A Mouse’s Donkey

While a work trip, I’m hardly going to talk about the work aspects here.  I could rant and rave about shopping, but that seems out of place, as well.

So, after being too tired on Tuesday to go gaming (a last minute decision after I RSVPed the MeetUp) and generally not adjusting to the time difference (trip was to a little hamlet called Shanghai), I was presented with the idea of playing mahjong Thursday night.  We got four players together from work, organized by the BP manager, and hit the second story mahjong parlor, well, room with a mechanized table.

Like this, only not exactly.

Like this, only not exactly.

It was my first time using a mechanized table, and I just find them amazing in how efficiently they work.  It does mean that there’s little reason to own your own sets – sets are damn heavy.  I was gifted one and it made my suitcase noticeably heavier.

I really need to get one of these tables.  Well, in theory, more than one to reside at multiple domiciles.  I’m still unclear on how they precisely work, but I can look that up.

On the walk over to the place, we talked about how there are numerous variants of the game, such that people have to discuss what rules (and scoring) they are playing.  One of my coworkers started describing the Shanghainese style of only winning with all one suit or all pungs, and I mentioned having played that style, before (want to guess where the banner picture for this blog comes from?).

We started with my teaching my family’s style of play, with its rather convoluted scoring system (for modern play).  Note that I speak of similar things in this post – Old Time Fan.

In trying to find someone online explain the rules for the other style we played, I came across this website – http://mahjongbritishrules.com/scoring/overview.html

Ignoring the special hands and some of the special bonus rules, this is basically how my family does scoring (though we do more rounding and are inconsistent about what base we use).  I didn’t see whether the British count nonwinning hands, but my family does.  So, for instance, I won the first hand sitting North and East scored way more points because she had her own flower, dragons, and I think East because I know her score for a nonwinning hand was 480.

http://mahjongbritishrules.com/scoring/examplehands.html has some examples that I can see.

Do I think my family’s style is a better one?

Because we don’t make discarder pay for everyone, except under specific conditions, generally when someone threatens a maximum hand or all one suit pure, our style is very aggressive.  There’s rarely an incentive to reduce your chances of winning to stop someone else from doing so.  And, I’m really not a fan of flowers and their randomizing effect, though this is an issue with a ton of variations.  Also, I think all pungs, which is often really hard (well, more so really randomly based upon having a lot of unrelated pairs in your hand early on), should be worth two fans and not one.

Change to where only the discarder pays, and I’m … not sure.  It might throw things off a bit too much.  I wouldn’t want too defensive a game.

After we played through a full set of prevailing winds, we switched styles.  I did win about 40% of the hands playing the first style.  It’s hard to benchmark anything, but I’ve always held my own playing mahjong, except when I got bored or “gambly” and started not playing optimally to win.

So, the next style.  I haven’t found a description, yet, online.  One of the group said he thought it was the most commonly played variant in China.  Okay, if so, that’s cool.  Definitely not like any Cantonese or Hong Kong style I’ve been around.

Scoring is based upon:  2 points for winning; 2 points for each flower; dragons are flowers, so they are *not* part of your hand; no flowers means 40 or 80 points; kongs are worth 2 points; winds pungs are 2 points, kongs 4; certain things double your score, like not having any melds in play before you win and picking the winning tile from the flower garden; discarder pays; you must signify when you are calling and you cannot change your hand (just play out more flowers) nor decide not to win (though why you would decide not to win is unclear when you can’t change your hand).

What do I think?

I think the scoring system undermines the flavor in mahjong.  It makes suits meaningless.  All one suit is no different than not all one suit.  I think the inability to change your hand has some interesting tactical decisions but is generally suboptimal, as it means you can’t play defensively nor improve your hand.  On the other hand, because discarder pays, you can decide to give up on hands and just not be the one to pay, which I think makes for a more cerebral and less luck-based game.  (I know the Chinese love luck, but there are plenty of gambling games for that.)  Removing dragons from hands loses a bit of flavor, but, actually, there’s a bit too much going on with both dragons and winds in terms of luck based plays.  On the other hand, this style heavily encourages dumping any of the winds, with no wind meaning any more than any other, which makes them less interesting.

It’s fine.  I don’t mind how dragons become flowers at the point where you are playing with flowers at all.  Flowers in my family’s style are way too swingy, being either just 4 points or that plus doubling entire scores (East with a 1 in play “must not win” is rather random).

It’s certainly vastly easier to keep score.  Since we didn’t have chips, I kept point totals, and point totals for the first style were a pain to track and add up, to where I didn’t balance on first pass and just didn’t care enough to resum the numbers.  Definitely a system for using chips.

Without home style advantage, my results were somewhat different.  I won seven hands and only paid out twice.  The final spread was +156, +26, -90, -92.  In both cases, the manager came in second.  Certainly, after winning the first hand by picking the winning tile from the flower garden, I played rather defensively most of the rest of the time to sit on my massive lead.

When she and I were talking the next day, I mentioned that I had an amusing story.  Since I’m going to link this post for her, I might as well tell it here.  I’ve alluded to it, but I don’t think I went into much detail.

I taught some friends how to play (and/or how to play my family’s style).  One of those friends happens to be a former Magic: The Gathering World Champion … because this just makes everything funnier to me.  We were sitting across from each other.  At one point, he agonized what to discard.  I suggested the four of … circles, maybe it was bamboo as I figured he could have either four (he had both).  Not only did that psyche him out, but he discarded something else and would have won the hand (probably, discards might have been different) if he discarded what I suggested.  (Instead, I won that hand.)  So, he pointed out that not only did I know what was in his hand, but I told him how to win the hand without actually seeing any of his tiles (I’m pretty sure he had no exposed melds, and it wasn’t very late in the hand).

So, yes, you can be psychic in every game with hidden information.  You can also study people’s discard patterns in such a way as to craft what they have in hand and what is more likely to be relevant to them.  You can also study people’s tells, but I find that boring and invasive, which is why I will always suck at f2f poker.

Sure, mahjong is better when played for money, even tiny amounts, because you become invested in what happens.  But, this was just immensely enjoyable.  The milieu was somewhat interesting, being not remotely a den of iniquity but also not being three-star hotel.

The BP team has been really nice to me on my three visits this year.  The old teams, from my 2007-2008 trips were also really nice (it was huge that one of them was a gamer).  My coworkers really got me through stays, providing opportunities to do fun and interesting things (there are three places in the world I’ve picked strawberries, outside Shanghai would be one – this is not a euphemism in case it crossed your pervy mind).  I keep wanting to thank the current team, but, especially, the team’s manager, who has really helped me out a lot with logistics and with non-work activities.

As for the title, well, sometimes, I do give a mouse’s donkey about things.


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