Newbie: Hey, what's this?
Veteran: This is a card game. Do you want to play?
Newbie: Sure! What's it like?
Veteran: It's lots of fun.
Newbie: How do you play?
Veteran: Come sit down and we'll show you.
Newbie: But how do you play? Can't you give me an idea?
Veteran: Nope.

Mao is a wonderful game that demonstrates many psychologically fascinating features about either operative conditioning or inductive reasoning, depending on your perspective. Some people love Mao, and some people detest it.


I have been considering for some time whether to write down the variant of Mao that I carry around in my head and have played with innumerable people. I've never seen it documented anywhere but this isn't surprising given the ethos of Mao.

Being probably the most "definitive" source of this variant in my circles I have been concerned at times that rules might get lost as they are only contained in the grey-slush pile between my ears.

To that end, I have created documentation of this variant and have called it Trafalgar in homage to the other most common Mao variant Waterloo.



Dedicated Mao players will not tell you the rules of the game, and some get upset if they see rules of the game published, as it is contrary to the spirit of the game. If your comments mention a rule, the object of the game, or hint at it, it's best to put it after this spoiler warning.


The object of the game of Mao is to get rid of all your cards. And this is the ONLY thing you are told about this game. You have to figure out the rest of the rules by yourself. Every time you break a rule, a penalty is called, and you are penalized a card.

Simple enough, you think? Well, you'll find that the rules govern more than just how you play the cards. They can encompass what you can or cannot say while playing, or how you must sit (or stand). Also, the rule itself may not be obvious from the penalty called. (For example, "Failure to bark like a dog," but exactly *when* are you supposed to bark like a dog?) As if that weren't enough, the winner of each round gets to add a new secret rule to the growing set of rules.


Mao is a card game in the EightsTypeGame? family and is best played with three to seven players. New players are told that the game is similar to CrazyEights? in basic form but are left to figure the rest out on their own. The game starts with two decks of the same-size playing card and additional decks are added whenever a draw is required but the "stock" has been depleted. Games are usually restarted when the ratio of decks in play grow to exceed the number of players.

If new players are playing in a game of "play or draw" Mao, then the best initial strategy is to start their turn with a draw (and potentially await penalty cards if this was an inappropriate action). The most important skill for new players is keen observation especially when receiving penalty cards, as penalty cards are always accompanied by a statement of the infraction.

It is essential that there be no more than a 50% ratio of new players when playing the game, the exception to this rule is with the three player configuration in which case two of the three players may be new to the game.

Because there are so many variants it is important that the veteran players agree in advance which set of "rules" that they will be playing. NOTE: The fact that it is against the ethos of the game to discuss the rules can make this an interesting process.

Because new players do not know the rules of the game and must learn by example (and via penalty cards) the goal states for new players are:

  1. Learn the rules of the game 2. Begin to develop strategies for the game 3. Attempt to "win" the game

Most new players will discover within ten minutes if they like Mao or not, those that do enjoy the process of (or at least tolerate) learning the rules of the game. New players tend to have a polar reaction to the game when first playing, either falling madly in love with it, or detesting it for the rest of their lives and subsequently swearing never to play or talk about it again.

BoardgameGeek page for Mao

Fie on you lot for putting so much about this game into writing!

I learned the game at the University of Waterloo, which may be the most common ruleset known if not the birthplace of the game. There I was told the rules to this card game:

  1. A player's turn consists either of picking a card up, or putting a card down. 2. You aren't allowed to tell anyone anything more than the first two rules.

Needless to say, you have to learn the game by playing with someone who already knows the rules, and you need to catch on quickly. The game has a dedicated following, and I've met players all over Ontario (with slightly different rules, as rule #2 creates a broken-telephone effect). Most players scold me for even mentioning the name of the game out loud in conversation!


Mini-Mao is a simpler variant with an essentially blank starting ruleset, so that new and veteran players can enjoy the same game, and make something with an original flavour.

You can play it online against The Maobot.