Puzzle and game enthusiasts young and old have been enjoying our Real Escape Game experiences in Toronto since 2015. But did you know, these Japanese games are widely considered to be the progenitors to the Escape Room puzzle genre dating back over a decade!

Inspired by this, we decided to find out about the progenitor of this progenitor – just how far back does the world of puzzling go?

We started with a simple question: What’s the oldest puzzle? We followed up with the even simpler: is it chess?

Chess puzzle image

This photo from 1919 is nearly a hundred years old, but the origins of chess have actually been traced back to the 6th century! The game was historically used to teach the nobility the strategies of war, and for that reason was commonly also referred to as The King’s Game.

The earliest remnants of the game’s inception have been found from the Gupta Empire between 280-550 A.D. Called Chaturanga or 4 Divisions (named after divisions of their military: infantry, cavalry, chariots and of course elephants), the game was already being used for strategic military purposes. Taught throughout the generations, the game would be studied and learned by many, but mastered by few. However, for many years, those curious about the game would have had a hard time finding a manual since the first Arabic writings about the game’s rules didn’t even exist until 840 A.D.!

However, as old as the King’s Game may be, we had a hard time believing that the first puzzle was a war strategy game. We went further back to ancient Rome where we hoped to find even earlier example.

Known as the Forma Urbis Romae, this 1,800 year old map of Rome was carved into marble and originally stood on the wall of the Temple Pacis. Destroyed by time, the map has become a restoration puzzle since the first of its fragments were re-discovered in 1562, and to this day remains unsolved! In fact, despite 1,200 pieces of the original having been recovered, this still only amounts to 10% of the original. So, still unable to complete this millennia marbled mystery, archaeologists continue to uncover pieces…

But if this map only became a puzzle long after it was made, does it really count?

Luckily, though, there might be a genuine puzzle which dates back even further. When stumbling across the ancient Mathematician, Archimedes’ documented work in 1998, the world soon realized the challenge he created might in fact be, the oldest yet. Archimedes lived from 287-212 B.C. This means his puzzle (referred to as Stomachion or Archimedes Box) would definitely be older than chess or any jigsaw thought to be concocted A.D.

Unassembled Stomachion puzzle

This puzzle consists of 14 shapes to be rearranged exactly into a square. Archimedes’ Box was so challenging in fact, that in 2003 mathematician Bill Cutler actually devised a computer program to find its 536 unique solutions!

So maybe it’s the big picture analysis and strategy required in the King’s Game. Perhaps the patience required in endless search for Forma Urbis Romae or simply the logical possibilities from the Stomachion… 

…or maybe there are older puzzles yet to be discovered!

But what we can definitely confirm is that the original escape rooms are still available, right here in Toronto! Long may these classic games – Escape from the Time Travel Lab and The Trial of the Mad Fox Society – continue to challenge enthusiasts from across the nation!

Image credits: Samuel Reshevsky (at age eight) versus the World (1919), available via Wikimedia and Stomachion (2007) by RosarioVanTulpe, available via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0