Traditional Board Games

Games Around the World: Pre-Columbian America

Chichen Itza, Mayan Pyramid.
Chichen Itza, Mayan Pyramid.

Saturday, 16th May 2015

After Europeans settled in North America, they introduced the games that had been popular in Europe, many of which flourished. But board games were not new to the area: the native peoples of North America had their own board games. In this month's instalment of my armchair journey around the world, I want to look at the games played in North America before the coming of the Europeans.

One of the better known games is Puluc, sometimes known as Bul or Boolik. This has survived among the Maya peoples of Guatemala, and is different enough from European games to suggest that it is not simply an adaptation of an import. Two teams move their pieces along a track in accordance with throws of binary lots, but this is not a race game: it's a war game where the object is to capture the opponents' pieces.

The method of capture is unique: one must land on an enemy piece, but instead of removing it from the board, it must be dragged home by further moves in accordance with the throws of the binary lots. While this is happening, the captor remains vulnerable. The versions played in Guatemala today are mostly devoid of skill, but R. C. Bell published a version in 1960 that has a tactical element. Whether he added this, or whether it was traditionally played this way, is unclear. The version on this site is based on that of Bell.

A game called Patolli was popular among the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived. It has a vague resemblance to Pachisi, though sadly the rules are lost. Clues have been used to reconstruct the game, however. We do know that it was primarily a gambling game: several rounds would be played, the ultimate aim being to seize all the treasure the opponent had brought as a stake.

Another game whose rules have not survived is Totolospi, a game of the Hopi. Some etched boards have survived, oval in shape with eleven divisions in a line. The shape suggests a similar game to Puluc, which can also be played on a track of eleven spaces. Some inscribed boards for the game combine two such boards at right-angles to one another, forming a cross, with the central space shared between the two tracks. How this would have been played is a mystery: it's tempting to devise rules for a four-player Puluc variant, but pieces on the two different tracks would have had very few opportunities to interact with one another in such a game.

The name of Totolospi has been attached to another game, a very interesting game of strategy. A lined board of eleven rows of eleven points is laid out with a diagonal line across the middle. Pieces of black and white fill either side of this. All pieces move towards the bottom corner, first along the horizontal and vertical lines, then along the diagonal. The diagonal is the place in which all the battles occur. Like most of the other games here, full rules don't survive.

The Zuni had another interesting game of strategy, called Awithlaknakwe, or "stone warriors". This had a large board of 168 playing spaces, every square being cross-cut to indicate that pieces move diagonally. Only six pieces per player occupied this board, and movement was diagonally forward. The objective, detail of which has not survived, was to reach the opponent's starting space having captured as many enemy pieces as possible. Pieces were captured by surrounding them on two opposite sides, but the first piece captured was not removed, but upgraded to a special piece called the "priest of the bow", which had the additional power of moving orthogonally sideways or forwards (but still not backwards).

In most of these cases there isn't absolute proof that the games were invented before European arrival. The main evidence is their lack of similarity to games brought over by Europeans. There are some other games of which we lack the name: some race games were engraved into Mayan architecture, and these can be dated.

The main disappointment with most of the pre-Columbian American games is that we don't have the exact rules remaining, a drawback that many Old World games of early date suffer from. But their intriguing nature draws many to try and reconstruct them using what evidence remains, and knowledge of similar games.

Next month I will cross the Atlantic in my virtual armchair contrivance, and see what sort of games were played across Africa in more recent times.


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