~by Jenn Barr
I get together with a group of people to play boardgames at least once a week. One night someone taught us a simplified version of Mahjong and I was smitten. So, I took it upon myself to learn the full game. For a variety of reasons, I decided I wanted to study Riichi (which is pronounced very closely to the English word "reach"). Riichi is the most common form of Mahjong played in Japan today and it is steadily gaining popularity worldwide. Currently, there is only one book devoted to Riichi available in English, Reach Mahjong: The Only Way to Play by Jenn Barr, the first American to be accepted into the Japan Professional Mahjong League. Published in August 2009, Reach Mahjong is the first of what I hope will be many books on Riichi in English.
Reach Mahjong is divided into three main sections--"How to Play," "Variations," and "Strategy"--with an additional section for appendices and resources. Part I, "How to Play," covers the basics of the game, including the materials necessary to play Mahjong (and what is optional), and how to properly set up the game and table. Probably most important for a beginner is the subsection called "Winner!" which describes the hands allowed in Riichi as well as commonly used house hands. Just as important is the "Count 'em Up" subsection which is devoted to the scoring system--one of the more difficult aspects of the game for a new player. Part II, "Variations," focuses on just that, variations of the basic game, including the additions of lucky tiles and yakitori markers, playing for money, two-player rules, and three different versions of a three-player game. Part III, "Strategy," covers strategy, with special thought given to new players. Instruction is given on how to play your hand, how to read the table and discards, and how to respond to other players' tactics and decisions. Part IV, "Appendices" consists of an extremely useful glossary, the answers to the quizzes found throughout the book, a section covering guidelines for proper etiquette, and a small selection of resources.
One thing that surprised me about Reach Mahjong was how informal it's tone was. Jenn's writing is very approachable and has a good dose of humor added. Her enthusiasm for the game is readily apparent. It's somewhat surprising how good a read what basically amounts to a rulebook can be. I came to the book already having a basic understanding of the game, but I think that Reach Mahjong would make a pretty decent introduction for a newcomer. Any confusion that might arise is easily dispelled by using the very comprehensive glossary (which also includes the equivalent Japanese terms). The many quizzes provided as a part of the rules, scoring, and strategy instruction are exceedingly useful in cementing and testing what has (hopefully) been learned.
Overall, I think Reach Mahjong is a success, though it does have some problems--the most major issue being the publishing errors found in the first printing. Hopefully, the affected sections will be revised for subsequent printings, but in the meantime corrections can be found here at the Reach Mahjong website (which also happens to be a great resource for English speaking Riichi fans). I'm also not entirely sold on some of the choices made for the English terminology. Most of the hand and discard examples are beautifully illustrated in full color, but some of the other images are a little less clear. And, unfortunately, the formatting occasionally requires pages to be flipped back and forth when the text is referring to an example that appears on a different page, but this is really more annoying and inconvenient than anything else. Other issues are handled exceptionally well. Jenn makes sure to point out which elements make Riichi distinctive and which elements are similar to other forms of Mahjong. Also, the slight rule variations used for the European Mahjong Association Riichi Competitions Rules are always indicated. In conjunction with the website, Reach Mahjong makes a fantastic Riichi resource for beginners while still offering plenty of value for more experienced players. I can't wait for more material on Riichi to be published in English, but Reach Mahjong is a great place to start. May the tiles be with you!