From Zero to Mahjong Heroes

31/12/2018

In recent months, G-Research has grown a fledgling Mahjong group from nothing to one of the largest groups in Europe. This post will cover what we’ve achieved, how we’ve achieved it and where we’re going now.

What Is Mahjong Anyway?

Firstly I should point out that the Mahjong we discuss here is not the solitaire-like tile matching game you’ve likely played on the computer. That is Mahjong solitaire which just so happens to be played with the same tiles.

Mahjong as a whole is a game that originated from China hundreds of years ago, so it’s been around for a while. Over the years, the game has spread around the world and diverged quite significantly. There are now many versions of Mahjong with many different rule sets but all share the basic game structure. A ten-minute chat and a reference chart is often enough to play a new variant.

A Whistle-stop Tour of Mahjong

Mahjong is a four-player tile based game, a little like a more involved version of Rummy. You have 3 main suits, bamboo, pins and numbers, as well as two of some special groups that do not participate in the same way. Your approximate aim in any version of Mahjong is to build a valid hand which most frequently means 4 “triplets” and a pair. In this case, a “triplet” means either three of a kind or a sequence e.g. 4, 5, 6 all in the same suit.

It has a reputation for being very complex but, while there’s a lot of subtleties, it’s easy to get playing and there’s no need to learn everything to start.

During the game, your hand is 13 tiles and on your turn you must draw, check if you’ve won and, if not, discard a tile back down to 13 tiles total. It is not sufficient to merely have a valid hand – you must have some kind of cool or interesting thing in your hand. These components, called yaku are predominantly what determine your score. A few examples include: having a triplet of dragons; having the same sequence twice; having a hand made up only of green tiles. The list goes on.

Different versions of the game use slightly different sets of tiles. Riichi Mahjong, which is the Japanese variant that we mostly play here at G-Research, uses 136 tiles. Most common Chinese variants use 144 and involve the addition of season and flower tiles and there are many more besides. They also have different sets of yaku to aim for – MCR, for example, has ~80 ways of scoring whilst EMA Riichi has only ~40.

Riichi Mahjong has some interesting extra rules which dramatically change gameplay, with the main rule being that a player can call “Riichi” and bet 1000 points that they will win. This locks their hand and announces to the table that they only need a single tile to win. There’s a fair amount to the strategy of this but that’s not relevant for this post.

By adding this rule, players now know to be wary and have some clues about what may or may not be dangerous. This adds a whole extra level of strategy to the game by introducing more tactical options to players when balancing attack and defence. Perhaps because of this, Riichi is also somewhat simpler in other aspects. In MCR, people try to move quickly and stack up points quickly. In Riichi, it’s trickier to get such large multipliers so it is a more sedate game.

Mahjong’s scoring system is interesting in that it is 0-sum. This means that each player starts with a float and in each hand the first person to construct a valid hand wins and some or all of the others at the table must pay thus keeping the total value of points neutral. When someone announces they’ve won. The system is also roughly exponential meaning there is much value in pushing for an extra yaku in your hand.

I won’t go into any more of the rules here as there are quite a few, and a lot of caveats. However, you do not need to know all the rules to get playing or to get excited about our journey. But if you are interested, G-Research are planning on running sessions and you will be more than welcome to come and learn with us. On average, we have people playing in under 5 minutes and, whilst it will take some time to get through all the rules, do not be scared off by its reputation. Gentle introduction and good company means learning the game is always an enjoyable process.

Historically in Asia, Mahjong has been a gambling game, however, as it has evolved and spread around the world a key choice has been the refusal to play for money. So, by only playing for bragging rights and trophies we end up with a far more generally welcoming community– it’s simply a social game played for fun.

One of the really nice features of Mahjong is that, due to the set-up phase being relatively long between hands, there is social time built into the game giving it a nice cadence and a very friendly atmosphere. If we were still in the dark old days of shady back rooms, those periods would be tense charged things and would take away a lot of the appeal of the game.

The State of UK Mahjong

Mahjong is a fairly popular game in its many variants. In terms of tournaments and community, Riichi is probably the leading variant at the moment, however, as an MCR tournament earlier this year proved, there is interest from many quarters. The great thing about Mahjong is that, while the variants are different, it’s quite easy to swap between them and we frequently find people knowing other variants playing in multiple groups.

In the last few years, the popularity of the game has been surging, with over 5000 people on LinkedIn in London alone with Mahjong listed as an interest. Very few players of my acquaintance have this on their LinkedIn so the number is likely far greater.
Most people are introduced to the game either by a family member or at University. Mahjong is shown in a number of Japanese manga and anime and so there is a degree of overlap between these societies.

Each year, more and more people are turning out for meetups, tournaments and other events. While Mahjong can be played online, it’s far more fun in person, it’s a great way to socialise and so there’s a lot of desire for these meetups. However due to difficulties in finding locations, few exist and they run infrequently.

The Advent of the G-Research Mahjong Marauders

There are many communities on places like Facebook and Meetup which meet a few times a month for games. I was invited to attend JanKenRon run by Gemma Sakamoto however, this group lost its central London location – I, therefore, had the basics but did not have a regular group to play with.

When two people from JanKenRon joined G-Research I realised we only needed one more to have a group at work. With G-Research being a fairly sizable company I knew we could source an extra player. I asked around and it wasn’t before long that we had a group with two experienced players and two relative beginners.

G-Research is a fairly large company so I decided to ask more widely. The response was surprising – at the time of writing, we have around 30 members in our internal Mahjong chatroom. 30! In one company!

One thing I had noticed while in the community is that, at least in the Riichi circle, a very high proportion of the players tend to be from mathematical, statistical or computing backgrounds. G-Research is full of characters like these so maybe it’s not so surprising. While 30 is a good number, there are even more people with at least a passing interest in the game.

The company has a games evening with free food laid on every other week but I didn’t want to eat into people playing the more one-off games so, armed with this number I asked G-Research if I could run a Mahjong specific games evening. They said yes and our first ever event managed to attract three tables of new players.

Thus were born the Mahjong Marauders.

 

The Evolution of the Group

We’ve done after-work sessions a few more times and have always had a good turnout, most recently ending up with 4 tables just from inside our company!

In the chat room, we organise more casual play. There is now at least one game almost every day. If you’re a Mahjong player, this is a dream. Daily play is rare to find and with a range of players, it’s even better.

We have enough players that there is an interest in looking into other versions too. One player wants to get an MCR group together and we’ve played RCR and Washizu Mahjong a few times which is a special rule-set based on a manga with ¾ of the tiles being transparent so that others can see most of your hand.

We have also run a few sessions at a local restaurant with a Mahjong Auto-table and have full games for the more advanced players most Thursdays at another restaurant close to the office with some external people as well.

I feel like part of the reason we’ve been so successful at growing this group is that the rules for Riichi specify that it is the responsibility of everyone at the table to make sure hands are scored maximally. This means that as a new player you often find that your winning hand is far more valuable than you realised and it results in a really friendly, welcoming environment that is great for newcomers.

G-Research: Mahjong Sponsor?

As the popularity of the group grew, we found ourselves without sufficient sets and with only a single mat. So we went to G-Research again and asked if we could get some company equipment. With such a large internal group we’d need a fair few.

A few weeks prior, one of the players had said that if he’d known we had a Mahjong group he’d have accepted our offer far earlier. When choosing between jobs, it’s often the set of perks that make the decision – what will the office, the people, and indeed the lifestyle be like? For an eager player, a Mahjong group of this size is a fairly good draw.

At the time, one of the ranked UK tournament organisers was asking around to see if he could obtain sets for his tournament. He needed 10 sets and 10 mats for a 40 player tournament so I suggested that maybe the company could get 10 and lend them out. That way we could help out the community, get our name out there a bit and we’d be in a good position to run our own tournament.

G-Research, like many companies, likes to have some unique selling points to help attract new talent. They looked at the idea and quickly agreed thinking that it would add another string to the employee retention bow as well as potentially attracting other Mahjong players, especially with so many players being people perfect for the company this really is a win-win situation.

It turns out buying ten sets of tournament standard equipment is pretty expensive so I found myself fairly surprised that this company was so willing to back us to such a degree. Their support and degree of involvement for just some employee pastime has really been fantastic and I can’t thank those involved enough.

The tournament happened a few weeks ago and was a rousing success. We branded up the sets and indeed it seems like people are interested.
If you are planning on running a Mahjong event and need some kit we will likely be willing to lend our sets and mats so do get in contact.

2019 and Beyond

As we approach the end of the year, it’s good to think about where we’re going next. As part of this journey, we’ve ended up being helped and advised by the UKMA, EMA, various friends and family and other members of the community.

After our success in 2018, we’re hoping to start running our own league next year that will be open to everyone. We’re planning to have one tournament per quarter with some trophies for bragging rights. Once our new ground floor opens up next year, G-Research is planning on allowing us to use the central London space to start running regular casual play sessions at weekends.

If we can keep up the momentum in 2019 G-Research we will be purchasing at least one auto-table for us to use and for various tournament uses.

As we’ve started talking to the UKMA and EMA about this, we’ve been invited to table a bid to host future EMA ranked tournaments in the UK. There are only three each year and they attract players from all over the world and, should this go well, we even have aspirations to host the world tournament in a few years.

Special shout outs go to Gemma Sakamoto, Michael Donaghy, Max Bowsher, Benjamin Savoy, Andrew Smith, Max Blake, Rebecca Ariyo, Mark Haines and Devina Steck for all your help and advice this year and of course to G-Research for backing this movement.

Summary

G-Research is backing the London, and indeed the UK, Mahjong community in a big way and we really hope to see some of you next year and get you playing with us, be it for tournaments or just casual play.

If you are interested in joining a large group of very smart people, solving interesting problems, having fun, and playing a lot of Mahjong then you should consider applying to work for G-Research. We have a great time here, the company is very supportive of crazy ideas, as this article proves, and we’re always looking for new players. You can email the G-Research Mahjong team if you have any questions or just want to have a chat: mahjong@gresearch.co.uk

Even if you aren’t interested, come along to some of our events and help spread Mahjong to a wider audience than ever!

Dexter Lowe – Software Engineer

Watch the video from our recent Mahjong tournament here.

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