Sitting across the highly polished table sits a suave well-dressed gentleman and his exotic companion, inviting you into the cunning realm of espionage – where codes are made and codes are broken. No, this isn’t a casting call for yet another James Bond – just the box top for a simple little game of logical deduction called Mastermind.
In 1970, an Israeli communications expert named Mordecai Meirowitz invented the simple, yet brain challenging, game of Mastermind. Two years later, he sold the rights to Invicta Plastics in the United Kingdom who began producing the game, complete with the suggestive photo on the box. It gained popularity quickly and is still a favorite of game players throughout the world.
Mastermind is simple to learn. Two players sit on opposing sides of the game board. One is designated the Codemaker and his or her job is to create a sequence of four colored pegs, each of them any of six colors. The number of possible combinations, 1,296 of them to be exact, were kept hidden behind a plastic shield from the other player, the codebreaker.
Given a mere ten opportunities, the codebreaker tries to figure out which sequence is correct by placing a sequence of colored pegs in one of ten rows. Luckily, the codemaker is merciful enough to give some clues. To the right of each row are four additional holes. When one the pegs is the right color and in the right spot, a black peg (red, in more recent versions) is placed in one of the holes. If a correct color is guessed but it isn’t in the right spot, a white peg is inserted instead. Should no pegs be the correct color, the guessing player is on their own. Taking account of this additional information, the codebreaker continues taking turns until either he breaks the code or comes to the end of his ten guesses. Whichever player was successful earned a point and their roles were reversed.
The game caught on quickly and spread across the pond to the United States, as well as the rest of the world. Equally appealing to kids and adults alike, Mastermind offered a valuable lesson in deductive reasoning. Over the years, the brainier members of the population, namely mathematicians, have managed to create various algorithms which suggest that any sequence can be guessed in a maximum of six moves and sometimes as little as four. But for the laymen, ten tries were more than appreciated and often not quite enough to figure the code out and (it is assumed) save the world.
With a game as popular as Mastermind, it was inevitable that numerous variations would be introduced. There was Super Mastermind and Word Mastermind for those seeking bigger challenges and, as is always the case, an electronic version would also follow. Today, mastermind can also be played on various websites, often under names such as “Secret Code” to circumvent copyright issues. And should none of these options be available when the urge to play hits, a simple pencil and paper can be used.
More than 35 years later, Mastermind is still challenging minds, young and old alike. For those that have mastered it, one can only assume that their astute minds have been recruited into the secret agencies of the world – one filled with intrigue, fancy clothes, and a life surrounded by mysterious women. Hey, it worked for the guy on the box.
If you’ve spent more than a few hours trying to master this perplexing game of deductive reasoning, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section.