How to choose the right Mahjong set for your needs? There are lots of different options and deciding between them can be difficult. Here's a simple checklist to make things a bit easier. It helps a lot — actually it's downright critical — if you know which rules you will be using. If you don't have a clue, check out Choosing the Rules and come back here afterwards.
- Correct number of tiles. For some variants of Mahjong, 136 tiles is enough, some require 144, some 152 and some even more. Of course, the mixture of those tiles matters a lot, too, but if you're interested in the American Mahjong played by the National Mah Jongg League, you can pass any set with less than 152 tiles.
- Correct special tiles. For American Mah Jongg, you'll need 8 Jokers. These are pretty much specific to the American game and appear in few sets that aren't particularly American. For the Chinese game you need four flowers and four seasons. These come in just about every set. If you want to play Modern Japanese Mahjong, also known as Riichi or Reach, you need a set with four red fives — for these you need a specific Japanese Riichi set. However, you can play Riichi without the red fives, not everybody uses them even if they have them.
- Western indices. Western players probably want their tiles with western indices, that is number tiles with numbers 1-9 and winds marked as E, S, W, N. These are not absolutely mandatory, learning the necessary Chinese characters is not that hard, but for some players it's a show-stopper and for casual play having a set with indices is a good idea. If you're happy with a basic set, finding one with indices is really easy, but if you want something more special like a Japanese Riichi set, it can get tricky.
- Material. There are two options, plastic or bone and bamboo. Bone and bamboo sets are more "authentic", while plastic sets are perhaps more convenient — you can for example wash the plastic tiles in case they get dirty. Also, plastic tiles offer more variety. Don't think of the plastic as cheap or nasty, if you avoid the cheapest sets you'll find the plastic sets a pleasure to handle and play with.
- Other bits and pieces. To play a game of Mahjong, you'll need some dice. Most sets should come with the necessary dice, but if they won't, just add few six-sided dice. Not a problem. You'll also need rules, but many sets that come with rules come with really bad rules, so get better rules elsewhere — see Choosing the Rules for sources. What else? Wind indicators — there are variety of different styles — are useful to indicate the player winds, but if the set doesn't have any, just write EAST, SOUTH, WEST and NORTH on four slips of paper. Some like to use scoring bones, sticks or chips, but pen and paper will do just as well (and in many cases are a better option).
Many vintage sets are made for Western markets and thus have the indices. However, you won't find old 1920's sets with the necessary jokers. The reason is simple: the current 8 jokers and 8 flowers rule is from 1971. When National Mah Jongg League was founded in 1937, they used 8 flowers and no jokers. The number of flowers increased until they had 20 flowers in 1960. After that the number of flowers decreased and the number of jokers increased, until the current 8/8 split was reached in 1971.
So, if an old set has eight flowers and eight jokers, it can't be that old. The authentic 1920's won't have any jokers. If you want such an set to use with modern American Mah Jongg, you need to find a set with at least 16 flowers or empty tiles (that is possible) and fix eight of them with joker stickers. See Tom Sloper's FAQ for more info.
An excellent place to go hunting for interesting Mahjong sets is Yellow Mountain Imports eBay store, which has a good selection of American sets with Jokers and indices, Chinese sets without indices or Jokers and even Japanese Riichi sets. They have excellent service and are a trusted seller. I've bought a Mahjong set from them and can give the highest recommendations.