapore pinfu. Not only can it be played open, but it has a special stipulation which makes it either a weak, simple 1 han (tai in Singapore-style lingo) or a monstrous and deadly 4 han hand, controlled by the presence or absence of bonus tiles (no bonus tiles means 4 han). As such, many players will aim for “ping hu,” but because it’s so clearly a good option no matter what, players of Singapore mahjong are also especially wary of its dualistic lamb/lion status. If you have no bonus tiles and a couple of open straights in your hand, people will get mighty suspicious and the player to your left will try to figure out ways to avoid dealing out tiles you need for your straights. It’s a dimension of strategy that is in many ways different from Japanese-style mahjong, and it’s the sort of thing that encourages me to try more styles.
And of course, the variable strength of Singapore pinfu is also a perfect place for some dramatic storytelling. Can’t you imagine a Washizu-esque villain playing his masterful 4 tai ping hu, ready to destroy his opponent, when suddenly he draws a flower bonus tile and all of his beautiful machinations slip through his fingers like sand? Can’t you imagine his agony as the hero willingly deals into the significantly downgraded hand, giving poor Singaporean Washizu a rather pyrrhic victory?
Fun times. Fun, fun times. Incidentally, thanks to mahjong comrade Dave I learned that Mahjong Hime allows you to play both Singapore and Taiwanese styles. Most likely, my next post regarding the hypothetical International Mahjong Manga will be about Taiwanese mahjong.
Ever since I wrote about the idea for a mahjong manga where the protagonist travels the world and plays various forms of the game, I’ve been eager to try out other types. Unfortunately, the best I could do was read about them and engage solely in theoryjong, which while potentially useful and certainly fun in its own way could not match the act of actually playing a game. Fortunately, I was able to find a website with not only rules for a Singapore-style of mahjong, but also an online game implemented for the enjoyment of visitors. Apparently it’s been around for a while, and I just wasn’t looking hard enough.
Before I go into my impressions of Singapore mahjong, there are two caveats I have to make. First, the online game provided by the above site is 1-player only. None of my words reflect someone who has played other human beings, and so I cannot talk much about the mental aspect of it beyond a certain solitaire-esque mindset. That said, I think a lot can be discerned just from playing the computer. Second, as I am mainly familiar with the Japanese-style riichi mahjong, I will be using that form of the game to relate my experiences. Also vital to note for those who are stumbling on this post from perhaps other mahjong sites is that I’m not even that good at Japanese mahjong, so the particulars of my “tactics” are mediocre at best.
Like all of the other forms of mahjong, the Singapore style is about creating a complete hand consisting of a number of 3-tile combinations and a pair to finish it off. 3-tile combinations consist of either three-of-a-kinds or straights. Players draw and discard tiles looking for a winning hand, with the last vital tile coming only after the rest of the hand is in a position to actually win. Like Japanese mahjong, you need at least 1 yaku/fan in order to win. However, there are three main differences (and a bunch of minor ones, but I won’t go into those too much).
1) Animal Tiles
While many forms of mahjong have “flowers,” tiles which are collected and set aside during the round that can potentially give bonuses to the player who collected them, the first and most glaring difference between Singapore Mahjong and all other forms is the additional presence of “animal tiles.” Four exist in a set: Chicken, Centipede, Cat, and Mouse, and they behave similarly to flower tiles, except that getting both the “predator” and its “prey” will net you additional points. The chicken eats the centipede, the cat eats the mouse, and should either of these happen you don’t even need to win in order to reap those benefits; you gain the points immediately. This also applies to appropriate flower tile combinations, and it means that even if you end up losing, you still kind of won.
2) Little Variation in Winning Hands
The path to winning of course lies in “fan,” or “yaku,” the predetermined combinations that are considered part of a winning hand. However, unlike Japanese mahjong, the number of fan that exist in Singapore mahjong are remarkably few in number. Whereas in riichi you get credit for hands like san shoku (either straights or triplets), chanta, junchan, chii toitsu, tanyao, ii pei kou, and san an kou, none of those I just mentioned are considered noteworthy hands in Singapore mahjong. Even Yakuman such as suu an kou, ryuu ii sou, and chuuren pooto do not get honored in this mahjong variation. Essentially, the only realistic paths are getting triplets of honor tiles, hands consisting entirely of straights (the “chicken hand” in Chinese forms of mahjong), toi toi, and either chinitsu or honitsu. If you didn’t understand any of what I just said, let me summarize by saying that Singapore mahjong has significantly fewer ways to win a game compared to Japanese mahjong, and that has a clear effect on how it plays out.
3) Everybody Pays
Another major difference with riichi mahjong is the point exchange that occurs when someone wins. In riichi, if someone draws the winning tile themselves, they get a few points from everyone else. If someone discards the winning tile, the victor takes their earnings entirely from the player who threw that tile away, with the other two players remaining untouched. Not so in Singapore mahjong, where everyone pays if a win happens on discard, and everyone pays even more when a win is achieved by self-draw. Combined with an utter lack of furiten, that lynchpin rule of Japanese mahjong that prevents a player’s discards from outright lying to the other players, it means that playing defensively as one normally would with the Japanese style does not hold anywhere near the same benefits in Singapore mahjong.
Taken all together, Singapore mahjong’s profile is that of a game where aggression is valued and tough decisions have to be made from the very start. The absence of even tanyao as a viable hand means that if your hand is half triplets and half straights, you have to make the decision to go one or the other, or to hope for some honors, flowers, or animals to give your hand the necessary minimum fan to even try to win.
The sheer lack of options can feel stifling for someone like me who is used to having many more options. Hands do not grow into one another easily; a potential san shoku cannot slowly arise from a pinfu attempt, because the gaps between hands are too stark, outside of possibly a honitsu turning into a chinitsu or vice versa. While one could argue that Japanese mahjong has too many options that make the game seem ridiculously arbitrary and tough to learn, the dearth of yaku in Singapore mahjong makes it feel less like a “flow” of tiles and more like a “hail.” That simplicity is not without its merits, but it’s something I’d have to get used to, especially coming from the defense-heavy style of riichi mahjong.
Funnily enough, a pinfu hand actually nets a whopping 4 fan (with 5 fan being the absolute limit allowed typically), but on one condition: no bonus tiles (animals, flowers) can be collected. With 12 of those suckers in a given set, it becomes a matter of avoiding “good luck” just long enough for one’s own “bad luck” to implode on itself and transform into something even more powerful.
Given that my interest in it has something to do with imagining how it would work in a comic, I have to then ask, what interesting story elements could be derived from playing Singapore mahjong? I think that for at least part of a Singapore arc, animal tiles would have to play a significant role. They’re one of the more distinct parts of this particular flavor of mahjong, and if it were something like a Fukumoto manga, the whole predator-prey thing could make for some amazing metaphors, and the immediate point exchanges upon getting a proper combination could subtly shift games.
It would also work as somewhat of a setup for a Malaysia arc, as I’ve read that 3-Player Malaysian mahjong is quite similar. I’ve yet to try that, though if someone can figure out a way for me to do so, I would very much like to hear it.