Confession is good for the soul, so here goes: I like watching Antiques Roadshow on PBS. I enjoy seeing someone’s jaw drop when they learn the ratty piece of furniture they bought at a garage sale for twenty bucks is actually worth a few grand. These days, that’s close to the feeling I get when I play a casual game that takes a worn-out formula and injects it with new life. Case in point: Mahjong Roadshow from publisher PlayFirst and developer Zemnott.
Despite what its title suggests, Mahjong Roadshow won’t take you on a trip through the Orient; rather, you’ll travel the back roads of Anytown, USA, scouring seven locations for valuable antiques. Your goal is to win the grand prize at an upcoming contest for antique auction collections, so you have to gather the right items. You have 50 days to finish your work, with each day representing one level. Since you’ll spend several days at each site, you’ll have plenty of time to ransack your grandmother’s attic, a yard sale, an antique shop and more for what you need.
The changes Zemnott made to the mah jong template are apparent from the beginning. For starters, you earn money for each match you make. And while you can pair up tiles and clear layouts in the traditional manner, you can earn more cash by removing sets of tiles. To do this, you place up to four similar tiles into slots at the bottom of the screen. For example, if there are several different kinds of antique clocks on the layout, you can place any four of them in the slots to create a set.
The temptation, of course, is to throw everything you can into the slots to clear the layout faster, but that could get you into trouble. For instance, you might throw a matching pair of old-fashioned lamps into two slots along with an odd lamp that doesn’t match, and clear all three tiles from the board. However, when you work your way down the stack of tiles, you might find yourself stuck without a match for the second odd lamp. Careful planning and judicious use of the slots, though, can net you a lot of money.
The goal on each level is to clear the way to pairs of special tiles buried at the bottom of each stack. These contain the items you can add to your antique auction collection. Once you click on one of these pairs, the level ends.
The cash you earn represents your score. Since money is no fun when it’s burning a hole in your pocket, you can spend your reserves on three bonuses, including one that re-sorts all of the tiles, another that offers you a hint for the next move and a third that appraises the antiques on the special tiles you uncover toward the end of each level. Since you want to create the most expensive collection possible, you want to choose the most costly items. Appraisals help by providing a description of each antiquity, although no dollar value is given.
Through visuals, sound effects and period music, Mahjong Roadshow does a good job of immersing you in the world of antique hunting. Plus, after acquiring a collectible, an information screen pops up offering what I can only assume are accurate details about the actual item. It’s evident a lot work went into the extras, making it worth your time to do a little reading before moving on to the next layout.
Speaking of time, the developers give you all you need to solve each level. If you get tired of the languid pace, you’ll appreciate the Speed Auction rounds, which appear every few levels. In this mini-game, tiles race across the bottom of the screen while you click on the matching tiles above.
You can also take a break from the story mode to fiddle with your Auction Collection, adding and removing collected items in an effort to create the most valuable compilation possible. Or you can build your own levels using the in-game Layout Creator, which is simple to use, although it needs a few tweaks to make tile placement more intuitive. (It’s hard to determine where you’re about to place a tile because there’s no silhouette.) The Layout Creator also allows you to download and play other user-created levels, which is a good thing, as you’ll burn through the story mode rather quickly.
Other than commenting on its brevity, I’m hard-pressed to level any complaints against Mahjong Roadshow. True, it draws its gameplay from a well-established genre, but it takes a distinctive approach that’s fun and refreshing. Also, each of the dozens of tiles sport clearly defined artwork, eliminating the eye-squint factor from which many mah jong titles suffer. Whether you’re keen on mah jong or antiques, Mahjong Roadshow is a trip worth taking.