Mao (game)

From Academic Kids

Mao (also sometimes called Chairman, Dictator, Maul or Maui or, in Mongolia, Mangarti) is a card game. It is forbidden to tell a new player Mao's rules; it is sometimes described to new players simply with "The only rule I can tell you is this one." Mao's distinguishing feature is that players must discover the rules of the game as it progresses, by observing the behavior of other players that have played before and who have therefore deduced most of the rules already, or by playing the game themselves. A player that breaks a rule is penalized by being given an additional card from the deck. The person administering the penalty must declare what the culprit incorrectly did or failed to do, but not what the player was supposed to do. Also, as one might suspect with a game of this nature, there are many variants of Mao in existence. Rules will vary from variant to variant.



Mao is possibly descended from the German game Mau Mau, which has similar principles. Alternately, the name may be a reference to Mao Zedong; this theory proposes that the game of Mao is a parody of Communist China, where nobody purportedly knows the laws until they break them and are penalized. The idea of changing the rules without telling anyone is also part of this parody.

Mao began gaining popularity in the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford around 1975, though it was probably first invented some time before then. The Mao Page at John Macleod's card games site [1] ( also points out an interesting link to a passage from an Arthur Machen short story written in 1899.

Another story (probably false) is that Chairman Mao played this game with his prisoners, but instead of penalty cards, they lost a finger when violating the rules.

The game is somewhat reminiscent of Calvinball, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Some rules

Ideally, a new player will learn the game from another the way it was meant to be learned. The following is intended for those how are interested in creating their own Mao variant or who are otherwise interested in the game without the desire to play it "as intended."

Public rules

The exact set of rules divulged to new players varies between groups of players: some groups will say only "the only rule I can tell you is this one", some groups reveal the goal of eliminating cards, and some groups might outline the "meta-rules". For instance:

'You may join or rejoin the game at any time by taking a place in the circle and drawing five cards. The object of the game is to eliminate all your cards. If someone catches you breaking a rule, they may give you a card from the draw pile with a statement of the offence. When you have eliminated all your cards, you say "Mao", which accrues you the right to introduce a new rule when you rejoin the game. You may introduce such a new rule by saying "new rule" and then enforcing infractions.'

Variant rules

Once all players in a certain area know the ruleset, it may be interesting for them to abandon all 'normal' rules and have each player make up a rule of his own at the very beginning of the game. This variant is known as "Dutch Mao" (and probably several other names). It has no restrictions on what cards to play (other than those made by the players) and can get very confusing, especially if multiple rules concerning turn order are in effect simultaneously. In order to avoid interaction which would make the game unplayable, a variant called Cleopatran or Cleopatra's Mao has been developed. In this variant the game master makes up three rules (which he can set to interact in funny ways). Ideally, this does not upset the game balance, because once the game master fails to correct others breaking his rules, he is obliged to take two cards.

Rules of play

Mao is a card game of the Shedding family (also called the Stops family) in which the objective is to get rid of all of the cards in your hand. It is very similar to the card game UNO. Each player is dealt an initial hand with an equal number of cards; the exact number of cards dealt varies, but is generally either five or seven. The size of the deck also varies; it is good to have approximately one 52-card deck for every two or three players (or, in games with new players, one deck for every player), but missing or extra cards are not terribly important to gameplay. (Two decks combined is common; matching card backs aren't important, either.) Once the cards are dealt, the remaining cards are placed face down in a stack in the middle of the table, and the top card from the stack is turned over and placed next to it. In some variants, play commences with the player to the left of the dealer and proceeds clockwise; in others, the dealer chooses who begins and which direction it proceeds. Many variants penalize players for looking at their hands before the game begins or before the dealer looks at his or her hand.

A player may play any card in his hand which matches either the value or the suit of the card currently lying face-up on the table. The card played must be placed on top of this card, and the next player will have to play a card that matches the new one. If the player has no cards he can play, he must instead draw a new card from the top of the stack lying face-down and, in most variants, say something such as "Pass" or "Penalty Card". Usually, his turn is lost and he cannot play after he draws a card.

There are several special effects caused by specific cards being played. Keep in mind that there are numerous variants of Mao, and each variant will have it's own unique rules. Following are several examples of possible or common effects:

  • An ace often causes the next player to miss his turn.
  • A two or an eight often cause the direction of play to reverse (e.g., if it was proceeding clockwise, it now goes counterclockwise).
    • In another variant, a player may lay as many twos as he has in his hand in one turn.
  • If a three is played, the player may have to announce the name of the card (e.g. "three of clubs").
  • Each four may have the name of a Beatle ascribed to it, and that name must be correctly called to avoid penalty.
    • Alternatively, some variations have the player say "salted peanuts" and snap when a four is played.
  • Fives may require a high five with the dealer to avoid penalty.
  • The first time a six is played, the player must call (or, in some variants, sing) "Jim Morrison is dead". Each subsequent time a six is played, the player must call "X is dead", where X is a well-known dead person whose name has not previously been used in that session of play. Special penalties apply to any player who calls "Chairman Mao is dead."
  • If it is a seven, the player who played the card must announce "have a nice day" and, in some variants, the next player must draw an additional card (or 2 additional cards) before playing his turn.
    • If the next player also plays a seven, he must announce "have a -very- nice day" and the player after him would draw two (or four) cards before playing; this progression continues with one additonal "very" until a non-seven card is played.
  • If a spade is played, the player must verbally announce the name of the card (e.g. "six of spades"). Sometimes other suits are announced as well, depending on the variant.
    • One variant makes it the spade rules only applied only after a seven of spades are played
  • If a ten is played, the player must say "I'm crazy and I'm proud of it."
  • If a jack is played, anyone can call out the name of a suit and that jack is treated as if it was of that suit.
  • When a queen is played, the player must say "Please salute the queen," and every player must salute. In some variants, a similar rule requires a player to say "All praise Chairman Mao" when a king is played.
  • In some variations, a player must slap the table every time s/he draws a card.
  • Finally, in some variations of the game, if a player straightens a messy pile of cards, he is penalized by the dealer for "being a neatnik", but a player must straighten the deck when he plays a six. If the player fails to do this, he is penalized by the dealer.

In many variants, during the game, no speech is allowed other than that required by the rules. Some players feel that this rule reduces the amount of fun had while playing the game (especially for new players) and allow speech not required by the rules, as long as that speech does not conflict with any other rules in play.

Examples of particular speech rules include:

Point of Order. Any player (or only the dealer, in some variations) may at any time announce "point of order," at which point all players must put down their cards while discussion takes place. This time can be used to go to the bathroom, discuss a ruling, or to ask whose turn it really is. The point of order ends when the player that called point of order announces "end point of order," at which point the cards are picked back up and play resumes. Players may not pick up their hands until the dealer picks up his own hand. The dealer is free to penalize any who break this rule, for "fondling the cards" or "premature peeking". Additionally, dealer may penalize anyone who say the word "Point of Order" during Point of Order, but can say "Point of O", "P of Order", "P of O", and etc. This rule is a very hard one to catch on to. In many variants, during a Point of Order (that is, from the time that a person calls "Point of Order" until that same person calls "End Point of Order"), no players (including the dealer) are permitted to touch their cards at all.

Questions. In some variants, all players (including the dealer) are prohibited from asking questions. This rule is sometimes interpreted so as to prohibit formulating an utterance as a question, while permitting an utterance to be formulated as a statement that invites a response: for example, "What time is it?" would be prohibited, but, "I do not know what time it is, and I would like to know" would be permitted. In some variants, the prohibition on asking questions (and perhaps the prohibitions on swearing and blasphemy as well) are suspended during a Point of Order.

Swearing. Many variants prohibit swearing.

Blasphemy. Many variants prohibit blasphemy (including taking in vain the name of God, Jesus Christ, or (in some variants), Chairman Mao.

Last Card. Some variants require the player to announce "Last card" when he/she only has one card in his/her hand. In variants where a player who violates a speech rule is penalized repeatedly until he/she corrects the violation, the person would then be penalized again for "Lying" upon correcting his/her violation by calling "Last Card", since he/she would by that point have multiple cards due to the penalties.

Mao. A player with only one card left must call out "last card," and a player with no cards left must call out "Mao" to win.

Cumulative effect of speech rules. In many variants, violations of speech rules are cumulative. Thus, if a player were to utter, "What the fuck?", this would constitute a violation of both the "Question" and the "Swearing" prohibitions, and the violator would be penalized for both.

In some variants, particular players are assigned particular titles, and particular rights or duties accrue to that player by virtue of that title. Examples: The dealer might have the title "Chairman Mao" or "Game Master" and be the ultimate authority over whether a rule was broken. A player other than the dealer might have the title "Custodian of the Deck" and be the only player entitled to touch or handle cards during a Point of Order. (Typically, the Custodian of the Deck is charged with ensuring that piles of cards on the table are tidy.) A player other than the dealer might have the title "Minister of Foreign Affairs", and be the only player authorized to speak to people who are not playing the game.

There is a time limit of approximately five seconds for each turn; if exceeded, the player gets a penalty card and either loses their turn or gets another penalty every five seconds thereafter.

Most times a penalty is called, one card is given to the offender. If the call was wrong, the caller of a penalty can be given the card back with a reason of "bad call". If the name of the game is mentioned at any time during play, the offender is penalized with at least two cards and sometimes a ridiculous number of cards, like thirty or fifty. Alternatively, this may only apply for the last card a player discard ("SFU variant": If they forgot to adhere to a certain rule, they will have to get penalty card for the mistake, plus "Lying", Cheating", "Stealing", "Taking the name of the great leader in vain". However, if Mao is just announced in the middle, it's just the last mentioned call.)

There are often many additional details and rules involved in a particular game of Mao, as the game lends itself quite readily to mutation. When playing multiple rounds of Mao, it is customary for a player (often the winner of the previous round, sometimes the next person to deal) to add one new rule to the game; after many rounds, many new rules will accumulate. Some players argue that having the player that won the previous round create new rules is unfair because that player will have an advantage in the next game and will be the most likely to win again, and suggest using a method which is fair to all players (such as simply rotating every deal). When playing with new players, some variants have a short period, generally 2 or 3 games, where no new rules are introduced to prevent the new players from being overwhelmed. Naturally, only the person who created the rule will initially know what it is. Some Mao players insist that 2 players know the new rule, so it can be consistently enforced. In that case, the winner tells the player with most (fewest?) cards about the new rule, or the dealer. Alternatively, player can tell people on what level they have (Base plus 2, for example, indicate two new rules in addition to the original base rules).

Keep in mind that these rules apply to only some variants; The game of Mao has mutated into a wide variety of possibilities, and each version will be unique in some ways and similar in others. In addition, newly introduced rules can totally change the nature of the game and can often take into account many unusual aspects - such as if a card is symmetrical or if it is a prime number. Like many role-playing games, the game will be much more fun if there are some experienced players present who have an appropriate attitude.

The rule-changing nature of Mao makes it a relative of Nomic, especially Imperial Nomic.

External links


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