Updated: Aug 25, 2020
If you’re over a certain age you will surely at some point have owned a copy of the codebreaking game Mastermind.
Designed by Mordecai Meirowitz and first manufactured by Invicta Plastics in 1971, the game is based on the traditional pencil & paper game Bulls & Cows. In Mastermind, the codemaker sets a hidden code made up of four coloured pegs. In most versions, the codemaker has six colours to choose from and they can use a colour more than once. This allows for 1296 possible codes (6^4). If you allow the codemaker the option of leaving one or more spaces unfilled (in effect, using blanks as a seventh colour) that increases the number of possible permutations to 2401 (7^4).
The codemaker having set the code, the codebreaker puts out a row of four coloured pegs and the codemaker uses indicator pegs to show if any are correct. A red (or, in some editions, black) indicator peg shows that a colour is correct and in the right position; a white indicator peg shows a colour is correct but in the wrong position. The codebreaker is using what they learn from the codemaker’s responses to guess the code in the minimum number of steps.
There was something about Mastermind that caught the zeitgeist of the period when it first appeared. Just as the Rubik’s Cube was to do a few years later, the combination of a logic problem and bright colours soon turned Mastermind from a simple board game into a popular craze. Mastermind was everywhere. It spawned numerous editions and there could have been few households in the early 1970s that didn’t have a copy. It had the merit of being playable by adults and children; and kids found it was a game at which they could often beat their parents.
Shown here on Board’s Eye View is the latest edition, 'remastered' and manufactured for the US market by Pressman. It’s a larger and chunkier plastic peg board than you will remember of the Invicta original. It has rows for 10 guesses from the codebreaker. Mathematicians and logicians will tell you that it should be possible to deduce a six-colour code in five steps or less so you would have to be taking insufficient account of the codemaker’s responses and making some very wild guesses to need anything like 10 guesses. A pull-out tray stores the coloured pegs, with a separate section for the indicator pegs.
There is a pull-up shield to hide the codemaker’s pegs. Even with this fully extended, we found it a bit fiddly slotting the coloured pegs in behind the shield but perhaps we just have fat fingers. We were more concerned to find that the top of the shield has holes in it. This seemed a curious design decision. It looks like the purpose of this is so that, at the conclusion of a game, the codemaker can slap the shield down to reveal the code. I guess that may be satisfying but the more serious problem it poses is that if the codebreaker stands up or leans too far forward, they can glimpse the codemaker’s pegs through the holes. This issue is easily solved by cutting a strip of card and placing it on top, but we were surprised that this apparent design defect made its way into production.
Mastermind may be nearly 50 years old but it hasn’t lost its appeal. With escape room and puzzle games currently all the rage, the game is finding a ready new audience. Mastermind still makes for a challenging two-player game and it can be instructive seeing youngsters discovering for themselves that they can indeed develop a strategy for optimising their guesses.