This Week: Puzzling Through the Pandemic

Like many others during the pandemic, I’ve re-discovered the joy and satisfaction of becoming absorbed—mind and body—in a puzzle. During a recent stay-at-home order, I dusted off a classic brain teaser from my collection: a SOMA cube. The three-dimensional puzzle is rooted in quantum physics, which I don’t hold against it despite having struggled through four semesters of the natural science in university.

Parker Brothers released its version of the SOMA cube in 1969, calling it “the world’s finest cube puzzle game!” It came in four different colours (red, white, blue, and orange—mine is red), and consists of seven unique, irregularly shaped plastic pieces and challenges players to take the cube apart and then try to restore it into its original 3-inch x 3-inch x 3-inch cubic form.

The Science of Play

Like many puzzles of its ilk, the method to successfully re-assemble a SOMA cube is based on science; specifically, a geometrical theorem from Denmark inventor and mathematician, Piet Hein. In theory, Hein’s invention could be assembled in more than a million different ways—1,105,920 to be precise—a number that Parker Brothers touted on its packaging for the puzzle. But, after accounting for each piece’s various rotations and reflections, the number of genuinely unique assembly options is closer to 240. I’ve discovered about 5 of those options, myself.

Mental Challenge

The SOMA cube’s appeal lies in its contradiction: while re-assembling the cube appears an easy task, in reality the undertaking is complex. That led to a hit for Parker Brothers and the SOMA cube even popped up in classroom curricula and psychological tests.

I also enjoy the small booklet included with the SOMA cube. Written by Hein, it provides tips and background on the puzzle, as well as other shapes that can be assembled, plus suggestions on how two SOMAs can be combined and turned into a competitive game.

The SOMA cube has been a welcome distraction during these long, isolated days of pandemic winter in Canada. Puzzle games demand the attention of both mind and body, making hours pass like minutes. Original SOMA cubes can still be found on auction sites like eBay, and new version of them are available via online retailers.

Todd Coopee is Editor-in-Chief of Toy Tales, an online publication that covers toys and games past and present.

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