Back In The Day: UNO

David and his son revisit the 1971 Mattel classic UNO to see if it still holds up!

It’s been a long time since I played UNO.

In fact, it wasn’t until I walked into my mom’s house a few weekends ago to find her sitting there playing UNO with my 5-year-old son that I realized just how long it had actually been. That struck me as weird because I can clearly recall UNO being such a central part of my life during my youth. I have vivid memories of sitting around the table with my family, yucking it up, as day turned into night and, occasionally, the other way around. I played it with friends at church. I played it on camping trips with the Boy Scouts. I played it any chance I could get.

To say that I was once UNO obsessed would be underselling it. My love of UNO went much deeper than obsession.

And then, it just kind of faded away. I’m not sure when I stopped playing and I’m not even sure why. In fact, until I saw my son sitting there playing it with my mom, beckoning me to join them, I hadn’t even given any thought to actually playing the game since sometime in the 1980s.

As I sat there playing, it got me thinking that, if any game was ripe for the old “Justin Bell’s Back In The Day” treatment, UNO was definitely a contender. So, here we are.

In our Back in the Day articles revisiting classic experiences, we won’t discuss how to play these games…they are old, and if you want to learn how to play, feel free to search the ‘net for answers. We’ll instead focus on what still works, and what doesn’t, while making a recommendation on whether you need to dig this one out of your attic or not!

First, A Little History

Looking at the gaming giant that UNO has become today, it would be easy to forget its humble beginnings. Rather than reinvent the wheel, please enjoy this informational snippet from our Top 6 Games Like UNO article:

“In 1971, a man named Merle Robbins had an argument with his son about the rules for Crazy 8s. In a flash of inspiration, he wrote his own set of rules for a new game and dubbed it “UNO”. In UNO, players attempt to empty their hand of cards by playing them to a shared discard pile. This new game contained cards of 4 different colors numbered 1-9, Wild cards, Skips, Reverses, Draw 2 cards, and the infamous and iconic Draw 4 card. When a player has a single remaining card in their hand, they must announce “UNO” to the table to make sure everyone knows they might be able to go out…effectively painting a target on their back.

After raising the $8,000 needed to print 5,000 UNO decks and selling them out of his barber shop, Robbins sold the rights to UNO to International Games for $50,000 plus ongoing royalties.”

In 2018, excluding strategic trading card games, like the behemoth Magic: the Gathering, UNO stood as the #1 Games property in the U.S. Not too shabby! It doesn’t retain that lofty perch in 2024, but the fact that it once was there says a lot.

UNO: What Still Works?

The number one thing that UNO has going in its favor is just how ridiculously easy it is to teach and play. This is a blessing because it ensures that people of all age groups can come together to play it. I know that if I want to break out a game that my 90-year-old grandmother, my mom (who is in her 60s), myself (late 40s), my wife (30s), and my 5-year-old son can all play together, we can always break out UNO and have a good time.

Someone’s about to have a bad day.

And, surprisingly, it is a good time. The decisions are easy. The ‘take that’ is friendly (and oftentimes, hilarious). The randomness affects everyone the same. Not to mention, the game plays pretty quickly. With our small group of 3, each round of UNO only took three or four minutes each.

Another thing that works in UNO’s favor is that it has become more than just a game. It is a gaming system, easily tweaked and molded into something familiar, yet very different. UNO Flip, UNO Blast, UNO Show ‘Em No Mercy… the list goes on and on. In fact, between all the UNO spin-offs and reskins (yes, UNO is a licensing dream), there are almost 400 entries on BoardGameGeek. So, if your family is really into UNO, but craving something different, there’s plenty out there to choose from.

UNO: What Doesn’t Work?

I mentioned earlier that UNO’s ease of play is its greatest strength, and while that may be true, it’s also its greatest weakness.

Let’s face it, UNO is not very challenging. Your decisions, what few there are, don’t really matter in the long run, and are often undone on the next turn. The winner of the game ultimately comes down to sheer, dumb luck. If you’re only holding one card in your hand and it just so happens that, on your next turn, you’re able to play it out of your hand, you win. Whether or not this outcome happens is completely out of your hands.

Don’t be fooled by its unassuming nature.

While this may be fine for many people, for more experienced gamers, this over-reliance on luck will not sit well with them. It’s tolerable for a few hands, but UNO’s official rules have the players playing for points (the first to 500, specifically), with points being earned by the winner of the round based on the cards leftover in their opponents’ hands. That’s really asking a lot.

More worrisome, for those people that think this kind of thing is fine, many of them will never evolve beyond UNO. UNO is easy. UNO  is low effort. It’s mindless entertainment, and that kind of thing can become addictive. For some, UNO’s as much challenge as they’ll ever desire. And that’s a shame because we live in a world full of amazing games that are just so much better.

Yea or Nay?

A little nay. A little yea.

Revisiting UNO as a gamer, I would probably never go back to it. As a kid, there weren’t a lot of options and I certainly didn’t have the experience under my belt that I do now. Now, I know better. An hour spent with UNO is an hour I could spend with a game which will leave me feeling much more fulfilled.

These card holders are perfect for tiny hands.

That being said, as a father, I think UNO’s going to quickly become my new favorite. It’s a breath of fresh air watching my son move on from games like The Sneaky Snacky Squirrel to more adult-oriented fare. It’s a sign that he’s becoming smarter. It’s a sign that he’s growing up and maturing. His interest in UNO gives me hope for the future.

A future without UNO.

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About the author

David McMillan

IT support specialist by day, Minecrafter by night; I always find time for board gaming. When it comes to games, I prefer the heavier euro-game fare. Uwe Rosenberg is my personal hero with Stefan Feld coming in as a close second.

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