- At the start of the game, players determine who sits at which end of the table, since the person sitting East goes first and then play travels counter-clockwise. There are two ways to determine this: Players roll two dice each with the highest roll sitting East and the next highest rolls taking the seat to the last person's left; or one of each of the four wind tiles is laid face down and players draw to determine their seat.
Building/Breaking the Wall
- Each player takes 36 of the 144 tiles and assembles them into stacks 2 tiles high and 18 tiles long. They push these stacks together to form the "Wall." To break the "Wall," the East player rolls the dice and counts off that number around the table. The last player counted then rolls the dice, counts that number of tiles on the wall from his right and pushes the tiles to the left from that breaking point. The East player takes the first two stacks of tiles from the breaking point, then each player does the same in a counter-clockwise direction (South goes after East). Once everyone has 12 tiles, the East player takes two more (for a total of 14) and the others take one (for 13 each). In American Mahjong, players now pass three of their tiles to the player on their right.
- The East player starts by discarding a tile so everyone has 13 tiles. Players now begin a turn by drawing a tile and end it by discarding one. They can normally draw from either the tiles remaining from the Wall or from the discarded tiles. They can assemble multiple types of melds from the tiles. A Pung is three tiles that look the same, while a Kong is four identical tiles and an Eye has only two. A Chow is made of three tiles that look different but are in numerical order, like 6-7-8. In American Mahjong, players can also assemble Pungs, with three "flower" tiles of any type or three tiles with the same number and different suits. The American game also has Joker tiles that can be used for any tile if the players agree to it. A player wins the game by assembling a hand of four melds.
- A player cannot draw a tile from the discard pile to create an Eye, since the discarded tiles are face up and the Wall tiles are face down. A player also can't draw a discarded tile to assemble a Kong, unless that Kong will win the game. If a player assembles a Kong from drawing a tile (as opposed to a Kong assembled from the original hand), the player must reveal that Kong face up on the table, thus preventing the Kong from being broken up later to use those tiles for Pungs.