In Chinese they are called "Si Se Pai", which means Four Color Cards. They were used by the lower class to play games, and are intended to be easy and cheap to make, especially since gambling was/is illegal and there was a need for cards that could be disposed easily. Its cousins, Mahjong, Xiangqi (Chinese Chess), and Go are games that have more expensive sets. It is because of the lower class connection that the rules are seldom written down -- it is an oral tradition.
I learned this game from watching my parents and aunts and uncles play. Almost every time I play with my parents, I learn a new rule. Since the rules are never written down, during game play, we would encounter new situations. I think it depends a lot on who is playing. Also, a lot of the rules are mainly etiquette rules. So according to the real rules it's perfectly all right to do something, but it may not be something you "should" do. If you are gambling, there are also penalties involved when someone is caught violating a rule.
The deck consists of 112 cards. Like the name of the game, they come in four colors: Green ; White; Yellow; Red
There are 7 types of cards, which are the same characters as in Chinese Chess:
Of each type, there are 4 of each color, which makes 28 cards per color. During game play, you'll need to be able to recognize the character and color of the card.
The object of the game is similar to gin - create a winning "hand", where every card belongs to a group. Groups can be anywhere from 1 to 4 cards. You are 20 cards, but a winning hand has 21. Each card can be counted in only 1 group. For example, you cannot use the same Horse card to be both in a pair and in a "Field Group".
3 cards: There are a lot of these.
This game is usually played with 4 people. Sometimes we play with 3, but it is pretty uninteresting to play with only 2. I've never tried to play with more than 4. Like Mahjong, having 4 players balances it out somehow, each player representing one of the four winds. You should have a flat playing surface big enough to have a draw pile in the middle, playing ground in front of each player, and playing ground for discard piles between players. The 4 players should all sit facing each other.
First, shuffle the cards and choose a dealer. We usually shuffle by tossing them around and then trying to put them back into a stack. It is impossible to shuffle like you would a regular deck of cards. After you put them into a stack, you can cut them a few times. The person sitting in front of the dealer makes the final cut.
Dealing from the top, the dealer should give himself 6 cards, then continue around counter-clockwise, giving each person 5 cards at a time until the dealer has 21, and everyone else has 20. This is because the dealer starts the game by discarding a card. The rest of the cards are called the Draw Pile and placed in the middle. Draws are always taken from the top of the Draw Pile. Alternatively, you can deal 20 cards to everyone and have the dealer start the game by drawing from the pile. (Since the card drawn is always shown to everyone, there is a difference!)
Players should hold their cards in a fan so that other players cannot see what they have. It takes practice to be able to hold all the cards. Usually, I hold the cards by one end in a pile facing me, and use my other hand to fan it out. If you want to set aside cards that are already in groups and do not anticipate using them during game play, you should put them face down.
Rules to note and observe before starting game play:
If you were dealt 4 identical cards (a quad), you must display them in your playing area. For scoring purposes, you might want to place them at the top, away from other groups you will be displaying later during game play.
If you were dealt 3 identical cards (a triplet), you must announce that you have a triplet, without revealing which card it is. Sometimes, depending on how formal you want to play, players are required to place a marker (could be any object, like a coin) in his display area to indicate that he is holding a triplet in his hand. Display one marker per triplet.
Also, be aware that when dealt, and only when dealt, triplets canNOT be split up. For example, if you were dealt 3 White Horses, you cannot make a grouping of 2 White Horses and use the other 1 White Horse to make a "Field Group". This means that if the fourth card appears at any time during game play, you will be forced to make a Quad grouping.
Play begins with the dealer and continues counter clockwise. A turn will generally consist of obtaining a card, either by drawing it from the Draw Pile, taking it from the Discard Pile, or Stealing it. A turn always ends by discarding a card into the Discard Pile face up, except when winning. Cards are discarded to the player on your right so that there is one Discard Pile per player.
Draw a card by flipping over the top card on the Draw Pile so that everyone can see it. This card must be used or discarded. It cannot be saved.
Take a card from the Discard Pile by using the top card. This card cannot be discarded or saved.
You can steal a card that someone has drawn or discarded in 3 situations:
To use a card, place it in your display area and add other cards from your hand (if needed) to create a proper group. Once a group is created, it cannot be changed or added to. Generally, cards in a group are placed in a vertical column such that the newly obtained card is at the top of the column (bottom of the pile).
Notice that if played correctly, once a card is face up it should never go back into the hand. All cards obtained in a turn must be used immediately or discarded. You win if all 21 cards are in groups. You cannot win after discarding a card; you would have only 20 cards.
During game play, it is wise to observe which cards are played and discarded. Watch to see which cards are still available. Be careful when introducing a new card. When gambling, there are many penalties involved with playing a card that allows someone to win.
The total number of points should always be an odd number. If the number of points is not odd, then the player probably does not have the right number of cards, or the right combinations.
The winner gets to count all the cards for points. Some people double the winner's points if he has a quad. Everyone else gets to count points they received from being dealt triplets or quads.
When gambling, there are many ways to pay each other. In some situations, the loser (the person who played the card that caused someone to win) is penalized by having to pay on behalf of the other 2 non-winners. Everyone has to pay the winner. Sometimes, the non-winners also pay each other depending on the points. Actually, it is possible for a non-winner (if dealt many triplets/quads) to have more points than the winner (if the winner has mostly 0 point pairs). I'm not really sure what happens here. Maybe there is a winning bonus. Also, if the dealer mis-deals or if the winner does not have an odd score, they are penalized (for wasting everybody's time) by paying some token amount to everyone. I'm not really sure about the details since I don't actually play to gamble.