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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.

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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.

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  • (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...