Purchasing Guide

This article is written as a recommendation for beginners who are interested in purchasing their first set. The good thing about mahjong is that one out of the four players really needs to own a set. Meaning, if you have ever played mahjong before you have the added benefit of playing at another player's expense. Since most new sets come shrink wrapped in plastic it makes it difficult to “test drive” the tiles before purchasing. Assuming you have handled tiles before, you should have an established benchmark of what tiles should be and feel like. This should give you an idea of what you want to consider when you make that step to purchase your very own mahjong set.

What to Look For

Tiles come in many colors.
Tiles come in many colors.

One of the most obvious factors in purchasing a set is the aesthetics of the tiles. The backing of plastic tiles comes in a variety of colors and patterns. Some are solid, other transparent, glittery, or even patterned. The face of the tiles also differ. Typically in American sets the green and red dragons are often depicted as dragons as opposed to their Chinese counterparts, fat (發) and chung (中). Another example is that in Japanese sets, compared to Chinese sets, the graphics are usually bigger (less white space), there's no blue color, and the colors are often darker. So it all comes down to preference.


Do you need a set numbers? For most beginning players who are not accustomed to Chinese characters and numerals the answer is yes. If not, consider the people you will be playing with. Do they need numbers? If you have a set without numbers, to accommodate those who are unfamiliar with the numbering you can print out a simple guide as seen below.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Another variables are aesthetics and feel of the tiles. For instance, perhaps you didn’t like the size of the tiles you played with before and are looking to purchase one that is a slightly bigger. Mahjong tiles range from a variety of sizes. In general Japanese sets have smaller tile sizes than that of Chinese sets. American tiles are smaller and slightly thinner since they are used in conjunction with racks. You also have travel sets. Some of which are so small they can be unplayable.

Style of Mahjong

Depending on the style of mahjong you will be playing you may need to purchase a particular type of set. It would be a mess if you purchase a set and realized you are missing tiles! Here is a quick overview of different types of sets.

Style Tile Count Tiles
Chinese 144 136 tiles + 8 Flowers
Japanese 144 136 tiles + 4 Red Fives + 4 Flowers
Singapore 150 136 tiles + 8 Flower s + 4 Animals
American 152 136 tiles + 8 Flowers + 8 Jokers
Vietnamese 160 136 tiles + 16 Flowers + 8 Jokers

Quality & Material

Once you know what style you will be playing consider next the quality of the set. For a beginner it is not recommended you purchase a bone/bamboo tiles. They are often more expensive, smaller, and is prone to breaking or warping of course. Instead purchase a plastic set which are durable and easier to clean. Try to find one with extra blank tiles in case you lose any.

Beware of stores that market ivory-colored sets as being “ivory.” If you can’t tell the difference between bone, ivory, and plastic you aren’t equipped to take it at face value.
Most sets come with extra accessories such as dice, chips, and wind indicators. American sets may also come with racks and pushers. The case usually varies.

Where to purchase

If you don’t live in Asia finding a local retailer may be difficult. The next obvious place would be a Chinatown, Japantown, Koreantown, etc. Also try novelty stores or stores that that specialize in games.

If all else fails there’s the internet. Take into consideration that the cost to ship a set may exceed the value of the set itself, especially shipping overseas. Instead try auction sites like ebay or local postings such as craigslist.


If you seem to be short players all the time or purchasing a set is now within your budget, another alternative would be to play mahjong electronically. Consider playing online, purchasing software or video games for the console.

A cheaper alternative would be to purchase mahjong cards. Cards are cheaper and lighter albeit less durable.



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See Also

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