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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.

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, 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 the veteran players may be stumped by rules they haven't worked out yet.

Mao is often compared to Mornington Crescent, or Calvin Ball, 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.
  • Game Breaker: As a guideline, any rule favoring a specific player is against the spirit of the game. It is, however, quite possible with a bit of ingenuity to rig the game with a well chosen and timed sequence of new rules that do not favor any one player. Introduce "players may play any number of cards, with the top card counting as the played card", but do not reveal it yet. Next time you win, introduce "players may play any card on any other card", and use both rules to win on your next turn, silencing all complaints with "New rule, and previously introduced new rule" (and watch the other players go "wtf?"), then introduce "dealer plays first" when you win that game, causing you to win all other rounds with ease. Don't expect anyone ever to play with you again, however.
  • Game Breaking Bug: it's quite easy to make a rule which can break the game and prevent anyone from playing anything at all. When this happens, the players generally take a vote on whether to keep the rule or not.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • That One Rule: some players have tremendous difficulty with the 'the joker is the 9 of diamonds' rule, which is one of the basic rules in many variants. It is exactly what it says: any joker is considered equivalent to the 9 of diamonds when played.
    • Bah, that rule is simple. Here are some fun ones to add. All clubs are called spades. All Diamonds are clubs. Can a Diamond be played on a spade? Can a diamond be played on a club? and what must be spoken, if the played card is the 7 of Diamonds? And what is the proper penalty to call for failing to speak what is required? no, yes, and "Seven of spades, have a nice day.", and "Failure to call a club a spade, failure to say "have a nice day", of course. And that barely scratches the surface.
    • This trope also occurs when there's a rule that's been introduced that a player just can't figure out, and they always end up getting penalised for breaking it without knowing why.
      • "Failure to be a Thwiggle-Thwoggle," anyone? not hooking your thumbs after playing your card.
  • 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 "Miaow 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.
  • 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, and (if your variant has the rather cruel 'stupidity' call) tack on additional cards for "stupidity", and even "extreme stupidity" if they fail to get the hint the first few times.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).
  • Video Game Cruelty Punishment: some variants try to be easier on newbies, noting that it would be very easy for people to become frustrated, so they penalise players for 'ungentlemanly conduct'.
  • 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.