Once upon a time, when home computers were often kit-built affairs made up of wires and vacuum tubes, the field of electronics still had an air of mystery about it for the layman. Oh, people knew how their toaster worked, sort of, and how to change a lightbulb1, but even something as 'simple' as a mercury switch thermostat was rarely understood by the user.
It's important to note these facts to properly appreciate how amazing it would be for a child to find among their birthday or holiday gifts a game that could often 'out think' them or even their parents. And, not just 'a' game, but an electronic opponent that could play a series of games. A game that would even allow the more devout and creative to 'program' and create games of their own.
The Game: Mentor, by Hasbro
The 1960 board game came in a rectangular, black, cardboard box with a large, vertical, blue and green oval. Even this was a departure from the standard horizontally-festooned gameboard boxes of the time. Occupying most of the oval was a depiction of the ominous-looking, bronze-coloured head of Mentor, who was about to become your opponent.
The head looked like a cross between the statues on Easter Island and a 1950s-style science fiction film robot; sombre, stern, and with a head that appeared to be bulging with intelligence. Above the head, near the top of the box, was a line of white text announcing:
HASBRO'S ELECTRONIC WIZARD
Below that, in much larger text, was emblazoned a line of hot tomato red, reading:
And, underneath, smaller again and in yellow, was...
TRY TO BEAT THE
"MAN OF BRONZE" WHO
THINKS FOR HIMSELF
Below that, still smaller and in white was promised a...
SERIES OF EXCITING GAMES
The game, to tots of the time, was impressive. It consisted of a vacuum-formed plastic surface that held the pasteboard game cards (approximately 10" x 13"). Above that was the 'output' area, a series of three battery powered lamp bulbs such as those used in torches or flashlights of the time.
There was a battery compartment above the lights, and out of the right side of the battery compartment came an insulated wire. At the end of the wire was a small, bronze-coloured plastic hand with a 'pointing' index finger that ended in a conductive probe or plug.
Finally, atop the battery compartment sat the head of...Mentor. The bronze-coloured plastic head sat firmly on the battery compartment at the rear, but at the front it could be pulled to allow the head to 'nod' toward the playing surface and instantly make its decision regarding game moves. Pure magic! At least for the era.
Amazingly, the workings of the game were almost immediately apparent. At its heart was a vacuum-formed plastic game card holder, the surface of which consisted of regularly spaced rows of round holes. The game card would be nestled into the area obstructing the player's view of most of the holes. Each hole was actually a socket into which the 'finger' could be inserted, and each socket had a wire running underneath the playing surface to Mentor.
Most of the games were of a path sort. The human player would choose a game card and place it on the surface. Then they would insert the finger probe into the hole marked 'start'. At this point the player decides if they, or Mentor, will move first. Moves alternated between players by moving the finger one, two, or three spaces along the game path. On Mentor's turn, the player would pull the plastic head gently forward and Mentor would cause one of the three lights to turn on, signifying Mentor's choice of one, two or three spaces.
The games were designed so that Mentor would be very hard to beat, especially if it was allowed to move first. Even when the human player chose to move first, Mentor could lose but never actually make a mistake. Mentor's play was flawless, depending on a human mistake to win.
The game cards were numbered, with titles that included:
- City Streets
- Danger Land
- Return to Earth
- American Tour
- Treasure Hunt
The paths on the game cards could be very linear, as in Danger Land, grid-like - with multiple paths - on games such as City Streets, or curvy, as with Treasure Hunt. They could be zig-zaggy in American Tour, or meandering, as with the interstellar Return to Earth. The designs made each game a fresh and interesting challenge.
As an example of gameplay against Mentor, imagine a yellow, illustrated card (perhaps festooned with treasure chests) that has a bright orange printed path - winding or snaking - along which are a series of 'positions'. What you cannot see is that the path follows Mentor's ability to round out both his and your moves to four at each turn.
To set up the game, the card is placed on the electronic game board and the 'finger' inserted in the socket marked 'Pawn'. If the human player moves two spaces, the 'finger' will be in a socket connected to the number 2 light, and pulling on Mentor's head completes the circuit. As you wind around the path, you may notice that each move of three elicits a one from Mentor, and vice versa.
The winner is the player (and you could play against another human player without ever including Mentor) who successfully finished the game with the 'finger' in the socket marked 'End', without breaking the rules of play. This means that you would want to finish your second-to-last move with four spaces to go, forcing your opponent to put you within three of the end space.
Brighter players could start to figure out the paths and patterns fairly quickly, but the number of holes made actual calculations or predictions hard with each new game. The limitation on the number of moves helped to give the human a chance against the mechanical opponent.
New games were easy enough to plan and make, once an idea for a game was chosen. One could use an included game card, trace the openings, and then design around the copy, or one could work out a path that gave Mentor his customary advantage and work from that.
The path must somehow be indicated on the card and could be represented as anything from a railroad track to a set of ladders and scaffolding, to a race track, or even an actual path. Even simple lines indicating the game path would suffice.
Any mucking about with the electronics could result in the standard cards failing to give Mentor his edge, so getting the new game card right was the best option.
Finally, a great advantage humans had over Mentor is that humans can cheat - while Mentor couldn't cheat and wouldn't realise or complain even if they had. He'd know who the 'real' Mentor was.