There’s a lot of debate surrounding the origins of Mahjong (麻將): certain historians argue that the tile-based game evolved during the priceless-vase-producing Ming dynasty of 1368 to 1644, but most experts agree that the modern version was perfected in the late nineteenth century.
Whatever its roots, Mahjong is a complex, nuanced game that can take years to master… and bears absolutely no resemblance to the Mahjong app installed on your iPad. They share the same tiles, but that’s about it.
The simple but addictive game on your device is actually Mahjong solitaire and it’s a perfect way of zoning-out on a long train journey. But what’s the best free Mahjong app?
For my sins, I downloaded five Mahjong solitaire apps and, because we’re very scientific here at The Big Tech Question, awarded each a score out of five Red Dragon (🀄) tiles.
Like most blockbuster films, there’s not much point in Mahjong being in 3D. Yes, the novelty factor convinces you that it makes a nice change for around ten minutes, but then the limitations of Stack Mahjong 3D quickly become clear.
The interface itself is clean and the boards rotate smoothly, but there are no entertaining frills such as different tile designs, backgrounds, music – or fun. Moreover, the constant swiping back and forth is like the digital version of pushing peas around a plate.
I must admit that my judgement of the game was clouded by the fact that it broke after one level. If you like frozen screens and throwing your phone across the room, this is the app for you.
This is the highest-rated Mahjong solitaire game on the Google Play Store and it’s easy to see why: there are 500 unique boards and seven tilesets, as well as the all-important, and addictive, ability to earn coins to unlock new content.
Mahjong Gold also has a decent soundtrack of plinky-plonky piano, birdsong, running water and Brian Eno-style eerie synths. It’s not going to put you in a state of advanced Zen bliss, but it’ll be quite relaxing on the 7.35am train to Charing Cross.
So why have I only given the game three Red Dragons? Well, the major downside is its stinginess. While other apps offer a wide range of tile styles and backgrounds for free, you have to rack up hundreds of thousands of coins to buy them inMahjong Gold.
For example, a set of blingy gold tiles costs 200,000 coins, which equates to nearly £15 in the real world – or a lot of play time. There are plenty of better, more generous apps.
Mahjong Mystery: Escape the Spooky Mansion (Android)
Normally, I wouldn’t touch a game with “spooky” in its title with a long, pointy stick, but Mahjong Mystery: Escape the Spooky Mansion is a breath of fresh air.
It takes the traditional solitaire idea and adds in collectible items, 1,040 bonus levels, “cute companion creatures” and even boss levels. Also, instead of traditional symbols on titles, there are spooky pictures such as vultures, frogs, swords and, er, avocados.
Yet, a few things let down Mahjong Mystery: Escape the Spooky Mansion. The first is the omnipresent coins, although they’re a lot easier to earn than in Mahjong Gold and there’s plenty of free content to tide you over.
The second is the music: it’s the kind of cheery spookiness/kookiness that will make you think that you’re trapped in a CBBC Halloween special.
Thirdly, if escaping means watching ten hours of sublimely annoying adverts, I’d rather take my chances in the spooky mansion.
Now we’re in the realm of very, very good Mahjong games.
In fact, there was little to separate Mahjong Solitaire Titans from my pick-of-the-bunch below: it has a whopping 1,000 boards (an extra 200 can be unlocked for £2.49), seven tilesets and 12 backgrounds – all of which can be used without collecting any coins whatsoever.
The best part of Mahjong Solitaire Titans, though, is the unshowy and snappy gameplay. When you tap on a tile, it highlights in luminous green, making it easy to refer back if, like me, you’ve got the memory of an elderly goldfish.
After you’ve matched a pair of tiles, they meet in the middle of the screen and then fall into a pocket in the bottom-right corner. It’s a neat, stylish touch.
The music is also good, mixing traditional Chinese with Muzak-y pianos and strings. This means that, unlike some of the other options above, you won’t immediately be hitting the mute button.
So what was the deciding factor in Mahjong Solitaire Titans finishing second in the most exciting race of the year? The menus are a bit clunky and dated. That’s it.
Despite being the best Mahjong solitaire game on the Google Play Store, Mahjong Myth has only been downloaded 100,000 times.
That’s a shame because it’s excellent: there are more than 2,000 free boards, 14 free backgrounds and 11 freetile sets. Are you getting the idea yet? It’s all free, with nary a digital coin in sight.
As well as looking beautiful, it plays very smoothly. After being matched, a pair of tiles will crash into each other in the centre of the screen and disappear in a puff of neon smoke.
The music is similarly satisfying and is reminiscent of Minecraft or even the more ethereal pieces from Fez.
One of Mahjong Myth‘s best features are the board layouts. Instead of a seemingly random pile of tiles, you can select from different themes such as traditional, architecture, creation, food, plants, travel and animals (the screenshot above is of an owl board). It’s an effective way of keeping the game fresh.
Yes, there are still a few adverts, but they tend to be single pages than video clips, so you can get rid of them with a quick tap. If you have another Mahjong game installed on your device, delete it now.
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