How to play “Mao”

“Mao” is a card game I was first exposed to in junior high, but didn’t learn to play until high school. Since then, I’ve met a number of other folks who have been exposed to Mao, but never learned to play–perhaps because the first rule of the game Mao is that you may not tell the rules to anyone. One must learn the rules by observation, and trial-and-error. Not only that–but the rules tend to change from hand to hand, making it all but impossible for the unfamiliar player catch on to the rules.

Presumably, this is where the game gets its name, too. Mao, the former dictator of China (and probably most dictatorships, and many other governments throughout history) might arrest somebody for violating a law they didn’t know existed.

Well as entertaining as it may be to refuse to tell somebody what rule they just broke, I think it’s more fun to play a game that people are willing to play with me. So… I tend to tell my friends the rules–and even then many refuse to play, claiming the game is too complicated or confusing.

Here I will outline the “strict” rules, then offer suggestions for slight variations to make the game more playable–especially for the uninitiated. As you and your group of Mao-playing friends become more familiar with the game, you may choose to play with more strict rules. But please, don’t be so strict that you frustrate any newcomers to the game. This game can be quite fun–as long as you don’t lord it over the new players.

Strict Mao Rules

  1. Never tell anyone the rules. The rest of this document violates these rules… so don’t read longer if you want the “genuine” Mao experience.
  2. Object of the game To play all of your cards
  3. Game set up This game is fundamentally similar to Uno, or Crazy Eights, but a familiarity with either of these games is not required to play Mao.

    The game may be played with a single deck of cards, but two decks is preferred, and if the number of players is great enough a third or even fourth deck may be added. The dealer deals 7 cards to each player, then places the remainder of the cards face-down in the center of the playing area–this is the draw stack. The top card on the deck is placed face-up next to the face-down deck–this is the discard pile. The dealer then announces which player will take the first turn, and whether play will move clockwise or counter-clockwise. The dealer may select himself to go first if he chooses. Players may not touch their cards until the dealer declares the beginning of game play by saying “Begin.”

  4. Taking a turn On his turn, a if the player has a valid card in hand, he may discard it by placing it on the discard pile, face-up. A valid card is any card with the same value, or the same suit. If he does not have a valid card, he must draw one card, and only one card, from the draw pile, and his turn is over. The player may not play the card drawn, even if it is valid.
  5. Special cards: Four cards have special meaning in the game of Mao. The Ace, Seven (7), Eight (8), and Queen:
    • Ace The ace acts to reverse the direction of play.
    • Seven The seven acts to skip the next player’s turn.
    • Eight The eight acts as a draw-two. When an eight is played, the following player must draw two cards, unless he has another eight in hand, and plays it. By playing a consecutive eight, the player passes the draw-two penalty on to the next player, and increases the penalty by two additional cards. This effect may be cumulative, until some player is forced to draw due to not having an eight to play. Example: If three players in a row play 8’s, the 4th player must draw 6 cards.
    • Queen A queen acts to change the suit, and in this way may be thought of as a “wild” card. However, the queen must still be played on another card of the same suit, or another queen. When a queen is played the suit is changed to the first suit called–by any player, not necessarily the player who played the queen. If two players call different suits simultaneously, the tie is broken by repeating the suit request. If the tie is followed by another tie, and an on-going shouting match occurs, whoever ends up yelling the loudest is the winer.
  6. Calling “Mao” When a player has only one card left in his hand, he must say “Mao” before any other player does so on his behalf. If another player says “Mao” first, a penalty card is awarded.
  7. Calling Clubs Whenever any player plays a card of the suit clubs, they must “call clubs.” That is, they must say the name of the card. Failure to do so is grounds for a penalty card. Example: When playing the 5 of Clubs, the player must say “5 of clubs”
  8. Same Card When playing with two or more decks, there will be duplicates of every card. At any time during game play, regardless of who’s turn it is, if a card is played that matches *exactly* a card in another player’s hand, the other player may lay his identical card saying “Same Card.” The discarding of the “same card” has no effect on game play, other than to reduce the cards in the player’s hand. If the “same card” is an 8, it does not add to the draw-two penalty, if it is an ace, it does not re-reverse direction, etc. If playing “same card” leaves the player with only one card, he must still call “Mao,” or face a penalty card if another player does so first. Lastly, if the person who calls “same card” is next in turn, he must also play–the “same card” does not count as his turn!!
  9. Speaking to non-players It is illegal to speak to non-players during game play.
  10. Point of Order There are often times when a clarification must be made, or a simple time-out must be called to refill on fizzy drinks or whatever. These are times for a “Point of Order.” Any player may call a point of order at any time simply by calling “Point of Order.” When a point of order is called, all players must immediately place their cards on the table (preferably face-down, but this is not a requirement). During a point of order, an entirely different set of rules apply:
    • Speaking to non-players During a point of order, it is permissible to speak to non-players. If the pizza guy comes to the door, be sure to call a point-of-order if you want to ask him for the total without being penalized.
    • Touching cards Players may not touch their own cards during a point of order. Once a point-of-order is called, each player has the minimum reasonable time to put their cards down before they may be penalized for touching their cards during a point-of-order.
    • Touching other’s cards with fewer than 4 While players may not touch their own cards, they may touch the cards of others, so long as the other player has at least 4 cards.
    • Ending a Point-of-Order When the interruption is over, and players are ready to resume game play, all players must in unison say “End Point of Order.”
  11. Penalty cards Penalty cards are one of the most prominent features of the game Mao. Any player may issue a penalty card to any other player whenever they feel a violation of rules has occurred. A few of these violations have been mentioned already, but will be mentioned again shortly in a comprehensive list. If there is a dispute about whether a penalty card is justified, a point of order may be called (see below), and a vote may be taken. Majority rules, and in the case of a tie, the penalty card stands.

    Reasons for penalty cards:

    • Misplay If a player plays an invalid card. Example: Discard pile shows 4 of Diamonds, and player plays a 6 of Hearts.
    • Out of turn A player plays out of turn. This commonly happens immediately after an Ace (reverse) or Seven (skip) are played.
    • Flinch A player acts as if they are going to play, but then does not. Perhaps they chose to play a different card, or began to play out of turn and realized at the last moment it was not their turn.
    • Time If a player takes too long to play. With experienced players, anything longer than 0.5 to 1.0 seconds can be considered “too long.” Multiple time cards can be played per turn, typically one per second, or one per time interval, until the slow player plays.
    • Failure to call Clubs As mentioned above, if a player lays a card with the suit of club.
    • Failure to call “Mao” Upon playing the second-to-last card, if another player calls “Mao” first, a penalty is granted.
    • Speaking to a non-player If any player speaks to a person who is not playing the game
    • Explaining the rules If you choose to follow Rule #1, then any violation should result in a penalty. Feel free to mail your penalty cards to me at the address provided below… 🙂
    • Taking one’s own penalty A player may never take their own penalty card, even if they catch themselves in an error.
    • Touching one’s own cards during a Point-of-Order, or before the start of the game A player who touches his own cards during a point-of-order, or prior to the dealer calling “Begin” at the start of play, is awarded a penalty card. This includes touching a penalty card for the purpose of moving it to his main stack of cards, or any other absent-minded touching of cards during the prohibited periods
    • Touching another player’s cards during a Point-of-Order, if the other player has fewer than 4 cards During a point of order it is not permissible to touch another player’s cards if they have fewer than 4.
  12. Winning a hand The first player to play all of his cards is the winner of the hand, and must make up a new rule; failure to obey the new rule will result in a penalty card. See below for “new rule” suggestions

For a more enjoyable experience
Now you know the “official” Mao rules. Even when playing with other experienced players, I prefer to play with a slightly modified version of the rules. I won’t list all of the rules here again, just the differences.

  • No Questions This replaces the “Don’t tell the rules” rule, and is a lot more fun, because it’s so hard to eliminate questions from normal conversation!
  • No talking to non-players I tend to eliminate this rule entirely, but some people like using it, so use your on discretion.
  • Players may take their own penalties I often discard the rule about not being allowed to take one’s own penalty card. It seems just a bit too nit-picky to me, and often confuses even experienced players. I’d rather have fun with my friends than nit-pick them to death (even though Mao is a fun way to nit-pick at your friends!)

For newbies
And finally, when I’m playing with somebody who is new at the game, here are some additional modifications I like to make to the rules… and I strongly suggest you do the same, unless you actually want to upset your new players, and convince them never to trust you with a new card game again! As your new players become more comfortable with the rules, feel free to move closer to the strict rules… but be sensitive to their comfort level, or you’ll alienate them, and lose a Mao player for life!

  • Time With new players, I eliminate the time penalty completely. After a half dozen or so hands with a new player, I’ll start adding it back in–with a good long time limit. 5 to 10 seconds at least!
  • Flinch I tend to eliminate the flinching rule entirely with new players, too.
  • Warnings in place of penalties I often hand out verbal warnings in place of penalty cards for new players. Usually for the first two or three offenses of a specific type.
  • Verbal hints Offer verbal hints to your new players about who’s turn it is, or what special meaning a card has. Example: Seven means skip, which skips Bob, so now it’s your turn, Alice
  • No new rules Make sure your new players are very comfortable with the standard rules before you begin adding new rules to confuse them!

In my experience, it takes at least 5-8 hands before the typical new player starts to get a strong grasp on the meanings of the special cards (A, 7, 8, Q). You should let each new player become comfortable with all of these cards before you stop giving them verbal clues, and probably another 5-8 hands before you start penalizing them. If you’re not sure if your new players are ready to advance to the next level; ask them. And be sensitive… most new players will be honest with you. They like the challenge of a fun game, but they like to have a chance to play along without being overwhelmed!

New Rule Ideas
Once you begin playing with new rules, a common game hold up is “Gee, what new rule should I make up?” Here are a few suggestions that have come from my experience playing Mao. You may choose to use these as-is, or you may use them as inspiration for your own new rules… you can get pretty wild if you want to!

  • When a player receives a penalty card, he must say “Thank you” (or receive another penalty card).
  • When a player plays a queen, they must speak in a British accent until another player plays a queen.
  • When a ten is played, all players must drop their cards, and move to the seat to their right.
  • When a nine is played, all players must run to touch a door handle, then back to their seat. The last player to return to their seat gets a penalty card.
  • When paying a “same card”, a player may also discard a second card of their choosing.
  • When a player plays a six, they may give a random card from their hand to the player on their left.
  • A Five acts as a “play again” card
  • Eliminate an existing rule (either a standard rule, or a rule created by another player previously).
  • No proper names may be used

If you play for very long, you may begin to be confused by all of the custom rules yourself. You may wish to set a limit of, say, 10 custom rules at a time. Then when you’ve played your 10th hand, you wipe the slate clean, and start with the official rules again. This tends to make the game more manageable and fun when playing for long periods of time.

One Comment

  1. thank you so much i played this at a friends and i just needed to clarify the rules to play with my family!!!

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