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Patolli - Should you take a gamble on this ancient Aztec board game?
Head in the Clouds
Updated: Monday, Jan 22, 2018
Patolli is an ancient Aztec board game that takes its name from the Aztec word for bean - patolli, meaning fava or kidney bean. But likely not meaning garbanzo bean, since those originate in the Middle East, over three hundred miles away from ancient Aztecia. The game was named after beans, because they are what was used as dice. Five or six black beans would have one side marked with a hole. That way, tossing the beans would result in some showing a white pip and others showing a blank side, making Patolli the the earliest known version of point salad.

Patolli was very popular throughout the Aztec empire, with everyone from common peasants up to noble families partaking in the game. But whether you were a humble farmer or a bejeweled member of the royal house, your games of Patolli usually also included gambling. Players often wagered vast treasures on its outcome. They would wager blankets, precious stones and gold, food, and even sometimes their homes, family members, and even their own freedom. In fact, the stakes over games of Patolli were often raised so high, that during Spain’s ruthless, massacre-rich conquest of the Aztec empire, the Spanish leaders drew the line at Patolli, and forbid anyone to play it.

So, how does one play this dangerous game of high stakes and literal bean counters? Patolli is played on a diagonal, cross-shaped board, where one play controls red markers, and other player blue ones.

On a player’s turn, they would throw the beans like dice in order to bring their tokens onto the criss-cross board, and move them towards an exit ramp at the other end. This mechanism is still used in games we play today, like merging onto and off of the freeway.

And every game of Patolli also included an invisible third player. Always considered to be joining the players at the table, floor carving, or decorated straw mat, was the Aztec god of music, dance, gambling and games Macuilxochitl. One of the items they were wagering by placing them in a special, reserved space, if they ever rolled all blanks. The winner of the round would then receive the treasures that had accumulated in that space, as a gift. You rolled all bean-side up.

And finally, as if the game’s stakes weren’t already high enough, if a player’s toss results ever resulted all the beans standing on their sides, then that player would automatically win ALL of the items being wagered by their opponent. Meaning that, in some point in history, it’s quite possible that someone in Central America ended up gambling his entire family into a lifetime of indentured servitude because of the way he happened to drop six black beans. Keep THAT in mind during your next gaming session. Perhaps losing your favorite investigator to madness due to a bad roll of the dice in Eldritch Horror isn’t so bad after all.
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