The origins of computer mahjong

Ever wonder where it came from? I bet we’ve all seen and / or played a similar game, as it has likely been installed on every computer, gaming system, mobile device, website, clock, toaster, and refrigerator imaginable. In fact, I’m shocked that it hasn’t been ported to Tesla’s entertainment screen like so many other games … [Elon, what are you waiting for?].

My guess is that this game, sometimes called Mahjong , has become the most widely played video game in the world, with the possible exception of Klondike Solitaire. And not only is the origin of the game little known, but at least the writing remains a mystery to me; is it mahjong, mahjong, mahjong or mahjong? I’ve seen them all used and many others [actually my Microsoft Word spell checker accepts three of the four options shown on the left, rejecting only the third].

Many people think this game is called Mahjong because the set of tiles it uses is taken from the ancient board game of the same name, in which tiles are dealt and discarded like playing cards. But rest assured that the game pictured above is not mahjong just because it uses tiles, just like Klondike Solitaire is not Texas Hold’em poker, even if they both use the same set of playing cards.

In fact, traditional mahjong has more in common with the western card game rummy. According to Wikipedia, the game of mahjong originated in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). In the original mahjong, a hand of tiles is dealt to a group of players, and then they take turns discarding and drawing tiles to create a winning combination. See the image below:

Traditional Mahjong – Photo by Ellicia on Unsplash

The computer variant that is the subject of this discussion is sometimes referred to as Mahjong Solitaire, although some know it as the original trademark Shanghai® by Activision. Out of respect for 7,528,323 other versions of the game, I’ll call it Mahjong Solitaire, although for me it will always be Shanghai .

If you are the only one on the planet who has not played Mahjong Solitaire, let me enlighten you. The player is offered a folded arrangement of Mahjong tiles. The object of the game is to remove tiles in matching pairs until the board is empty. You will lose if you run out of moves and the tiles are still on the stack. The fact that the tiles are stacked on top of each other is critical to the gameplay as they can only be removed if they are not obstructed by another tile. For this reason, the order in which the tiles are removed is very important, as the player must think several moves ahead to make sure that when given the opportunity, he clears the specific tiles that he needs. It will often be necessary to choose which matching pair to remove, and choosing the right one is the key to winning the game.

Mahjong Solitaire is highly addictive and its success is understandable. The traditional tile art style has a lot of aesthetic appeal to many, and thousands of beautiful tile variations have been created over time. Plus, there are countless ways to stack tiles, resulting in an endless variety of game variations.

Although we have established that this is not Mahjong (LOL), the origin of Mahjong Tile Solitaire is often debated. There is no doubt that the computer version of the game was created in 1981 by a programmer named Brodie Lockard, for the first time on the PLATO software platform, a computerized learning system. What is controversial is whether Lockard came up with the idea of ​​using the Mahjong tile in a solitaire game like the one just described. According to one school, Lockard invented a variant of the gameplay and decided to create it on a computer screen. Another school of thought is that the idea of ​​using Mahjong tiles in this way goes back to the ancient Chinese version known as the Turtle (which was played with physical tiles, not on the screen), and Lockard just created a computer version of the game. …

In order not to trample knee-deep in a swamp of contradictions, I will leave this debate to others to fight indefinitely.

Rather, I will focus on the version of solitaire presented on a computer or video game platform. In 1981, making a game was usually a one-man task, in which case Brodie Lockard single-handedly designed the game, created the graphics, and wrote all the computer code. While Lockard was programming the original version in PLATO, his breakthrough came in 1986 when he created a version for the recently released Macintosh computer. Apparently, as the story goes, he chose the Macintosh because he was inspired by its superior graphics capabilities, which allowed him to present beautifully rendered mosaic graphics (albeit in black and white). A screen shot of the first version of Macintosh is shown below:

Shanghai® Copyright 1986, Activision

[NOTE: Am I the only one to admit that thousands of counterfeits over the past 35 years are still very similar to the original game?]

Lockard approached Activision in 1985, around the time my tenure at Activision was ending, with a proposal to publish the game as a commercial entertainment product. His timing was good as the video game industry, dominated by the Atari 2600, had just collapsed and Activision was frantically expanding its offerings to personal computers to replace the millions of dollars that had been lost in the Atari massacre. Another result of this massacre was that there was a strong push within the company (from non-creative “suits”) from more traditional arcade games (as if these types of games caused the crash of 1985 – yes, I don’t think so ). Although this opinion turned out to be a complete boonie⁴ Expanding the creative proposal was certainly a good thing as it led me to create The Designer’s Pencil and Garry Kitchen’s GameMaker (stories for another day). Be that as it may, in this climate, Lockard got to the right place at the right time.

Activision licensed the game from Lockard and released it in 1986, selling it under the Shanghai name . Activision quickly ported it to other platforms, most notably the IBM PC. And then they ported it again, and again, and again. In fact, I had to laugh when I looked at Wikipedia to see what other platforms it was ported to. Here is a list of them (I’m sure it doesn’t scratch the surface as it doesn’t touch the many sequels): Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Atari 8-bit, Atari ST, Commodore 64, FM. Towns, Game Boy, Macintosh, MS-DOS, MSX, NEC PC-8801, NEC PC-9801, NES, Master System, PC Engine, Sharp X1, X68000, TRS-80 color computer, TurboGrafx, Lynx.

Obviously the game was a huge success. It has been reported (but not verified by me) that Activision has sold over 10 million devices in Shanghai across multiple platforms. I have no doubt about it, the game was so good.

Sadly, the game fell into that gray area of ​​intellectual property law where the concept was brilliant (but you can’t defend the concept) and the creative execution was brilliant, and although creative expression is protected, the tile set was the main graphic. element, and easy to change. Activision could have continued to sell variations of the game under the Shanghai brand that they defended, but they really couldn’t stop others from pushing up the idea of ​​“locking the stock and barrel,” as they say. Other developers could pick up this concept, create their own set of tiles, and sell their version. And they did, which is the sad reality of many forms of intellectual property, especially video games.

As a result, Shanghai took its place of honor next to klondike solitaire, match-3 puzzle games, the House of the Rising Sun and the wheel in the Hall of Fame of unprotected products destined for eternal free distribution without consideration or compensation to the original creator.

I loved the original Shanghai. As a game designer, I value a game that is easy to understand , difficult to master , pleasing to the eye and timeless in its enjoyment. Shanghai has set all these marks for me and, I believe, tens of millions of other players.

Regardless of the origin of the concept of solitaire gameplay, Brodie Lockard’s work on the original titles has made him a world-class game developer. And that was me, before I knew the whole HISTORY of its development.


Brodie Lockard was a promising gymnast at Stanford University in 1979 when he had a training accident and broke his neck. Unfortunately, he was paralyzed below the neck. Not content with giving up his academic job as a computer science student, he learned to use a keyboard with a mouse stick, which allows the user to press keys while controlling a long pin through the mouthguard and head movements.

Try this sometime. And while the memory is still fresh in your memory, think again about what I described above, that Lockard single-handedly “ designed the game, created the graphics, and wrote all the computer code. 

Wow. Just wow.

Brodie Lockard created one of the most addictive video games of all time under the most dire circumstances. Hats off to such a talented game developer, a role model for anyone who doubted what they could achieve, and a wonderful role model for everyone with a disability.

May we all hope to achieve something so amazing in our lives. Good luck Brodie Lockard.


[2] No, I had nothing to do with the game. In fact, I don’t remember this game while working at Activision.

[3] ad infinitum = Latin forever

[4] bupkis = Yiddish, nothing at all

by Abdullah Sam
I’m a teacher, researcher and writer. I write about study subjects to improve the learning of college and university students. I write top Quality study notes Mostly, Tech, Games, Education, And Solutions/Tips and Tricks. I am a person who helps students to acquire knowledge, competence or virtue.

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