Flower tiles are the tiles that usually have illustrations of flowers, or Chinese ornaments, or Chinese architecture etc., and that also have numbers on them. Each set of flower tiles comprise four members, so there would be a tile each numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each set of flowers also usually represent a Chinese grouping of four related things. Typically, the sets of flowers would be the four seasons (四季 sìjì, the members of which are 春夏秋冬 chūnxiàqiūdōng) and the four noble plants (花中四君子 huāzhōngsìjūnzi, the members of which are 梅兰菊竹 méilánjúzhú). Sometimes, the mahjong set may contain other sets of flowers, such as the four occupations or the four arts. Usually, the Han characters for these members are also carved onto the tiles. The Chinese names for these flowers are not particularly important, the numbers are more important, being of particular use in the game.
In mahjong sets found in Singapore, the two sets of flowers are typically the four seasons and the four noble plants. Each set of flowers has its numbers coloured differently, typically one set's numbers in red, the other's in blue.
The Noble Plants
The other kind of bonus tiles used in Singapore Style mahjong, and which are more or less unique to this variant (and Malaysian variants), are the animal tiles. The animals typically used are the cat (猫 māo), the rat (老鼠 láoshǔ), the cockerel (公鸡 gōngjī), and the centipede (蜈蚣 wúgōng). Note that these animals come as two pairs with a predator–prey relationship: the cat and the rat, and the cockerel and the centipede. Also, these animal tiles do not have numbers, unlike the flower tiles. Sometimes, other pairs of numberless tiles are supposedly used as 'animals': rich man and pot of gold, fisherman and fish, boy and frog etc. Note that animal bonus tiles do not actually have to be depictions of real animals. Tom Sloper's mahjong website has some examples of more rarely seen flower (and animal) tiles (see page on mystery tiles).
The flower tiles and the animal tiles are used for scoring, but in slightly different ways. The numbers on the flowers correspond to the four seats at the mahjong table, and so, each flower belongs to a different player. Because there are two sets of flowers used in Singapore Style mahjong, each player has two flowers that corresponds to his seat. During the game, if a player draws a flower that corresponds to his seat, then that flower would count towards his score; all other flowers are useless and do not count towards his score. Animals, on the other hand, do not have numbers, and thus may belong to any player. Therefore, any animal that a player draws would count towards his score. There are additional bonuses if any player completes a full set of bonus tiles. Specific details on scoring are found in the articles on the scoring of flowers and animals.
Note on terminology
Note that both flower and animal tiles are often referred to as just 花牌 huāpái ('flower tiles') in Chinese usage. This ignores the distinction Singapore Style mahjong makes between the flower tiles and the animal tiles, particularly in the way doubles are assigned and scored for these tiles. In this blog, I use the cover term 'bonus tiles' whenever I want to refer to both flower and animal tiles. A Chinese equivalent could be 积分牌 jīfēnpái (roughly meaning 'bonus point tiles').
Effect of Bonus Tiles on the Singapore Style Game
Singapore Style mahjong uses 12 bonus tiles, which is four more than the other common variants (such as Hong Kong Old Style, which uses eight flowers). With four additional bonus tiles, it becomes slightly easier to draw a bonus tile during the game. The general chance of drawing a bonus tile in the Hong Kong variant is about 5.6%, but it is about 8.1% in the Singapore variant. Moreover, the usefulness of the bonus tile to the player is also different between the variants: in the Hong Kong variant, only 2 out of 8 bonus tiles (25%) are useful to any player; in the Singapore variant, because all the animals are useful, any player can use 6 out of 12 bonus tiles (50%). This changes the way the game is played. In the Singapore variant, the element of luck becomes stronger, and it is easier to obtain high-scoring wins since the chances of getting a useful bonus tile is higher.
In general, the higher number of useful bonus tiles in Singapore Style mahjong has also affected the structure of the game, with changes in the scoring system: the requirement for a minimum of 1 double for winning; the adoption of bao penalties for enabling Limit hands based on exposed bonus tiles and pungs of honour tiles; and special scoring for All Chows (平和 pínghú), depending on the presence of bonus tiles.
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Index
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Flowers
Rules of Singapore Style Mahjong: Animals
Updated at 17:00, 21st August 2011