Patolli: The Game of the Aztecs

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico and Central America in the 16th century, they found the Aztec native people playing a game on a cross-shaped playing board, known as “Patolli”.

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The Aztec god Macuilxochitl watches a game of Patolli              photo from WikiCommons

According to the Spanish accounts (which rendered the name as Patole), this game dated all the way back to the original inhabitants of the city of Teotihuacan, built in around 200 BCE. As new cultures arose, they continued the tradition of playing Patolli, especially the Toltecs and their descendants the Aztecs, as well as other local tribes such as the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.

Patolli is a “race game” that is similar in some ways to the Hindu game of Parcheesi, in which players compete to be first to make their way around a long cross-shaped game board. The similarities are entirely coincidental, however, since the two cultures were never in contact.

The primary emphasis in Patolli, moreover, at least among the Aztecs, was gambling. The Spanish recorded that Aztec noblemen in particular were addicted to the game, and often wagered large sums of wealth. One surviving Aztec Codex depicts the Emperor Montezuma watching a number of nobleman playing Patolli. Before each game, the players would show off the wealth which they were betting, which could range from blankets or pots to gold jewelry or entire households. Very often, noblemen would continue to play against each other in game after game until one of them had lost everything he had brought with him. There were also professional Patolli players who traveled from town to town with their own gaming pieces and woven sitting mats.

As with most of Aztec culture, there was a religious element to the game. The Aztec god of games was Macuilxochitl. Not only would each player pray fervently to Macuilxochitl beforehand, but a special empty place was held among the spectators, where, it was believed, the god himself might watch the game. In some matches, it was agreed that upon a particular event on the board the players would place an item into this area, and at the end of the game the winner would receive these extra prizes as a gift from Macuilxochitl.

The traditional Patolli gameboard was made up of 52 squares on an X-shaped cross with four arms. It was often painted with liquid latex from the sap of jungle trees onto a swath of cloth, a straw mat, or a width of leather, and was usually decorated with good luck symbols meant to invoke the favor of the gods. Wealthy nobles often had wooden game tables that were inlaid with gold, silver, and seashells. Beans that had a white spot cut into one side were used as dice, and player pieces could be as simple as maize kernels or as elaborate as carved shells or stone discs.

When the Spanish arrived, they attempted to forcibly convert the natives to Catholicism. Part of this included the suppression of the Aztec culture, language and religion. Religious temples were destroyed, the illustrated Codex books were burned, and anyone caught practicing Aztec culture was severely punished. And that included Patolli, which as a form of gambling and religious idol-worship was doubly offensive to the Spanish. The traditional game was almost entirely stamped out.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, with a renewed interest in the Aztec culture, that the game of Patolli was resurrected. Since no complete written accounts of the rules were spared from the Spanish flames, several playable versions have been reconstructed using a handful of surviving illustrations and fragmentary Spanish and Native descriptions. Some of these reconstructions were then further altered to remove the “gambling” element and turn Patolli into a children’s race game.

If you would like to try out the game of the Aztecs, here is a version that you can print out and play. The version given here is a somewhat simplified set of rules that still retains some of the gambling influence.

Download the four sections of game board and game pieces here:

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And download the rules here:

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Print the game out on 8.5×11 heavy cardstock paper, cut out the player pieces, game board and counting sticks, and you are ready to play using the  rules reference card.

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