Cunning and Logic: The International Imagery of "Mastermind"
January 19, 2020 12:45 PM   Subscribe

Back before the adults of the Western World depended almost exclusively upon digital sprites for their entertainment and began dressing up as toys and cartoons, one of the world’s most popular games was synonymous with the image of an immaculately groomed, middle-aged Caucasian man and a beautiful Asian woman. Fingers steepled, he sat staring condescendingly down his nose at we, his potential opponents, while she stood behind him, regarding us with enigmatic detachment. ... The game was Mastermind.
posted by Etrigan (36 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
There are many others.

Mastermind did go hard on the Asian Woman trope, but, I've always loved this one...

posted by Windopaene at 1:04 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]

This is fascinating! MasterMind was the only game that in my house came in a plastic bag instead of its case, and I always assumed a terrible accident. Now I wonder - my mother had proto-feminist leanings and I wonder if the loss of the box was deliberate.
posted by corb at 1:10 PM on January 19 [19 favorites]

I think everyone lost the box in the end, my recollection was of ours coming apart at the corners. Didn't all the pieces fit inside the plastic unit that was also the playing board so you didn't need the box at all?
posted by biffa at 1:18 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

Didn't all the pieces fit inside the plastic unit that was also the playing board so you didn't need the box at all?

I believe they did! I loved playing Mastermind back in the day...and I hadn't thought about it for many, many years until now.
posted by SisterHavana at 1:42 PM on January 19

We used to play Mastermind constantly. And, yeah, the “sophisticated” euro-dude with the “exotic” asian woman on the box cover was kind of creep-tastic even to teenage me. Loved the game, though. We might still have it in a closet somewhere.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:42 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

He became father to The Most Interesting Man In The World,
She was mother to Lucy Liu.
posted by lothar at 1:56 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]

Oh wow, we had the original Mastermind growing up, and we never lost the box. I have an Asian mom and a white dad and I always thought that image was just the fucking coolest. Like, Mastermind is all about being secretive and using clues to try to find secret information. And the cover does a similar thing, where like it could be more straightforward about the characters on the cover, but it's purposely a bit vague with regards to both the connection between the characters, and with regards to what the particular image has to do with the game Mastermind.

Anywho, Cecilia Fung and Bill Woodward got together in 2003 to recreate that iconic photo, and it came out pretty cute (imo).
posted by 23skidoo at 3:13 PM on January 19 [45 favorites]

We play Mastermind in the original box quite a bit (recently taught it to our kid and it's a quick 2 player with a small footprint, so it comes out quite a bit) and frequently comment on the semiotics of the image because yeah. I think we've decided it's the woman who's the Mastermind, the dude is a decoy.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:14 PM on January 19 [10 favorites]

My brother and I played Mastermind constantly, relentlessly. It was the first game in which my little growing brain finally understood the idea of "strategy" rather than "luck" is how games are won. Now as then I still prefer playing with toys to games with winners and losers, but Mastermind certainly taught me the reason those things are different.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 3:32 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

Yeah, she's obviously the mastermind because who else could figure out how to put on that dress? That neckline/bib/necklace fascinated me as a child...
posted by queensissy at 4:08 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

The cover should have a smiling Donald Knuth while the two of them look on with resentment, since he in 1977 created an algorithm to solve the game in five moves or less.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:15 PM on January 19 [18 favorites]

I hate that guy's writing.
posted by glonous keming at 4:31 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

23skidoo, thanks for the link to the reunion photo. I remember playing this game during the weekends at my dad's. I'm pretty sure we didn't have it at home, and looking back, I imagine the cover might have been one of the reasons why.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:07 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]

Icky as the cover is, it was never vague to me at all - it was fairly clear to me as a child that what the cover was proposing was that you, a superspy of some sort, is trapped in a villain's lair, and you have been challenged you to a fiendish battle of wits to regain your freedom. If you win, of course, you'll still be thrown to sharks or what have you in a fit of pique, but you will at least have dented the villain's self esteem. The woman, I believe I decided, was an assassin working with the villain.

...we may also have watched a lot of Bond movies, which contain at least one comparably insensitive image every 2 minutes.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:17 PM on January 19 [16 favorites]

I was just thinking about this the other day. Looking at it on amazon, I noticed they advertise over 2000 combinations, but 6 ^ 4 is less than that. However some investigation shows the rules actually allow for play with empty spaces, essentially adding an optional 7th color. Did anyone ever play that variant?
posted by jeffamaphone at 6:55 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

My brother and I used to play this. I remember being more intrigued by the photo than the actual game - trying to figure out who those people were and what their story was far more interesting to me than trying to parse what the little white and black pegs meant in terms of what was correct in my guess.

As I got a little older, the imagery became more creepy & disturbing than intriguing.
posted by nubs at 7:09 PM on January 19

My older brother figured out how to win in five moves. He was a mastermind.
posted by ovvl at 7:14 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

Same boat ass Jon Mitchell.

I first encountered this game in the late 80's as an Asian immigrant to Canada and yeah, it totally squicked me out. There seemed also a correlation between the "Britishness" of the family and odds of them owning this game.
posted by porpoise at 8:27 PM on January 19

Dad always did bedtime for me during my adolescence. It alternated; gin rummy one nite, Mastermind the next. The gender/race themes from box photo didn't register with me, though I remember being drawn in by the quasi-rainbow-quasi-garnish color scheme of the pegs. I remember it seeming out-of-place with the stuffy or at least serious, self-important image that box seemed to project. cf, white-and-black with chess, or maybe red-and-black with a deck of cards. Red, green, yellow, blue? That's Fischer-Price. Or maybe the Simon we'd play at lunch in our elementary school cafeteria.

And: learning Donald Knuth algorithm-ized the game in the 70s is simultaneously the most and least surprising thing I've read all day.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 9:12 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

Is this the same year where everyone also got a ventriloquist dummy?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:16 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

About 28 years ago, shortly after my wife and I met, we would occasionally play this game. One of the first few times we played, just as she finished setting up her code, I intensely took her hand and urgently told her to close her eyes. Then I told her with equal urgency: “Whatever you do, do not think of the color pattern you have just set up,” and closed my eyes.

As I did so, a series of colors flashed in my mind. Opening my eyes and laughing at my joke, I placed the colored pins in the first row in the order I had seen them.

She glanced down, her eyes widened, and she shouted “No fucking way!” before throwing the little visibility shield at me. I had guessed her pattern in one move, to my shock as well. I saw that I should consider the prospect of spending a considerable chunk of my life in her company.
posted by mwhybark at 9:35 PM on January 19 [23 favorites]

This would make a hell of a Halloween costume for the right couple.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:58 PM on January 19 [5 favorites]

The piece links to a no-longer existing web page, which is still available from the Internet Archive. Here is the context and a working link to the Archive.
Fung recalled that the dress she wore in the picture was so large that somebody had to lie on the floor behind her while the photo was taken to hold it tightly together
posted by primal at 10:44 PM on January 19 [5 favorites]

It also appeared in at least one copy in Norway in the 70s. I wonder if it's still in a drawer at my parent's place somewhere?
posted by Harald74 at 11:33 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

I actually got two of these for christmas one year (divorced family and the parents didn't coordinate gifts). I dont remember what happened to one of them but I still have the other! I never even paid attention to the photo on the box itself. I'd have to check when I get home.
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:27 AM on January 20

The fact that the 'beautiful Asian woman' went on to start her own software company adds the perfect twist to the story:
Cecilia Masters has since been working for Chase Manhattan Bank installing Management Information Systems globally for the bank’s network.

She has started her own MIS banking software company, CSI for over ten years now, CSI has been redeveloping their state of art MIS systems using the latest technology, the new software being called Qi8.

It is currently being launched for the first time directly by CSI in London and Europe. She says: “The new release has been bought by the principal bank in Ukraine recently, and we had very positive feed back from a great number of banks. The systems are currently used by a major Dutch Bank in more than thirty countries. I hope Qi8 will be as successful as Mastermind and be installed in 70 countries.”
posted by verstegan at 12:49 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]

If things had been back then the way they are now, they’d have made a feature film based on the game, using the characters. Then a theme park ride. Then a Broadway musical... the game of the theme park ride... novelisation of the musical...
posted by Segundus at 6:31 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

What makes the game interesting is that you can't apply Knuth's algorithm as a human -- too many possibilities to consider when deciding which next guess is the most efficient. Struggling with a search space that was too big to fit in my head is an experience I remember being fascinated by as a kid, though I didn't have that language for it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:42 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]

My sister and I had Mini Mastermind, and we played it all the time in the car, carefully passing it back and forth to not spill all the pegs onto the back seat of the Malibu.

Mini Mastermind had the same slip cover, but that got lost fairly quickly. We weren't allowed to watch Bond movies yet, but we loaded up on Pink Panther, so while the white suit guy was clearly a villain, he would also be a fool. That made the exotic woman behind him a silent consort of some kind who held the villain in contempt and might actually help us defeat him.

We played Mastermind relentlessly, until my sister got tired of losing to me her little brother, and in her usual way, she made up new rules. The new rule was that the black and white key pegs NOT ONLY determined 'right colour, wrong hole' or 'right colour, right hole', but that the key peg holes corresponded to the main code peg holes -- vastly simplifying the game.

I maintained (as I still do) that that new rule was complete and utter bullshit, and we never played again. That was the standard board game model in our house.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:08 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

Bill, who despite now being in his late seventies, looks remarkably unchanged from 1972, says that in addition to the photograph that was selected some were also taken with a cat sitting on his lap. The idea was scrapped, but not before the moggy had wet itself on his trousers.

Talk about burying the lede!
posted by ominous_paws at 7:57 AM on January 20

I played this in the gifted & talented program I was in during elementary school in the 80s. I never saw the box. Ms. Mastenthin was quite progressive and I wonder if she took it out of the box on purpose. I vaguely remember other board games being in their boxes.
posted by kathrynm at 8:59 AM on January 20

We had this game in the original box when I was a kid. I always assumed the woman was the mastermind and was teaching the old guy to play the game. I guess the steepled finger pose didn't have associations with "evil genius" to me; instead the woman looked like a tutor schooling her pupil.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:53 PM on January 20

> However some investigation shows the rules actually allow for play with empty spaces, essentially adding an optional 7th color. Did anyone ever play that variant?

Yes, we did in my household.

I remember being fascinated by the photo on the box; it's nice to see I had so much company.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:34 PM on January 20

Segundus: "If things had been back then the way they are now, they’d have made a feature film based on the game, using the characters."

I mean, they made a Battleship movie, so nothing's off the table yet.
posted by mhum at 3:58 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]

Also, I imagine that every single one of the men pictured on the cover of a Mastermind game habitually barks "Silence!" at people to get them to shut up.
posted by mhum at 5:30 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]

I never even paid attention to the photo on the box itself. I'd have to check when I get home.

So I checked and mine does not have the couple on the box. Its just a picture of a game in progress. Kind of disappointed now :|
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:51 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]

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