Useful Notes / Mao

This page is to explain the rules of Mao, the card game. (If you're looking for the Chairman instead, he's over here.)

Explaining the rules of Mao is a little tricky since there is no official version of Mao; every group of people plays differently. Also, it's a rule that one should never explain any rules, but that'd make for a pretty useless set of notes on the game.

However, most variants have the same basic core rules, and those will be covered here. In short - this is just one way that Mao can be played. The idea is that somebody who has never played Mao, but would like to run a game, should be able to use these rules.

Feel free to add suggested variations to the rules, although try not to make it too hard for people to follow. If the variant of Mao you play is very different, it might be better to describe it separately.

If you would like to see what this looks like when played, there is an example Mao game page.


  • Mao is a card game for 3 or more players. The more players the better - 6 is a good number. It is possible to play with 2 players, but this might not be so interesting.
  • It is usually played with 2-3 decks of standard playing cards, including jokers. The more players you have, the more cards are recommended - one deck for every three players is probably enough. It is not required that the cards have the same back - any standard deck is allowed (even weird decks like round playing cards). You may even allow completely non-standard decks like SET cards if a rule exists or is made for those cards.
  • There is a turn order, normally decided based on where people are sitting (eg. clockwise).
  • There is a stack - a pile of unrevealed cards which players may not examine. This is where players take new cards or penalty cards from. If you're using a lot of cards, it's fine to just pile them untidily, the only thing people will be doing is taking cards from it.
  • All players have a hand of cards. There is no limit to the number of cards one may have in their hand.

Overall rules

  • Players may, and should, be penalised for breaking rules, even if they do not know the rule that they have broken. Penalties are the heart of Mao, and penalties must be given with a formal 'penalty call' which gives the reason for the penalty. (examples - 'bad card', 'playing out of turn', 'failure to say the five of spades').
  • The penalty is always having to take a single card from the stack into one's hand, except for the special Mao penalty below, which is three cards.
  • There are a few ways you can play Mao which depend on who is allowed to give penalties:
    • Democratic Mao - this is the most commonly played one - in this, any player can call a penalty on any other player at any time - that is, every player is a guardian of the rules.
    • Dictatorial Mao - a single player, the Mao Master, gives all penalties. Sometimes this player has a hand and plays like everyone else, other times they simply oversee the game.
  • In Democratic Mao, if a penalty is called wrongly, the player who called it may themselves be penalised, with the call 'Bad call'. They must take the card they were going to penalise the other player with. By 'wrongly', we mean that the player has called a penalty for a rule that has not, in fact, been broken - for example, saying 'bad card' when the person has actually played a valid card. A penalty is valid only if the victim has actually performed (or failed to perform) the action for which the penalty has been called.
  • Saying 'Mao' at any point during the game except in the one instance when it is required, results in a three-card penalty (often with the call 'taking the name of the great Chinese leader in vain'). Calling someone on "saying Mao" or "forgetting to say Mao" also breaks this rule, and is a good way to earn yourself 3 penalty cards. This is the only situation where a penalty is more than a single card.
  • Explaining any rule of the game is against the rules, and may result in a penalty (with the call 'Explaining the rules'). Generous players will sometimes knowingly explain a rule to someone who is having trouble, and take the penalty.
    • Some variants also penalize players who ask what the rules are.
  • A 'point-of-order' may be called at any time during play, by any player, by saying 'point of order'. When this happens, the game is paused, and all players must put down their card hands. A point-of-order is normally used to discuss the game when things have gotten confusing, or to take a break. The most common reasons for a point of order call are to ask who called the suit first, to answer the door, or to use the bathroom. Usually you are allowed to speak more freely during a point of order, though some rules may still be enforced (e.g., you still won't be allowed to openly discuss the rules). The point-of-order can be ended by saying 'End of point-of-order'. See Point-of-order rules for more details.
    • If an outsider walks in on the game, a Point of Order might be called to keep the outsider from learning anything without playing.
  • If present, the Joker is considered equivalent to the Nine of Diamonds for all game purposes.
  • Players should not show each other their card hands, although there is usually no rule against it.

Beginning the game

  • All the cards are shuffled and put face down in a single stack (or pile, if there's too many cards to arrange neatly).
  • Each player takes, or is dealt, five cards from the stack. If the cards are being dealt, it might be illegal for players to pick them up before dealing has finished.
  • Generally a single person, one who knows the rules, begins the game. They may announce the beginning of the game (example: 'We are playing five-card Cambridge Mao'). This allows players to distinguish between variants, for those who play different variants of Mao. The introduction is one of the only times that saying Mao is allowed.
    • An alternate introduction: "The game of Mao has begun; no talking."
  • Some variants allow a few basic rules to be told for newbies: for example: 'Play goes in a clockwise direction, you may pick up a card if you don't want to play one, and the Joker is the Nine of Diamonds'.
  • A single card is taken from the stack by the dealer and placed face-up, to begin the pile onto which players will be playing their cards.
  • A player, probably the player to the left or right of the dealer, goes first. Often the dealer will declare which player it is.

Playing the game

  • The player whose turn it is may take one card from their hand and play it face-up onto the face-up pile.
    • If the card is valid to be played, the player must take all additional actions associated with that card.
    • If the card is not valid to be played, but nobody else notices, play carries on as normal.
    • If the card is not valid to be played, and somebody calls a 'bad card' penalty, the player must take back the card they played, and take their penalty card.
  • If the player has no valid card to play, or does not want to play a card, they must take one card from the stack. Usually saying "pass" is allowed at this point.
  • If the player has done everything required of them for their turn, their turn ends and the next player's turn begins. A player's turn does not end until they have either played a valid card or taken one from the stack.
  • If a player plays and it is not their turn, they may be penalized with the call 'playing out of turn'. They must take back the card that they played.
  • If, on a player's turn, the player fails to begin their turn within a period of time (eg. 10 seconds) they may be penalized with the call 'failure to play within (however many) seconds'. They may be given the same penalty for every (however many) seconds that they fail to play. This does not apply during a point of order.
  • If a player has one card left, they must say 'Last card' before the next player takes their turn. If they do not, they may be penalized with the call 'Failure to say 'last card' '. (There is also a penalty for saying 'last card' when you are not at your last card.)
  • If a player plays their last card, and the play is valid, and has taken any actions that were required for that turn without penalty, they must say 'Mao'. This is a win, and takes them out of the game (the turn order continues, skipping them). They now have the ability to rejoin the game and introduce a new, secret rule of their own making (see Making new rules below). While out of the game, they are not bound by the rules of Mao and can talk freely, except for the rule against explaining rules, which is binding outside of the game.
    • In variants that aren't Cambridge-based, the round will instead end, and then a new rule will be created with everyone being dealt a new set of 5 cards.
    • If a player has said 'Mao' but has not completed all the actions required on their turn, or their play is invalid, they have not successfully won, and will receive whatever penalties they have made, plus the three-card penalty for saying Mao at an improper time.
    • In some variants, a player who failed to declare their last card on their previous turn may have their 'Mao' call declared invalid, and receive the three-card penalty for saying Mao.
  • A player who has 'won' by calling Mao, may re-enter the game by taking five cards from the stack, and saying 'Re-entering the game'. If they have made a new rule, they can also say 'Introducing new rule'. The new rule will now be in effect. Initially it will be up to the player who made the rule to enforce it, although once other players work it out, they can do the same.
  • Alternatively, if a player plays down her last card and fails to say 'Mao,' the game may continue - after all, it doesn't end until someone says 'Mao.' This means that someone else can play down and win in the meantime, and the person who first played out and forgot to say 'Mao' is of course still subject to penalties for rules broken.

Card rules

The core gameplay of Mao is very similar to trumps or Uno.

  • Cards are played onto the top card of the face-up play pile.
  • If a card is the same suit or rank as the top card, it is valid. (eg. playing a queen of spades on a 9 of spades, or playing a 4 of spades on a 4 of clubs)
  • Some cards have actions which occur when played -
    • Ace - the next player must miss their turn.
    • 7 - see 'Have a nice day rules' below.
    • 8 - the turn order is reversed and carries on in the opposite direction.
    • Jack - the first player to name a suit makes it the new valid suit - ie. if the call is 'diamonds', then the next player has to play a diamond (or another jack of a different suit, since cards of the same rank are still a valid play)
    • Spade - the player who plays a spade must say the name of the card after playing it. (example: 'Nine of Spades').
    • 9 of Diamonds - the player must say 'That's the badger'.
    • Joker - while not actually an action, it is worth repeating that the joker is equivalent to the Nine of Diamonds, and therefore the 'badger' action also applies to this card.
    • Feel free to add one or two unique and simple rules for your variation, or to change the skip or reverse cards to confuse friends who may have played other variations. The seven rule and the call a spade a spade rule are nearly universal among all variations.

Speech rules

  • A player who fails to say a phrase when it is required (e.g. '5 of Spades') may be penalised with the call 'failure to say (whatever needs to be said)'. For example, 'failure to say '5 of Spades' '. "Failure to call a spade a spade" is another valid phrasing of this penalty. The penalty does not relieve them of the action; they must still say the phrase, or they can be penalised again for 'continued failure to say (whatever needs to be said)', until they do so.
    • In some variants, calls are to follow a rigid formula, and if the accuser doesn't follow it properly he is penalized as well; for example, if the formula is 'failure to say '5 of Spades',' then 'you failed to say '5 of Spades' ' would result in a penalty (which is of course 'failure to say 'failure to say '5 of Spades' ' '!)
  • If a card is played for which more than one phrase has to be said, all phrases must be said, or the player may be penalized for whatever they didn't say. For example, playing the 7 of Spades needs the player to say 'Seven of spades, Have a nice day'. The ordering of the phrases does not matter, except that Mao MUST be last. If the player only said 'Seven of Spades', they can be penalized for failing to say 'Have a nice day'. If they said nothing, they can be penalized twice, once for each phrase.

Have a nice day rules

When a 7 is played, the player who played it must say 'Have a nice day' to the player whose turn it is next. Failure to say this may be penalised. The player who would have had a turn next, instead must do one of the following on their turn:

  • If they do not have a 7 or do not wish to play one, they must say 'Penalty card' and take a card from the stack. Failure to say 'penalty card' results in a penalty. Failure to take a penalty card will also result in a penalty.
    • In some variants, the phrase 'Thank you' is utilized instead of 'Penalty card.'
  • If they have a 7, they may play it on their turn as a valid card, and say 'have a very nice day' to the next player. That player must pick up two penalty cards, or they can also lay a 7 and say 'have a very very nice day' to the next player. This can continue for as long as there are 7s to play, with an increasing number of verys and an increasing number of penalty cards every time.
    • If the 'Thank you' variant is used, the player says 'thank you very much' if not playing on a second consecutive 7, increasing the number of verys as above.
  • The player who had to take the penalty card or cards may continue their turn as if it were a normal turn, and play a card or take one from the stack.
    • In some variants, the player who takes the penalty card doesn't get to continue their turn.

Making new rules

  • A player who has 'won' by calling Mao can create a new rule for the game. They must not tell players what the rule is.
  • The only real rule for making new rules is that it must not be unfairly biased toward specific players - example: 'Jennifer can play diamonds at any time' is an unfair rule. Otherwise, any new rule or rule change that the player can enforce is allowed. Ideally, rules should be interesting or fun without being excessively complicated (remember, the more complicated it is, the harder it is for you to enforce). Even rules that you may think are really simple can totally stump players.
  • Examples of new rules:
    • 'Odd-numbered cards may not be played on even-numbered cards'
    • 'Players must say 'that's the rabbit' when playing a 4'
  • If a player makes an invalid play according to your rule, you may give them a penalty card. You should give a penalty call that doesn't give too much of the rule away, if possible.
    • Example - if the rule is 'odd-numbered cards must not be played on even-numbered cards', the call should simply be 'bad card', since they can later deduce that rule by trial and error. If they contest it with "bad call" pass the card back stating "New rule".
    • Example - if they have to say 'that's the rabbit', the call should be 'failure to say 'that's the rabbit' ', since they wouldn't be able to guess that.
  • A player who believes they have deduced your rule may also enforce it on players who break it (including you!). However, if they get the rule wrong, you (or someone else) can penalise them for a bad call.
  • If you realize you missed a call, you may call a point of order to state that you should have called a penalty, but it's still too late to penalize them.
  • When multiple people have made rules, it may happen that one play will be valid under your rule but invalid under somebody else's. It is up to the players to decide on a way to determine which rule overrides which - a point of order is normally called for this, and two players may even go to somewhere where they can discuss their rules secretly, to avoid giving other players clues.

Ending the game

Mao never ends! Well, it does when people have decided they've played long enough - people will often drop out of the game while others continue playing. Players will sometimes explain the rules they made when they leave, so that the other players can keep it in the game.

Go outside and play some Calvinball afterwards.


Sometimes, the rules just aren't enough. For example, what if someone has introduced a rule that everyone hates? If anything happens which can't be fixed by the rules, then players can fix problems democratically - by putting it to a vote. In this way, players can agree to drop a problematic rule, or change anything about the gameplay they dislike. A point of order is a good time to do this.

Point-of-order rules

  • Saying 'Point-of-order' during a Point-of-order, except to end it, will result in a penalty. The common way to refer to a point-of-order is 'P-of-O'. The penalty call is usually 'Saying P-of-O during a P-of-O'.
  • A player who touches his cards during a point-of-order may be penalised, with the call 'touching cards during a P-of-O'.
  • The point-of-order may be ended by any player by saying 'end of point of order'.

Optional rules

  • Some variants disallow talking except when it is valid in game, or during a point of order. Talking when not valid results in a penalty card with the penalty call 'Talking'. This makes the rules more clear but is often less fun, especially for new players. This is one of the most common optional rules, but is also commonly set aside when everyone else is a newbie. (The dealer might introduce the game as "beginner's Mao" in this case.) Once everyone gets the basic rules down, the rule is usually introduced.
    • This means that anyone who comes by and asks what on earth you're doing will be either subjected to stony silence, or a phrase like "Point of order. We're playing a game the name of which I can't mention right now. End point of order."
    • Laughing is not talking, but often carries its own penalty.
    • Cursing when not required to by the rules may be penalized even if talking is otherwise allowed (and may count as two penalties if talking is not allowed).
    • Explaining the rules outside a point of order is also worth two cards, one for talking and one for explaining the rules.
  • Lying - any statement said by a player which is untrue, may be penalized with the call 'Lying'. Note that saying Mao when your last play is invalid is considered lying.
  • Ungentlemanly conduct - any player judged to be behaving in an ungentlemanly way is penalised with the call 'Ungentlemanly conduct'. Sometimes specifically referred to; a player may be penalised for 'violence' or 'profanity.'
    • Implied X - Players may be penalised for merely implying that profanity was about to occur ("what the f...") or violence, while not acted on, was threatened (shaking one's fist at another player).
  • A couple of optional/variant card rules:
    • 4 - The next two players are skipped
    • Queen - All players must say "All hail the chairwoman."
    • King - All players must say "All bow to the chairman," accompanied with a dip of the head. (If not done, the bow is penalized in the usual manner for speech rules)