(This is an updated and expanded-- again!!-- draft of an old mahjong tips post designed for visitors to the 2012 Otakon panel.)
Hi. If you're here, you were probably directed from my and Carl's mahjong panel at Otakon this year. We hope you enjoyed yourselves, and we are happier still that you've decided to follow up on learning about Japanese mahjong! Now as I'm sure we said during the panel, we were seriously strapped for time and it was impossible to get you to walk out of that room knowing how to play from scratch. As content-stuffed as that panel was, we only ran through the barest, barest essentials of the game. This is the stuff that would answer the question "what the hell is Akagi/Saki doing?". If you want to play online, or sit down at a table with your friends and play, that's going to take a little time and some light study.
Because it was hard enough for Carl and I to learn the game, I had the idea of assembling the resources that helped us the most when we were learning in a post. I've done this before, but I think I can do better for the panel, so here we are.
In the age of the internet you have the luxury of being able to play at any damn time you want. I am a learn-by-doing kind of guy, so why not play right now? This Flash game supplies a reasonable explanation of the game, complete with yaku, right there on the page. Don't worry about being bad or not, it's the computer, who cares. It's completely okay to be lost at this point. Play around with this to get yourself vaguely familiar with the game, but try not to stay for too long after you've gotten the hang of it.
The game's also in English with Arabic numerals on the man suit, something you're not going to see on other Reach videogames or online play services. You're going to want to take this opportunity to start memorizing the numbers if you don't know them. You really must know these going forward, or you'll be missing out on playing online or even on a decent set. They're not very hard to learn (the first three are free) and it is much more trouble not to learn them than to do so.
Now you can learn the rules!
This is a friendly run-through of all the rules aimed at beginners, covering initial setup to everything about actual play. I think this is the most accessible guide online.
My personal rules and scoring bible is Japanese Mahjong Scoring. I recommend learning the yaku from here. When I was still getting a handle of the game I kept a printout of this entire document in a folder and referred to it as necessary.
Oh my god look at all the yaku:
Don't feel immediately obligated to learn all the yaku straight away: that's exactly how people get intimidated out of playing. Understand the most essential yaku that show up most often: riichi, pinfu, tanyao, yakuhai. Understanding these will help you more than anything else. Come back to the yaku charts every time you play and let the rest of them sink in, both through a conscious effort to learn them and by seeing them in play. Also, play the yaku quiz every once in a while.
By the way, I personally stick to the Japanese terminology or the super-straight translations on the Mahjong Scoring site simply because if you ask two or three different English-speaking Reach organizations or websites they'll give you four or five different English names for the same yaku. It's easier this way and my mahjong-playing friends always know what I'm talking about when I say "sanshoku". Unless it's sanshoku doukou but when do you ever see that one? Anyway!
At the panel, we probably said that scoring was complex enough in Reach rules as to be beyond the scope of the panel. Well, it is. The reason our example goes directly to 5 han is that when you're under that 5 han you have to count up another number (the fu) using some very particular criteria that alters the score somewhat.
1 han is not always 1000 points, depending on dealer/non-dealer and the fu. Once you get to 5 han you're at "limit" hands which have simple scores that are easy to remember, so long as you remember that the dealer gets 1.5x more.
Don't just say "I don't need to learn scoring" if you only intend to play online, that's crap. You are eventually going to be making decisions based on how many points you stand to make. Keep in mind that riichi is a game where you play for table position more than just for points, and you can take or lose first place by only a few hundred points.
(Also playing live is way more fun, try it out man)
Unfortunately, "memorize it" is the main tip I have for you with regards to learning Riichi scoring. There's a system, but it's extremely convoluted and you're actually better off memorizing a table. Here are some resources, including a chart you will need and a scoring quiz for quick and easy practice.
When you take this task on, I advise starting from the top with the big limit scores because those are the easiest ones to know. Mangan, haneman, baiman, sanbaiman (never happens anyway), yakuman. That's the easy stuff because the fu points don't affect it. Then, understand the way you count up fu scores. Then, from the scoring chart, know the lines that actually come up in a game: 20 fu, 25, 30, 40. Anything with more fu is pretty uncommon (hands with more than one triple, closed kans). Then do the rest. Keep a scoring chart on hand anyway.
There is not a lot of in-depth riichi mahjong strategy reading out there in English. If you read Japanese then absolutely hit up Beginner's Luck: there is a mountain of great common-sense info and theory there. It's the kind of material that I wish had an English-language equivalent. Of course there's a ton of strategy reading in Japanese, so I won't get into it.
Just Another Japanese Mahjong Blog posted translations of puyo's excellent strategy blog that cover a wide range of points about the game. Unfortunately, it looks like they're on hiatus.
These posts on Osamuko's blog about defense are pretty good info. Heavy terminology, be warned. If you want to win, you must play a good defense. If you read this stuff and decide "that's not my style!" then your style will be "Well, I lost again."
I like to watch pro footage on Nico to see how people who are actually good at mahjong manage their hands. I'm not telling you to directly copy their play, but try and play along and compare their decisions with your own.
On iOS your best option is Mahjong Tengokuhai. This one has a great interface, online play, and a lot of different things to do in single-player. No idea about Android, but there are a lot of apps.
(this part is from when I was actually using my DS)
I have Mahjong Fight Club for the DS. I have played every single other mahjong title for the console (by, uh, means) and this one is the best for more reasons than I have time to describe. It's particularly good for learning the yaku because an announcer reads out the name of every yaku a hand has. When you finish a hand in MFC, just sit and wait and listen. The sole interface issue is that it's not immediately obvious at a glance what your seat wind is, but you can figure that out. You can play online over Wi-Fi but it was a complete disaster when I tried it. I would imagine Konami doesn't care a ton about this service when they run pay services for MFC Wii and PS3, which I imagine nobody uses either...
You're going to want to play real people whenever possible: playing weak AI opponents in any game isn't really good for your play.
Aside with getting together with your own friends (who you should totally try and sell on the game), you're probably going to want competition against people who've walked the same hard road as you have. English-speaking Reach players are pretty rare anywhere, even on the Internet, so this can be tough.
Reach Mahjong is the largest Reach site online but it's also gone completely stagnant, despite a major overhaul of the site. The forums are a ghost town (I first wrote this two years ago and it is still the case), but there's a lot of good material on the site itself if you just dig deep into the site's old posts. I can't really recommend their beginner's stuff (and I don't think it's on the site anymore after their overhaul): the writing style and inconsistent terminology severely confused me when I was starting out. I have no idea about their book.
If you can make it out here to NYC once a month, I highly recommend the USPML meets. I never miss one myself. Don't feel intimidated by that name: they're very welcoming and as they say, if you can play online you'll be fine here.
If you do IRC (I do) there's #mahjong or #osamuko on Rizon. I hang out on #osamuko as TRIPLEBREAK.
Keep in mind that videogames, online services and so on are going to be in Japanese. Mahjong Time is in English but that is the only thing going for it. The client is horrendous. I'm not even going to link to it, it's so bad. It offends both my gaming and aesthetic sensibilities.
I'm going to keep this short: just use Tenhou. It's the fastest, simplest client and it can have you up against three strangers in ten seconds flat. Furthermore, Tenhou is extensively documented in English here. While Tenhou is completely workable without any language issues, you'll still want to read that to know exactly what you're clicking. To make that even easier: the third row, 4 players ariari red, is the standard ruleset that most Japanese players use. The first column is an East-only round, and the second is East-South.
A small community of English-speaking players uses the 7447 lobby, though keep in mind that it will take a very long time to get a match and you might find yourself having to comb /jp/, 4chan's worst board and possible soul poison, in order to get games.
(Note 7/25/12: There are more people on 7447, basically because of Saki: Achiga-hen. I suspect and fear that it will go back to the way it was when the final episodes run.)
I usually just play the in default ranked lobby with random Japanese folk instead, but 7447 can be fun too.
When you are ready for Tenhou, I recommend the beginner's guide on Osamuko's blog.
Other online play:
There are other clients, but none are as good as Tenhou is. Janryumon is a flashy, popular clone of Sega's MJ arcade games, now open outside Japan. My argument against JRM is that aside from the league mode, the game is much more about grinding (playing matches over and over again) to get superfluous items and goodies than it is about getting better at the game. Its ranking system is a grind that anybody, no matter how bad at the game, can climb to the top of if they just play enough games. On the other hand, Tenhou's entire rank system is set up to force you to play better (and to avoid last place at all costs). JRM also has a lot of beginner-friendly training-wheels help, so if you're starting out that can be really helpful.
There are a ton of Japanese mahjong games for console ranging from serious to strip (and importers don't really bother stocking them because they'll never sell a copy), but your options for online play on console outside of Japan are pretty poor. You're gonna need a PS3, and your only viable options were both nominated for 2ch's Shit Game of the Year award in '09. I'll leave it at that.
Buying a real set:
I think there's nothing like live play: the feel of the tiles, the satisfying clacking sound, the friendly banter. I can jump on Tenhou for a battle against random strangers any time, but things are different among friends. Perhaps, if you can convince them, your friends will be as fascinated as you are. It's worth a shot!
Well, that's about all the information I can think to dump on you. I hope it serves you well. Enjoy the game!