Card Games/Mao

Mao is a card game superficially similar to Uno or Crazy Eights, but with an important twist: the rules are kept secret, and can only be deduced by trial and error (by receiving card penalties for rule breaks). New rules are added as the game progresses, causing the game to gradually evolve over time.

Because the rules are figured out as one plays, it is quite a simple game to get started - all you need is one person who already knows the rules, and a deck of cards.

Due to the highly mutable nature of the game, the initial ruleset of Mao varies widely between different groups of players, and there is no one definitive way to play. Sometimes variant rulesets are named in order to distinguish them from others (eg. Cambridge Mao). In this article, we will present a common ruleset, but it is by no means an official one; we encourage you to run your own Mao games in any way that you see fit.

Starting the gameEdit

Take a deck of playing cards, including Jokers, and deal 5 cards face-down to each player. Place the remaining cards in a face-down draw pile. Turn over one card from the draw pile to start the play pile.

If there are a lot of players, multiple decks can be used; this doesn't affect the gameplay.

One player who knows the rules can announce the start of the game. This is usually done formally and can be an opportunity to supply some basic information, or to set the tone of the game. For example:

"We are playing five-card London Mao. I can tell you three rules: Play goes in a clockwise direction; you must pick up a card if you can't play; and the Joker is the Nine of Diamonds."

The method in which you announce the start of the game is up to you. Giving a few basic rules to start with can be helpful to ease new players into the game.

Giving penaltiesEdit

If any player breaks a rule, any other player may give them a penalty. Giving a penalty requires the following steps:

  • The player giving the penalty must give a penalty call - a formal declaration of what the penalty is. For example, if a player played an invalid card, the penalty call "Bad card" can be given.
  • The player giving the penalty takes one face-down card from the draw pile and gives it to the offending player. This is a penalty card. The offending player must take the card into their hand.

Giving an incorrect or invalid penalty call (eg. penalizing a player who has not broken a rule, or penalizing them for the wrong reason) is against the rules and can itself be penalized: the penalty call for this is "Bad call".

Some other caveats:

  • Players can only receive one penalty per offense (ie. multiple players cannot penalize someone for the same offense).
  • Penalties must be given within a short time of the offense (ie. you cannot penalize someone for a rule break that occurred a while ago).
  • Penalties cannot be given retroactively for things that were legal at the time they were performed.
  • Players may penalize themselves if they break a rule (although they are not obligated to do so). They must still make the correct penalty call when doing so.


Players take turns. On their turn, a player must do the following:

  • They must either play a valid card onto the play pile, or, if they cannot or wish not to play a valid card, they must instead draw one card from the draw pile.
  • If the played card has any effects or actions associated with it (see "Card effects" below for these), the player must take those actions as necessary.
  • The player must take any other actions required of them that turn (if any). These will depend on whatever rules are currently in play.
  • If the player has done everything required of them, their turn ends.

If a player fails to play or draw a card within 10 seconds of starting their turn, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Failure to play within 10 seconds". If they continue to fail to act, they may be further penalized with the call "Continued failure to play within 10 seconds".

Speech rulesEdit

  • If a rule requires a player to say something, and they do not say it, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Failure to say (X)", where (X) is the thing that needed to be said. If they continue to fail to say what they are required to, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Continued failure to say (X)".
  • If multiple rules require a player to say multiple things, they must say all of them, or they can be penalized for whatever they failed to say. The ordering in which the things are said does not matter, except in the case of saying "Mao" to win a round, which must be the last thing said.
  • If a player says "Mao" at any time other than when it is required, they may be given a 3-card penalty, with the penalty call "Taking the name of the leader in vain". This is the only penalty in the game that is larger than a single card.

Rules for playing cardsEdit

  • When playing cards onto the play pile, a card is valid if it is either the same rank or the same suit as the top card of the play pile.
  • If a player plays an invalid card on their turn, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Bad card". They must take the invalid card back into their hand. This does not count as a valid play; they must still play a card as is required of them on their turn (or pick up a card if they cannot play).
  • If a player attempts to play a card when it is not their turn, they may be penalized with the call "Playing out of turn". They must take back the card that they attempted to play. This does not count as a valid play.
  • The Joker is considered exactly equivalent to the Nine of Diamonds. This means that a Joker can be played on any Diamond, or on any 9, and that players must say "That's the badger" when playing it, as that is the rule for the 9 of Diamonds.
  • If, after playing a card on their turn, a player has one card remaining, they must say "Last card". Failure to do so may be penalized with the penalty call "Failure to say 'Last card'".
  • If, after playing a card on their turn, a player has no cards left in hand, and they have taken all other actions required of them that turn, and they correctly declared "Last card" on their previous turn, and they have incurred no other penalties that turn, they must say "Mao". That player wins the round.
  • If a player says "Mao" without having declared "Last card" on their previous turn, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Failure to say 'Last card'". They do not win the round. They should also incur the 3-card penalty for saying "Mao" at an inappropriate time.

Card effectsEdit

Several of the cards have special effects when played. These effects are what tend to vary the most between different Mao variants. Below we have listed some common card effects, but these are by no means definitive. If you are running your own game, feel free to adapt these or invent new ones as desired.

  • Ace: The next player must skip their turn.
  • 7: The player must say "Have a nice day". On the next player's turn, if they do not play a 7, they must say "Thank you" and draw a card from the draw pile instead of playing/drawing a card as usual. If they do play a 7, they must say "Have a very nice day" and the next player must say "Thank you very much" and pick up 2 cards. This can continue for as long as 7s are played, increasing the number of drawn cards and the number of verys by one each time.
  • 8: The turn order is reversed.
  • Jack: The first player to name a suit changes the currently valid suit to that. The next card played must either be of that suit, or must have the same rank (ie. another Jack).
  • Spade: The player must say the name of the card when playing it (eg. "3 of Spades"). This is also known as the "Call a Spade a Spade" rule.
  • 9 of Diamonds: The player must say "That's the badger".

Ending a roundEdit

When a player wins a round, the round ends and a new round begins. Shuffle all cards back into the deck and redeal 5 cards to each player.

The player who won the round should now add a new secret rule to the game. The rule can be anything the player likes, although it must be a fair rule that does not favor any specific player. If needed, the player should also invent an appropriate penalty call for when their rule is broken. The penalty call should provide enough information for the rulebreaker to (eventually) figure out what they are doing wrong.

Initially, the player who made the rule should enforce it; however, any player may enforce the new rule if they believe they have figured it out.

It is recommended not to make rules too complex, as these are difficult to enforce.

Here are some examples of possible rules that can be added:

  • Playing a 2 skips the next two players' turns
  • Red cards may not be played on black cards, and vice versa
  • If a player plays an 8 on an 8, they must say "Two fat ladies".

Points of orderEdit

Any player may call a point of order at any time (even if it is not their turn), by saying "Point of order". When a point of order is called, all players should put down their cards.

During a point of order, gameplay is temporarily suspended; players cannot play cards during this time and the turn order does not advance. The rule requiring a player to play within 10 seconds is also suspended. However, players are still subject to all other rules of the game, including some rules that are specific to points of order:

  • If a player says "point of order" during a point of order, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Saying P of O in a P of O". (The safe way to refer to a point of order while inside of one is "P of O").
  • If a player touches their cards, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Touching cards during a P of O".

A point of order is typically used to stop the game temporarily - usually to give players a break if they need one, or to allow for discussion. In Mao variants that use the "No talking" rule, points of order are also the only time that players are permitted to talk freely (provided they do not break any rules by doing so).

To end a point of order, any player may say "End of point of order". This resumes the game.


As a last resort, if the game has become unwieldy or broken due to a problematic rule change, players can democratically decide among themselves whether to abandon or amend the rule, by putting it to a vote.

Ending the gameEdit

Mao traditionally has no defined end game condition - it can go on for as many rounds as players want.

Optional/advanced rulesEdit

The following rules are listed separately and can be considered optional; feel free to include them in your game if you want to. Some of these rules are advanced or change the game significantly; they may be less suitable for casual games.

  • Continuous play: There are no rounds - instead, when a player wins, they leave the game and play continues without them. While outside of the game, the player is not bound by any of the rules of Mao. They may re-enter the game by dealing themselves a starting hand and saying "Re-entering the game". They are still entitled to introduce a new secret rule upon re-entering the game; if they do, they must add "Introducing new rule". This variation is good for long Mao sessions as it allows people to more easily drop in and out of the game while it's being played.
  • No talking: Players are not allowed to speak other than when the game allows or requires it. Players who speak at inappropriate times may be penalized with the penalty call "Talking". This rule makes for a more tight and strict game, but may be less suitable for casual or social games.
  • Lying: If a player says something that is not true, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Lying". (Note that they do not have to be deliberately lying; it still counts if they tell an untruth unknowingly).
  • Swearing: If a player uses profane language, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Swearing".
  • Ungentlemanly conduct: If a player behaves in a way that is considered unsporting or unfair, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Ungentlemanly conduct". One potential use for this rule is to prevent players from tricking newbies with deceptive play.
  • Explaining the rules: If a player explains any of the rules of the game, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Explaining the rules".
  • Asking the rules: If a player asks what the rules of the game are or seeks advice on how to play, they may be penalized with the penalty call "Asking the rules".


  • Dictatorial Mao: The same as regular Mao, except that one player is designated the Dictator and is the only one authorized to issue penalties. They may also be the only one who can add new rules to the game. In some variants, the Dictator may not have a hand of cards and may simply be regulating the game while others play. Regular Mao is sometimes referred to as "Democratic Mao" to distinguish it from Dictatorial Mao.
  • Mini Mao: A minimalist Mao variant invented by Kevan Davis in 2002. This variant strips out most of the preset rules and starts with an almost blank slate, keeping only the core rule-making and penalty mechanics. The game begins with one player inventing a secret rule; players then take turns to play cards. If a player breaks the secret rule, they are penalized with an appropriate penalty call. The first player to get rid of all their cards wins the round and adds an additional secret rule to the game. Play continues until it is no longer possible to play a card, or when the game becomes unwinnable. A more detailed explanation can be found here, and a 100-word version of the game can be found in the Freeze-Dried Games Pack.