introducing the game

Back when I first started this blog, I included in the first post the “standard introduction” to my version of the Big M (Walden Traditional MOW), the speech that we always give to new players as we initiate them into the Great Conspiracy:

“There are three things I can tell you about this game.

“First, it’s called MOW. That’s spelled M-O-W and stands for ‘My Own Way.’

“Second, it’s played more or less like Uno or Crazy Eights – you try to get rid of all the cards in your hand by discarding cards of the same suit or same number as the one on the pile.

“Third, there are roughly 17 other rules that you’ll need to figure out on your own.”

I’ve always liked this speech. It isn’t necessarily in the “rules to the game” anywhere – I’ve seen many dealers from my own tradition introduce new players to the game with a rather different patter, for instance. But it sums up quickly and clearly the “basics” of the game, the part that (in my version) we’re allowed to tell people. I know that a lot of people feel that the whole point of the Big M is for new players to feel confused, but personally I’ve always found the game more pleasant when there’s a consistent learning environment for new players – it’s hard enough to learn new things on the fly, and the less extra confusion there is, the more likely people are to be able to focus on what they need to learn.

Of course, this is only my particular understanding of the game. Walden Traditional MOW as I play it is a game primarily about learning – I always say to new players that the point of the game is not to win, but to learn all the rules. Other versions, however, are versions of confusion – the idea is to ensure that play is as interestingly complex as possible. Versions that fall into this second category (in my mind) include Nomic versions, where the rule-set is always changing and the player is constantly struggling to keep up, and non-secret versions. Some may find it hard to believe, but there are many versions of the Big M out there (3 out of the 16 in my collection) in which you are encouraged to tell new players the rules, often working the rules into the “intro speech”; the point of these versions is not that the rules are secret, but that they’re intricate, hard to remember, and interesting, ensuring that even if you’re told the rules, you don’t necessarily remember them all immediately, or consistently.

The other half of introducing the game, for me, is how every individual hand of the Big M gets started. In Walden Traditional MOW, a game starts off like this:

Dealer: “5 card, Traditional, Unsilent. Dealing has commenced.” (deals, turns up top card) “Player A’s turn, Player B’s direction. Play has commenced.”

The first three things that are said tell all players about the specific rules in play – the number of cards that will be dealt (this is variable in a lot of versions), the name of the variant being played, and whether the game will be silent or not (an optional rule in Walden Traditional). The dealer also gets things started by announcing the first two people to play.

Whenever I play other versions, I tend to use this same formula, even though I know that it’s “non-standard” for that version. Again, I like the consistency; I like having a header that both names the version being played (for any group that plays more than one version, this is a must) and clears up which optional rules are enforced. (Also, I do not much enjoy playing silent versions, personally – half the fun of the game is the banter that goes on during play. This could also be that I originally learned the game from a blind player, who needed help from other players in keeping track of what cards were being played, and so did not play a silent game until I had already learned the rules well enough to strike out on my own.) And having the dealer call the first players is helpful – again, it just helps new players feel more comfortable.

However, I recognize that all of this is said from the perspective of a learning version rather than a confusion version, and have at least once had other players become annoyed with me for imposing my version’s header on their versions.

Of course, a third issue with new players is helping them know when they’ve learned all the rules. In my version, this is a fairly big deal, because Walden Traditional is a dictatorial version – i.e. in normal play, only the dealer gives penalties. This is a fair amount of responsibility: You, as the dealer, are entirely responsible for making sure that the rules are consistently enforced and that play proceeds smoothly. (And also that you don’t completely alienate your players!) If a dealer has learned a rule wrong, it is difficult to correct them. In order to keep my group of players all dealing the same version, I typically do an informal “certification”: Once I believe a player has learned all the rules, I ask them (in private, of course) to list off all the rules that they know. I try to guide them as little as possible, suggesting a structure (“try listing card-specific rules first, then other situation-specific ones, then general things that are forbidden”) without asking any leading questions. If they seem to have everything down, I ask them to deal a game in my presence – in Walden Traditional, there are a number of “dealer-specific” rules which ordinary players may or may not pick up on. Once they’ve dealt a few games in my presence without mishap and seem reasonably proficient at handling the weird situations that can come up with new players, I tell them they should feel free to go out and deal on their own.

Of course, for non-dictatorial versions, this is less important: Everybody shares the responsibility of keeping the game moving, and in effect government of the game is by consensus – if you’re the only one in the game who thinks a particular rule works a certain way, then clearly your version is slightly divergent. It’s easy to correct misunderstandings. It will be interesting to see, as Project Big M moves forward, how this change in style affects how quickly the game changes.

So what do you all think? What are your introductory speeches for new players, if any? Do you prefer a learning game or a confusion game? What about the “standard header” for a game? And how do you make sure that new players actually know all the rules?

Let me know in the comments, and keep sending in your versions and stories.


…new rule is now in effect…

First off, sorry for the long hiatus once again. I’m going to try an experiment – expect at least one or two posts a week for the next little while; I’m hoping that a little more activity on my part will result in a little more activity on your part.

And what do I mean by activity on your part, you ask? Gee, thanks for asking! 🙂 Even just commenting here motivates me to keep working, but what I really need from you all is more versions and more stories about how you learned the Big M. Absolutely anything helps at this point – I just need more data.

Speaking of more data, there’s a new version of the Family Tree up now! Here’s what’s new in this version:

  • Number of continuous versions collected: 16
  • Countries with attested versions: USA (9), Canada (2), UK (2), Australia (2)
  • Earliest attested version: Warwick

You’ll see when you look at the new tree that I’ve done some serious reorganization of the Nomic section; most of this is conjecture, but the similarities between some of these versions are undeniable. You’ll notice if you look at the dates that some of this doesn’t quite match up – this is generally because the date that I have is only the earliest attested date, so far, i.e. the version clearly must have existed for a while before my contact sent it in.

I’ll let the rest of the tree speak for itself, for now.

Coming up: A few “sample games” in different versions, a post about introducing new players to the game, and more. Stay tuned.

…end Point of Order…

Hi, all!

So it looks like my busiest week of exams also coincided with the first time this website actually got any traffic. Looks like it’s time to get started again!

I’ve got an extremely, extremely tentative version of a family tree up. Go take a look – if you or your version is mentioned there and there appears to be a mistake, let me know.

Here are some quick statistics:

  • Number of versions collected: 11
  • Countries with attested versions: USA (8), Canada (2), UK (1)
  • Earliest attested version (that I have the rules for): Calgary Mao
  • Most important rule so far: Nomic vs. Non-Nomic (i.e. whether the winner of a hand gets to make up and enforce a new rule or not)
  • Most obscure version so far: My own!

And there you have it.

I’ll have more for you soon; information will come faster if you send in your version!

Play has commenced

“There are three things I can tell you about this game.

“First, it’s called MOW. That’s spelled M-O-W and stands for ‘My Own Way.’

“Second, it’s played more or less like Uno or Crazy Eights – you try to get rid of all the cards in your hand by discarding cards of the same suit or same number as the one on the pile.

“Third, there are roughly 17 other rules that you’ll need to figure out on your own.”

With those words or similar ones about five years ago I was first inducted into the Great Conspiracy that we like to call the Big M. Just a little while before I heard those words I had walked in on a few of my friends gathered around a table with a teacher, intent on a game of cards. When I asked them what they were playing, a few secretive looks were passed. “The Big M,” they said. “Except that’s not actually what it’s called. We’re not allowed to say the name.”

I love the Big M. Five years later, I’ve inducted a great, great many players myself. The rules to my version of the game feel like second nature, so much so that I occasionally accidentally insert them into other card games. While I admit to rather enjoying the sadistic aspect of a game in which you can’t teach new players the rules, I’ve discovered that the most interesting thing for me is the wonderful sense that I’m now participating in an oral tradition reaching back over some unknown amount of time. The Big M, is, after all, a Great Conspiracy, and all of us who play it are “insiders” to the Big Plan.

You’re probably wondering, at this point, why I insist on referring to the game as the Big M, even if that’s not its real name. Over the last year or so, idle research around the internet has revealed to me that Big M players agree upon very little, not even the spelling of the Great Name. For some, it’s Mao, like the Chairman; for other’s, it’s Mau, after the German card game or the (apocryphal) West African tribe. My group appears to be the only one to call it MOW. And the version I know is just one out of a multitude with very, very disparate rule sets – some even allow you to tell the rules to new players!

At first, when I began to discover how different my version was from the others up there, I felt a little protective and self-righteous. My version, after all, calls itself the Traditional one – surely it’s “better” and more “accurate” than the others! After a while, though, I just became fascinated by the diversity, and also by the fact that no group of players can even half-way agree on the history of the game outside of their own local context. That’s the trouble with an oral tradition, especially one which is deliberately secretive and which consists only of a game: it mutates quickly.

Hence, Project Big-M: to know where the Great Conspiracy actually began, what the original rules are. Just a few hours of research has turned up 10 versions available around the net, and a little analysis already shows some very interesting patterns. Did the “Ultimate Mao” recently spotted at Penn State grow out of the remarkably similar “Santa Cruz Mau” in the mid-1990’s? What’s the underlying connection between “Illinois Mao” and “Unofficial Non-standard Cambridge 5-card Mao”? Let’s find out! Who’s with me?