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In which we learn about Game Design by playing Mah Jongg with Little Ol' Ladies...

I'm a gamer. I game. It's what I do.

I prefer RPGs, LARP or tabletop, even online gaming, but with real people playing real characters. I love casual board and card games, silly things that let you stab your buddy in the back while laughing together. Resource building strategy games? I'm so there!

I have my preferences, but like other addicts, when those aren't available, I'll take just about any source to get my fix.

Impromptu hallway rummy game at a con? Sure, I'm in. Playtesting something that's barely put together for a friend? Hit me. I can take it. Pokemon, Flatcrack (aka Magic: The Gathering) or Yugi-oh? Lend me a deck, and I'll do my best to hold my own. Heck, in a pinch, I'll play Candyland with the preschoolers (and I'm not talking those cool Smirk-and-Dagger remakes, I'm talking old-school Gumdrop Mountain and Gramma Nutt stuff here. I just love games.

Now, I live in a remote area of rural Southeaster Arizona. (We joked during the last presidential election that I was qualified to run for Vice President on an International Relations platform, because I could see Mexico from my house.) And sometimes gaming can be pretty hard to come by out here. In fact, where I once played LARP several nights a week, every week, had a regular tabletop session or invited folks over for dinner and games at least once a month, now my most frequent game event is my weekly mah jongg game with ladies who are my parent's age or older. We get together every Tuesday morning, snacks and change-purses in hand, and for several hours, our world is populated with dragons and flowers, soap and winds, and of course, the highly coveted jokers.

Now, playing a four-hundred year old gambling game with great-grandmothers might seem to be about as far from the modern RPG industry as you can get and still claim to be "gaming" but after a year or so of playing with these ladies, I realized that these sessions have taught me a lot about game design and play.

Learning Games Makes You Better At Learning Games - When I was first invited over to play mah jongg (or "mahj" as the ladies call it), they warned me that it was kind of a complicated game, and that it might take me a couple of sessions to really understand it.  To their amazement, I was playing actively (not necessarily winning, but understanding the basic elements and using simple strategy) in a hand or two. By the end of the first session, I was not only understanding the rules but asking for clarifications on the more advanced aspects of the game that some of the ladies who had been playing for months or years hadn't thought to question. The version of mahj we play is the "American Mah Jongg League" version, which uses cards that are published each April by the AMJLA. And, to be honest, while learning to read the cards (which list potential winning hands) can be challenging, the rules aren't that complicated, in my opinion. They're certainly easier than many Euro-games I've played, or the several-volumes that some RPGs require folks to understand before playing.

But I don't think it was just my experience with playing more complicated games that let me learn mahj faster than my partners expected. It was that I had experience in learning how to play games. I didn't feel it necessary to memorize the rules in order, or to try to understand everything 100% before I started playing. I let them handle some of the minutia: when we passed tiles, how many and which direction; how much each winning hand was worth; what order we drew new tiles in.

What I really needed to learn was pretty simple.

  • What did I need to do to win? What was the goal? (The winning hands are delineated on the cards.)
  • What was the flow of game play like? (In this case: draw then discard, taking turns counter-clockwise.)
  • When could I interrupt the flow of game play? (In mahj, if you need a tile that has been discarded and you can put it into play, you can "call" for that tile immediately upon it being discarded, even if it isn't your turn next.)
  • What restrictions were there on winning? (Certain winning hands required that you hadn't "called" for any tiles, but rather than you constructed the hand solely through your own draws.)
  • What invalidated the other basic rules? (Jokers can't be used in a single or pair "set". You can't "call" for a pair, other than to complete the final tile of a winning hand.) 

While rules vary wildly, these are the basic things you need to know to play any game. And you can learn to play any game faster (at least on a basic level) if you focus on learning these particular things, rather than every minute possible rule contingency that may or may not arise in any given game session. By learning /how/ to learn a game, you can learn games much faster than those who haven't learned how to learn.

The same rule applies for teaching games to others as well. Good game teachers (and designers) know when to present the basic rules, how to run a sample game, and when to add in the little nit-picky rules that may be important to the game but don't really affect learning /how/ to play.

Rules Shouldn't Reward Poor Sportsmanship - In mahj, it's possible that your hand becomes "dead". That is to say, due to there only being around 50 winning hands, it's possible that at some point in a particular game, you discover that you've committed yourself to a certain hand, but the tiles you'd need to complete it have already been discarded and are out of play.

One of the house rules I questioned when we started playing was that if you realize you've got a dead hand, you're supposed to say so, and sit out the rest of that game (but still pay the winner at the end). My problem with this was that those who were honest (and admitted they had a dead hand) were penalized, while those who either hadn't noticed their hand was dead - or didn't admit their hand was dead - got to continue playing. And, since a player with a dead hand could theoretically stop another player from winning (by drawing and not discarding vital tiles), it felt like the house rule was rewarding poor sportsmanship (or inattention) while penalizing honesty and attentiveness. It took a pretty extensive conversation with the other players before they realized my point (and yes, I had noticed that one or two of the more sly players did tend to "not notice" that their hands were dead, so they were taking advantage of the loop hole in the rule.)

Rules, whether they're canon rules for the game or house rules, should encourage and reward honesty and attention to the game. Unless they're intentionally designed to promote good-natured "cheating", such as in the case of the hand-size rule in Munchkin, rules shouldn't reward poor sportsmanship: arguing, lying, cheating or the like.

Details Count - When writing rules, clarity counts, as do grammar and punctuation. On the mah jongg rules cards, there are several places where winning hands are detailed, the inclusion or placement of a comma makes a drastic difference in how difficult a win is to achieve. We discussed how to interpret these rules extensively, and at times our conversations about what the rules meant sounded more like an English course than a game session. Ideally, rules should be simple to learn and remember and difficult to misunderstand or misinterpret. Many groups use some form of house rules for most games they play, but even those should be understood to be the same by all the players involved. When winning or losing is at stake, it's important that everyone understands exactly what the rules mean and how they should be interpreted.







My parents used to play mah jongg with my aunt and uncle when we went up to visit them in Davenport. Because of that, it's a game I've always been fascinated with, but by the time I got old enough to play, they had stopped playing it.

I still kind of want to learn how, and your posts about it keep that desire alive. So, thank you for sharing it. :)
That sounds like so much fun! The closest I've ever gotten to playing mah jongg has been that silly solitaire version on the computer.

Every once in awhile I go online and lust after the shiny carved tile sets in their mahogany boxes and sigh. (;