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Bloodthirsty, Thrilling, and Desperate

An ode to Uno.

The game Uno on a pedestal.
Photo illustration by Slate

Read Slate’s complete list of the 40 Best Family Games.

Is there any family card game as bloodthirsty, thrilling, and desperate as Uno? You may think of its bright, multicolored deck as a familiar, friendly object, the innocuous source of hours whiled away in leisure—but recall that feeling when you were on the verge of winning a round and were subsequently forced to draw four more cards, or lost your turn three times when you were skipped twice right after being reversed on, and you realize there’s nothing innocuous about it. For Uno, while an inherently communal game, is not always conducive to “friendly” competition—it’s World War IV fought with plastic cards, where aggressive counters to fellow players and sweat-inducing climactic moments abound. And it’s for just that reason that Uno is the perfect family game: It’s the most combative such a game can be without resorting to sheer cruelty, an occasion for fierce individual grit to shine within the family unit and, in its way, the best manner in which to reveal your loved ones’ most cunning sides—and your own as well.

Part of the reason Uno works so well as a card game is that it’s a simplified descendant of a classic: The game was reportedly invented by an Ohio barber named Merle Robbins after a dispute with his son over the rules of Crazy Eights. His version featured exclusively one-digit numerals; vibrant hues of red, blue, green, and yellow; and trick cards—the Skip, the Draw Two and Draw Four cards, the Reverse, and the color-changer—added to the deck. It’s easy and visually appealing enough that people of any age can catch on, and it can be played with large numbers, so everyone’s invited (though four to five is the optimal amount, perfect for the nuclear family).

Despite the limited, simple, and recognizable card palette, every game is unpredictable—you never really know when you’re about to be hit with a trick card or when the color in play is going to change, rendering the card you were ready to get rid of totally useless. Absorbed in your own moves, you won’t quite realize the moment when someone’s overflowing hand was whittled down until they suddenly yell “Uno.” Games can go for hours and hours on end, or they may finish in less than five minutes. It depends, really, on both the hand you’re dealt and the way you play.

While Uno encourages you to find the glee in malice, it has checks to prevent you from becoming too steeped in power: Too many, in their excitement, have gotten down to the last card in their hand and failed to call out “Uno,” handing victory over to someone else. The inscribed rule that forces you to draw a card when you have nothing that can be played is an effective bulwark against a painless victory. And apparently, as recently came as a shock to many, you are bound not to play a Draw Four (is there a multicolored object more fearsome?) unless you have nothing else that can be played. Plus, the very structure of the game is transparent; there’s little room for lying, for you cannot possibly play a card you don’t have. You may bluff before your turn, but the hand lays itself out at the end.

Uno’s popularity has birthed several offshoots, most of which are perfect as well: from Uno Stacko, which mashes the game’s rules with those of Jenga, to Uno Dare, wherein special dare cards added to the deck force unfortunate players to do any number of silly things, like holding a card against the wall using only their nose. (Uno Dare also comes with blank cards you can customize with dares of your own. I once made a friend fetch me snacks from a nearby convenience store before the next round.) And while Uno decks remain a viable alternative to screen gaming—kids I’ve played with are still enraptured by it—it’s likewise fun in virtual form. (At the time of its rising popularity, Uno was considered a last hope for tabletop games against the dominance of the arcade.)

Yet the ultimate triumph of Uno is its ability to encourage our most primal competitive instincts without crossing the line into all-out battle, to balance the hold of power with the necessary restraints. This precarious equilibrium is what makes Uno so singularly enjoyable. It’s still absorbing and accessible as it ever was, bringing us together and pitting us against each other all at once. What better fun could you ask for with your family members, your ultimate nemeses?

Uno.

Uno

Types: Cards
Players: 2–10
Time: 30 min.
Variations? Y
Expansions? Y
Fun without kids? Y