I came across this game last weekend, catching up with some friends at Tech. I've been collecting games to write about lately, but this one was different enough from what I've been playing lately to jump the line.

Strictly speaking, you're not supposed to tell people how to play before beginning, but it's easier to get people playing if everyone has some idea how the game's played beforehand.


Mao uses Uno or (folks suggest) a pair of standard card decks.

Key rules

  • No talking
  • No touching your cards until game is in play
  • No not-touching your cards while the game is in play
  • When you've played down to one card left, say "Mao" (like saying "Uno" in Uno).
  • Any rule infraction carries a one card penalty, to be enforced by the other players at their discretion until you stop breaking the rule.
  • The winner of a hand gets to add a rule to this list, which he or she must then enforce uniformly upon the other players (no playing favorites, point out situations where you didn't enforce the rule if you forget). Don't tell everyone else your rule, just enforce it by awarding penalty cards and explaining what the penalized party failed to do. The other players have to figure out your rule themselves.

In the creating and enforcing of new player rules comes the challenge, the fun, and the frustration.

Regular card play follows a basic Uno/Crazy Eights pattern. Try to shed your cards before everyone else, play same color/suit or same rank (number) on one another. If you don't have a playable card, draw one. If it's playable, play it, if not, you've got another card to hold. If playing with Uno cards, ignore the Uno effects of draws, skips, reverses, wilds let the next player play anything.

Player rules

Player rule requirements can vary but tend toward requiring players to say something when a rule-triggering event happens. This works very nicely with the No Talking rule, because when people speak out of turn as they try to figure out someone's rule, you can slap them with a penalty for talking. It also avoids the potential injury associated with elaborate physical feats.

To maximize the range of available rules, triggering events for rules can vary from simple to complex (someone plays a Skip, recent cards played add up to a specific number, the last 3 cards complete 3 numbers in the Fibonacci series). Who is required to speak can also vary, though many times they're tied to the person playing a card. What people are required to say can be any sound from the wide lexicon of human utterances (though many will want to lay some ground rules beforehand).

The most elaborate rule in our recent play session was that after someone played a card following a draw card, the person to the left of the player putting down the second card had to say the name of the month corresponding to the draw number (2 or 4) plus the number value of the card played on it. So if I played a 7 on a Draw 2, the person to my left would have to say "September" or get slapped with a penalty.

Play experience

It was great fun, though rule fatigue can set in quickly, as you each try to enforce any rules you've set, work out any rules you haven't figured out yet, and remember to keep all the rules you understand. (After 5 player rules get added, you start feeling the burn.) The game runs heavily on cognitive load and people crumbling under the weight of remembering many arbitrary rules.

In checking to see what's available on the net about Mao, I came across a reference to People's Democratic Dictatorship, a variation that allows each player to set a rule at the beginning of the game and enforce that rule, rather than awarding rules for winning hands. I'll have to try that approach out next time.