mastermind mastermind Colorful pieces are guesses, and black and white pieces are clues. (Photo: Will Thomass / Shutterstock)

The mysterious history of Mastermind

The story behind this popular board game has been developing for more than a century.

Have you ever played Mastermind? It’s a code-breaking game that took up a good deal of my childhood, and it goes something like this: one player puts together a secret sequence of colored marbles. The other player has to guess the sequence. It's a game of logic, one that requires careful thought, rather than quick moves or irrational luck, and I made it my mission to master it.

Though this game is quite popular today, few people know its history, which is why I’m bringing you (dun dun dun) the history of Mastermind. Cows, Israeli postmasters and virtual pets await you.

It all started with Bulls and Cows, an English code-breaking game of unknown origin played with paper and pencil. Each player writes a secret sequence of four numbers, and the opponent has to guess the sequence. Matching digits are called “bulls,” while wrong guesses are “cows” because apparently the English like horns more than milk. Some researchers who evidently didn't have anything else to do one day proved that any sequence could be guessed in seven turns.

While Bulls and Cows is reminiscent of Mastermind, it would take decades, experimentation and one creative post office worker for the game to turn into the board game we know today. Israeli postmaster and telecommunications expert Mordecai Meirowitz came up with the idea for the modern Mastermind.

Leading game companies initially rejected Meirowitz's idea, but he finally took it to the International Toy Fair in 1971. There, he showed it to Invicta Plastics, an English company. Invicta Plastics changed up the rules a bit, gave it the name “Master Mind” and released it in 1971. The game was a hit: 50 million copies were sold throughout 80 countries. It was the most popular new board game of the decade.

Currently, the game has exploded into all kinds of versions. You can play Mastermind against a computer online (as I often have). Neopets, a popular kids gaming site that monopolized way too much of my time in middle school, has a knockoff version called “Time Tunnel,” in which you have to break a code to get past a mysterious door covered in symbols. Amid a sea of modern computer games, this old game continues to hold its own.

So there you have it! From paper and pencil to computer algorithms, this simple game has traveled over seas and between generations. It continues to tickle minds around the world.


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The mysterious history of Mastermind
Learn how this board game has changed over the last hundred years.