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How many tiles in a Mahjong set — what you need to know

Mahjong is, at least on its face, a complex game with a lot of tiles—but exactly how many tiles in a Mahjong set? This question has many answers depending on a wide variety of factors, so today we’re going to cover everything you need to know about the different types of Mahjong set and fundamentally how many tiles each of them contains. Within that, also, we’ll look at what the different tiles are and how they work in the game.

Let’s dive into it.


Author: Jianyu Wang Li
Checked by: Felix Martins


Mahjong Set

Composition of a Mahjong set

To understand how many tiles in a Mahjong set, it’s important to understand the full composition of the set and how many tiles there are of each type. Let’s first look at the three main suits which comprise most of the number of Mahjong tiles, and how many there are.

1. Three main suits: Bamboo, characters, and dots

Of the large number of tiles in Mahjong, most are made up of the suited tiles. When asking how many tiles in a Mahjong set, it can be answered that most of them are the suited tiles. How many suited tiles there are is important. There are three suits: bamboo, characters, and dots. These go by other names, such as sticks, thousands, and stones.

Each suit has a tile valued one through nine, and there are four of each suit. This means, then, that there are 36 of each suited tile. Of the 144 tiles in a Mahjong set, 108 of them are the suited tiles. Knowing how many suited tiles is vital to knowing how many tiles in a Mahjong set.

2. Honors: winds and dragons

To know how many tiles in a Mahjong set, we also need to look at the honors tiles, of which there are two different sets. These are the wind tiles and the dragon tiles. The wind tiles are oriented with the four cardinal directions, and thus you have the East Wind, West Wind, North Wind, and South wind. You have three different colors of dragon tiles: red, green, and white.

The Mahjong number of tiles for the honors tiles works similarly as with the suited tiles in that there are four identical copies of each, meaning you have 16 winds tiles and 12 dragon tiles.

3. Bonus tiles: flowers and seasons

Finally, for how many tiles in a Mahjong set, you also have the bonus tiles. Again, in classic Mahjong rules, there are two sets of bonus tiles: the flowers tiles and the seasons tiles. There are four of each of these bonus sets, and there is only one set of each in a standard Mahjong set. Seasons are of course the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. The question of how many of these is quite simple. The flowers used can vary, though they are most commonly things like plum blossom and orchid.


Type of tileTile namesNumber in set

Suited

Bamboo, characters, dots

108

Honors

Winds, dragons

28

Bonus

Flowers, seasons

8


Total tile count

The above covers all of the tiles that you will find in a classic Mahjong set—so to total it all up, how many tiles in a Mahjong set?

Standard number of tiles in a traditional set

Totalling up, then, how many tiles in a Mahjong set as seen above, we have a total of 144 tiles in a standard set. This comprises 108 suited tiles, 28 honors tiles, and eight bonus tiles. So, while there are a lot of tiles, most of them are not unique and the vast majority of the tiles are repeated numerous times in a standard set. While this can still seem like a lot to learn, it’s certainly much more manageable than 144 unique tiles.

But we have talked about the standard set only so far, and there are many regional variations which affect the answer to how many pieces in a Mahjong set. If you want to know how many tiles, you need to know which version you are playing.

Regional variations in tile count

There are many regional variations of Mahjong and so naturally there are many variations in how many tiles in a Mahjong set. Fujian Mahjong, for instance, does not use dragon tiles and winds are bonus tiles, so this changes how many tiles. Harbin Mahjong uses just the 108 suited tiles plus four dragon tiles. In Korean Mahjong, one suit is generally removed, most often being the bamboo set. For every set, then, there is a different answer to how many tiles.

In still further variations such as American Mahjong, you also have optional tiles which can be used in the game. Let’s look at some examples of these.

Optional tiles

As mentioned, the question of Mahjong set how many pieces is dependent on which variation of the game you are talking about. Most variations simply remove certain tiles from the set, but at the same time some variations of the game add tiles.

American Mahjong: joker tiles

American Mahjong is among the most popular variants of the game played in the west, and naturally it has its own spin put on it. In asking how many tiles in an American Mahjong set, the answer is a bit different. One of the biggest changes that American Mahjong makes is the addition of joker tiles. Usually, American Mahjong rules use eight jokers which are considered to be all-purpose tiles. Three joker tiles together can form their own compositions.

Many other variations of Mahjong also use joker tiles, such as Tianjin Mahjong. How many tiles is a question that changes a lot, then.

Other special tiles

There are some limited examples of other special tiles used in regional variations of Mahjong. In Japanese Mahjong, you have what are called red five tiles. Japanese Mahjong replaces one five from each suit with a red five before play starts. Any red fives in their hand at the end will score them extra points. This changes how many tiles in a Japanese Mahjong set.

The question, then, of how many pieces in a Mahjong set depends on which variation you’re talking about.

Evolution of Mahjong tiles

The Mahjong set that we know has been largely unchanged since the game was first invented in the 19th Century, at least as far the rules of classic Mahjong go. How many tiles hasn’t really changed. But how many tiles in a Mahjong set has not always been static, at least when we reach as far back into history as we can for a potential origin of Mahjong.

Ancient sets

Mahjong as we know it is not as old as many often think. There is a common myth circulated that the game was originally invented by the 5th Century Chinese safe, Confucius. There is, however, no evidence for this, and everything points to a 19th Century origin for the game. However, it is often thought that Mahjong was based on an older game known as madiao. This game has been popular since at least the 17th Century, and was played with playing cards rather than large tiles. This is a factor in asking how many tiles in a Mahjong set.

This would be played with 40 cards. If an early form of Mahjong evolved out of this before the 19th Century, we have no direct evidence of it, and so no clear way to say what an ancient set might have looked like or how many tiles it had. In any case, tradition is extremely important in China, and there are traditions governing the different tiles found in a Mahjong set which have gone largely unchanged. This naturally also includes how many tiles.

Modern sets

In a modern set, the question of how many tiles in a Mahjong set is a bit clearer. A “modern” Mahjong set, by the most universal definition, can still be defined as 144 tile set as used in the classic Chinese Mahjong rules and indeed in the vast majority of regional variations. The “joker” is perhaps the single most influential new tile invention for modern sets, as they can be used in a wide variety of ways—even if it is only to replace a lost tile from the set. American Mahjong was popularised around the 1920s, so it was after this time that you started to see these joker tiles being included elsewhere in sets.

Practical implications

A physical Mahjong set is a considerable thing, then, and how many tiles in a Mahjong set has major practical implications to consider. How many tiles will affect play and the physical size of the set.

Dynamics of play with different tile counts

Of course, if you are playing with an even slightly different set, then this can have big implications for your strategy and the dynamics of the game. Other players might have more experience with a given variation and thus each version essentially becomes its own thing to learn. How many tiles in a set determines in large part the game itself.

Storage and portability

Firstly, if you want to own your own set, you’ll need somewhere to store it properly. Mahjong tiles need to be properly stored in order to be properly maintained, so make sure to set aside enough space for them. Even with just the standard 144 tile set, it’s going to take up a lot of space. How many tiles in a Mahjong set won’t matter—they’re all big sets with at least this many tiles.

The other question is portability. Mahjong is something which is very often played in the open air, and so someone has to bring a set along. Again, if you want to have your own set to take around with you, this is something to keep in mind. How many tiles will affect this. With larger sets, like the American set, carrying them becomes a somewhat bigger task. Generally, though, how many tiles in a Mahjong set won’t have too much impact and the carrying cases are very convenient.

Conclusion

How many tiles in a Mahjong set, then, is not always a completely cut and dry question. In general, we can say that the most common set of tiles is the 144 typically found in the classical Mahjong rules in China. But many factors go into how many tiles in a Mahjong set.

Standard composition of a Mahjong set

The simple answer, in any case, to the question of how many tiles in a Mahjong set is 144. The vast majority of sets, even if they use different rules to those found in Chinese Mahjong, still use roughly the same set and so the answer to how many tiles in a Mahjong set does not change. Understanding the standard composition is a good way to start: you have the suited, honors, and bonus tiles.

Flexibility across cultures

Ultimately, though, one of the things that make Mahjong so great is that it is such a flexible game across many cultures. The original version has spread far and wide to many other places which have simultaneously kept the game true to its original roots while also giving it their own spin. How many tiles is influenced by all these factosr. American audiences, for instances, changed the game in a number of ways which was very easy to do with such an adaptable game. How many tiles in a Mahjong set is not necessarily always the most important question; just what the rules are.

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