Set in the future (the 25th Century), Hesse’s book describes a world that has miraculously managed to stop fighting, watching cruddy TV, and listening to gossip as vicariously as it does now. This world had wiped out all western religions except Catholicism, and somehow decided "we're going to live a better [i.e. more moral, more intelectual] life."
Into this experience, we see a game develop. It's part maths. It's part music. It's part art. It's part philosophy. It's part non-religious ideas of perfection, and it's protected by sort of "Glass Bead Game" playing priesthood (who aren't really priests because they're atheists, but who have all the convictions of the American "Moral Majority” and the doctrines of the Catholic Church).
Into this story steps Joseph Knecht, a man who becomes a "Magister Ludi" (a sort of archbishop for the game players). After which it becomes a sort of biography of this imaginary guy. He's a man so syrupy in his "goodness" that he'd give diabetes to those who’ve never eaten sugar. We see his rise up the order. His obtaining of the position, and how he acts (and what he comes to believe -which anyone with half a brain would have top him in about 5 seconds) once he obtains the position.
I'm sorry, but I found the book being syrupy. No one's that "perfect." Nothing can stop us being who we are, and yet we're expected to believe some dumb game where people meditate on where to put marbles on pieces of string (and can take days over it) came along and did just that.
Don't get me wrong, I can see the book's well written, it's just so sickly sweet over the general perfection of Knecht that I can feel myself slipping into a diabetic coma as we speak.