The Game of Stones

With the Game of Thrones (GoT) Season 7 cliff-hanger end, how do viewers makes sense of what has happened and where the plot is going to take our favourite characters?

Some useful explanation of the popular TV show may be offered by using analogy of the world’s oldest game of Go, which is also known as the ultimate strategic game. The Game of Thrones impose that that is some game that the characters are involved with and are players in a bigger scheme of things. But just what kind of game is this is not made explicitly clear by the screen writers. The only glimpse of what may look like a board game are the large pieces displayed on a map in the Danny’s castles. The pieces could be mistaken for Chess pieces, which is commonly known in the West. However, a more sophisticated analysis of the series may reveal a different side. The most applicable and likely game that the characters are likely to be part of is Go. Here is why:

Go is the oldest known continuously played strategic game, dating back to about 4 thousand years ago. The game is known with different names in various places across Asia: Wei’Qi, meaning the “surrounding game” in Mandarin, Ba-Duk on the Korean peninsula, and Igo in Japan, from where the modern-day name in the Western World derives – Go. More poetically, Go is also known as a conversation by hands, the Universal game or The Stone Game. I draw the following analogies between the two famous games:

  • Ability to make a difference regardless of who you are: in Go, all pieces are of equal value, and only their place on the vast board is what distinct them from the rest. For example, sometime a character Tyrell Lannister can play the most important part in the development of the story line.
  • Not a linear story: The size of the Go board, also known as the Goban (the world) is significantly large: 19×19, which offers 361 cross-sections, with a high number of possible moves at any one time. In a similar way, the Game of Thrones offers a vast number of possibilities for characters to affect the course of the game at any point of time.
  • Long-term vision as a strategy for survival: The skills that comes with surviving in a game of Go (also known as life and death situations) are highly strategic skills, which considers the larger pictures. Thus, only those characters that can see the multiple factors and possible outcomes, and can see in longer terms, an ability called. Able to read a situation are likely to survive in the series
  • Play for a quality to be a winner: a game pre-supposes that there is a winner. In Go there are only black and white stones, and the winner is determined by playing not only for success but also for quality, which often goes hand in hand. Similarly, in the Game of Thrones, John Snow choses to play a quality game by staying true and honest to himself, leaving the outcome as a secondary importance. The ability to give, in order to take is a key to success in the Game of Go, and those who try to win everything are quick to lose: a lesson that we have seen clearly demonstrated in the TV series (for example in the case of Ramsey)
  • The black and white stones in Go could be compared to the yin and yang forces, which means that they are constantly interchangeable. This is easily demonstrated by the forces of the living and dead, as the main opposing sides
  • Attack from strength: After Daenerys Targaryen lost her castle Dragonstone, she could only return by creating a strong alliance elsewhere with the Dothraki. In Go terms, when a player loses a local battle, one way of responding is to regain strength elsewhere on the board, and then to attack or to extend an influence from strength: a lesson, which is well known in Go.


Finally, if we are to draw an analogy of the two famous Games, I argue that we could refer to the world’s most fascinating game as the Game of Stones, since it is played by placing stones on the board, which is why it is also known as the Stone Games.

Although Go is a useful metaphor for explaining the strategy in Game of Thrones, we should be careful not to overdo it, as there may not be a strategy at all.

Overall, Go emphases the importance of multiple perspectives and a number of local battles, rather than a single victory. The long-term vision with its ability to sustain concentrated efforts in achieving overall influence and to gain territory is what makes the difference between living and dying on the board.

How is this important now?

Lessons of life and death from the Game of Stones can help the viewers not only navigate through the complex plot of the famous TV series, which is set in brutal and unforgiving world, but also to teach more sophisticated skills in adaptation and collaboration, which are the true survival skills in the modern world.

Perhaps there are still lessons to be learnt from the Universal Game, even after it is no longer regarded superior for humans’, following the defeat of human Go players in the Deep Mind Challenge. Could the ancient game of Go make another return, by bringing more lessons for humans?