You’ve seen it in the movies, you’ve heard a lot about it, but have you ever wondered why the ancient Maya was notorious for taking prisoners?

The Maya civilization consisted of several independent city-states. There were some powerful ones and some lesser ones. Still, even the powerful ones were restricted to a relatively small area, their borders within a day’s march from the capital. It would have been challenging for a city-state to expand beyond that. Despite this, warfare was very common amongst these cities.

But why is that so?

If territorial expansion was not a motivation, what was it?

According to scholars, the war was mainly driven by the need to take prisoners, especially from a rival city’s royal family. These royal captives were used as a bargaining chip, and public humiliation or even sacrifice was on the table. This way, the defeated city could be forced to pledge its allegiance to the more powerful city. This subjection can be seen in several artifacts and glyphs.

Ahau, the board game, depicts the same mechanism. There is a particular tile (deity) in the game with which you can capture your opponent’s pieces to be placed on your pyramid. As from the next turn, your opponent may free this captive by paying you a handsome ransom. You can also trade captives with your opponent. But no worries, there are no human sacrifices here!

You are not defenseless against such cunning moves. Using the power of other deities, you can take control of a whole city with your King piece, defending your workers there and in neighbouring cities, or you can flee your workers to the countryside where they will be protected from being captured. There is also a special resource in the game – the shield – which will always provide defense against attacks.