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Reasons I love riichi mahjong

Shortly after the COVID shutdowns hit my city, Nintendo released a game on Switch called Clubhouse Games. It's wonderful and I love being able to play table-top games from around the world. But the one that struck me most was riichi mahjong. I knew nothing about it but I had a strange desire to learn. It stuck its claws into me and I've been loving it ever since (even though I've seemingly plateaued at a not-high level).

There are a lot of reasons why I've fallen for riichi...

Reasons I love riichi mahjong

    1. It challenges me

    Riichi is considered to be one of the hardest variants of mahjong. And while I know how to play a few others, I spend the most time on riichi--by far. It's difficult, but never in a way that feels inherently unfair.

    2. You need to think about both offense and defense

    In a lot of games--both other forms of mahjong and card games--the winner of the hand is the one that gets all/most of the points. That's not unique to riichi. What is different from most games is that the winner gets his points from the person who discards the winning tile. So in any given hand, you may be forced to quickly switch from "win the hand" to "don't lose the hand".

    3. Calling an audible is essential

    To win a hand in riichi, the tiles in your hand need to make up one of the many layouts that are essentially win conditions. I find that most of the time, I have a rough idea what I plan to do when the hand starts. But by the time I'm done, I either changed my plan entirely, or I realized that I had little chance to win and I played to avoid a loss. Either way, you need to think on your feet.

    4. It's really hard to play well while focusing on other things

    It's one of the few games I play where I need to pay attention. If I'm distracted by TV, news, or chatting with friends, I'm going to make some really bad calls.

    5. Much of the game is about risk/reward

    You not only win points from winning a hand, but the build of your winning hand determines how many points you win. Sometimes, it may be smart to win quickly and get out of a hand with barely any earnings. Other times, you may need to discard something that will likely be picked up, and you take that risk if you think you can win with a more valuable hand. Honestly, I don't think I take enough risks in riichi.

    6. The "click" factor

    With so many rules, it can take a while to really understand what's happening in a game of riichi, but one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in a game was realizing that everything started to click and I got a lot more confident in my play.

    7. Quantity and quality both matter

    One of my favorite things to try to do when I get the lead is to continuously win hands as fast as possible, even if they don't get me a lot of points. And while that's a valid strategy, it's not always a good one--winning a hand can be difficult. Sometimes, it's better to risk it all and go for one huge hand that could win you the game in one round. Either way, sometimes quantity of wins helps more than quality. You gotta find that balance.

    8. There are a LOT of ways to play online

    Riichi, despite not being the most popular mahjong variant in the world, has a lot of places to play online. Now, at least a couple of them depict scantily clad anime women (despite those services having a great setup), but that doesn't take away from the fact that there are a lot of options. Of course, that means that there isn't one decisive option.

    9. Luck DOES matter

    Similar to a game like poker, great players will win consistently, despite crappy luck. Knowing how to navigate around bad luck is a vital skill in the game, however.

    10. Games aren't too long

    Most mahjong clients will have two game lengths, one being about half the time of the other. And I suppose it's theoretically possible for a game to last forever. But from my experience, most games don't last too much longer than you'd expect it to.

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