Master Mind

There was something familiar about Wordle, I thought when I first saw it. (If you are reading this in the far-flung future, Wordle was a 2022 social-media sensation of a “Guess the Word” game which may or may not have disappeared behind the paywall of the New York Times in your lifetime.) Yes, there was something very familiar about working with colours that said: “This piece is in the code and in the right position ” or: “This piece is in the code but not in the right position”.

Then I remembered: Game of the Year in 1973!

Held together with sticky tape but clearly two words

Master Mind (for thus it always appeared on the boxes) was a board game in which a codemaker placed a series of coloured pegs into a plastic board, then hid them behind a small screen. Your job as the codebreaker was to guess the code by, of course, placing more coloured pegs on the board. The codemaker gave you feedback on your guess by placing a black key peg for each peg you got right in both colour and position. A white key peg told you that you had a correct colour peg, but in the wrong position. No peg at all meant not there at all.

Black and white show you the right and the nearly right

Exactly what Wordle does with its green, yellow and grey squares.

The game with the bright plastic pegs was invented by Mordecai Meirowitz in 1970. It was manufactured in Leicester by Invicta Plastics after many leading games companies had turned their noses up at the idea. (Sadly, neither of its champions are still in existence.) The game sold in its millions.

Yet, as the Department of There Is Nothing New Under the Sun will constantly remind you, the concept of giving feedback in the “Right / Not Quite Right / Not In There At All, Mate” format is much older. A version called Bulls and Cows may have been around for a century. I can also remember playing an even simpler version using four-letter words and pencil and paper: a dot indicated your letter was right and in the right place; a dash that meant your letter was in there, but not there.

Of course, Master Mind didn’t have fancy things such as graphs of your guess distribution or calculations of your winning streak. It did, however, have many factors in its favour: it was simple, portable, offered (in our “deluxe” version) 32,000 possible combinations to guess, and didn’t need an electricity supply or wi-fi. Of course, it also came with the added benefit that you couldn’t post your guess pattern to the internet (not yet invented) and thus drive your friends and family to distraction.

The 1970s: so strange, yet, in the next century… so familiar.

The battered box cover on our version of Master Mind. The stereotypes are still recognisable, though.

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