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Mao is a sometimes complicated card game where the rules are often very obscure and no one really quite knows what is going on.
There are several distinct card games that go by the name Mao (or 'Poobah'). All are members of the Eights group, a class of card games that also includes Mau-Mau, and UNO by Mattel1. The Mao games tend to be 'highbrow,' not lending themselves to casual or easily-distracted players. This stems from the fact that all of these games have some sort of prohibition on discussing the (complex) rules of the game. An air of great formality is often maintained during play. This has not stopped these games from being adapted as entertaining drinking games.
The games which go by the name of Mao can be divided into three subgroups, which this Entry will deal with separately: Bureaucratic Mao, Fraternal Mao and Dictatorial Mao.
Here the elements common to all flavours of Mao are discussed. Even these basics are highly variable, and should not necessarily be assumed true when joining a game of Mao.
To get rid of your cards as soon as possible.
Players and Cards
Bureaucratic Mao may be played with two or more people, other versions typically require four or more for an entertaining game. There is no maximum.
Mao, like Egyptian Rat Screw, is a game in which the exact makeup of the deck isn't terribly important. It is good to have approximately one 52-card deck for every two or three players, and if this composite deck has some cards missing or some extra cards, that's okay. Jokers may optionally be included. A tarot deck could just as easily be used.
At the beginning of the game, the deck is shuffled thoroughly. With very large decks, it is often helpful to divide the deck into smaller, more manageable piles, which can be shuffled individually and then mixed together for dealing.
An equal number of cards to each player. Order doesn't matter, and really the number of cards doesn't either, though seven is typical. The rest of the cards are left in a pile as the game's stock.
The dealer turns up the top card of the stock onto the discard pile. This is the first card of the game. Each player, in turn, must either draw a card from the stock or play a card onto the discard pile that matches the top card in some way. In some variants, both actions may be taken on the same turn.
During play, the rules of the game may not be discussed. When a rule is broken, the player who broke the rule is penalised by being given an additional card. The person administering the penalty must declare what the culprit incorrectly did or failed to do, but not why the player was supposed to behave in this way.
For example, suppose that in the particular variant being played there was a rule stating, 'When a player plays a three, he or she must bark like a dog.' If a player then proceeds to play a three without barking, another player could punish him by giving him a card and saying, 'failure to bark like a dog.' The player must not say, 'failure to bark like a dog after playing a three.'
Point of Order
At any time during play, a player may declare 'point of order.' At this time, play is suspended so that players may discuss proper rulings on the legality of recent plays. Even during a point of order, the rules of the game may not be disclosed. Excessive abuse of points of order may be punished.
In Bureaucratic Mao, the rules are freely disclosed to all players. However, the rules may not be discussed while the game is in progress.
Any player may punish any other player for breaking a rule. If a call is incorrect, the person who made the call must take the penalty card instead. A good set of rules for Bureaucratic Mao will be very complex, and rules may well contradict each other. If such a situation arises, the call is discussed in a point of order to determine who is correct.
Hands after the first are treated exactly the same way, with the winner of the previous hand as the dealer.
In Fraternal Mao, the rules are fixed, so are known to all players familiar with the game. However, the rules are never to be discussed, not even outside the game session. Players join the 'fraternity' of people who know the rules by playing the game and discovering the rules for themselves. The only exception is rules which are added during play; these are discussed below.
Fraternal Mao allows any player to punish any other player for breaking a rule. If a call is incorrect, the person who made the call must take the penalty card instead.
The dealer of a hand is the winner of the previous hand. The new dealer may optionally add one new rule to the game, declaring 'new rule in play.' At this point only the dealer knows this new rule. This rule is binding for the rest of the session, unless modified by a subsequent new dealer. Each new session reverts to the original set of rules.
In Dictatorial Mao, the rules are only known by one player. This player is the dealer, and is referred to as the Mao, Poobah, Dictator, or some other term of grudging respect. The success of the game depends almost entirely on the proficiency of the dealer.
The mood and style of the Mao will determine how the game progresses. The Mao should have a complete set of rules in mind before the hand begins. The Mao is also the player who punishes (or rewards) players for their actions by distributing cards and enforcing rules. Some play that if the Mao fails to enforce a rule, any other player may give the Mao a card for this error. However, this does not substantially affect gameplay, as it is critical that the Mao not 'play to win'. If this guideline is not followed, Dictatorial Mao immediately becomes unfun.
The Mao is chosen at first by general consent of all players. The task is a very difficult one; it is very easy to generate a set of rules that is too complex to be enjoyable. Some people greatly enjoy holding this position, while most prefer being common players. In some circles, the Mao for the next hand is the winner of the previous hand; in others, the winner gets to pick the Mao for the next hand. The latter version tends to reward proficient dealers with repeated turns as the Mao. In either case, the new dealer may add, change, or remove one or two rules at his whim. Care must be taken not to modify too many rules at once.