It would be heresy for me to tell you the rules of Mao. The only rule I can tell you is this one.

It is best to learn to play under a Mao master, but if there aren't any around, you have to make due however you can. There are many, many versions of Mao out there, but this is the one that seems most familiar to me, as lots of people played it in my high school. So, here is a sample game which should allow you to divine the rules if you study hard and pay attention.

There are four players, Andy, Daryl, Justin, and Kyle. Andy and Daryl know the game quite well, Kyle has played a couple of times, and Justin has never played. Andy and Kyle smile at each other. It's the smile you smile when you know a secret that nobody else does, and you know you're going to get some quality entertainment out of it. A look of intense concentration has come over Kyle... this time he's going to pick up the last few rules that he hasn't figured out. Justin looks confident and in control, even though everybody knows he's completely bewildered. That's just the way Justin is.

Andy is the dealer. Daryl is sitting to his left, Kyle is across from him, and Justin is to his right. Andy shuffles two decks that look totally different into the same pile, and begins to deal. He hands out cards face down, starting with Daryl, until everyone has five cards. He places the rest of the pile in the center, face down.

Justin picks up his cards. No one else moves. They are all looking at him. He quickly puts his cards down as Andy reaches to the pile, picks up a card, slides it face down to Justin, and says "Touching cards too soon."

Justin laughs, "You dirty bitch!"

Andy calmly slides yet another card to Justin. "Swearing." Before Justin can do anything else dumb, Andy picks up his cards and says "The game is Mao. Play will proceed to my left." He places the top card on the pile face up on the table, forming a discard pile. The card is the 4 of Spades. Andy then says "4 of Spades."

Daryl right away throws a 9 of Spades onto the top of the discard pile and says "9 of Spades".

Kyle puts down a 9 of Hearts.

Justin's got the idea. He lays a 7 of Hearts and says "7 of Hearts." He looks around expecting looks of amazement due to his fast learning.

Andy studies his cards for a moment, then reaches to draw a card. He pauses, looks at Justin, and then takes two cards off the top of the pile and slides them to him, saying, "Unnecessary talking; failure to say 'Have a nice day'." Justin groans, and Andy again reaches for the pile, but this time takes a card for himself and says, "Penalty card."

Daryl plays a Jack of Hearts, and immediately Kyle shouts "Spades!" as Andy says "Diamonds!"

Andy then says "Point of Order" and everyone but Justin puts down their cards. "Touching cards during a P of O," Kyle says as he slides Justin another card. Justin takes the card and puts it into his ever-growing hand.

"Touching cards during a P of O!" urges Daryl as he passes another card Justin's way. Justin wisely puts down his cards and doesn't touch the newest one. He now is the proud owner of 10 cards.

"Anyway," says Andy, "who called first? Me or Kyle?"

"Kyle got it," says Daryl. "Spades. End Point of Order."

Everyone picks up their cards. Justin is the last to do so, and before play resumes he says, "Wait, so can anybody end a Point of Order?"

Everyone puts their cards back down, and Justin is quick to follow suit. Daryl passes a card to him. "Asking about the rules."

Justin doesn't touch his card yet. "So, are we in a Point of Order now?"

Andy passes him another card. "Saying P of O while in a P of O."

"Ohhhh..."

Andy says, "Remember, we're on Spades. End Point of Order."

Kyle lays a 7 of Spades and says "Have a nice day!"

"Failure to say '7 of Spades'," Daryl says as he passes a card to Kyle.

"Penalty Card," Justin says as he takes another card. He's starting to learn now.

"8 of Spades" says Andy as he plays an 8 of Spades.

At first, Daryl doesn't do anything, then he takes a card and passes it to Justin. "Failure to play within 5 seconds."

Kyle plays a 3 of Spades and says "3 of Spades."

Daryl plays a 3 of Clubs.

Andy glares at his cards for a moment, then picks up a card from the face down pile and puts it with his hand.

Justin plays a King of Clubs.

Kyle plays an Ace of Clubs and says "Last Card!"

Daryl sulks, glaring at Kyle.

Andy plays a 2 of Clubs.

Justin lays a 7 of Clubs and astutely says "Have a nice day!"

Smiling, Kyle plays his last card, a 7 of of Diamonds, and says "Have a very nice day!" He is now completely out of cards.

Andy grins and slides a card to Kyle. "Failure to win," he says.

"Oh, man, I forgot!" exclaims Kyle, and Justin quickly passes him a card. "Talking."

The game continues. Andy lays another 7 of Hearts and says "Have a very, very nice day!"

Daryl takes a card. "Penalty Card."

Kyle draws a card out of the pile.

Justin sets down a 6 of Spades.

Andy passes Justin a card. "Failure to call the card." Justin accepts his penalty, unhappily eyeing his 12 cards. Andy then lays an Ace of Spades on the discard pile and says "Ace of Spades."

Kyle pauses for a second, then jolts upright and quickly plays a 2 of Spades and says "2 of Spades."

Justin pauses, hoping there's not some other rule that's going to hit him this time. He plays a 2 of Diamonds.

Andy puts down a 2 of Hearts and says "Last Card."

Daryl lays an 8 of Hearts and looks apprehensively back to Andy.

Andy smirks and puts down his final card, and 8 of Diamonds and says "Mao."

Everyone returns their cards to the pile, and Daryl begins a new game, dealing 5 cards to each player. "The game is Mao; play will be to my right." He glances at Andy. "A new rule is in effect." Unbeknownst to anyone else, Andy's new rule is that any Diamond skips two players. This overrides any rules already governing the Ace of Diamonds. Daryl turns over the top card on the face down pile. It is an Ace of Hearts.

Andy plays an Ace of Diamonds.

Kyle plays a 2 of Diamonds.

Andy slides Kyle a card and says "Playing out of turn," and then turns to Daryl, gives him a card, and says "Failure to play."

Daryl, with a look of consternation, accepts the card. Kyle, however, passes it back and shouts "Bad call!" Andy slides the card back at him and says "New rule..."

...and the game continues...

To paraphrase The Matrix: Unfortunately, nobody can be told what Mao is; you have to see it for yourself.

I have never actually played a game of Mao, but for those of you who have the attention span of an Eloi*, I'll attempt to derive some basic Mao rules from ApoxyButt's write-up above. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

It starts with Crazy Eights or Uno...

...and makes these basic changes:
  • The wild card is not necessarily eights, and the suit of a wild card is called by the first to call it. There is a Point of Order in case of a dispute, but this is somewhat complex and requires additional analysis (later).
  • Say the name of the card you play (e.g. "9 of spades").
  • Say the one card left phrase when you play your second to last card. For example, in a game set up to be like Uno, the one card left phrase would be "Uno!"
  • Say Mao when you play your last card.
  • Do not talk out of turn.
  • As in most sports, there is a delay of game penalty. If you fail to play a card within about five seconds, or you have no legal plays, you draw a penalty card.
  • If another player catches you breaking any of the rules within five seconds after you break the rule, the other player states the name of the rule, and you draw a penalty card.
  • Rules are enforced more strictly against newbies than against the dealer's friends.
  • Different versions of the game are played in different regions, starting with different basic sets of house rules, unlike the similar game Bartok whose basic rules are formalized and must be clarified truthfully on request.
  • At the start of every game within a match, the dealer adds (but does not reveal) one or more new rules. For those not experienced in Mao, figuring out the new rules and keeping track of all the rules can be extremely difficult.

The first rule of Mao

is you DO NOT talk about Mao. From the description above, I gathered that some of the more "interesting" rules in effect were:
  • When playing a seven, instead of saying the card's name, say "Have a nice day."
  • The one card left phrase is "Last Card!" spoken in a "First Post!" tone.
  • There may have been other rules in effect that are not mentioned in my write-up.
Thanks to WyldWynd and m_turner for various clarifications.

DISCLAIMER:

WyldWynd says "fortunately your WU is wrong enough to merely add to the confusion ;o)"

*The Eloi are the cute people from H. G. Wells's The Time Machine who look like those blasted Precious Moments figurines.

The rules not explained above are not the non-standard standard Cambridge rules, and this set here isn't either:

Armitage, Brewster, Crow, Derleth and Exham sit down to play Mao.

A: You have five cards. Follow suit or number. The game starts now, on the dealer's left.
B plays the five of diamonds.
C follows it with the five of spades.

A: Failure to say 'five of spades'.
A hands C a card.
Pause.
A hands C another card.

A: Repeated failure to say 'five of spades'!
C: Bugger. Five of spades.
A: Ungentlemanly conduct. Talking.
A gives C two more cards.
D plays the seven of spades, saying
'Seven of spades. Have a nice day.'
E: Taking a penalty card. He takes two cards.
A plays the ten of spades, saying
'ten of spades'.
Pause.
A hands C a card, saying
'Failure to play'.
C plays the ten of diamonds, saying 'ten of diamonds'.
D: Talking. He gives C a card.
E plays the eight of diamonds.
D plays the eight of hearts.
E plays a joker, saying
'That's the badger! Ace of spades, ace of spades, clubs.'
C looks very blank.
A plays the three of clubs.
B plays the ace of clubs.
D shouts
'spades!'
C looks very shrewd and plays a joker, saying 'That's the badger. Jack of spades.'
A grins wickedly, hands C a card and says 'Failure to say Jack of Spades.'
C: But I DID say 'Jack of Spades'.
A: Point of Order. If you claim you said Jack of Spades, take a card for not calling the wild card. If you claim you called the wild card, my call stands. End of Point of Order.
C: Jack of Spades.
D plays the jack of hearts.
E plays the jack of clubs.
A plays the eight of clubs.
E plays the seven of clubs, and says
'Have a nice day!'
D plays the seven of diamonds and says 'Have a very nice day. Last card.'
C plays the four of diamonds.
A hands him a card, saying
'Failure to take a penalty card and state that you are doing so.'
C: Taking a penalty card. He does so.
B plays the three of diamonds.
A plays the eight of diamonds, saying
'Last card'.
B plays the six of diamonds.
C plays the ten of diamonds.
D plays the nine of diamonds, proclaiming
'Mao!'
A: Playing out of turn. Taking the name of our leader in vain. Lying. Cheating. Ungentlemanly conduct. A deals D a full hand of five cards.
E plays the queen of diamonds...


And so it goes on...

As already pointed out, rule one of Mao is: "The only rule I can tell you is this one." If you read the other rules, are taught them by anyone, or learn them in any way other than actually playing the game, you're a dirty cheater.

Unfortunately, the first rule makes it particularly easy for an experienced player to cheat. Since a new player is ignorant of the other rules, he has no way to tell if somebody starts making stuff up just to screw him. Are you finally starting to get the hang of the game? Are you, against all odds, about to actually beat somebody? You may discover that Aces and 7s suddenly switch functions for no reason, and you'll be given cards for drawing out of sequence. Take another card for "misaligned seating," and five more for "failure to recite the digits of pi backward while dancing the funky chicken." Oh look, you're losing again, how about that.

When this happens, Mao stops being a card game and turns into a lame joke. The newbie can't possibly win; the instructor might as well be cheating at solitaire. This is particularly pointless since an ignorant newbie has a very small chance of winning even a fair game of Mao.

Worse yet, the victim of this pathetic and stupid scam is now scarred for life. He'll find it almost impossible to figure out the real rules, now that this random garbage has polluted his internal cache. He'll probably lose many, many more games, even against people who play fair, as he tries to reconcile the garbage with the actual rules. This is not fun, and will likely make him give up on the game altogether.

I've seen it happen, folks, and it ain't pretty.

If this has never happened to you, you should stop reading now, lest you spoil the fun. But for the poor unfortunate victims, keep going to find out the real and actual rules of the game.

Mao works a lot like Uno or Crazy Eights. On each player's turn, he places a card from his hand on the discard pile, in such a way that it matches either the suit or the rank of the card already on top of the pile. If you cannot legally play a card, you must instead draw one. The winner is whoever runs out of cards first. This is the easy part.

It gets slightly interesting when you add the modifier cards:

  • A 2 reverses the order of play.
  • An Ace skips one player.
  • A Jack is a wild card. As soon as it hits the pile, anyone may call out a suit, and the first suit called is now the suit in play. If two people speak at exactly the same time, the first one to repeat himself wins.
  • Any spade requires the player to state the name of the card. In the case of the Jack, he must say "Jack of Spades" before he can call a suit.
  • A 7 forces the next player to draw one penalty card before his turn. Whoever played the 7 must say "have a nice day." For each additional 7 played in succession after the first, the speaker must add the word 'very', and the penalty draw is increased by one. (E.g., if I play the fourth 7 in a row, I say "have a very very very nice day," and the person after me draws 4 penalty cards.)

The real killers, though, are the rules of conduct:

  • After doing something wrong (a "violation"), the guilty player must draw a card.
  • Cheating is of course not permitted. Note that breaking a standard rule is always referred to as "cheating," even if done accidentally (which is usually the case).
  • No one may touch his cards before the dealer picks up his hand.
  • No talking is allowed, unless required by another rule, or while in a Point of Order (see below).
  • No swearing is allowed.
  • Asking about the rules is not permitted.
  • Lying, including bluffing, is not permitted.
  • The active player must play a card within 5 seconds of the start of his turn.
  • A player who has one card left must say "Last card." Failing to do so is a double violation: one for lying and one for cheating.
  • Upon playing his last card, a player must say "Mao." Failing to do so is a triple violation: one for lying, one for cheating, and one for "failure to honor the name of our great leader" (or simply "failure to win").
  • Saying "Mao" any time when you didn't actually win is a violation. This is "taking the great name of Mao in vain," on top of whatever else you did (lying, cheating, probably playing out of turn, etc.).
  • If you catch someone breaking a rule, you must hand them their penalty card and explain what rule was broken. For this purpose only, you are exempt from any rules against speaking or touching cards.
  • "Point of Order": As soon as those words are said, even unintentionally or in a sentence, all players must put their hands face-down and not touch them. Talking is allowed, and the time limit rule is suspended, but players still may not discuss the rules of the game. Saying "Point of Order" again before the point of order is ended is a violation.
  • A point of order ends when any player says "End Point Of Order." (In some variants, only the player who started the point of order can end it.) Players pick up their cards and continue the game. The "no talking" rule comes back into effect.
  • The "add a new rule" rule is a regional variant. If it is in use, the winner of any hand makes up a new rule based on cards played and/or phrases spoken, which remains in play for the rest of the session. New rules may not remove or completely contradict old rules, though they may overlap. As with the rest of the game, the new rules are discovered only by seeing what happens when they're broken.
There are tons of other variants, like the jokers wild rule in tiefling's writeup, but they vary based on where you play the game and from whom you learned it. AFAICT, the rules I've listed are common to most groups.

Interestingly enough, the version of Mao that I learned doesn't play this way.

Variations of my familiarity:

  • Talking is allowed, but not asking questions. This is likely because 1. When talking to each other, people are more likely to slip up and ask questions, 2. The game is a little too serious when you can't joke, and 3. It's easier to pull other people into the game if they ask 'what's that you're playing' and you can penalize them for asking a question, and then again for not saying "Mao"...
  • All rules must involve a verbal cue. This prevents people from having the rule involve, say, blinking their right eyelid, or something else incredibly stupid and nigh unobservable. However, the result of the verbal cue can be, as above, penalty cards, skipping other players, etc. See the Do you want to buy a duck?1 rule...
  • No penalties are applied during Point of Order, aside from looking at cards before Mao says "cards up", but the Mao controls what is discussed during one.
  • Penalty cards may not be played during the turn incurred. This keeps people with a bad hand from asking stupid questions until they get the card that they need. I have done this, to my eternal shame.
  • If the series rule is incurred (during which, you could play a 2, a 3, a 4, etc. of whatever suit) only the first and last card of the series are named. This rule was created because there was a game where face cards counted as draw fours (thus four penalty cards per card named) and as long as players could keep laying them down, the sum kept climbing until it reached a player who could not add anymore cards to the pile. Thus the aforementioned player who had to draw 96 penalty cards in one turn, and why I generally play with 3 decks at once.

That's all that comes to mind off hand, without going into the actual rules themselves.


1. See the rule by Squalor under this link to see how this works, and assume a penalty card for each step missed by anybody. Natch.

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