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Traditional Board Games

Patolli

A game of Patolli overseen by the god Macuilxochitl
A game of Patolli overseen by the god Macuilxochitl

Played by the Aztecs, patolli was a race game on a cross-shaped board. Pieces raced around the board according to the throws of five beans, which were marked on one side and plain on the other. Complete rules for the game have not survived, but board game historian R. C. Bell proposed a plausible reconstruction for them.

History of Patolli

Patolli was played by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish arrival in Mexico. It was a gambling games, and is recorded as having been played by nobles for high stakes such as precious stones and gold beads. Montezuma would watch the nobles play at his court.

Patolli has a slight resemblance to the cross-shaped race games of India, such as pachisi. But the resemblance is coincidental, no contact having been made between the two civilisations between the invention of their respective games and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

If the original rules for patolli were ever recorded by the Aztecs, sadly they were destroyed along with much other Aztec cultural material by the misplaced zeal of the Spanish priesthood. Some early Spanish accounts of the game have survived, but none record complete and playable rules.

Rules for Patolli

Rules for Patolli
The rules below were devised by R. C. Bell in his 1960 book Board and Table Games, from early Spanish accounts. Where his sources failed him, Bell supplied additional rules often borrowed from other games.

1. Patolli is played on a cross-shaped board of sixty squares. Eight of those squares are reduced in size by wedge-shaped markings between them. Eight more at the ends of the cross are rounded.

2. When two play, each player has six pieces. When three play, there are five pieces each, and when four play, each has four pieces. The pieces for each player are distinguished by colour. The players begin the game with pieces in hand, the board being empty.

3. Five beans control the movement of the pieces. They are marked on one side and blank on the other. Coins or casting sticks can be used as substitutes. The score of the beans when thrown is one point per marked side showing, or ten points if all five marked sides are shown. When no marked sides show, there is no score.

4. Each player puts an agreed stake into the pot. A penalty amount is also agreed at this stage, played from one player to another upon certain pitfalls throughout the game.

5. The beans are thrown by each player at the start of the game. The player with the highest throw begins, throwing the beans again as in rule 6.

6. The player whose turn it is throws the beans. If there is no score, the turn is over.

7. On his first turn the player enters a new piece onto the board from the central square closest to him, moving around the track by the number of spaces according to his score. He decides the direction of movement for his own pieces, clockwise or anti-clockwise; he will maintain this direction throughout the game, but each player makes his own choice. Pieces may therefore run in the same or opposite directions during the game.

8. Once a player has one piece on the board, others may be entered only on a throw of 1. A throw of 1 does not necessitate the entry of a new piece, however; the player may opt to move a piece already on the board instead.

9. When a player has more than one piece in play, the player may choose to move any one piece in accordance with the throw.

10. A piece may not land on an occupied square. If it would do so, then it cannot be moved and another piece must be moved instead. It is possible that no piece can be moved by a particular throw.

11. If the player can move, then he must move, even if all available moves are detrimental.

12. If the player cannot move, then he must pay a penalty into the pool.

13. A player landing in one of the reduced squares beside the wedge markings must pay a penalty of double the agreed amount to his opponent(s).

14. A player landing in one of the rounded squares at the end of the cross receives another turn.

15. After having made a complete circuit of the board, a piece is borne off on reaching the last square (i.e. the one before the player's starting square) by an exact throw. On bearing off a piece, the player receives a penalty his opponents.

16. The player who has borne off the last of his pieces wins the game and the contents of the pot.

Bell suggests that a four player game might be played in partnerships. The players opposite one another form a team, and it is the team who first bears off all pieces that wins the game, not the individual.

If players do not wish to gamble, then the rules about the pot and forfeits can be ignored. Landing on a square next to a wedge shaped marking as in rule 13 would instead occur another penalty. The simplest suggestion is that the player should miss a turn. Another reflects the double penalty: the affected piece must move backwards on the following turn.

Strategy in Patolli

Since one cannot land on an occupied square, all pieces are safe from capture. However, this makes blocking an interesting tactic. Though it is usually impossible to block an opponent's progress entirely, a row of pieces on consecutive squares will hamper an opponent's progress. The penalty squares can help in blocking.

The most common throws are 2 and 3, each occuring in five throws out of every sixteen. 1 and 4 each occur half as often. 10 occurs in one throw out of every 32, as does the no score. These numbers should be taken into account when a player uses the blocking tactic, or when pieces approach the end of their journey.

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