Marcus du Sautoy

A world tour of the world’s board (and other) games. All the usual ones are here, plus others that I guarantee will be new to everyone. The games of Africa remain under-known.

“Unlocking the secrets” is an overblown description of how maths comes into the story. There’s a focus on game theory and decision theory, as one would expect, with a lot of consideration of symmetry (du Sautoy’s own research area) and some autobiographical details too. There’s too little maths in many ways, but perhaps too much for a non-mathematician.

The most interesting application comes from silence: two people are asked the same question three times, but it is answerable only on the third asking (the first two having provided information by the fact that neither could answer previously). Very clever.

Two entirely imaginary games also put in an appearence: Azad from The Player of Games, and the (unnamed) game from The Glass Bead Game. Both are conceived as world-spanning games that model an entire culture’s activities and concerns – but unfortunately aren’t described in enough detail in their source books to admit much analysis. It’s fascinating to think what such an analysis might look like, though.

There is as usual a focus on whether a game has been “solved”, as in whether an optimal strategy is known to exist. Many do, of course, and for others such a Go there are “solutions” using machine learning so that a machine can win – but can’t explain how, which is very unsatisfactory. du Sautoy is clearly exicited by the applications of machine learing to games and other mathematical applications: an excitement I, as a computer scientist, don’t really share.

Having said that, this is an interesting complement to other science-driven games books such as Seven Games: A Human History, with more depth to the undelying maths.

4/5. Finished Sunday 24 December, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)