At last there is a way to play Mah-Jong online with others using British rules…† . The reason is that this new game app, Mahjong Friends Online (MFO), “lets you play any style of Mahjong with your friends”.
† … and perhaps some relief from the constraints Covid has put on our game
Having tried the earlier beta versions for almost two months now (and although I must confess to only playing by BMJA rules), this seems to me to be a reasonable claim. So what makes it different to the other online game apps out there?
The first point to make is that MFO only allows actual people who know each other to play. There are no strangers – and no bots!
Secondly, instead of expecting you to follow (or choose) one particular set of rules, it just provides you with four walls of Mah-Jong tiles and then lets you play. It will deal the tiles for you, but after that you just move tiles around as you wish (within the normal limitations of Mah-Jong play).
The game is very well explained and easily learnt. I think it works very well and can thoroughly recommend trying it out. It is now in pre-release testing and will be free to use until 1st June 2021.
If you have a laptop or desktop computer, MFO will start in your browser window without any installation. Android devices can download the app from Google Play Store. Apple devices like iPads and iPhones (running iOS) will, however, need to download Apple’s TestFlight beta testing app as well as the MFO app. TestFlight will only work on iOS 8.0 and above, so if you have (say) an older iPad you will have to wait until MFO has been fully released (and no longer in beta testing) before you can use it.
Giving feedback and dealing with problems
The software seems very robust, but the developers are still looking to make improvements. So if you have any comments, questions or suggestions then they would welcome some feedback. . Click here to go to the feedback page
If you encounter a problem then you can also report this on the feedback form. It would help if you could give as much detail as possible about the circumstances that led to it.
Sometimes you may find that one of the players gets disconnected. This is unlikely to be a software problem and you can deal with it as explained below (see: “Dealing with interrupted play using Restore”).
Should you get into a situation where you can’t get rid of a problem (and Restore doesn’t work), it’s best if all players come out of MFO altogether (close down any tablet/smartphone apps) then start another game afresh. Make a note of your scores before you do so. You can then re-instate them by paying others before you resume.
If you are using a tablet or smartphone a MFO session can run down your device battery, so it is worth charging it fully before you start.
The following may help you get started…
Playing using British rules
First of all work out how you are going to communicate with your friends (see the advice below) and decide who is going to lead you into the new game.
You can then enter your name (it can be just your first name), but then wait for the leader to initiate the game.
Before you create a new game, adjust the settings to conform with British rules.
- Click on the settings icon to the right of the screen.
- Set the following ON: Dragons & Winds, Flowers & Season, Index Hints.
- Set the following OFF: Animals, Jokers (these are not the jokers we sometimes use), Red Fives, Rotated Tiles.
- Set Initial score to (I suggest) 4,000.
- Set “Nobody” Players OFF . (It only affects the 2 and 3 player games)
- Click on the “Back” button at the bottom of the screen.
- Click on “Create New Game”.
Wait for all the other players to join the game before starting the game.
The settings will then be saved for future sessions.
Enter the game code number given you by the leader.
Help whilst playing
Once you are shown the board with the four Mah-Jong walls, you can find some helpful information about how to play MFO by clicking on “Game” then “Help“. To return to the board click on “Back” (bottom left).
The player who designated to be East Wind is indicated by the position of the dice. They are to his/her left. Note that the four Wind symbols at the centre of the table correspond with this, as does the Prevailing Wind indicator at the centre.
Initially players are organised alphabetically around the table (in a counter clockwise fashion) – for example Ann (East), Bill (South), Clare (West), David (North). For the moment ignore any discrepancies between seating positions (physical, if you are a couple, or showing on the Zoom, etc. screen) and the board shown by MFO.
Choose who is actually to be East Wind. I suggest each player rolls the dice to decide (just click on them without changing their position).
East Wind and the Prevailing Wind indicator
If, for example, Clare is East Wind you will probably want the Prevailing Wind indicator (E) to show this by its orientation. Moving the dice will not achieve this.
However, Clare can swap positions with Ann by moving her name across the board. It will swing around to show the change. Other players can then move themselves so that their MFO table positions correspond with perceived positions.
The Prevailing Wind Indicator will remain in this orientation for the remainder of the game. So you can then see when all players have been East Wind. Clicking on it will change it to S, W, N, E, etc.
Breaking the wall
Decide on where to break the wall as you would normally (by clicking on the dice — twice).
The player whose wall this is in then moves the two loose tiles back on top of the dead wall to show the break point. He then counts six tiles back and moves the 14 tiles away from the rest of the wall to form the kong box.
Dealing the tiles
I would suggest that East Wind then deals the tiles. Click on “Game” on the top right of the screen, then “Deal Tiles”.
Organise the tiles in your hand
You can move them around at will. Click on “Hand” then “Sort” to bring the suit tiles together.
Flower & Season tiles
Move these to the MELDS area on your left hand side. You may find the easiest way is to bring each tile back towards you until it tilts, then release it (though you can also simply move it there). “MELD” is a Mah-Jong term which would be recognised in other rules.
Taking and discarding tiles
Tiles can simply be moved from the wall to your hand and from your hand to the DISCARDS area, where they can then be seen by all the players.
Tiles can be moved around very quickly. Sometimes this doesn’t give others time to react (e.g. to call ‘pung!’), so I would suggest some caution here (particularly to start with).
Note that you are shown (on your left) the number of tiles in your hand. This is a helpful check. Once you have completed your turn, dividing this number by 3 should always leave you with 1 remainder.
Declaring pungs & kongs
Place these in the MELDS area.
If you declare a concealed kong, you can turn its end tiles facedown by clicking on them. However, an exposed kong is best shown with all tiles face up to avoid any confusion with an adjacent exposed pung. (You can’t separate the sets.)
The kong box
Putting loose tiles on the top of the kong box can sometimes be a bit tricky, so you may find it simpler to avoid doing this after the intial two tiles.
Make sure you separate the kong box from the live wall before you start playing as it can lead to later complications if you don’t.
Once someone has called Mah-Jong you can reveal your hand by clicking on “Hand” (top left) then “Reveal”.
2 Bamboos will always be the wild tiles. You cannot substitute any joker tiles.
To swap tiles click on the three you don’t want to turn them face down. Move them to the DISCARDS area of the player you are swapping with. He/she can then put them in his/her hand.
The two-player game
Make sure that “Nobody” Players (in Settings) is set to OFF. This ensures that no tiles are then dealt to these (non-exitent) players.
Move one of the players to the opposite side of the table before dealing.
You can get some playing aids – cards which you can have to hand which explain how to play. The one about special hands is particularly useful.
You may also find it helpful to use this doubling calculator when you are calculating your score. It might be easily accessed from a separate window or a smartphone.
Occasionally – when a network connection is unstable – a player may get disconnected. In most cases he/she will be re-connected automatically, but sometimes this doesn’t happen.
In this case you will need to follow this procedure:
- All players leave the unfinished game by clicking on “Game” then “Exit”
- The leader creates a new game
- The other players enter the new game code
- The leader starts the game
- DO NOT deal (or move) any tiles
- Restore the old game by clicking on “Game” then “Restore”
- NB. This cannot be done by the player who was disconnected – only by someone who clicked on “Exit”
This procedure can also be followed to restore a game that you were unable to complete in your previous session.
Before you begin you will need to decide on who is going to start the game and how you are going to communicate with your fellow players. Although the app allows you to pass text messages between players, it is best to use something like Zoom.
Zoom, of course, only allows you 40 minutes free play so it’s worth looking for an alternative. I don’t know enough to give any advice on this. MFO suggests Jitsi, though there’s also Skype, FaceTime and Google Meet to consider (and possibly some others).
There are some potential problems here which I have tried to give some help with in the detail that follows. Your solution will depend on what devices you have and how important social interaction is to you as opposed to merely playing the game.
Covid has meant a lot of Mah-Jong players have missed out on meeting their club friends so I would imagine being able to see others, as well as talk to them, would be desirable. MFO calls Zoom a “voice chat app” but it is possible – with the right devices – to also see your opponents whilst you are playing.
For convenience in what follows, I will refer just to “Zoom” – but this should be interpreted as meaning “Zoom / Jitsi / etc.”. (And please note that my experience is limited to two couples playing, using desktops and tablets – so what follows entails some conjecture.)
Three or four individuals playing
If an individual only has one device to run both MFO and Zoom then having the Zoom window in the background would allow only chatting during the game. You could then switch to the Zoom window at the end of a game for some socializing. However, if the device screen size is large enough you might prefer having the two windows alongside one another so that you could see the others all the time.
If an individual has two devices – maybe a desktop and a tablet or smartphone – then he/she would be able to see the other players (say) on the desktop and play on the smaller device. Or vice versa.
This can present some difficulties.
Couples would probably want to be together (in the same room) yet would need to have different devices to play on. If they only have two devices, each running MFO and Zoom, you can sometimes get sound feedback. The answer may then be to only have Zoom on in one device.
At the end of each game both might then turn to the Zoom window to socialize.
I would suggest that the better arrangement, if it possible, is to use three devices. Ideally this would be a desktop running the Zoom window (so that the other players could be seen during the game) and to use tablets (or maybe smartphones) to run the individual MFO sessions. This would allow the couple to sit alongside one another.
If two couples are playing this way then a simple FaceTime or Skype session would suffice.
Playing in one home
If there are three or four (or maybe, even two) people – living in the same home – who enjoy Mah-Jong , but don’t have a set, then they could use MFO to play on their tablets or smartphones. Communication then is no problem!
Playing remotely using your own set
If you find that the above doesn’t quite work for you, then you might consider my suggestion for playing remotely. This involves using your own Mah-Jong set (so that there would be one in each home).
I think it probably works best for two couples using Skype or FaceTime on their desktop or laptop to communicate, and with an appropriate playing surface for the tiles (a card table is ideal). I’ve played this way multiple times and found that it can be a very enjoyable experience.
It does actually give you a game in many ways similar the normal one. And it can, I believe, be applied to a variety of Mah-Jong rules. The obvious problem of not being able to pick up your opponents’ tiles is overcome by a number of workarounds – as is the consequences of playing with more than one set.
There are some drawbacks (for example, it’s difficult to identify the other home’s discards) but you do get to socialize with your opponents. It’s almost like visiting their home!
And it also has the advantage that you can handle and see real Mah-Jong tiles – so much part of the charm of Mah-Jong.
(It was written before I knew about Mahjong Friends Online and also before I was aware of the nature and extent of the online game scene in the US.)
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