Totolospi is a racing game that was played by the Hopi Native Americans of the southwest desert.
Some of the games being played by the Hopi and Zuni Native Americans of Arizona at the turn of the 20th century were apparently adapted from Alquerque and other European games brought over by the Spanish several hundred years earlier. But the game known today as Totolospi may be entirely indigenous. Hopi oral tradition says that it was the first game ever played by the people, and it led to discord and strife through gambling. The game’s history, though, is very confused.
In 1951, the British chess historian and game researcher HJR Murray wrote an influential book titled A History of Board Games Other Than Chess. Murray had spent years researching various games from around the world and reconstructing or recording how they were played. And one of these was a Hopi game that he called Totolospi. This was an oval-shaped game board with two tracks containing eleven spaces each.
Unfortunately, though, much confusion surrounds this. Apparently unknown to Murray, the Hopi name “Totolospi” actually refers to an entirely different game—a race game with a square track and a spur that runs inside to the middle of the board, which was apparently indigenous and pre-contact. Museums had been finding the oval-shaped boards mentioned by Murray for decades, and had always attributed them as “counting boards” used for keeping track of the score for the square Totolospi race game.
Murray, however, apparently using Hopi sources, published a set of rules which utilized the oval-shaped tracks and two game pieces as an entirely different race game, which he then called Totolospi. By this time, the square-board version had entirely died out, and, thanks to the success of Murray’s book, his version became acknowledged as the “real” Totolospi.
So, today the situation is not clear. It may be that the oval counting board was indeed for score-keeping, but was then adapted for use in a separate game, perhaps for children, which at one time had a different name which has now been lost.
The game now known as Totolospi consists of an oval board with 19 holes or spaces, arranged in a roughly figure-8 path that meets in the middle.
Each Player has one game piece.
Moves are determined by three stick dice. These were flat wooden sticks that were painted white on one side and black on the other. They can be duplicated today with painted popsicle sticks, or by using coins and allowing “heads” to be white and “tails” to be black.
Both players start in their Home Space at either ends of the board. Totolospi is a race game: the object is to be the first to follow their track of spaces to the other end of the board and back again. One Player follows the upper track and the other follows the lower track.
The tracks meet at a single point in the middle. If this space is occupied by one Player, the other Player cannot land on it or pass it, and is stuck behind it until the opponent’s piece moves away. The center space and the two endpoints are the only ones shared by both Players—the rest of the tracks are parallel.
Moves are made by throwing dice sticks. For each dice stick that lands “black” the Player can move one space. If all three dice land “white”, the Player must move back one space.
After a Player has rolled and moved his game piece as usual, he may then elect to roll again and carry out that move too—and to keep doing so for as many additional rolls as he wishes. He may choose to end his turn after any number of rolls. However, if during any of these rolls he gets a “move back a space” roll or if he is unable to advance his piece for any reason (blocked, needs exact roll), he loses all of the moves he has made so far and must return his piece back to his home space and start all over again. It is then the other Player’s turn. (This introduces an element of risk into what would otherwise be a simple dice race.)
The game ends when one Player has successfully moved his piece from his home spot to the other end of the board and back again to his home spot. The Player must reach his home space by exact count.
One thought on “The Hopi Game of Totolospi”
I was a terrible math student in my younger days and got a “D” in every math course I ever took. So I had Google do the math for me, and it seems that if you toss the three dice sticks four times, you have roughly a 40% chance of coming up with three “white” sticks, and having to start over. So it would seem, mathematically, that the best strategy would be to toss two or three times and then end your turn.