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.