A description of the types of tile sets used in different versions of Mahjong and Mahjong Solitaire.
Mahjong tiles originate in China and are used to play the games of Mahjong, Mahjong solitaire, and also a variety of other tile-based games.
The exact number of tiles varies depending on what version of Mahjong is being played, but there are usually at least 136 tiles – and most commonly 144. Sets originating from America or Japan have more tiles.
Mahjong tiles have been made from various materials historically. Traditionally they were made from bone, often backed with bamboo. Bone tiles are still available but most modern sets are made from various plastics such as bakelite, celluloid, and more recently nylon. A few sets have been made from ivory, but these are extremely rare: most sets sold as ivory are in fact made from bone.
The tiles each have special symbols engraved or pressed into them. The choice of symbols varies depending on what version of the game is being played. Mahjong tiles are organized into several categories: suited tiles, honor tiles and flower tiles.
There are three money-based ‘suits’ of tiles; the Circle Suit, the Bamboo Suit and the Character Suit. Each has tiles ranked from one to nine.
There are four tiles of each rank and suit combination, thus 36 tiles in a suit, and 108 suited tiles in total. To refer to a suited tile, the rank is named, followed by the suit, for instance “1 Bamboo”. The ones and nines of each suit are collectively referred to as the “terminal tiles”.
The Circle Suit
Tiles in the circle suit show from 1 to 9 red and/or green circles, arranged rather like the dots on dice.
The Bamboo Suit:
With the exception of the 1 Bamboo, the Bamboo tiles show regular arrangements of green and/or red bamboo sticks. The even numbered Bamboo tiles show all green sticks.
The odd numbered tiles include some red sticks. Some sets may also include blue sticks on certain tiles. The 1 Bamboo, which is represented by a bird, is often referred to as the ‘Sparrow’.
The Character Suit
The character suit is represented by Chinese characters. Although some sets use simplified Chinese characters, many use traditional Chinese characters as they are more complex and considered more aesthetically pleasing.
The rank of the tile is represented at the top, in blue, with Chinese numerals, while the character below is in red. Some sets may also have a black Arabic numeral in a top corner, for the benefit of players who are not familiar with Chinese numerals.
Honor Tiles do not have a rank or suit. They are divided into two categories, Wind tiles and Dragon tiles.
The Wind tiles have four types of symbol corresponding to the points of the compass – North, East, South and West – written in blue traditional Chinese characters. There are 4 of each type, so 16 Wind tiles in total.
There are three types of Dragon tiles:
- Red – a tile with a red traditional Chinese character or a red dragon.
- Green – a tile with a green traditional Chinese character or gree dragon. Because of its meaning (which translates as “to strike it rich” in English), a giant Green Dragon tile serves as a good luck charm in many Chinese households.
- White – a tile which can be without any markings, although most modern sets, except Japanese, employ tiles with a blue border. Some sets may also have a black letter P in the center of the tile.
There are 4 of each type, so 12 Wind tiles in total.
Flower tiles usually show artistic pictures of flowers in many colors, but some sets use other non-floral themes (although they are still known generically as ‘Flower’ tiles).
Depending on the version of Mahjong there will be at least 2 groups of flower tiles. Each group contains four unique tiles, differentiated by the numbers 1 to 4, or by some other means.
The symbols used vary depending on the game version:
- Common Chinese mahjong sets have two sets of flower pictures, one with blue Arabic numerals, and one with red Chinese numerals.
- In Mahjong Solitaire, there is a set of 4 flower pictures (plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo) and a set of 4 ‘Season’ tiles (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.)
- Singapore mahjong sets have three groups; 4 red flowers, 4 black flowers, and 4 animal pictures.
- American sets have eight ‘Joker’ tiles – tiles that simply say “Joker” in a diagonal pattern on them.
- Four Joker tiles are used in Shanghai style Mahjong.