What Mastermind Can Teach Us About… Life?

One of my very first introductions to logic/deduction games ended up being one of my favourite games as a child. Mastermind became a frequent brain workout for my sister and I, as we each took turns carefully formulating a code that would ideally leave the other player defeated.

The board set up is extremely simple, without any dice, cards or additional elements. One might be misled to believe this makes for a simple game, but playing it again this week I realised it’s actually quite a challenge, using parts of my brain that I feel have grown cobwebs since my last time I tried. After all though, I’ve come to learn that board games are much better for my brain than I could have even imagined at the start of this course. A 2003 study from The New England Journal of Medicine even linked the playing of board games to the decreased incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The asymmetric two-player game features ten rows of empty code slots, with one end of the board having a shielded area where the code maker can get to work. The code maker selects any combination of four coloured pegs out of a possible 6, and keeps this hidden from the second player. The code breaker then attempts to guess the code by placing pegs into the slots, with the code maker revealing a black peg for every colour in the correct position, and a white peg for any colour which is correct but in the wrong place. This continues for 10 chances until the code breaker either guesses or loses.

One player on Board Game Geek writes: “I know that Mastermind is a “solved” system, but winning the game was never the point. The point was learning how to think… Mastermind would end up teaching me more about life than Life (The Game of Life) would.” Fyfe (2020) also supports this idea of a game philosophy, writing that “in a game of Mastermind, there is always an answer… one single correct hidden code, a gift in a mysterious and disordered world in which the average person is constantly reminded of his own powerlessness.”

Throughout this semester, we have continually come back to the idea of the interaction between mechanics and narrative, enforced by a philosophy engine which is built on the underlying lesson of the game. In fact, Mastermind has a pretty fascinating history, from its positioning of an “adult game and lifestyle accessory” (Fyfe, 2020), right through to playing a role in the creation of the field of cybersecurity. I won’t go into this in detail in this blog post, but this article here is a really captivating read.

Indeed, this deeper interpretation of the game most definitely was not realised by my sister and I in those early days. This week we played again virtually over Zoom, and below you’ll find a short podcast episode in which we further explore some ideas in relation to the playing experience of Mastermind.


Verghese, J, et.al 2003, ‘Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly’, New England Journal of Medicine, 348:2508-2516, DOI: 10.1056

Leung, D 2008, ‘How a Mother Taught Her Son How to Think’, Board Game Geek, online article, February 8, accessed 25 May, available at <https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/289843/how-mother-taught-her-son-how-think>

Fyfe, D 2020, The Mysterious Origins of Mastermind, the Codebreaking Board Game, Vice, online article, March 10, accessed 25 May, available at <https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/884k54/permalink-mastermind-board-game-50th-anniversary-origins-fallout-cybersecurity>

Published by susiealdermann

Fifth Year Bachelor of Communications and Media/ Bachelor of International Studies (Dean's Scholar) student

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