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How to win The Game of Thrones

How to win The Game of Thrones

Daenerys Targaryen is poised to take the Iron Throne. We assess her chances of victory

Daenerys Targaryen is poised to take the Iron Throne. We assess her chances of victory

Carolyne Larrington | June 22nd 2016

“History is written in blood,” the fantasy writer George R.R. Martin told Rolling Stone in 2014. “The kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences: it’s better than 90% of what the fantasists make up.” But Martin’s saga, “A Song of Ice and Fire” (on which the HBO television series “Game of Thrones” is based) doesn’t feel like fantasy. Sure, his world has magic and dragons, but his kings, princes, generals and whores behave like they do in the history books. Like their real-world counterparts, they are forever forging alliances, plotting coups and scheming to take the greatest prize in all the land, the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Although Martin still has two more books to complete, the TV show is currently setting up its end-game. Daenerys Stormborn, heir to the Targaryen dynasty, claims the Iron Throne as her birth-right, but she has lived in exile on the neighbouring continent of Essos for almost all her life. Nonetheless, the time may be right for her to seize the throne: as queen of the fearsome Dothraki horde and the Unsullied, the eunuch slave army with which she conquered the cities of Slaver’s Bay, she has a sizeable army, and has just acquired a useful navy. Now Daenerys and her key advisor, the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, are planning their next moves in detail. Here’s a report assessing her strengths and weaknesses – and whether she’ll win.  

Queen Daenerys’s strategic assets
The Dothraki A large contingent of nomadic horsemen (numbering at least 40,000) with proven cavalry fighting experience. Lightly armoured, manoeuvrable and possessing a continent-wide reputation for ferocity, the Dothraki are also emotionally committed to the queen’s objective: the recovery of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. (Daenerys is the widow of their supreme leader, Khal Drogo.)

However, to get to King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, Daenerys’s forces must cross the Narrow Sea. The Dothraki horde’s willingness in practice to embark on “wooden horses across the black salt-water” is at present untested. Previous experience suggests it may well be in short supply: the sea terrified Daenerys’s small khalasar, or clan, when they sailed with her from Qarth to Slavers’ Bay (sea-sickness did not help matters). Moreover, battlefield communications have been severely compromised: by burning to death the uncooperative Dothraki leadership before leaving Vaes Dothrak, the queen now lacks an effective officer cadre to command the cavalry forces on the ground.

The Unsullied A highly trained eunuch army, numbering some 8,000 men. The Unsullied and Dothraki are legendary enemies – in the Battle of Qohor, 400 years ago, 3,000 Unsullied slaughtered 50,000 Dothraki “screamers”. Integration of the two forces will thus be problematic; it is not yet known how combined arms tactics employing two or more troop types will play out. However, since the Unsullied do not ride horses, their capacity to offer effective support to the Dothraki cavalry is limited; though the Unsullied are tireless marchers they will not keep pace with mounted troops. Separate deployment is desirable.

Three dragons These provide air supremacy; Westeros has not developed viable anti-dragon technology. One caveat concerning effective dragon deployment is the shortage of experienced, qualified dragon-pilots. Only Daenerys has extensive flying experience and questions remain about her capacity to control them under combat conditions. Her dwarf advisor Tyrion Lannister has proven affinity with two of the dragons, Rhaegal and Viserion, who owe him their liberation from captivity. A third dragon-rider needs urgently to be recruited. Daenerys’s talented interpreter, Missandei, should maximise her communication skills by becoming a dragon-whisperer, and an accelerated dragon-pilot training programme should be developed once suitable candidates are identified.

High-quality strategic advice Daenerys’s advisor Lord Varys (aka “The Spider”) has a strong track record in maintaining informal intelligence networks and proven experience of top-level strategic input on the King’s Landing Small Council. Before Tyrion Lannister defected to the Targaryen cause, he successfully defended King’s Landing against the invading fleet of Stannis Baratheon (another claimant to the Iron Throne) in the Battle of Blackwater Bay – though his counter-strategy came at a cost: the destruction of the entire royal navy. The speedy return of Ser Jorah Mormont (currently on long-term sick leave after having contracted the greyscale disease) is highly desirable; he is the only one of her general staff who, like her, can speak fluent Dothraki. His promotion to head of Dothraki Liaison Responsibilities is recommended. 

Invasion force transport
While Daenerys’s maritime logistics resources were recently heavily degraded by persons unknown (thought to be insurgents backed by the rulers of the neighbouring slave-city states of Yunkai and Astapor), a sizeable fleet of 100 high-spec Ironborn longships has just been placed under the queen’s command. These vessels can provide some troop-transport from Slavers’ Bay to Westeros. Part of the slave-masters’ navy has been also captured and can be used for naval transport. Whether this offers sufficient capacity for both Unsullied and Dothraki transportation remains unclear. A possible alternative strategy involves routing Dothraki forces overland to the port of Pentos, where the Daenerys loyalist Illyrio Mopatis wields the resources necessary to effect the transfer of men and horses to Westeros. This option offers the shortest possible sea-crossing for the cavalry contingent, minimising nausea and/or occasion for mutiny. 

Westerosi local factors
Conditions in Westeros have rapidly deteriorated in the aftermath of the War of the Five Kings. The capital is in the grip of a standoff between a fanatical religious sect, the Sparrows, and the Lannister faction, led by Queen Cersei. Food supplies are precarious, given the destruction of the Riverlands’ agricultural sector and the alienation of the Tyrell family – previously net exporters of foodstuff to the capital. A citizens’ uprising protesting the food shortages seems likely. Additionally, Queen Cersei’s failure to expedite a naval rearmament programme, after the destruction of her fleet in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, has left the capital vulnerable to seaborne attack. 

Further north, an armed insurrection has effected a change of leadership at Winterfell, while an unspecified supernatural threat has been reported north of the Wall, linked with a developing refugee crisis in the Seven Kingdoms’ northern border area. While the politics of Westeros are characterised by long-term instability, current chaotic conditions are likely to favour the restoration of the Targaryen dynasty. 

Hearts and minds
Recruitment to a network of Red Priests and Priestesses, who proclaim Daenerys as the legendary messianic figure Azor Ahai, is underway. However, this cult – based in the neighbouring continent of Essos – has limited purchase in Westeros itself. Therefore, a pre-invasion propaganda initiative is to be spearheaded by Daenerys’s advisor Lord Varys in the southern Seven Kingdoms. His preliminary brief emphasises the benefits of Daenerys’s occupation of the Iron Throne: strong, visionary leadership, military superiority, and a (relatively) liberal politics. 

In a recent speech, Daenerys advocated the total destruction of the Great Houses of Westeros: 

Lannister. Baratheon. Stark. Tyrell: they’re all just spokes on the wheel. This one’s on top, then this one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.

This “spokes on the wheel” doctrine, while admirable in its ambition, may alienate pockets of the population who still pledge fealty to their old lords. Daenerys should de-emphasise this in favour of a realpolitik-oriented promise of social justice for small-folk and the end of the tyrannical rule of the discredited Lannister-Baratheon-Tyrell coalition.

Realisation of objectives
With the promise of the Ironborn longships and the capture of the slave-masters’ navy, a viable solution to the naval transportation impasse has been achieved and, crucially, an effective dragon-guidance and targeting strategy has been tested in the recently concluded sea battle at the port of Meereen, Daenerys’s stronghold in Slavers’ Bay. Thus a Targaryen victory, though by no means guaranteed, has, in our view a considerably better than 50% chance of success. In terms of global stability, a resolution of the crisis of government currently affecting the whole continent of Westeros remains a priority objective. Meanwhile, in Slavers’ Bay, we anticipate a return to the status quo ante as the primary outcome of her withdrawal, bringing enhanced opportunities for a revitalised market in unremunerated human labour. 

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Game of Thrones episode 10 airs on HBO June 26th