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Useful Notes / Mao

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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 immediately a tricky proposition, since there is no single, canonical ruleset for the game; every group of people plays it slightly 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).


We'll start with an extremely broad overview of the game that hopefully every Mao player should agree upon:

  • Mao's core gameplay is similar to Crazy Eights or Uno; players are aiming to be the first to get rid of all their cards.
  • When in-game, players may not be told the rules of the game.
  • Players may formally penalize each other for failing to obey the rules. A penalized player must draw a card as penalty.
  • The first player to get rid of all their cards wins the round, and may invent and introduce a new rule (or amend an existing one), without telling anyone what it is.

These last three points are the defining characteristics of Mao. The game's main challenge comes from trying to figure out rules by observation and trial-and-error, which is why new players are not told the rules before they begin.


As you can imagine for such a wildly mutable game, there are far too many rule variants to cover; every group of players has their own House Rules and will not agree on any single ruleset. Therefore, we will attempt to list as many rules and variants as we can, with the intention that somebody who has never played Mao, but would like to run a game, should be able to use as many of these rules as they like.

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. In general, more players are better. (It is possible to play with 2 players, but this might not be so interesting).
  • It is usually played with 2 to 3 decks of standard playing cards, including jokers. The more players you have, the more cards are recommended. Unlike most card games, it isn't required for all cards to have the same back, and you can quite happily mix wildly different decks together. (Even weird decks like round playing cards can work).
  • Play is turn-based, starting with the player next to the dealer and cycling round the table.
  • There is a stack - a pile of unrevealed cards which players may not examine. This is where players draw 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

  • If a player breaks the rules - even unknowingly - any other player may call a penalty on them. Penalties are the heart and soul 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.
  • If a penalty is called wrongly, the player who called it may themselves be penalized, with the call "Bad call". They must take the card they were going to penalize 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.
  • 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", to avoid the call itself breaking the rule). 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 themselves.
    • Some variants can also penalize players merely for asking the rules.
  • 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 Point of Order can be ended by saying "End of Point of Order", which resumes the game.
    • 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).
    • If an outsider walks in on the game, a Point of Order might be called to keep the outsider from learning anything without playing. Alternatively, a five card penalty may be imposed for "Watching without Playing" — this being the same as the initial hand size, the watcher has effectively been forced into the game.
  • 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.
  • By agreement, 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. The Joker is the Nine of Diamonds."). 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 more generously supply a very few basic rules 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.
    • While not usually required, players may say "pass" if they wish.
  • 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 10 seconds". They may be given the same penalty for every further 10 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 may also be 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". Doing so counts as a win, and ends the round. This is the only situation in which a player can say "Mao" without invoking the three-card penalty.
    • 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 instead receive all the penalties they have just incurred, 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.
  • The player who won the round must now secretly think of a new rule, which will come into effect when the next round starts (in addition to the current rules). Initially, it will be up to the player to enforce their own rule, although once other players work it out, they can do so too.
    • In Cambridge-based variants, the round does not end when a player wins; instead, the player who won temporarily leaves the game (the turn order continues, skipping them). They can come back in at a moment of their choice and introduce their new rule. While outside of the game, they are not bound by the rules and can talk freely without penalty.

Card rules

  • 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). Many rulesets let you play a Jack even if it doesn't match the current rank or suit, though they are still considered Jacks after they are played.
    • Spade: the player who plays a spade must say the name of the card after playing it. (example: "nine of spades"). You have to call a spade a spade.
    • 9 of diamonds: the player must say "That's the badger".
    • Joker - all Jokers are considered to be exactly equivalent to the 9 of diamonds. This therefore means that players must also say "That's the badger" when playing this card. Since this rule is nearly impossible to completely deduce from observation, it is usually stated in the introductory speech of variants that have it.
    • 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 "Have a nice day" rule and the "Call a spade a spade" rule are nearly universal among all variations, and should be kept.

Speech rules

  • A player who fails to say a phrase when it is required (eg. "five of spades", "that's the badger") may be penalized with the call "failure to say (whatever needs to be said)". For example, "failure to say '5 of Spades'". A more generous penalty call would be "Failure to call a spade a spade".
    • The penalty does not relieve them of the action; they must still say the phrase, or they can be penalized repeatedly for "continued failure to say (whatever needs to be said)", until they do so.
  • 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 seven of spades happens to trigger two of the speech rules, and the player needs to say "seven of spades, Have a nice day". 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.
    • The ordering of the phrases does not matter, except that "Mao", when applicable, must always be last.

"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 penalized.

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 "Thank you" and take a card from the stack. Failure to say "Thank you" results in a penalty. Failure to take a penalty card will also result in a penalty (with the call "failure to take a penalty card").
  • If they have a 7, they may play it immediately and must say "Have a very nice day" to the next player. That player must pick up two penalty cards and instead say "thank you very much". Or, that player can also lay a 7 and say "Have a very very nice day" to the next player, who must say "thank you very very much" and take three penalty cards. This can continue for as long as there are 7s to play.

Making new rules

  • A player who has won the round 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 - for 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.
    • It's recommended to keep rules simple, at least at first; remember that 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 who don't know it. Even trickier rules shouldn't depend on cards that are played more than 1 turn ago.
  • Some examples of new rules:
    • "Odd-numbered cards may not be played on even-numbered cards"
    • "Players must say 'that's not the badger' when playing a 9 that is not a diamond."
    • "Clubs are spades and vice-versa" (this means you would no longer say "X of spades when playing a spade, but would say "X of spades" when a club was played. Also if spades was called for a jack, a club would match, and a spade would not.)
  • 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 not the badger", the call should be "failure to say 'that's not the badger", 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 penalize 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.

Point of Order rules

  • Saying "Point of Order" during a Point of Order, except as part of the phrase "End Point Of Order" to end one, will result in a penalty. The correct way to refer to a Point of Order while inside of one is "P of O". The penalty call can be given as "saying P of O during a P of O". Someone trying to call "Saying Point of Order in a Point of Order" would get two cards (the call is correct, so it's not a bad call, but they just said point of order twice)
  • A player who touches their cards during a Point of Order" may be penalized, with the call "Touching your cards during a P of O". Most importantly, this includes touching the penalty card you were just given! Many players have gotten an immediate second call of this particular penalty, and gotten frustrated.
  • The Point of Order may be formally ended by any player by saying "End Point of Order". Everyone then immediately picks up their cards. (Alternatively, "adjourned")

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 if no one else has figured them out properly, so that the other players can keep it in the game.


Sometimes, the rules just aren't enough. For example, what if someone has introduced a rule that everyone hates. or that has broken the game? 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.

Optional rules

  • No Talking: 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 for new players. The No Talking rule 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. (put down cards) We're playing a game the name of which I can't mention right now. End Point of Order. (pick cards back up)"
    • Laughing is not talking, but often carries its own penalty.
    • Cursing when not required to by the rules is usually 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 often considered lying.
  • Cheating: cheating is of course against the rules, and gets a penalty. This penalty is also commonly given to people saying Mao who thought they won, but in fact haven't. This is why saying Mao is a 3 card penalty at the end of the game if you didn't actually win. The lying and cheating penalties are included in it. Naturally giving someone a card for cheating when they aren't is a Bad Call.
  • Ungentlemanly conduct: any player judged to be behaving in an ungentlemanly way may be penalized with the call "Ungentlemanly conduct". Sometimes the violated conduct is made more explicit in the penalty: for example, "violence" or "profanity".
    • Another example of ungentlemanly conduct would be making a call you know is bad, just to try and get people to laugh, so you can then get them a penalty card for laughing, and another one for cursing and talking when they realize they've been had.
    • Implied X: Players may be penalized for merely implying that profanity was about to occur ("what the f...") or threatening violence (shaking one's fist at another player). Starting to play a bad card or out of turn and catching yourself is also caught under this rule when present. Horribly cruel to newbies, but once all the players aren't that anymore, it's a fair one. Often called as "Flinching".
  • A couple of optional/variant card rules:
    • 4 - The next two players are skipped.
    • Queen - All players must say "All hail the chairwoman/queen." If the Queen of Spades is played, the expected calls will sometimes be abridged to "All hail the Queen of Spades".
    • King - All players must say "All bow to the chairman/king," accompanied with a dip of the head. (If not done, the bow is penalized in the usual manner for speech rules).
  • Dictatorial Mao: instead of all players being allowed to call penalties (sometimes referred to as "Democratic Mao"), a single player, the Mao Master, is given the singular power to call all penalties. Sometimes this player has a hand and plays like everyone else, other times they simply oversee the game.