If you think "T’ang" is an orange drink and "Zhou" is where animals are put on display, you obviously aren’t too familiar with Ancient China.
No worries – play a few rounds of Mahjong Escape, and while you won’t turn into Confucius overnight, you’ll learn a thing or two about Chinese history and be entertained with some relaxing game-play at the same time.
Your adventure begins in 2000 B.C. as you travel through 11 Dynasties to unlock 4000 years of priceless treasures, beautiful scenery and hundreds of Chinese proverbs to make you wiser.
The name of the game is Mahjong, also known as Shanghai or Taipei, the ancient tile-matching pastime where you’re presented with a board of 144 tiles and must correctly match and remove two identical tiles from a pile, but only the ones on the top and sides of the pile are available to the player. The goal is to clear the screen entirely, but it’s not as easy as it seems — there is often more than one possible match per tile design; choose the wrong one and the tiles underneath may become inaccessible.
Some tiles can be paired if they’re related instead of identical, such as matching two out of the four different kinds of flowers (e.g. orchids and plum) or seasons (e.g. winter and spring).
In the main Dynasty Adventure mode, players move onto the next board once two magic gold tiles are found and matched. A map screen shows players traveling through the various Dynasties, beginning with Xia in 2000 B.C. and ending off with Qing in the 20th century. New background art is unlocked with each of the 11 Dynasties.
One of the more unique and interesting features in Mahjong Escape is the introduction of power-ups, special tiles that perform a specific function. The first one you’ll encounter is a key that opens a locked tiles on the board. Later on, players will see joker tiles that can be used with any other tile on the board and magnetic tiles that can pull another tile towards it in order to make a match.
Another unique feature in the game is unlocking ancient Chinese wisdom after completing each of the 50-odd boards (roughly five per Dynasty). Examples include "A smile will gain you ten more years of life," "Wherever you go, go with all your heart" and "If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else." These proverbs fit the relaxing game-play and tranquil Chinese music.
The second Mahjong Escape mode is Classic, which lets players choose from one of 126 different board layouts, such as a cat, diamond, spider, key or 3-D cube.
Regardless of the mode chosen, you can choose from one of three difficulty levels, plus you can decide if you want the game to reveal which tiles can be paired up on the board or not (note: Mahjong is tougher when you can’t see these tiles highlighted!). Players can also choose from one of six tile sets.
Aside from the fact there are dozens – nay, hundreds – of Mahjong games on the market, there’s not much to complain about with Mahjong Escape; the game offers two fun modes, beautiful graphics and music, and thought-provoking Chinese proverbs.
Perhaps what’s missing is some information on each of the Dynasties, such as a splash screen with some interesting facts. Another idea: maybe the game’s sequel can reward good players with the ability to unlock additional tile sets, ancient wisdom or new tile layouts (e.g. "Good job! You just unlocked the "Peacock" board in Classic mode").
Also, I’m a fan of player customization and this game doesn’t offer any; it would have been fun to import my own background art, tile sets or music.
Nitpicking notwithstanding, Mahjong Escape is fun, relaxing — and even educational. It’s actually one of the finer Mahjong games around so be sure to download the free 60-minute trial to try before you buy.