Aztecs played a number of interesting games. Since the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan housed a multi-ethnic population, Aztecs admitted cultural influences from many parts of Mesoamerica.
This is reflected in the games of the Aztecs which are a mixture of board games such as Patolli as well as games of physical exertion and religious significance, such as ballgame. Most Aztec games, especially the ones played publicly, carried an overt religious significance and culminated in rituals of sacrifice.
Aztecs played many board games. Notable among them was the game of Patolli. It was played on a board shaped like a cross, probably as a nod to the Aztec notion of four cardinal directions. The cross divided the board into four quarters, each quarter containing 13 squares.
The board in the game of Patolli was a reed mat. The game involved throwing a dice on this mat and was played between two players.
Both players moved their pieces on and off the board, depending on the dice roll. Heavy betting was done in this game.
Another popular Aztec board game was called Tuknanavuhpl. This game was similar to the modern-day game of checkers.
Aztecs played a board game similar to modern-day Jacks and Marbles. In this game, the players threw a small stone to hit different clay balls placed on the board.
In the place of dice, beans marked with different number of white spots were used in board games.
Aztecs bet heavily on board games. Such betting often reached serious proportions, so much so that some would bet their entire belongings on the games.
The commoners and peasants in the Aztec society had recourse to board games. They were not normally allowed to partake in the more public Aztec games which carried political and religious significance.
Another Aztec game which was popular among the nobility was Totoloque. In this game, a target had to be hit with tiny pallets of gold. Each player was given five tries to hit the target and the player with most hits won. The target was usually a slab of gold.
Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler at the time of the Spanish conquest, was reportedly fond of Totoloque. He played it with Hernan Cortes when the latter reached the city of Tenochtitlan.
Heavy betting was done on the game of Totoloque. Moctezuma II himself is said to have lost precious stones, gold ingots and other valuable items on the game without any resentment.
Public Aztec games, which usually required athletic prowess and skill, were confined to the noble families. Mostly, the players were from the nobility or the warrior class.
One of the most popular public Aztec games was the ballgame. The ballgame was played between two teams. It has been classified as one of the oldest team sports in the history of mankind.
Ballgame was played in huge ballcourts. These courts were made of stone and had a place for the audience to watch the game. A rubber ball was used in the gameplay which involved moving the ball to the opposite end of the court to score. In some cases, a large hoop was positioned on one of the walls of the courtyard and tossing the ball through it was a way to score.
Ballcourts were usually constructed in the shape of an H. The rubber ball used in the game was quite heavy, weighing between 8 and 10 pounds.
Because of the heavy ball used in the game, players often padded their legs, elbows and arms with clothes and leather to avoid any injuries.
Typically, the ball was hit using legs, feet, hips and arms. However, the players were not allowed to use their hands in hitting or moving the ball.
The ballgame carried a lot of ritual significance for the Aztecs. The ball used in the game was thought to represent the Sun. So the Aztecs believed that the ball must be moving at all times, and the players who moved the ball represented the warriors of the Aztec mythology.
Players who excelled at ball game earned esteem and honour in the Aztec society. They were given a prominent position among the Aztecs and were regarded as celebrities.
Human sacrifice was a frequent feature of the Aztec ballgame. Sometimes, the game was played between a team of captive warriors and the Aztec players. If the team of captive warriors lost, they were sacrificed to the Aztec gods.
Another popular public game was the game of “Flyers”. In this game, a tall pole was erected. A musician climbed to the top of the pole and played flute. Meanwhile, four players climbed to the top of the pole and tying their ankles with a rope, jumped off the pole, imitating the flying of eagles while circling around the pole in mid-air.
The players wore eagle costumes in the game of “Flyers” and the best imitation of an eagle, both in flight and costume, was deemed the winner.
The players were required to circle the pole exactly 13 times while they rotated around it, tied to the rope. The four players, circling the pole 13 times each, totalled to 52. That, again, was the Aztec sacred number, related to the 52-year cycle in the Aztec calendar.
The length of the pole was carefully calibrated so as to allow the players to complete their 13 cycles before the rope length reached the ground.
The rotation of the players around the pole was also symbolically related to the Aztec notion of four cardinal directions, the North, South, East and the West.
Most of the Aztec games were related to Aztec religion and mythology. The gameplay of nearly every game had a symbolic significance, apart from its literal significance. This is why symbols, numbers and concepts from Aztec mythology were frequently used in Aztec games.
The more religious significance an Aztec game carried, the more was it limited to the nobility and the royalty. It is understandable given that the religion itself was mostly limited in the hands of the royalty and the nobility.