Aztec society was a multi-ethnic society and in the capital city of Tenochtitlan, people from different city-states mingled. This intermingling of people from different areas gave it a rich culture and a very active public life.
Aztec’s games were an important feature of the Aztec public life and people played a variety of games in their free time for entertainment. While most of the games were played by children, some games were also played by elders and the nobility and often heavy betting was involved.
Aztec children played a variety of games during their free time. In the day time, they had to attend school since education was compulsory for all Aztec children. After school, there were various games that Aztec children played. For instance, there was a popular board game called “patolli” which bore a resemblance to the game of Ludo. Exact rules of this game are not known but it involved rolling a dice onto a reed mat which was used as the “board” where black lines were drawn in the shape of a cross. The game was usually played between two players. Another game was played by the Aztec’s was similar to the game of jacks and marbles and involved tossing a small stone into the air and trying to hit clay balls laid onto the mat. Pole-climbing was another popular game where the contestants climbed a pole and the first to reach the top got to keep the prize.
Not only the children but also Aztec adults played various sorts of Aztec games. Patolli was one of the most popular games among the Aztec adults. The adults did heavy betting while playing this game and some even ended up losing all their possessions. It was a game of chance and skill and precious stones, metals, and other things were used as betting material. One of the most popular Aztec games among the Aztec adults was the ritual ball game which was known as “Ullamaliztli”. Just like Patolli, this game also involved heavy betting.
The culture of Aztec games was popular not just among the common people but also among the nobility and the ruling classes. Elaborate arrangements were made for the games of the nobles particularly the Aztec ball game which was highly preferred by the elite classes of Aztec society. The ball game also had religious significance and a traditions spanning over many centuries. In fact, a lot of times the ritual ball game of the Aztec’s was exclusively reserved for the nobility and just like other Aztec games, heavy betting was involved in this game too.
Religion was of deep significance for the Aztec’s and just like every other important domain of life, it was involved in Aztec games as well. In fact, games were part of Aztec religion and the god of Aztec games was Macuilxochitl which in Nahuatl language means “five flowers”. As an example, the game of Patolli was related to Aztec religious view of the universe with the numbers 4 and 52, with 52 being the number of years in Aztec religious calendar. Similarly, Aztec ball games were also played as a sort of ritual and according to the archaeological evidence even human sacrifice was related to Aztec games since skull racks have been found close to the courts of Aztec ball games.
Aztec ball was easily the most popular of all Aztec games. It was known as Tlachtli and was played between two teams on a court shaped like an H between two walls. Each team had half of the court at its disposal and it was the goal of each team to get a rubber ball, weighing 8 to 10 pounds, to the other team’s side. As per the rules, only hips and feet could be used to move the ball. There were two stone rings, one on each side, and the ball had to be passed through to the ring of the other team in order to score against that team. With this kind of game, getting hurt was not very rare and the players donned leather belts in order to save themselves from getting hurt. While the game was mainly played by the nobility, everyone could watch it and heavy betting was involved. Common materials used for betting included gold, cloth items, slaves, and even the freedom of families.
Among Aztec board games, Patolli was the most popular game. Just like the ball game, Patolli also had religious significance. The board on which the game was played was shaped like a cross and players moved their pieces on the board depending on the throws of the beans or stones used as dice. The board had 4 quarters with 13 squares each, amounting to a total of 52 squares which represented the number of years in the Aztec calendar. Betting was also involved in this game and various precious metals and stones were used for that purpose. Another popular Aztec board game was Tuknanavuhpl which was similar to modern checkers.
In Aztec games where gambling was used, Totoloque was another popular game. The purpose of this game was to hit a target, usually a slab of gold, with gold pallets. Five tries were given to each player and the player with most number of hits won. Among the notable people who played this game was Aztec emperor Montezuma II who wagered items of great value such as precious stones and gold ingots on the outcome of the game. According to the Spanish historian Bernal Diaz, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes played this game with Moctezuma II. Moztecuma II is also said to have often lost the game with good humour.
Aztec culture had a variety of games which the people played in their free time for entertainment. The most popular of all Aztec games was the Aztec ball game which, however, was mainly reserved for the nobility. Patolli was the most popular board game and was played by the nobles and the commoners alike. Betting was heavily involved in Aztec games and people wagered precious metals and even their freedom on the outcome. Aztec games also had religious significance and the god of games was called Macuilxochitl.