Mao: a wonderfully infuriating card game [#58]

The twist? Newcomers don't get to know any of the rules.

Mao: a wonderfully infuriating card game [#58]

Mao is probably the most frustrating card game ever. It's taken over my school, and for good reason — it's incredibly addictive. It's not just a card game: I'd classify Mao as 50% card game, 50% social experiment. First, I'll explain the basics of Mao, then dive deeper into why the game is so freaking frustrating yet so fun.


Mao is a game for 3-8 players. It requires a full deck of 52 playing cards, although I recommend shuffling two decks together if you have 5+ players.¹ Deal five cards to each player, then place the undealt cards in the center of the table. This is the draw pile. Turn the top card of the draw pile over and place it beside the draw pile. This is the discard pile.


The one golden rule of Mao is that you do not explain the rules to newcomers. Newcomers are only given the objective of the game: get rid of all your cards. Keep that in mind while I explain the basic gameplay.

The player to the left of the dealer starts, and play continues clockwise. For their turn, each player must do exactly one of the following:

  1. Play one card (onto the discard pile)
  2. Draw one card (from the draw pile)²

Once they do that action, their turn ends. Now you're probably wondering... "What cards am I allowed to play on any given card?" I'm not telling you! No, I'm kidding. The "base game" of Mao is literally just Crazy Eights or Uno. For example:

  1. If there is an Eight of Clubs (8♣) on the top of the discard pile, you can play any Club (♣) or any Eight (8).
  2. If there is a King of Diamonds (K♢) on top of the discard pile, you can play any Diamond (♢) or any King (K).

But if that was the whole game, it'd be pretty simple and boring. So there are a ton more rules that make the game incredibly entertaining. Keep in mind that these are the rules that my school plays with — the rules of Mao differ depending on who you're playing with.



These rules form the basis of Mao.

  1. The base game of Mao is Crazy Eights (Uno).
  2. Any player can receive card penalties for incorrectly following the rules. Players may receive many penalty cards in one turn if they make several mistakes.
  3. Any player can receive card penalties for a false accusation about the rules.

Point of Order

These rules make players who talk unnecessarily subject to penalties.³

  1. Any player can begin a point of order by saying "point of order". This effectively pauses the game and allows time for discussion. Only the player who begins a point of order can say "end point of order", which ends the point of order.
  2. Any player can receive card penalties for speaking when a point of order is not in effect. Players do not have to call point of order to say things required by the rules OR to give out penalty cards.
  3. Any player can receive card penalties for touching their cards while a point of order is in effect. There is a 2-3 second grace period for the players who did not call point of order.
  4. Any player can receive card penalties for attempting to play cards during point of order.

Invalid Play

These rules govern what happens if you play a card at the wrong time or play an invalid card.

  1. Any player who attempts to play more than one card at a time will have their card returned to them, along with a penalty card and the explanation "Can't play more than one card at a time".
  2. Any player who plays an invalid card (as determined by all the rules) will have their card returned to them, along with ONE penalty card and the explanation "Playing an invalid card in accordance with rule X".⁴
  3. Any player who attempts to play a card OR draw a card when it is not their turn will have the card that they touched returned to them, along with a penalty card and the explanation "Playing when it's not your turn".
  4. Any player who hesitates for too long (5+ seconds) when it is their turn will receive a penalty card with the explanation "Hesitation". They must still take their turn.

Special Cards

These rules govern what happens to the game (or what you have to say) if you play a certain card.

  1. Any Six (6), when played, skips the next person's turn.
  2. Any Seven (7), when played, requires the person who played it to say "Have a nice day" to the player who will play next. They must add one instance of the adverb "very" for each 7 directly below their played 7.⁵
  3. Any Eight (8), when played, reverses the current direction of play.
  4. Any player who plays a Spade must say the name of the card in full. (For example, a player who plays the King of Spades must say "King of Spades".)
  5. Any player who plays a card with the same number as the card below it must knock once for each instance of that number directly below their played number.⁶


These rules govern special aspects of the game.

  1. A player who plays their second-to-last card must say "Mao".
  2. A player who plays their last card must say "Mao out".

Entertainment Value

I know what you're thinking. "There are too many rules!! How I am supposed to figure them all out if I'm a new player??" Well, you'll figure them out soon enough. Every time you receive a penalty, the other players are required to give you a brief explanation on what you got wrong. If you play for long enough, you'll eventually figure out all of the rules... right?

Well, maybe not! Because every time someone wins a game of Mao, they get to add a new rule that only they know.⁷ Mao is an ever-evolving game, which is why it never grows old.⁸

Mao is so fun mainly because it gives you the opportunity to watch other people get frustrated. It's extremely entertaining to watch how newcomers deal with the hardship of not knowing any of the rules. Some people stay quiet and observe the actions that other players take. Some people speak loudly in frustration, only to receive more cards for not talking with a point of order in effect. Some people flip tables. But most people love Mao.

While researching for this article, I read a Reddit post that described Mao as "Crazy Eights on steroids". I agree with that assessment, but I think it's more than that. Mao has rules so complicated that you can't help but laugh when someone is bewildered by them. Mao is a social card game where you can't talk while the game is in progress. Mao is a continually evolving game that requires creativity and strategy.

Mao is the most wonderfully infuriating card game of all time.


¹ Having two decks instead of one doesn't really affect gameplay — it's just so players don't have to reshuffle the deck as often.

² If there are no cards in the draw pile, shuffle the discard pile and use it as the new draw pile.

³ It's really funny to watch new players struggle with these rules.

⁴ Their turn is over once they receive their penalty card.

⁵ For example, if Nathan played a 7 on top of two consecutive 7s, he would say "Have a very very nice day".

⁶ "Same number" can also refer to face cards being played on face cards. For example, if Nathan plays a Queen, and there are two Queens directly below Nathan's played Queen, Nathan must knock twice.

⁷ As long as it's not too complicated or unfair. You can't make a rule that says "every time Nathan plays a 10, he draws 10 cards".

⁸ Once there are too many rules, we reset Mao back to the rules described in the 'Rules' section.