Everybody knows that Jaws is not a film about a shark, and Animal Farm is not a book about a farm. Similarly, Mahjong Mystery is not really a game about mahjong.
Well, it is, in that it involves playing mahjong. Not the ancient, complicated version of mahjong involving tiles and sticks that you have to play around a baize table with the elderly, but the accessible new variant where all you have to do is spot pairs.
But playing mahjong is just one part of Mahjong Mystery. It’s all the other stuff that makes it interesting.
Developer Difference Games has created a familiar progression environment for its take on mahjong, with stages that are arrayed on a path that snakes up through a number of themed areas.
To play a stage you have to unlock it with gold coins. At first, these stages are trivially easy – we made it beyond stage 20 without the slightest risk at any point of getting fewer than three stars.
What is mahjong anyway?
Let’s pause here. In case you’re not aware of how casual mahjong works, it works like this: the tiles are arranged in stacks and each tile has a twin. You have to tap on pairs to remove them from the board.
At first only one or two pairs are visible, with the rest being buried somewhere in the pile, but as you clear the top layers more become available and so on until the board is empty.
There’s a bit of luck involved, as with solitaire, in that you can end up being unable to free a pair because of the way the stacks end up, but you can reduce the odds of this happening by approaching the game strategically, clearing the stacks at an even rate. Tutorial over.
The reason Mahjong Mystery doesn’t feel like it’s about mahjong at first is that you breeze through the actual gameplay so easily, and all of your attention goes on the progression mechanics.
You have to accumulate and save gold coins to unlock stages. You can do this by combining the elements you match in gameplay to create compounds that you sell, or by completing more stages (or revisiting old ones).
A jar of coins automatically replenishes over time, which is nice, and you get a daily signing in bonus. Also, there’s an hourly quest stage to complete, and as you progress through the stages you unlock colourful orbs containing yet more stages that you can play for yet more gold. There are bonus treasure chests littered along the way too.
And *deep breath* that’s not all. There are also daily tasks that you can complete for gold coins, and reward boosts, increasing the amount you earn from finishing stages. And you can increase your gold coin earnings by watching ads, and…
There’s more, but you get the picture.
Play your way
For the first couple of hours, it’s all this stuff that will engage you, rather than the mahjong itself. Each stage feels almost like an inconvenient distraction from the more fundamental thrill of accumulating, unlocking, and progressing.
However, in time the tile-matching gameplay becomes more challenging. Each stage has a normal and an expert difficulty level, and the difference isn’t just cosmetic. Expert stages are completely different from their normal counterparts, and, yes, slightly harder.
But it’s the orb stages that will really test you. Mahjong Mystery contains, at our last count, about five trillion different tile designs, but the orb stages use designs that are challengingly close to each other.
For example, there might be a pale-skinned girl with red hair in a canoe, but also a pale-skinned girl with dark hair in a canoe, and a dark skinned girl with red hair in a canoe, and so on. In later orbs, you have to match three tiles, and then four, and presumably more after that.
You have to really concentrate in these timed stages, which we routinely fail to clear. If you want a mahjong challenge, go to the orbs.
That’s the joy of Mahjong Mystery. If you’re looking for a challenge, you’ve got it. If you want a bit of mindless mental chewing gum, you’ve got that too. And all the while you’re gradually making progress and unlocking new stuff.
Definitely not Meh-jong
Its open and relaxed gameplay makes Mahjong Mystery very difficult to put down