Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Gaming tiles from Singapore

[Gaming tiles], 32c. Anon. 

The tiles in their box. 

Some years ago, I saw a set of gaming-tiles from a Mahjong shop in Singapore. The tiles were extremely peculiar. The proprietor was ignorant about their function, and the objects themselves seemed very old. I nonetheless bought them, and they have been a mystery ever since. 

The box contained 32 tiles. The design of the tiles resembled the ones used for mahjong, but the similarities ended there. 

The complete deck

The complete 'Deck' contained 32 tiles, engraved on long, thin pieces of plastic. This sort of shape is typically associated with Chinese dominoes. But it had radically different subjects. As mentioned above, it had mahjong-like pips with ranks from 1 to 10, plus three 'Court cards', indexed in large Roman letters. The result is a sort of single-suited deck.

The Pips (1)
There is an unequal number of copies of each subject, as you can see here. There are two copies of the ace, the 2, 3, 4,5, 6, and 7 have three copies each. The 8,9 10 and courts again have two copies. 

The Pips (2)
The 7, 8, 9 and 10.  Up to the 8, the arrangement of pips agrees with those in mahjong tiles. The Nine and 10 diverge.  In mahjong tiles, the pips for the Nine are arranged in 3 rows of three. In this deck, they are arranged 5,4. The Ten is absent in a mahjong deck, so our engraver has arranged it 6,4

Three of the six courts. Note the large roundel that shows their rank. 

What sort of game is played with this deck? We can speculate. Counting was clearly an element in the game. But how the numbers were used is another open question. Why are there some cards with two copies of each, and others with three? A game like black-jack is a likely candidate. But the uneven distribution of cards would make the deck awkward to use for such a game. . There are Seven subjects that have two copies of each card (A, 8,9,10, J,Q,K), and Six subjects that have 3 copies of each (2,3,4,5,6,7)

Number of copies
Ace, 8, 9, 10
Jack, Queen, King,
14 cards.
18 cards
Total number in deck -----------------------------------------
32 cards

Another possibility is a 'comparison' game, like Daun Tiga or Koo Kiew. The relative scarcity of high-ranked cards in the deck might make these games more challenging. 

The other three courts. 

The game might also have been played with English playing-cards, as the inclusion of the courts suggests. Three of the courts have a blue "Index", and the other three have this painted in red. Does the difference in coloring mean the color of the cards was significant in the game, or is it merely the maker wanting to introduce variety? 
The tiles. 

I do not think the set is incomplete. The tiles fit the box provided perfectly. The distribution of the ranks seems unlikely to be resulting from chance. But if it is not chance, what is the rationale? We can only speculate.

If any reader has more information on what these tiles are, or what game is played with them, the author will be most grateful.

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