The Mahjong Set can have anything between 136 and 166 tiles depending on which country it is from and which set of rules of the game it is intended for.
Mahjong sets are usually made of plastic these days, but they were originally made from bone and bamboo. The fronts were bone and the backs were bamboo.
In the early 20th century, the demand for Mahjong sets in America was so great that the manufacturers in China did not have enough bone - bones from cows make the best sets and cows were not common in China. American businesses sent bones from the slaughterhouses in America to China to be made into Mahjong sets and shipped back to America.
Very occasionally, they were made from ivory rather than bone. There are ways of telling ivory from bone. If you think you have a really old set that is made of ivory and therefore is worth a lot, consult online guides very carefully. It is probably just bone.
Mahjong tiles tend to be bigger in China and smaller in America. In recent years, enormous tiles have become very popular in China: 3.5cm high (one inch and three eights).
The Standard 136
The basic set of 136 tiles is common to all versions of Mahjong, but there can be small differences in the way the tiles are drawn. The 136 consist of 4 identical copies each of 34 different tiles:
1-9 of bamboo. The 1 Bamboo usually has a bird on it. The others have 2 bamboos, 3 bamboos etc up as far as 9 bamboos.
1-9 of coins, with 1 coin, 2 coins etc. These are sometimes called "stones".
1-9 of character - with a Chinese character which represents wealth, normally in red, and a Chinese number from 1 to 9, in a dark colour
Red tile - the Chinese character for 'middle' in red. This tile is known as a 'red dragon' in English.
White tile - a plain white tile with a frame drawn on it. Known as as a 'white dragon' in English.
Green tile - a complex Chinese character in green. This tile is known as a 'green dragon' in English.
Four winds - characters representing East, South, West and North, normally in black ink.
Regional Variations of the Standard 136
Chinese tiles are often very colourful, with three or even four different colours (Red, Black, Green and Dark Blue). Japanese tile sets, on the other hand, are often more austere-looking, sometimes having only three or even only two colours.
Tiles for Western use will have western digits ('Arabic') and letters ('Roman') on them as well as the Chinese characters:
- The 'Character' tiles will have a number 1, 2, 3 etc on them as well as the Chinese numbers.
- The other suits - stone and bamboo may also have numbers on them
- The winds will have 'E', 'S', 'W' or 'N' as well as the Chinese character.
- The red, green and white dragons may have C, F and P on them. These stand for the Chinese names of these tiles (Chung, Fat and Pai).
The White Dragon tile normally has a rectangle on it, but in Japan it is completely blank. Japanese sets nearly always have a different colour on the back, so you never have a tile that is completely white on both sides. (Such a tile could cause confusion as the player turns over the tile, then thinks they haven't turned it over and does it again, revealing to everyone that it is a white dragon.)
Some American sets have a picture of a red dragon and a green dragon rather than the Chinese characters on the tiles known in English as dragons.
Standard Chinese sets: 8 extra tiles with flowers on them. Each one of these is unique - there are not four identical copies of them. The flowers are divided into two groups of four, and may be coloured to make the groups easily distinguishable. Four of these flowers are known as 'seasons' because they represent particular seasons.
Singapore/Malaysian sets seem to have an extra 28 tiles:
- 16 unique 'flowers' divided into four groups of 4. Each group is numbered from 1 to 4. The pictures on two of these groups are bizarre - they don't appear to be flowers.
- 4 identical tiles with a red Chinese symbol known as 'fly'
- 4 identical tiles with a clown head
- 4 tiles divided into predator/prey couples. These may be animals: for example, cat + rat, cock + centipede, or may be people: fisherman + fish, rich man + pot of gold.
Japanese sets have 8 extra tiles. Four are flowers and appear to be rarely used in the game. The other four are replicas of tiles in the standard 136, but coloured using only red ink. These normally include 5 Bamboo, 5 Character and 5 Coins. In one variant of the game, these 'red fives' can be added to the set and the corresponding normally coloured tiles removed so that the total number of tiles stays the same. Pungs or chows with red fives score extra.
American Mah-jongg has 26 extra tiles - 16 flowers in four sets of four, and 10 identical joker tiles. Some sets may also have plain white tiles - these are spares for when you lose a tile. The picture from the missing tile can be inked onto a blank tile.
Racks: American sets normally use flat tiles, so they need to be placed in a wooden tile rack similar to the racks used in Scrabble. Chinese 'tiles' are very thick and are more like small bricks. They are normally stood on their end directly on the playing table; no racks are used. Singapore tiles appear to be even thicker than in China.
Scoring cards: American Mah-jongg only accepts certain hands as winning hands. These are printed on a score card which is given to each player. The score cards are produced by a national organisation and new ones come out each year. This is very different from other types of mahjong, where the list of winning hands never changes and can include very simple hands.
Wind Indicator: this is some sort of a device to indicate which Wind is the primary wind in the current game and which player is East. It can be as simple as a letter E, N, S or W placed beside the player who is east. It may also be a special cube with the winds printed on four of its faces, placed in a special holder.
Dice: a pair of dice is used to determine where to start dealing tiles from the wall. This is just an extra randomisation process for the wall.
Scoring Sticks: scoring in Mahjong can be done with a pen and paper, but many people prefer to use scoring sticks. These are similar to poker chips. There are usually four types of stick, each representing a different amount of money. At the start of the games sticks to the value of 1000 monetary units are handed out to each player, and payments at the end of each round are done using the sticks. It's completely arbitrary what values are assigned to each type of stick.
Scoring coins: American sets often use small plastic 'coins' instead of sticks for scoring. These may have a hole in the middle, in which case there are usually spikes on the end of the tile racks for stacking the coins on.
Automatic Mahjong table: this shuffles and deals the tiles. At the start of the round, the tiles rise up from underneath in front of each player so that their wall is already built. (This assumes the normal Chinese arrangement of four separate, straight walls rather than one continuous one.) At the end of the game, the players push the tiles into a central hole in the table and they are re-shuffled. (Most tables use two sets of tiles and are busy shuffling one inside the table while the other set is being used for play.)