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Hardcover | $34.00 Short | £27.95 | 240 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 16 b&w photos | March 2012 | ISBN: 9780262016971
eBook | $24.00 Short | March 2012 | ISBN: 9780262301916
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War Games

A History of War on Paper
Translated by Ross Benjamin


For centuries, both mathematical and military thinkers have used game-like scenarios to test their visions of mastering a complex world through symbolic operations. By the end of World War I, mathematical and military discourse in Germany simultaneously discovered the game as a productive concept. Mathematics and military strategy converged in World War II when mathematicians designed fields of operation. In this book, Philipp von Hilgers examines the theory and practice of war games through history, from the medieval game boards, captured on parchment, to the paper map exercises of the Third Reich. Von Hilgers considers how and why war games came to exist: why mathematical and military thinkers created simulations of one of the most unpredictable human activities on earth.

Von Hilgers begins with the medieval rythmomachia, or Battle of Numbers, then reconstructs the ideas about war and games in the baroque period. He investigates the role of George Leopold von Reiswitz’s tactical war game in nineteenth-century Prussia and describes the artifact itself: a game board–topped table with drawers for game implements. He explains Clausewitz’s emphasis on the “fog of war” and the accompanying element of incalculability, examines the contributions of such thinkers as Clausewitz, Leibniz, Wittgenstein, and von Neumann, and investigates the war games of the German military between the two World Wars. Baudrillard declared this to be the age of simulacra; war games stand contrariwise as simulations that have not been subsumed in absolute virtuality.

About the Author

Philipp von Hilgers, recently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, is Managing Director at Meetrics, a Berlin-based company for Web analytics and the measurement of online reading activities.

Table of Contents

  • War Games
  • War Games
  • A History of War on Paper
  • Philipp von Hilgers
  • translated by Ross Benjamin
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • Originally published in German by Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh GmbH and Wilhelm Fink Verlag GmbH & Co. KG under the title
  • Philipp von Hilgers: Kriegsspiele: Eine Geschichte der Ausnahmezustände und Unberechenbarkeiten
  • . © 2008 Wilhelm Fink Verlag GmbH
  • English language translation by Ross Benjamin
  • ©
  • 2012
  • The translation of this book was funded by Geisteswissenschaften International—Translation Funding for Humanities and Social Sciences from Germany, a joint initiative of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the German Federal Foreign Office, and the German Publishers & Booksellers Association.
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email special_sales@
  • This book was set in Stone Sans and Stone Serif by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Hilgers, Philipp von.
  • War games : a history of war on paper / Philipp von Hilgers ; translated by Ross Benjamin.
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01697-1 (hbk. : alk. paper)
  • 1. War games—History. 2. Games of strategy (Mathematics)—History. I. Title.
  • U310.H53 2012
  • 355.4′809—dc23
  • 2011026383
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • If on Mars there were human beings and they waged war against each other in the way chessmen do on a board, then their headquarters would use the rules of chess for prophesying.
  • —Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • Contents
  • 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


“Philipp von Hilgers’s War Games is a major work of intellectual history and media archeology. By recovering a lost genealogy that runs from the game boards of early modern Europe to the sand tables of the Second World War, he articulates the space of the war game—which mathematics and semiotics cohabitate—to demonstrate the truth of his grand opening claim, that such games are 'the most effective and fateful concept the twentieth century produced in order to master its crises.' Hardly a work for the military fetishist or ludologist alone, War Games should be read and broadly engaged by students of math, media, crisis, and representation.”
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland, and author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination
“Starting with the war games, which the Prussian general staff, in the early nineteenth century, invented in its fight against Napoleon, Philipp von Hilgers investigates the link between warfare and mathematics, states of emergency and computability, from the Middle Ages to the present. It is a timely book which not only speaks to cultural historians, but also to the teenagers online who inherit the games they are playing from military planners who are spending millions on electronic and real life conflict simulations.”
Wolf Kittler, University of California, Santa Barbara
“Beginning with the rise of the war game in the Holy Roman Empire and ending with the general staff of Hitler’s Third Reich, Philipp von Hilgers explores the interrelationship between and influence of mathematics and military affairs. War Games raises new critical questions about the underlying mathematical nature of simulations and reality in a military context and is therefore a crucial text for contextualizing the 'strategic simulation' from the Cold War to the present.”
John Laprise, Northwestern University in Qatar