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Tabletop Game / Mao

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"The only rule I can tell you is this one."
The Dealer

One of the rules of Mao is that we can't tell you the rules. But here goes.

Mao is a card game played with regular playing cards. In its basic form, it is a simple game of laying down cards according to the rules of the game, and winning when you have laid down all your cards.

The difficulty, as mentioned above, is that, barring a short introduction to at least clarify the turn order, you are not told, and are not allowed to be told, any of the rules. You must work them out by watching people play, trying things out, and being penalised with extra cards when you do something wrong.


For this reason, Mao is often hated by people who have never got beyond the newbie stage, since it is obviously quite unfair to newbies who have no idea how to play the game.

Unfortunately, this means that some people never get to the good part of the game, where the fun actually begins. Because when someone 'wins' at Mao by getting rid of all their cards, they are entitled to make a new rule and introduce it into the game, without telling anyone what it is. The rule could be a simple modification (for example, "you can't play a King on top of a Queen"), or it could fundamentally change the way the game is played. And as more people win, the rules stack up and the game becomes more and more complex, and even veteran players may be stumped by rules they haven't worked out yet.

Mao is often compared to Mornington Crescent, or Calvinball, but in reality it is neither of those. Mornington Crescent is a mock game with deliberately nonsensical rules that are invented on the spot to make it appear complex, while Calvinball is a game where the rules appear to change at the will of any player. While it often looks like people are making up rules in Mao as they go along, in fact it is a mostly deterministic game, and any rules that are introduced have to be followed by all players equally.


If you are interested in learning the rules of Mao, there is a Useful Notes page for it. There is also an example Mao game if you would like to see what a Mao game looks like.

This game has examples of:

  • Beat Them at Their Own Game: If you've worked out a player's rule, you can enforce it on THEM if they break it.
  • Endless Game: There isn't really an end to the game; it normally ends when everyone has had enough. The 'winner' can be considered the person who introduced the most rules, but it's really about having fun.
  • House Rules: Any two different groups of people will play Mao slightly differently.
  • Loads and Loads of Rules: If you can play long enough, and people don't go crazy from trying to keep on top of them all...
    • According to some House Rules, the winner is the last person to still have some kind of sanity. Although arguably, the true winners are those who begin the game already insane.
  • Logic Bomb: The result of two or more people's rules contradicting each other. It's made even more difficult by the fact that the people whose rules are conflicting may not KNOW the other person's rule, and therefore be unable to decide whether theirs can override it or not. When this happens, a point of order is called so that people can discuss what to do.
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  • Rules Lawyer: The whole point of the game, really. Some people even play it so that a person can be penalised for FAILING to enforce their own rule.
  • The Scottish Trope: there is a word that, if said during the game when not required, results in one of the harshest penalties.
    • If someone says the word to the tune of the "Meow Mix" advert, you might as well just penalise them the entire deck.
  • Trial-and-Error Gameplay: The way to learn the rules for this game is to be penalised for breaking them.
  • Unstable Equilibrium: Downplayed. The more of the hidden rules you've figured out, the more likely you are to win a game. And when you win a game, you get to add your own hidden rule and penalize your opponents for breaking that in addition to the other rules they're still trying to figure out. However, it's unlikely that someone will gain an insurmountable advantage because good luck can compensate for incomplete knowledge of the rules.
  • Urban Legends: Some claim that the game was invented in China, as an illustration of what life is like living under Communist rule (IE, you don't know what the rules are until you've already broken them). In reality it's simply a Take That! to such concepts.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: Oh, so much. It is perfectly within the spirit of the game to repeat a penalty call when the player fails to correct their error. Making bogus calls with a straight face that cause the other player to laugh and break the "no laughing" rule is not against the rules either (and an additional card for talking and for swearing when the person expresses their Angrish), though you still will be penalized correctly for the bad call. And new rules can have penalty calls that tend to incite laughter or swearing, both usually against the rules.
  • Videogame Cruelty Punishment: Some variants try to be easier on newbies, noting that it would be very easy for people to become frustrated, so they penalize players for 'ungentlemanly conduct'. This usually stops once all the players have deduced the basic rules. Then the gloves are off.
    • Most have rules against 'lying' or 'cheating'. The cheating rule deserves special mention. In games that have that one, there are certain plays that are legal unless you get caught. The proper call for said plays is "cheating", and CORRECTLY stating how they cheated. Normally, a rule against cheating goes without being said, but in this case, it makes sense.


Example of: