Mao is a card game in which the rules are made up as the game progresses. Though it may seem such a game would never work, a number of checks and balances exist to make Mao fair and enjoyable. The rules below are my own house version and are in no way official. Of course, by its very nature Mao doesn’t have any “official” rules. Many variations of these rules can be found at Wikipedia’s Mao article.
My favorite theory for the origin of the game is that it is named after the prominent dictator Mao Zedong. According to this theory, the game of Mao is a parody of Communist China, where, purportedly, nobody knows the laws until they break them and are penalized. The idea of adding new rules without telling anyone is also part of this parody.
Many people play Mao with regular playing cards, but I was taught the game using UNO cards. All the special cards (skip, reverse, draw two, and wilds) are removed from the deck, leaving only the numbered cards (0-9). Since the special cards make up such a large portion of a standard UNO deck, it can be convenient to use two UNO decks, but this is certainly not necessary.
Mao is played in a series of hands. The point of each hand is to be the first player to get rid of all their cards. The winner of each hand has the privilege of making up a new rule that will apply to all successive hands. Hands continue until a predetermined time or when players agree to stop playing.
To begin a hand, an equal number of cards are dealt to each player (the number is decided by the dealer and may be different for each hand). The remaining cards become the stock (or draw) pile and the top card of the stock is turned over to start the discard pile. Players are not allowed to pick up their cards until the dealer has done so, but the dealer cannot pick up his cards until the game is officially in play.
To start the hand, the dealer makes the following announcement: “The name of the game is Mao.” At this point, the game has begun and all rules are in full force, including the no talking rule. If the overturned card has any special rules associated with it (see “Initial rules” and “New rules” below), these rules must be followed by the dealer. Play then passes to the dealer’s left and continues clockwise around the table.
At each turn, a player may play (discard) a card from their hand that matches the color or rank of the top card on the discard pile. If a player has no legal card to play, that player draws the top card of the stock, and may either play it or place it in their hand. A player may choose to draw the top card of the stock even if they have a legal play (and even when it is not their turn; afterall, they are only hurting themselves). When a player plays a card, they must follow any special rules associated with the card. After a player plays or draws, play passes to the next player.
These rules do overlap and compound on one another. For instance, if a player played a green 8, she would have to say “Green 8; blue” (or whatever color she wished to declare). If a player played a green 2, and it happened to be his second to last card, he would have to say, “Green 2; have a nice day; Mao.” In the case of overlapping rules, the order of the phrases does not matter.
Like chess, where a player’s turn is not over until he removes his hand from his piece, a player cannot be penalized in Mao until she lifts her finger from the card she plays. This gives the player plenty of time to say the phrases she needs to say without fear of being penalized until after she is done.
If a player notices another player violating any rule, he should carry out a penalty. The penalizing player should pass two cards to the offending player and announce the penalty with a description of the offender’s error.
Some examples of common penalties are:
In the case of a player not declaring a color, the player should still declare a new color after they’ve been penalized. In the case of an out of turn play or a wrong card, the played card should be returned to the player in addition to the two card penalty.
If a penalty is given in error, any player may call, “Mispenalty.” In this case, the two cards should be taken from the mispenalized player and given to the mistaken penalizer.
If there is any debate about a penalty, it may be discussed only in a point of conversation.
As in UNO, the first player to discard all his cards wins the hand and the deck should be shuffled and a new hand dealt. The winner of the hand is allowed to introduce a new rule that will be in effect in all subsequent hands (but not subsequent games). The player is not required to reveal the new rule to the other players. The other players will need to figure out the new rule based on the penalties they receive for violating it.
For example, the new rule may be that players should say “I’m a monkey” each time they play an odd yellow card. The first player to play an odd yellow card will be penalized for not saying “I’m a monkey.” The other players might assume that the rule concerns all yellow cards. If a player then plays an even yellow card and says, “I’m a monkey,” he would be penalized for talking. In this way, players will slowly be able to figure out the new rule. Players who figure out new rules quickly will have a decided advantage over players who remain confused.
As new rules are introduced to the game, you may find yourself accumulating lots of cards. Trust me, the fun of Mao is not in winning, but in laughing and having a good time. It’s a crazy game, and the sooner you learn to just roll with it, the more fun you’ll have.
The most fun you can have with Mao is introducing new players to the game without explaining any of the rules. I love telling people, “It’s just like UNO; you’ll catch on quickly,” then dealing the cards and letting the hilarity begin. Enjoy!