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Late to the Game(s): Mad about Mahjong

By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

I usually like games with a story line of some sort. It’s why most first-person shooters aren’t my cup of tea. (That and the fact that I’m really bad and get frustrated when nine-year-olds are owning me.) It’s the same reason that I’m not into other competitive online games like the MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) that are all the rage with PC gamers these days. When I played World of Warcraft – for way too many years – I only played on a PVP (player-versus-player) server because that’s where my real-world friends were playing. If I were playing it alone I would have played on a PVE (player-versus-environment) server. Probably even a role-playing PVE server, because I am that kind of nerd. 

I prefer role-playing games and, when I had the time, usually played them through multiple times, with different characters, so I could experience all the different story options. But every now and then even I need a break from the story-driven experience. When I do, I want something that’s still mentally engaging, but that I can pick up and sit down without worrying about breaking that sense of immersion. When some folks want that kind of experience, they play bubble popping games or fling surly birds at green piggies (both fun and engaging games that I’ve enjoyed myself). Tower defense games can be fun too. But what I find myself returning to, over and over again, is Mahjong. 

I hadn’t ever played Mahjong – a tile matching game that’s a sort of combination of dominoes and solitaire with the strategic DNA of chess somewhere in the mix – until I went to work for Electronic Arts. When I worked for EA they had a gaming service they’d bought from America Online called Pogo. Pogo offered a mix of games, some you could play for free and some that required a paid subscription, and largely catered to an older demographic. There, along with digital bridge tournaments and word building games was a game with these little tiles, covered in confusing Asian characters I couldn’t read, but once I started playing I was hooked. 

In Mahjong you match tiles that are on the outside or top edges of the design, removing them from the board. Doing this grants you access to the other tiles further inside the design, and tiles that are hidden or held in place by tiles on top of them. You have to find all the available matches while clearing that access to the tiles locked in place by the others. The concept is simple, but the execution is anything but. 

My current version of choice is Random Mahjong, a free-to-play game available on the Google Play store for Android that has a minimum number of advertisements, but there are others. I’ve got a version that I played on the PlayStation 3, and there are a couple of versions I’ve tried for free from the Windows marketplace. My chief complaint about the free versions available on Windows is the number of intrusive ads. There is an ad after every round, and sometimes in the middle of the round if you have to shuffle – an option if you run out of moves, but one that lowers your potential high score. 

For me, though, it’s less about the score than it is about figuring out how to clear the board in a single run. There are sometimes three tiles of the same type available to play, and you can match any two. But you have to decide which option gives you the best opportunity to clear access to the other tiles. You also have to make sure that you can clear a path to that other tile you know has to be in there, so you can match it up to the third remaining tile. That’s where the strategy (aka the Chess DNA) and understanding the different layout designs comes in. There is always a way to clear the board in a single run, but it might not be obvious at first. 

It’s why I love Mahjong games. It’s challenging without being competitive and bringing along with it all those negative interactions that competitive gaming can have. Like skateboarding or in-line skating – two of my favorite sports when I was young and healed better than I do today – the challenge is against yourself, not necessarily against others. That’s the kind of thing I like when I need a change from games with a story. If you’re looking for a break from competitive online shooters, MOBAs or collectible card games that’s still challenging, try out a Mahjong game. I think you’ll find you like it. 

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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