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Patolli as depicted in Bernardino de Sahagún's General History of the Things of New Spain. Skilled players had their own game mats and their own playing pieces that they brought in tied cloth bundles. (Public Domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Reviving Patolli: The Ancient Mesoamerican Game of Strategy and Fortune

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Patolli, an ancient game of strategy and chance, once captivated the minds and hearts of Mesoamerica. It is one of the oldest games known in the Americas, with evidence for it being found in cultures such as the Maya and Aztecs. This game, much more than mere entertainment, reflected the cosmological views and societal values of its players. Here, we explore the fascinating aspects of Patolli, exploring its historical significance, gameplay, and lasting impact on culture.

Patolli as depicted in Bernardino de Sahagún’s General History of the Things of New Spain. Skilled players had their own game mats and their own playing pieces that they brought in tied cloth bundles. (Public Domain)

The Cultural and Historical Significance of Patolli

Patolli’s roots are deep, with archeological evidence dating as far back as 200 BC in Teotihuacan. It was prevalent among several pre-Columbian societies, including the Teotihuacanos, Mixtecs, and Zapotecs. However, it is perhaps most famously associated with the Aztecs, who integrated the game deeply into their social and religious life.

The Codex Magliabechiano, an Aztec codex, contains one of the most detailed descriptions of Patolli, depicting gods playing the game, emphasizing its divine connection.

According to this codex, Macuilxochitl the Aztec god of games, was considered to be participating in the game. Offerings were made to this deity each time a role of zero was made. An area near the game board would be reserved for receiving such offerings.

Patolli game being watched by Macuilxochitl as depicted on page 048 of the Codex Magliabechiano (Public Domain)

Patolli game being watched by Macuilxochitl as depicted on page 048 of the Codex Magliabechiano (Public Domain)

The game was not only a pastime but also a medium for economic exchange and ritual significance. Players often wagered personal possessions, ranging from blankets and precious stones to their own freedom, indicating the high stakes and the game’s integration with the economy and social hierarchy. The layout of the Patolli board, resembling a cross, is believed to symbolize the universe’s cardinal directions, reflecting the game’s cosmological dimension.

Gameplay Mechanics: A Blend of Strategy and Chance

The mechanics of Patolli offer a fascinating glimpse into the sophistication of ancient Mesoamerican intellectual pursuits. The game was played on a mat with a cross-shaped board consisting of 52 squares, aligning with the 260-day Mesoamerican calendar year. Players would move their pieces based on the throws of beans, which had marked sides to determine the number of spaces moved.

Typically, four players participated, each responsible for moving multiple pieces across the board. The objective was to navigate all pieces through the entire board based on the roll outcomes, with various squares offering strategic advantages or setbacks. The element of chance, introduced through the throws, combined with strategic positioning and risk-taking, mirrors the balance of fate and skill.

Detail of the beautifully designed and crafted Patolli board from Ancient Origins. (Ancient Origins)

Detail of the beautifully designed and crafted Patolli board from Ancient Origins. (Ancient Origins)

Patolli Brought to You By Ancient Origins

You can experience the same thrills and dismay played by Mesoamericans hundreds of years ago, with this meticulously recreated version brought to you by Ancient Origins. This is not only a captivating board games for young and old alike, it is a journey back in history.

Experience the intrigue of a game cherished by civilizations like the Aztec and Maya as you traverse a beautifully crafted circular board adorned with intricate designs. Patolli, typically played by two to four opponents, involves strategic moves of pyramid-shaped markers, guided by the casting of beans or sticks rather than dice. Immerse yourself in the historical context of this game, gaining insight into the pastimes of ancient Mesoamerican societies. Our recreation pays homage to the spirit of Patolli, offering an authentic experience that echoes the past.

Check out the game at the Ancient Origins shop.

Patolli’s Impact and Legacy in Modern Times

The decline of Patolli post-European colonization marks a significant loss, yet its influence persists subtly in modern board games, which echo similar themes of chance, strategy, and progression. Although direct descendants of Patolli are not prevalent today, games like Parcheesi and Ludo incorporate similar gameplay mechanics, suggesting a lineage of ideas passed through generations and cultures.

Revival efforts and cultural heritage projects continue to bring Patolli and games like it back into public awareness, celebrating the rich intellectual traditions of ancient Mesoamerica. These initiatives not only entertain but also educate, serving as bridges to a past that speaks volumes about human social development, cultural exchange, and the universal appeal of games in society.

The legacy of Patolli reminds us of our shared history in the pursuit of entertainment and meaningful social interaction, which you can now take part in too, with the Ancient Origins Patolli Game. Just watch out for Macuilxochitl peering over your shoulder as you play!

Top image: The ancient Mesoamerican board game ‘Patolli’ board from Ancient Origins. Source: Ancient Origins

By Gary Manners

References

Rees, R. (2006).  Understanding people in the past: The Aztecs. Reed Elsevier Inc.

Berdan, F.F. & Anawalt, P.R. (1997).  The essential Codex Mendoza. University of California Press

Tylor, E. B. (1879). “On the Game of Patolli in Ancient Mexico, and its Probably Asiatic Origin”. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.  8: 116–131. JSTOR 2841019.





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