The Maya Game of Buluc

Buluc, also known as Puluc, is an ancient board game played by the Maya in Central America.

Buluc gameboard

History

The Maya Empire dominated Central America for centuries. With Stone Age technology, the Mayans built some of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere and excelled in art and astronomy, producing their own written language. With the pinnacle of their power in the 6th century, the Empire began to decline around 900, and most of the cities were abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived. Political tension between the two cities of Tikal and Calakmul may have led to instability and collapse.

The game of Buluc (also known as Puluc, for the God of War) reflects those times of empire and rivalry. It is a highly stylized wargame with the goal of capturing all of your opponent’s pieces. Mayan warfare placed great emphasis on capturing prisoners, who would then be used in human sacrifices.

Equipment

The game board for Buluc consists of a series of rectangular spaces. (The Maya often delineated these game spaces with empty corn cobs.) The number varied from place to place, with up to 20 in some cases. The more spaces there were, the longer it took to play the game. The version here will use one “Home Base” at either end for each Player, and nine playing spaces in between. The game also varied in the number of pieces per Player: in this version we will use five.

The Maya did not have cubic game dice. Instead, they determined moves by tossing four corn kernels which had been painted black on one side with charcoal, and the number of black sides which landed face-up determined the dice roll. We can simulate that by using  four “dice sticks”. These are wooden popsicle or craft sticks which have been painted black on one side. We can also use coins, counting “heads” as black and “tails” as white.

Each Player has five game pieces. These need to be stackable. The Maya used shells or wooden chips that were painted in different colors for each Player. Suitable modern game pieces include coins (pennies and dimes work well, being of contrasting color and roughly the same size to stack easily), poker chips, or checkers.

To Play

To set up the game, each Player places his five game pieces along the first space on his end of the board. This is his Home Base.

Players alternate turns by throwing the dice sticks. Moves are determined by the number of black sides that face up. If all the sticks fall with no black sides showing, that counts as a throw of 5.

One piece may be moved after a throw. Solitary pieces may only be moved towards the enemy base and cannot move backwards until they have made a capture. Pieces may not land on a space that is already occupied by a friendly piece, and may not enter the opponent’s home base. (Therefore a piece which reaches the space in front of the opponent’s home base is stuck there, and makes an easy target.) If a Player cannot make a legal move, then the Player loses that turn.

If a piece lands on a space that is occupied by an enemy piece, that opponent is captured, and is placed in a stack underneath the capturing piece. It is now a captive and no longer under control of the original Player, but is moved along with the capturing piece. If a piece lands on a space that is occupied by an enemy piece that already has captures underneath it, all of those pieces are now captured as well and are placed in a stack underneath the new capturing piece. A stack may also capture an opposing piece or stack. Thus, there may be large stacks of pieces that have been repeatedly captured by opposing Players, and which now contain pieces from both sides. The current owner’s piece is always on top to indicate who is controlling the stack.

When a piece captures an opponent, whether a solitary piece or an entire stack, it reverses direction and now moves back towards its Home Base. When it reaches home (in some versions this must be by exact count), all of the enemy pieces it has captured are “sacrificed” and removed from the board, and all of the friendly pieces in the stack are freed and return to their Home Base for further play.

The object of the game is to move out and capture the opponent’s pieces, take them back to your Home Base, and sacrifice them.

The game ends when one Player has killed or captured all of his opponent’s pieces.

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