Following Consider Phlebas (1988), another distant-future yarn featuring the Culture--a tolerant, relaxed, moneyless civilization unobtrusively directed by superintelligent machine Minds. Jernau Gurgeh is an expert player of games; he rarely loses in competition, yet feels somehow unfulfilled. From a friendly Contact drone, Gurgeh learns of the ultimate game, one so advanced and complex that it supports an entire civilization. Unable to resist the challenge, Gurgeh heads for the distant Empire of Azad. Thanks to advance work by various Culture representatives, the alien Gurgeh is permitted to enter the Azad game, wherein how well the competitors do determines how high each will rise in the governmental hierarchy. Gurgeh progresses rapidly, learning meanwhile that the Empire is warlike, xenophobic, cruel and brutal. Eventually, Gurgeh qualifies to meet the Emperor in a showdown game--during which he realizes that his play reflects his Culture, as the Emperor's reflects Azad. Gurgeh wins; but the Emperor, unable to tolerate the symbolic defeat of his barbaric empire, destroys himself as his empire collapses. Gurgeh returns home, knowing he's been thoroughly manipulated by the unseen Minds that role the Culture. Predictable, certainly, and less imaginative than Phlebas, but technically much more solid: honorably crafted work, often engrossing despite some sluggish patches.