Mao, also known as Mau or Mow, is a shedding-type card game with a twist. Rather than having a set of rules that are strictly followed, Mao is a game that is largely composed of house rules. Mao is instead the name of a large group of slightly different games, all called Mao.
In Mao, the Player must try to deduce the “rules” of the game without being told them. In some variations, the rules change from game to game. The name refers to Mao Zedong, who used to be the leader of the Communist Party in China. The name is a joke, criticizing the arbitrary nature of the law during Mao’s time as “Chairman.”
How to Play Mao?
Mao is the game of “unspoken rules.” Utilizing a standard-pattern, 52-card Anglo-American deck, Players must deftly navigate this game, discerning the rules over the course of a game. These rules are never the same at two different tables, and some Players even change the them from game to game, allowing the winner of the last game to be the Dealer and come up with a few of their own rules to add that particular game.
As Mao is a highly customizable game, with potential secret rule changes on a game to game basis, there is no single tutorial that can be provided for Mao. Instead, below will be listed the general baseline rules of the game, and then suggestions for rule changes that will provide a more interesting gaming experience.
Mao is as much of a prank as it is a legitimate game, much of the fun is in indoctrinating a new Player and watching them struggle to play a game where the rules are not made clear. This is why it is so important not to explain the rules, and instead force the new Player to learn in a trial by fire.
Generally, Mao is played in a similar manner to Uno or Crazy 8s, where there is a pile of discards on the table, with the top card determining legal moves. The card played must be 1 higher or 1 lower rank than the top card of the discard pile.
Like in Uno, some variations of Mao add special cards with special properties, such as skip turn cards or reverse play cards.
If a legal move cannot be made, a Player must pass and draw one card from the deck.
Like in Crazy Eights, the Player to “go out” or empty their hand of cards first is the winner, and will become next round’s Chairman.
Base Rules for Mao
Although the Mao card game does not have a necessary “playbook” that determines the rules of every game like there are for many card games, there are a few guidelines that can be considered the “baseline” rules that are in nearly every game of Mao.
These base rules of Mao are the following:
- The game is played in order, with each Player getting one turn per rotation.
- Each Player must receive the same amount of cards, generally three or seven.
- The Dealer must know all the rules of the game, because the Dealer’s job is to deal out punishment cards to Players who break the rules.
- New Players cannot be told the rules of Mao, and must instead play and observe the actions of other Players around them in order to deduce the rules of the game.
- Every time a Player breaks a rule, they will be dealt one penalty card that must be added to their hand.
- The first Player to empty their hand of cards is the winner.
- The Dealer may still act as a Player.
- The Dealer should write their new rules down on a sheet of Paper, hidden from the other Players, before the start of the round. This prevents the Dealer from cheating by changing the rules secretly and arbitrarily.
Ideas for adding rules
There are numerous games to draw upon in order to find inspiration for new rules to add to Mao. The Switch card game, for example, with its special cards, can have those mechanics appropriated for Mao.
2s providing a 2-card penalty to the next Player, for example, or Aces being wildcards that can be played on any card regardless of rank.
Ideas for other rules could be drawn upon from etiquette. For example, each Player must say “Honorable Chairman” when they draw a card from the deck. If they do not, then they must be dealt another card from the Dealer.
The rules of Mao do not necessarily have to be fair. The point of the game is to have fun and break-in new Players that do not know the rules ahead of time. Mao is largely a game for fun, as an inside joke among friends.
Mao is not necessarily a game that keeps score. Normally games are decided on a case by case basis, and rarely is Mao played for money.
If Mao was a gambling game, new players would be extremely wary of playing because they are practically guaranteed to lose their money in the first game.
If multiple rounds in a single match of Mao are desired, then a number of rounds could be determined at the start of each round. The first Player to go out and empty their hand will be rewarded with becoming the new “chairman” or Dealer, and the second Player can signal the game.
In this possible variation of Mao, Player 1 becomes the Dealer and gets 0 points for that round, Player 2 also gets 0 points. All other Players will receive 1 point for each card remaining in their hand.
At the end of the requisite number of rounds, the lowest score wins.
As Mao is not a single game, but rather a collection of similar games, individualized from table to table, there is little utility in providing a single example hand for the purposes of study and analysis.
A hand of J♦, 8♣, and 3♠ might be extremely useful in a game where Jacks are considered skip cards, 8s are wild cards, and 3s reverse the order of play.
Conversely, that hand would be much less useful in a game where Jacks, 8s, and 3s have no special gameplay mechanics.
There is no single hand that has any guaranteed plays in Mao. Instead, a hand’s value can only be determined from a game-to-game basis, judging the hand based upon the rules in play at the time.
- Becoming Dealer is obviously a great advantage, as you will be the only Player at the table who will know the new rules. This allows for a significant advantage, as you can play in a way that other Players will not consider, due to their ignorance of your new rules.
- If you see a group of friends playing Mao, watch at least one game before you join in. This way, you can see at least a few of the rules and try to discern what they are, before hopping into the game. You’ll likely still lose without knowing the totality of the rules, but it will be more comfortable to play.
- If you are Playing a Mao variation with special cards, try to play cards that are likely candidates for being special cards (Aces, 2s, Jokers) after you have seen another player successfully use them. This way you won’t receive a punishment card.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the origins of the name Mao?
The name of the game is a reference to the reign of Mao Zedong, who ruled China as a dictator from 1949-1976. The name is a criticism of the Rule of Law in China at the time. The game therefore “simulates” following the law in a country where law is arbitrary.
How many cards does each Player get?
Mao is a highly customizable game, with each table potentially following slightly different rules. There are no set rules in Mao, only ones that are considered generally “baseline.”
In general, Mao games will have Players be dealt 3 or 7 cards for their initial deal. However, this number can be altered upon preference.
The only requirement that must be true in all games of Mao: Each Player receives the same number of cards. It matters less how many cards are dealt, but as a Shedding game in order for “fair” play each Player must start with the same number of cards.
The point of Mao is not to play fair, but in shedding games, starting the game with even one less card than the rest of the Players is a massive advantage.
What are the rules of Mao?
“The only rule I can tell you is this one” Is a phrase commonly used among all variations of Mao. As the point of Mao is for Players to learn the rules by observation, generally the above phrase is the only rule that veteran players may share with new ones.
That is to say, the only rule you can tell a newbie is “The first rule is that I cannot tell you the rest of the rules.” Explaining the rules of Mao would defeat the purpose of the game.
How many people can play Mao at a time?
The Mao card game can be played with many Players at once, if desired. As each Player only gets, generally, 3 to 7 cards at the start, there is room for many Players.
However, as the dealer must concentrate and catch each Player’s mistakes, it may become substantially more work for the Dealer as the Player count increases.