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War Games: A History of War on Paper

Philipp von Hilgers
MIT Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Ursula Whitcher
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To what extent have models of warfare influenced the conduct of warfare and the development of mathematics? In War Games, Philipp von Hilgers approaches these problems from various vantage points, using games and models from German history to frame his questions. The language and treatment draws heavily from the field of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. Although the questions War Games raises are interdisciplinary in nature, readers whose disciplinary training did not incorporate a heavy dose of deconstructionist philosophy will find the prose hard going.

Familiarity with German history and culture will also be an advantage. On the language side, the work, translated by Ross Benjamin, retains the flavor of its original academic German, including a penchant for compound words such as “life-world” or “making-calculable”. On the history side, readers from North America will need to brush up on the political role of nineteenth-century Prussia, and may be surprised to find themselves reading about the First and Second World Wars from the viewpoint of the Germans.

The patient reader will uncover a wealth of fascinating detail packed into a small space. Topics covered include medieval and early modern games influenced by warfare, in particular the Battle of Numbers (Rithmomachia), the innovative use of randomness in the war-games played by the nineteenth-century German General Staff, and the influence of the German War College on the development of university mathematics teaching. Because von Hilgers’ primary interest is philosophy, not armchair strategy, he does not provide enough information to play any of the games he references. However, non-specialists may enjoy pondering one of his principal philosophical questions: how do, or how should, formal systems of symbols incorporate the effect of evolution in time?

Ursula Whitcher is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

1 The Battle of Numbers in the Middle Ages 1

2 Power Games in the Baroque Period 11

3 The State of the War Game 31

4 Historiography in Real Time 57

5 Higher Mathematics and Nomos of the Earth 89

6 From Formula Games to the Universal Machine 103

Notes 145

Bibliography 175

Index 199