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posted by martyb on Wednesday March 25 2020, @02:25PM   Printer-friendly

The simple codebreaking game Mastermind turns 50 this year. Vice goes into some background regarding the now classical game and its heyday.

If you only know Mastermind as a well-worn and underplayed fixture of living room closets and nursing home common areas, you may have no idea just how big this thing was in its early years. Invented in 1970, Mastermind would sell 30 million copies before that decade was up, and boast a national championship at the Playboy Club, a fan in Muhammed Ali, official use by the Australian military for training, and 80% ownership amongst the population of Denmark. "I never thought a game would be invented again," marvelled the manager of a Missouri toy store in 1977. "A real classic like Monopoly."

[...] If you don't know Mastermind at all, i.e. you never lived in Denmark, it's played over a board with a codemaker who creates a sequence of four different colored pegs, and a codebreaker who must replicate that exact pattern within a certain number of tries. With each guess, the codemaker can only advise whether the codebreaker has placed a peg in its correct position, or a peg that is in the sequence but incorrectly placed. According to the game's creators, an answer in five tries is "better than average"; two or fewer is pure luck. In 1978, a British teenager, John Searjeant, dominated the Mastermind World Championship by solving a code with just three guesses in 19 seconds. (In second place was Cindy Forth, 18, of Canada; she remembers being awarded a trophy and copies of Mastermind.)

Mordechai Meirowitz, an Israeli telephone technician, developed Mastermind in 1970 from an existing game of apocryphal origin, Bulls and Cows, which used numbers instead of colored pegs. Nobody, by the way, knows where Bulls and Cows came from. Computer scientists who adapted the first known versions in the 1960s variously remembered the game to me as one hundred and one thousand years old. Whatever its age, it's clear nobody ever did as well out of Bulls and Cows as Meirowitz, who retired from game development and lived comfortably off royalties not long after selling the Mastermind prototype to Invicta, a British plastics firm expanding from industrial parts and window shutters into games and toys.

The story relates a couple of tales of intrigue related to the game.

Pertaining to the models whose photos appear on the cover of the game:

While Bill Woodward continued to pose for the covers of successive editions of Mastermind, Cecilia Masters had no further involvement, though not for lack of interest on her part. After the photo shoot, Masters did not hear from Invicta, but did happen to run into one of the agents who had selected her. He promised to contact her, but again, Masters heard nothing. "I started to notice my flatmate always ran to the post box every morning before me," she remembers. "I found out later she was destroying letters from the studio."

Masters' flatmate, a fellow computer science student, was with her when she was approached for the photo shoot, and Masters thinks her flatmate may have been upset that she was not chosen instead. "She said she was curious [about] the results of the photo shoot and once she opened and destroyed the first letter to me, she had no choice but to keep on destroying all further correspondence."

Further on, the story proceeds to recount tales of "spy vs spy" where a computer version of the game (called MOO) was hacked:

King also wrote in what was then a new feature for computer games: a league table, or leaderboard, on which players could record their score. "For the first few days people vied with one another to get higher on the league table," he says. "People were clearly getting better and better, and then someone was at the top of the league table with an impossibly ridiculous average."

It was a new kind of security vulnerability against which the operating systems of the day had no inherent defense. If a MOO player was allowed to update one of King's files—specifically, entering their name and score in the league table—they could, in theory, just as easily input a fake score, delete another user's score or even change the source code itself.

King's hackers would come clean, but every time King tried to fix the vulnerability, he'd be hacked again. "This was a very friendly 'war,'" he clarifies. "No trying to say 'I'm better than you are,' no oneupmanship. Everyone was cooperating [to improve the system.]"

[...] Nonetheless, King, distracted by his PhD, fell behind the hackers' efforts, prompting an intervention by the attention of Cambridge's then-informal computer security group, who told King that the problems he was dealing with in MOO were "going to be very important in the future." If allowing a user to update a MOO league table with their own score opened the door for them to make unwanted changes, the same thing could happen to a bank allowing a customer to make remote electronic withdrawals. Both, as King explains, are just users making changes to someone else's file.

Previously:
Magic the Gathering: The World's Most Complex Game (2019)
Essen 2017: Best Board Games from the Biggest Board Game Convention (2017)
Google DeepMind's AlphaGo Beats "Go" Champion Using Neural Networks (2016)
Ancient Board Game Found in Looted China Tomb (2015)


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  • (Score: 1, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @03:52PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @03:52PM (#975500)

    I refuse to play and game that requires me to do linear algebra in my head. Do that shit properly on a computer, for God's sake.

    • (Score: 2, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @04:12PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @04:12PM (#975516)

      *sigh* Millenials...

  • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @04:32PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @04:32PM (#975525)

    "underplayed fixture of living room closets and nursing home common areas"

    don't worry, we'll all be dead soon and you can try eating it while you starve

  • (Score: 0, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:02PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:02PM (#975551)

    Another piece of trash from Vice.cuck passed off as journalism.

  • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:52PM (1 child)

    by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:52PM (#975566) Journal

    it's played over a board with a codemaker who creates a sequence of four different colored pegs, and a codebreaker who must replicate that exact pattern within a certain number of tries. With each guess, the codemaker can only advise whether the codebreaker has placed a peg in its correct position, or a peg that is in the sequence but incorrectly placed.

    That sounds like how passwords or nuclear launch codes work in Hollywood movies.

    No you didn't get the password correct (or "sink my battleship"), but the 3rd character is right! Please try again!

    --
    What can be done to stop bloggers from using the wrong color schemes?
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 26 2020, @02:21PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 26 2020, @02:21PM (#975883)

      I think it is a way to teach why password verification cannot afford to be leaky. As it demonstrates just how devastating that leaked information truly is to the secrecy of the code.

  • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:58PM (2 children)

    by Freeman (732) on Wednesday March 25 2020, @06:58PM (#975569) Journal

    I had a bit of fun learning this as a kid. I played this with my Grandpa. Might still have one somewhere.

    --
    Forced Microsoft Account for Windows Login → Switch to Linux.
    • (Score: 2) by PartTimeZombie on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:32PM

      by PartTimeZombie (4827) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:32PM (#975580)

      My neighbours bought that game when I was a kid, but it proved too hard for them or something, and my family wound up in possession of it, I am unsure how.

      There is no way it was 50 years ago, I remember playing with my sister quite clearly, so it can't have been more than about 10 years.

      OK, maybe 20.

    • (Score: 2) by bmimatt on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:53PM

      by bmimatt (5050) on Wednesday March 25 2020, @07:53PM (#975587)

      I had fun times as a kid playing Mastermind. Tracked one down bought and gifted to my 10 yo niece last summer. She likes it, we played a few dozen times together.

  • (Score: 2) by Gaaark on Wednesday March 25 2020, @09:00PM

    by Gaaark (41) on Wednesday March 25 2020, @09:00PM (#975599) Journal

    it seemed to be fairly big in Canada too: i remember playing with my parents and older siblings. I think they 'dumbed' it down for me a bit so that i could have successes like my sibs....

    ...damn...i was 7 at the time....

    --
    --- Please remind me if I haven't been civil to you: I'm channeling MDC. ---Gaaark 2.0 ---
  • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Thursday March 26 2020, @01:15AM (1 child)

    by hendrikboom (1125) on Thursday March 26 2020, @01:15AM (#975663) Homepage Journal

    I played its predecessor Moo in the late 60's; I implemented it on the university's interactive APL system in order to do so.

    The really nerdy version was intimated to me when the prof that had told me about the game (which he had encountered while he was a Bell Labs) asked me about the first player strategy.

    What? I thought. All he has to do is to choose a random four-digit number. And then I realized: He didn't have to do that at all. All he had to do is provide counts of bulls and cows (correct digits in the right and wrong positions) that were consistent with there existing a secret number ... Suddenly the first person had a nontrivial strategy -- far more difficult than the guesser's.

    • (Score: 2) by martyb on Thursday March 26 2020, @09:52AM

      by martyb (76) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 26 2020, @09:52AM (#975784) Journal
      I played "moo" in 1980 or so when I was working at DEC. Leaderboard competition was quite the thing. Then, somebody suddenly surged in the rankings! How'd they do it? Word got out you could run the game in the debugger, read off the answer from memory, and provide the correct "answer" on your first guess -- every single time! Good times!
      --
      Wit is intellect, dancing.
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