The History of Word Games: Word Squares to Wordle


“Wordle” has become one of the biggest online games of the year with over 3 million daily players (Photo By: The New York Times).

Four traits perfectly describe “Worlde” to newcomers: five letters, one word, six tries, available once a day. “Worlde” is an online word game that has taken social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit by storm. The premise of the game is simple: the player has six tries to guess a randomly generated five–letter word. For each guess, the titles change colors depending on their position. Letters that aren’t in the word are in gray, letters in the word but in the wrong position are in yellow and letters in the word and in the right position are in green.


In an age of Role Player Games (RPG), addictive mobile games such as “Candy Crush,” and an assortment of games from Apple Arcade, it appears quite odd that such a simple word game would skyrocket in popularity. “Wordle’s” astronomical success is even more of an anomaly considering that reading–from physical books in the library to digital books in Kindles–is less popular for younger generations. However, the ancient history behind word games doesn’t make our generations’ seeming “return” to word games all too surprising.


Stemming from the ancient Romans, word squares were the direct predecessor to crossword puzzles. The objective of word squares was to make words that could be read both horizontally and vertically in a single square; the larger the square, the more difficult the word combinations were. Later on, other word games served different purposes. For example, the Middle Age-era Sator Square puzzle was not only a word puzzle but also a perceived magical object to defend against destruction and vices. 


After the eleventh century, riddles became a popular form of word games. True riddles, wordplay riddles and even anti-riddles like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” became ways that people could test their problem-solving abilities. With the advent of the printing press and newspapers, these word puzzles soon reached a wider audience. On December 21, 1913, history was made with the first crossword puzzle–the Word-Cross–which appeared in the New York World. Later on, the first illustrated Scramble word puzzle would be introduced in 1954 with Word Searches being published as late as 1968.


With each new developing game, crossword puzzles and word games became a way for people worldwide to pass time with one another and to keep their minds engaged. The benefits of word games have extended from improving vocabulary and spelling to improving cognitive skills and preventing memory loss. Most importantly, word games have served as an enjoyable escape from reality in history. As mentioned beforehand, the first crossword puzzle was made in December 1913–in the midst of World War I. As the War increased, America’s love for solving the puzzles did as well. After years of not publishing crossword puzzles in fears of morality and abstaining from yellow journalism, the New York Times caved in the wake of Pearl Harbor and World War II and made one of the best daily puzzles of the times to distract their readers from the ongoing horrors of the war. 


At the conclusion of both wars, the crossword puzzles still endured. The simple word games, in my opinion, offered a daily dose of happiness for puzzle aficionados and bibliophiles alike. During the coronavirus pandemic, happiness and human connection became two concepts that were previously taken for granted, but not anymore. With “Wordle” and other social media fads–such as “Squid Game,” “Love Island,” “Euphoria” and other popular shows, people are connected by a mutual love–and sometimes frustration with–a passion they’re invested in. “Wordle’s” structure concept is so universal and so simple that everyone can play despite our different interests and backgrounds with puzzle games.


Furthermore, I think that “Worlde’s” humble beginnings contributed to its unsuspecting rise. The creator of “Wordle” created the game based on a play on his last name (Josh Wardle) and after a mutual love of word games with his partner. Two months after the game’s inception in October 2021, “Worlde’s” daily players went from 90 to 300,000. Currently, over 2 million users are playing “Wordle” globally, with “Worlde” aficionados boasting long streaks and their best tips and tricks. Hopefully, “Worlde” will pave the way for other simple games to be a part of Gen Z’s young adulthood, similar to how “Fire and Ice,” “League of Legends” and “Fortnite” have been major, successful online games of our generation.