Around The Table

People often ask me if I actually play mah-jong, or if I just used it as an

Mid-Game Mah-jong

 element in the “Breaking the Wall” books (Thirteen Orphans, Nine Gates, and Five Odd Honors).

I do play, in fact, although I wouldn’t call myself a sophisticated player. We usually play without using limit hands. This keeps the strategy on a fairly simple level, so we can go for months between games without forgetting the elements.

This past Thanksgiving holiday, since my mom was visiting, we settled in for a couple of three-handed rounds. Luck was with me. I managed a couple of five-hundred-plus point hands that put me well in the lead both nights. (It’s amazing what a bouquet of Flowers or Seasons will do for your score. I got one each night).

Mom and Jim were very gracious about Luck playing favorites and settled in to competing with each other.

Luck also extended her gracious hand to me during our Thanksgiving game of Trivial Pursuit with our guests Sally Gwylan, Chris Krohn, and Pati Nagle. I managed to fill in my “pie” and raced for the middle. There was a heated debate as to whether I should be required to answer Orange (Wild Card) or Green (Sports and Leisure).

Wild Card was chosen and I got the right answer. (Oddly, I can’t remember the question). For once, I could even have answered Sports and Leisure. (“What state is permitted to compete separately in international surf-boarding competitions?” The answer was “Hawaii”). So everyone decided I’d earned my win.

I guess you can tell that I really like games where people interact with each other. I’m not much of a bridge player. I can never get the bidding straight. I’m lousy at poker.

However, give me a game where there’s plenty of chatter, where luck (or lack of it) keeps anyone from feeling they’re “dumb,” and I’m in my element.

This preference extends to role-playing games as well. Jim and I play some computer games (usually as a team against the computer). I’ve even been part of the writing and design of a computer game (Chronomaster). However, my role-playing games of choice remain those where I get to interact with other players around the table, rattling dice, and play-acting.

Sure, many on-line computer games have windows for messaging other players, but I miss the laughter, the moments when someone tosses out a bad pun or bursts into song. “Real Time” computer games actually make me a little edgy. I don’t like the need to push, push, push to keep up with the unfolding scenario.

Last time I role-played, we started a historical Viking game that Walter Jon Williams wanted to run. A side comment about all the places the Vikings managed to reach (including Constantinople) segued into a spontaneous outburst of “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople” (and on and on). This moved into a quick discussion of songs that stick in your mind. We agreed that this one would probably make it to outer space and be sung on planets long after that city had been forgotten.

Then we shifted back to being young Vikings in search of fame and fortune, and got on the boat to York…

11 Responses to “Around The Table”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Games. Hmmm…

    This might get a bit long…

    I dabbled once with Mah Jong, just enough to realise that I couldn’t depend purely on luck. There was skill involved as well. But I never played enough to develop that skill and nowadays I can’t even remember the rules. Oh dear.

    As a child, I used to play cribbage a lot with my mother. I could never understand why she beat me every time. Only later in life did I come to realise that cribbage also combines both skill and chance and she had much more skill at the game than I did. However I stuck to it and these days I’m a pretty good cribbage player. Unfortunately the only person I know who even knows what cribbage is, is my computer. I have it set to play on its most skilfull setting and I beat it about 70% of the time.

    I’m a terrible bridge player, though once, in the days when I used to play a lot of card games, I was rather good at whist. The problem with bridge was that I never understood the bidding part of it. I was fine with the actual card play, but the meaning of the bids flummoxed me. But whist, or whist-like games that didn’t involve bidding, were fine.

    I love trivial pursuit and I’m very good at it because my head is stuffed full of all sorts of rubbish from years of omnivorous reading. I’m weak on the sports questions, but I’m pretty good on the other categories, though the science questions annoy me a lot — they will insist on putting astrology questions in there, which makes me apoplectic!

    I never really got into role playing — I think perhaps I find it too hard to detach myself from reality (and I’m too reluctant to do that as well). I have friends who have been role playing for 30 years or more and listening to them talk among themselves is sometimes quite bewildering. They identify so strongly with their characters (having played them for so long) that there are times when I honestly can’t tell if they are talking about their real selves or their fantasy selves, the real world or their fantasy world. And sometimes I’m not even sure if they even bother to make that distinction themselves any more. To that extent, role playing scares me a bit as well.

    But also role playing games go on far too long. I have other things to do (if only to go and read a book!) and I’m not really willing to sacrifice days, weeks, or (in the case of some of the more rabid role players I know) months or years on what is, for all practical purposes, a single game. It’s all far too serious and dedicated for me. Where did the fun go?

    And that sums it up really. Dedicated game players (games of any kind) are truly weird people. I have, quite literally, seen a marriage break up because of arguments over a bridge table! (Alright, there were other problems as well and perhaps it was only an excuse — but nevertheless I can’t see any reason to take anything that is supposed to be a pastime that seriously).

    My wife Robin is, for me, the ideal person to play games with. She isn’t competitive, she doesn’t care if she wins or loses (and neither do I). So when we play games with each other we just have fun. Though having said that, we both of us do enjoy games that we play against the computer, with no other human interaction at all since there is just you and the box. Probably that’s a reflection of our basic anti-social attitudes (we could both of us quite happily be hermits).

    Games, and people’s attitudes to them is a very complex subject. I strongly suspect there’s a PhD thesis hiding in here somewhere.



  2. janelindskold Says:

    As I said, I suck at bridge, too…

    Jim’s good, though.

    Role-players who “lose themselves.” Yeah. I’ve seen it.

    Never been there, though…

    Jim and I are rather competitive, so we don’t usually play games against each other. Oddly, the person we’re each most competitive with is ourselves…

    (Diana — Does this explain why Sai Yuki sings to me?)

    We sometimes play backgammon or something, but it’s funny. We start feeling bad if one of us beats the other too frequently. So we channel our energies into us against the world. Not a bad way for a marriage to work. We’re allies.

    Alan, maybe you’d understand roleplaying better if you understood that it’s not “one game that goes on for years.” It’s more like a series of stories and you get to be one of the main characters AND, if the ref is good, get to have a major influence on the plot.

    Cheerio… I’m off to get my dinner.

  3. Alan Robson Says:

    Perhaps I mix with the wrong type of roleplayers. The people I know do, quite literally, play single games that last for months on end. And the players always play the same character. One person I know has been a priestess called (I think) Flamas for about 25 years now. She is so obsessed with the character that she has sewn herself beautiful flowing robes and headdresses and she has made herself a huge “staff of power”, richly carved with complex designs. She even uses her character’s name as the registration number of her car.

    The people in charge of the role playing group (nicknamed “the gods”) set up campaigns that are deliberately designed to last for about 6 months or so of real time (though that may involve significantly more than that in game time). The gods hold quarterly meetings to review progress in the current campaign and to plan for future ones. I find it all very, very strange.

    A series of stories such as you describe makes a lot more sense to me. Presumably in this case there is some finite ending in view that can be reached within a reasonable time (hours, rather than days or weeks)?

    Enjoy your dinner!



  4. janelindskold Says:

    Hi Alan,

    I’m beginning to wish we had done this as a blog in itself… I just need to refer people next week!

    Anyhow, I think you’re missing what a campaign is. This of it as a series of stories.

    “Flamas” probably started as a young girl, just learning how to be a priestess. Over time, she’s become a power within her order and probably in her world. The players probably look back at earlier adventures much as a reader will look at earlier volumes of a series of books — “Wow! When we started there, I had no idea we’d be here.”

    The multiple “gods” (a term I HATE since it implies absolute control) you mention supports my theory. In this case, you have a collaborative novel series, with different writers contributing to different stories.

    Rather like the WILD CARDS shared world anthologies/ novel. Which, perhaps not surprisingly, started out with a bunch of writers who were also gamers.

  5. janelindskold Says:


    I’ve never played in a game that lasted 25 years, but if I had stayed in NYC (where I went to college at Fordham) it’s possible that I might have done some variation on this, since I can’t imaging dropping any of my old gaming buddies.

    Most of them I’m still in touch with, although we don’t game together anymore.

    Most of them I’d still game with… The exception being my ex-husband, for rather obvious reasons.

  6. heteromeles Says:

    Hi Alan,

    Haven’t played cribbage in years, but I should re-learn so I can play with my mom. These days, we mostly play our family version of anagrams.

    Roleplaying…I used to love that stuff. I even had the large foam d10s to throw at other players, and the “d0,” a rough apache tear that had no faces at all, and sounded just like a dice when rolled on a tabletop. It sat in my DM’s set to remind the players that sometimes, there was no random answer. I was pretty obnoxious when I was younger.

    One card game I’d suggest is called “Fluxx.” You do have to buy the deck, but the fun part is that many of the cards are rule cards, so the game changes as you play it. The rules that change are how many cards to draw, discard, hold in your hand and (most importantly) what the winning conditions are. There is some strategy to it, but mostly, it reminds me of “Calvinball” in Calvin and Hobbes.

    Oh well, these days I “play” NANOWRIMO, and yes, I got my 50,000 words done on November 30. Yay! The next task is to turn that beast into a readable novel.

  7. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Here I am, signing in late ~ Better late than never, I suppose! Jane’s post reminded me so fondly of a Christmas years ago, when I was a little girl. Our maternal grandmother was visiting, and if I remember correctly, we received THE GAME OF LIFE as a Christmas present. Grandma was such a good sport, and sat around the coffee table with me and my siblings playing seemingly endless rounds of the game. I, too, am very competitive, and I avoid team sports as a result. I love to run, but only by myself. If I even see another “jogger,” I instantly begin to compare my pace, my body posture, etc… Ugh. I have never placed cribbage or mah jong. I’m horrible at math, so I’m sure bridge would baffle me. But I have to admit that I did, many years ago, enjoy role playing games. It has been 20 years, probably, since I gamed, but the adventure was fun for me ~ primarily, as Jane said, because of the human interaction. Computer games leave me cold, and they do frighten me a bit because people somehow seem to think they are doing something “real,” when to me, it’s not real at all. Enough rambling! Thanks for a fun post, Jane.

  8. Paul Says:

    Wow, what a lot of information generation by this week’s blog! I’ve never gotten into gaming, nothing beyond checkers or chess, so I’ve learned much. I guess I’m not that competitive, since it never bothers me when I’m swimming to see others swimming faster in different lanes. On the other hand, I find myself thinking, well, I’m swimming longer…hmm. Maybe I do have a competitive gene…

  9. janelindskold Says:

    I’ve never played cribbage, either, but we really should since our neighbor made us a lovely board…

    Maybe one of these cold winter evenings.

    I remember playing LIFE, too. I think even then I was prone to role-playing — or at least games of imagination. I always liked when I could get enough “kids” so that I would have a duplicate of my own family. I remember asking for pegs in the correct colors: two girls, then a boy, then a girl…

  10. Inge Kutt Lewis Says:

    I’ve played the Shanghai version of mah jong all my life, having learned it from my Shanghainese mother. Having just finished “Thirteen Orphans,” I was puzzled by the description of throwing the dice twice. In my version, if I’m East, I throw the dice, count from right to left, take two tiles and place them on the flower wall to the right. I take the first four from the left wall, then the person to my left takes the next, etc. until at the last, I take the first and third top tiles, and everybody else takes one. If I have flowers in my hand, they get swapped for tiles from the flower wall. Obviously your distribution is very different. I was wondering if that was more the Jewish version? I know there’s also a Cantonese version (their tiles are bigger). For all I know, every province might have their own version of mah-jong.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Hi Inge,

      Thanks for sharing your variation.

      I used the version from Babcock’s rules, which were the first formalized rules for an American audience and remain the basis for most American play.

      Rules differ greatly from area to area even in the U.S. and throughout the world.

      If you’re interested in a short but good history that talks about this, the introduction to Eleanor Noss Whitney’s A MAH JONG HANDBOOK is quite readable.

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