Mao (card game)

Background: The informant first learned this game at a boy scout camp and has continued to play with his friends and introduce other people to the game. He likes it because you get to mess with people if you know how to play it, having insider knowledge.

KD: Mao is a card game that the new players are not supposed to know the rules going into it, it’s a learn as you go game. The deck is shuffled, all players are dealt five cards, the, the dealer–cards are dealt in front of all the players, if a player touches their cards before the game begins, they receive a onee card penalty. The dealer will take the top card of the deck and flip it over and say the  word “The game is Mao. Mao begins now.” At this point, anybody who speaks, is penalized with one card, anybody who plays out of turn is penalized with one card, if you fail to play on your turn, you are penalized with one card. As far as gameplay goes, certain cards have special powers or required specific actions or phrases to be said. To play the game, you have to play a card of the same suit or a card of the same number. If you play an ace of diamonds on a six of club, there are two different suits, two different cards, the card you play is returned to you with a onee card penalty. When, and it moves over to the next person. Original gameplay, it is to the right of the dealer. The number 8 card reverses the rotation of the, of the play. When an Ace is played correctly, the player who played it is required to scratch their nose; failure to scratch your nose, you receive a one card penalty. Uh, the point of the game is to get rid of all of your cards, so similar to Uno, when you get your last card you say “Last cards” uh, failure to do so, you receive five cards, plu, no you just receive five cards. When you play your last card you say the name of the game, “Mao.” When a king is played you say “Thank the chair.” And as you play with different people, certain rules are included but not everyone plays with the same rules each time. If you play with the same group you kinda agree, it’s a collective agreement that it’s like okay hey we’re gonna havee six has this power, seven has this power, whatever. And then, as you play with different people certain rules are in play, certain rules are omitted, and some are just completely made up. When you win a game, as the winner you are allowed to create a new rule that is now added for that group of people playing, uh when I played with my friend Jack, anytime a Jack was played he had to flip off the player of the jack. You are penalized for talking during the game, the only time you’re allowed to talk is when you’re thanking the chair, when you’re saying last card, when you’re saying Mao. Uh, the phrase point of order is pause for the game, in which all players need to drop their cards. If you are retouching your cards during a point of order, you’re penalized. If you discuss the rules of Mao, the game’s over, you’re not allowed to play anymore. Usually physical punishment follows for talking about the game and sharing rules. Uh, you get penalized for explaining the rules if somebody asks a question during the game, they get penalized for talking. If you explain a rule, you’re penalized, the person you explained it to is penalized. And, yeeah, it’s just to get rid of your cards as quickly as possible, correctly, and saying the phrases.

Me: How long does it take most people to pick up the game?

KD: Most people learn the game after a round or two. Most people get incredibly frustrated during the first round and seldom want to play a second round. It takes a lot of convincing or you just get a majority of the people to agree to it and then you have captive audience for the rest. Oh, uh I think it’s seven, when a seven is played you’re allowed to shuffle the deck. The number 10 card has a rule but I don’t remember it, uh minimum group size is 4-5 players, you can always shuffle in more decks, regionally it changes, and yeah I think that’s it.

Context of the performance: This was told to me during an in person conversation.

Thoughts: What I find interesting about this is that the entire gameplay revolves around unspoken rules. The only way to learn is by playing and knowledge is passed on, not even orally, but through the action itself. It’s almost impossible to view this from an etic perspective as the game relies and works under an emic perspective, and the etic would be confusion. It is also a rite of passage that comes gradually, with the new players existing on the threshold; once you’ve played enough, it seems that the passage is complete and only then do you fully understand how to play and the inner workings.