Machiavelli’s Politics and A Game of Thrones: The Board Game

By Matthew Wells '18

HONR-191: Board in Class: An Academic Survey of Modern Board Games

This capstone assignment requires the students to write a research paper that follows the guidelines of submissions to the Board Game Studies Journal. The transdisciplinary focus of this journal—and assignment—allows the students to leverage their personal expertise and interests towards writing this paper on board games. In this piece Matt utilized his proficiency in both political science and philosophy to develop an effective strategy for a board game. While this particular board game (A Game of Thrones, second edition) may be unfamiliar to many, it was designed as a streamlined version of Diplomacy, which is one of the few board games with an annual world championship and purportedly a favorite of JFK and Henry Kissinger.

– Jay Wackerly

The television series Game of Thrones is wellknown for its vivid depictions of political scheming and backstabbing as encapsulated in its oft-quoted tagline: “You win or you die.” A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (GOT) is a laudable effort to put in players’ hands the chance to exercise their inner Machiavellian in a (hopefully) nonviolent fashion. It provides plenty of opportunities for players to make friends and enemies. All friendships made within the game are, however, quite tenuous. Only one player may win; you win or you lose. Thus, the game more than encourages players to break alliances, and all must be on their guard against one another. Each player who wants to win must strive to adhere to a Machiavellian strategy of appearing friendly to other players for as long as possible, or else be defeated early.

This paper consists of two parts. First, I will describe how the application of relevant precepts from Machiavelli’s The Prince to gameplay in GOT are necessary for winning the game; that is, the game all but forces players to play amorally. In order to demonstrate this thesis, I will discuss advice from Machiavelli’s The Prince on using a military, avoiding hatred, and conquering fortune and apply them to gameplay in GOT. Second, I will discuss what players can learn about a Machiavellian conception of politics from their experience playing GOT.

I. Applying Machiavelli to GOT

A. Military

Military plays an indispensable role in GOT. In order to win, a player must control seven areas that contain either a castle or stronghold with his or her military, i.e., at least one footman, knight, or siege engine must be placed in seven of these territories. Machiavelli provides his reader with suggestions concerning “What a Prince Should Do Regarding the Military” in the fourteenth chapter of The Prince. At the very beginning of the chapter, Machiavelli maintains “a prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but that of war and its orders and discipline” (58).1

Machiavelli’s high estimation of a ruler’s military applies exceptionally well to GOT. According to Machiavelli, when princes have failed to place their militaries as their first priority, “they have lost their states” (58). Similarly, in GOT, a failure to muster a sufficient number of troops could result in early losses that render victory impossible. Mustering troops must be a high priority from the very beginning of the game as troops are the only way to possess territories. The same rings true for advancing one’s placement on the supply track which increases players’ potential number of armies. Despite the fact that battles only rarely occur in the first rounds of GOT, players have to adhere to Machiavelli’s advice that a ruler “should never lift his thoughts from the exercise of war, and in peace he should exercise it more than in war” (59).

Machiavelli also advises his readers against relying solely on the troops of others. What Machiavelli refers to as “mercenary” and “auxiliary” arms are problematic. The individuals that comprise these groups “have no love nor cause to keep in the field other than a small stipend, which is not sufficient to make them want to die for you” (48-49). Similarly, trusting on the support of others is a surefire way to lose a battle in GOT. In fact, the reasons for others to support you in battle are even less sufficient for ensuring their support than the stipend given to mercenaries. One can only expect another player to offer support if, and only if, that other player will clearly garner some tangible benefit from doing so. In other words, players will only support you if they believe that it will help them get the better of you later on.

B. Avoiding Hatred

The necessity for a prince to avoid being hated is perhaps Machiavelli’s most pertinent precept that one could apply to GOT. This piece of advice is, however, somewhat in tension with the previous one. If players begin their military exploits too early, they could very well end up “hated” by all the other players. In other words, players who appear to others as warmongers early on are likely to face retaliation. For instance, if I am playing as the Greyjoys, and I immediately start attacking the Starks, then the Baratheons, Tyrells, Martells, and even Lannisters have a perfect opportunity to verbally denounce me, thereby making themselves appear less aggressive than me. Moreover, other players are very likely to form an alliance and wage war against me, rendering my own military inert, unable to conquer territories with castles or strongholds.

The fact remains that a military is indispensable for victory. How, then, does one wage war without garnering the hatred of all the other players? It would certainly be advantageous if a player made friends before making enemies. Enemies are far easier for players to make (and to keep) than friends. Concerning the possibility of making and maintaining friends, Machiavelli asserts, “if one has good arms, one will always have good friends” (72). This realization lessens the tension between these two precepts when used in GOT. In other words, having a military can be more important than using a military, at least in some instances of gameplay. For example, if I have acquired a vast array of fearsome Lannister meeples, then the Greyjoys might be inclined to form an alliance with me. Even if this alliance may be tenuous and no guarantee of future military success, it makes my own power appear even greater than it already is.

A player cannot ignore the necessity of attacking in GOT, because winning the game without initiating a single battle against another player is next to impossible. The compulsion to attack other players in GOT relates to Machiavelli’s claim that “a prince who wants to maintain his state is often forced not to be good” (77). How, then, are players of GOT supposed to reconcile the necessity of war with the necessity of avoiding hatred? Machiavelli possesses a powerful answer: “injuries must be done all together, so that, being tasted less, they offend less” (38). Since players can obtain some territories with castles or strongholds without attacking other players, they are encouraged to try to seize as many of these territories without direct conflict as is possible. Concurrently, players are forced to avoid appearing as though one might win soon. If a player looks like he or she could win in the next turn, all other players will work together to ensure that the player cannot win. The ideal number for players to avoid this situation is to possess four territories with castles or strongholds (possessing five alerts others that one could win soon). After having obtained these territories as peacefully as possible, a player can then attempt to place his or her troops in seemingly innocuous places where he or she can obtain multiple territories with castles or strongholds in a single turn.

C. Fortune

In the penultimate chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli makes one of his most shocking statements when he discusses how to deal with fortune: “fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down” (101). In other words, the unpredictable powers of chance must be conquered violently by a ruler. Through brute force, one must ensure one’s preparation for the unforeseeable forces outside of one’s control that threaten to thwart one’s intentions. In GOT, the three Westeros cards flipped at the beginning of each turn serve as an imitation of fortune. Players must take into account the debilitating forces that can potentially be unleashed by these cards. For example, if Wildlings attack in the same turn that all three players bid on the influence tracks, then players who bid the most power tokens for a position of influence increase their chances of suffering from the subsequent attack. Similarly, a player who has just won the first position on the iron throne track could very well lose that position in the next turn if the same Westeros card is drawn again. Assuming that the player sacrificed a significant number of power tokens in order to win that high place on the influence track, he or she will not be very likely to outbid all the other players a second time. Only by keeping in mind the possible consequences of the Westeros cards can players hope to conquer fortune’s irascible tendencies.

II. The Essence of Machiavelli’s Politics

From playing GOT, as the game demands itself to be played in order to win, players can grasp some essential attributes of Machiavelli’s conception of politics. Knowing Machiavelli’s political teaching is an invaluable insight if we wish to improve our understanding of modern politics. According to political scientist Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli is the founder of the modern executive power. On this point, Mansfield notes the similarities and differences between Machiavelli and his intellectual successors:

Machiavelli may have founded the modern doctrine of executive power, but in his extremism he stopped short of developing doctrines of power and of separation of powers. The doctrine of power, in Hobbes’s conception, was to make virtuous princes unnecessary by giving any sovereign, virtuous or not, all the power he could want; the separation of powers was developed by Locke and Montesquieu to check the prince by law and by formal institutions…But it is not clear that the development of the doctrine improves it.2

Despite the obvious differences between Machiavelli and his more moderate successors, Mansfield invites us to consider whether something essentially Machiavellian remains in the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu.3 If so, then one would not be surprised to see something Machiavellian in contemporary politics. We will keep in mind these questions as we proceed in this brief look at Machiavelli.

GOT reveals a startling consequence of Machiavelli’s politics: it necessitates a rather perverse “rugged individualism” in which friendship properly understood is rendered impossible. Players are unable to place their genuine trust in another player. Any alliances or “friendships” are not formed for their own sake, but for the sake of something else. In other words, players are encouraged to be mercenary in their relationships with other players; they must subdue any desire they might have to form a lasting alliance to their concern with material gain. Only if two players are unable to attack one another because of an unbridgeable geographical gap can they hope to form an enduring agreement. This could hardly be called friendship.

Why is friendship impossible for a Machiavellian ruler? Waller Newell provides us with the beginning of an answer in his analysis of Machiavelli’s exhortation to conquer fortune. He refers to Machiavelli’s “use of rape as a metaphor” as an attempt to “forestall any sentiment on the prince’s part that there is a link between the world and his own better qualities of self-restraint and admiration for nobility and beauty.”4 Machiavelli implores his readers to forget morality and common decency in the name of necessity. Or as Newell puts it:

Mastering Fortuna includes the prince’s mastering that part of his own nature−eros specifically −vulnerable to believing in the Platonic cosmology with (what Machiavelli takes to be) its unwarranted, delusory hopefulness about the success of morality, nobility, and reason in the world.5

Thus, Machiavelli can be said to encourage an amoral attitude towards nature and human nature that renders impossible human friendship based upon eros or love.

Indeed, as Newell mentions, Machiavelli’s rejection of the classical understanding of political life as articulated by Plato and Aristotle was continued by all of his successors. For instance, Hobbes refers to the placing of the “doctrine of Aristotle into Religion” by his predecessors as resulting in “so many contradictions, and absurdities, as brought the Clergy into a reputation both of Ignorance, and of Fraudulent intention.”6 As a result of Aristotle’s supposed failure to understand politics, Hobbes constructs his teaching on the state of nature, presenting fear of violent death as the motive for all of political life. Since the state of nature is a war of all against all, of radical individualism, we can reasonably conclude that Hobbes presents human beings as by nature Machiavellian. Hobbes seems to overlook that Aristotle himself recognizes that “man is the best of animals when completed,” but “the worst of all” when “separated from law and adjudication.”7 Contrary to Hobbes, Aristotle, noticing that human beings are the only animals capable of speech, suggests that “the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.”8 Moreover, in Aristotle’s Politics, human beings are distinguished by the other animals on account of their inherent ability to distinguish good from bad and just from unjust.9

What, then, are we to make of Machiavelli’s politics in light of GOT? After this brief overview of Machiavelli and his successors, we might hope that players learn from GOT that, although deceiving friends in board games may be fun, the pleasure of glory is not worth sacrificing the joys of friendship. Moreover, players will likely observe that the rules of GOT are set up in such a way that encourages Machiavellian strategy. Is it possible that, by borrowing from his works, Machiavelli’s successors have done something similar with contemporary politics? In ther words, could doctrines such as Hobbes’s state of nature encourage citizens to hold themselves to low moral standards, thereby endangering higher aspects of human life such as love and friendship? This question is not an easy one to answer. At any rate, thoughtful players of GOT are invited to consider how their experiences with the game correspond with their interactions with others in their lives.

1 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, second edition, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). All in-text citations are to this text.

2 Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 314.

3 Thomas Pangle and Timothy Burns argue that Machiavelli “lays down the basic moral and philosophic foundations of what came to be called ‘modernity.’ Subsequent ‘modern’ philosophers profoundly modify, and often attack, his teachings. But they do so on grounds that he establishes.” The Key Texts of Political Philosophy: An Introduction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 173.

4 Waller Newell, Tyranny: A New Interpretation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 338.

5 Ibid., 7.

6 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 93. A similar rejection of classical thought can be found in Descartes’s Discourse on Method. In the final chapter, he reveals why he wrote the text in French and not in Latin: “I hope that those who use only their natural reason in its purity will judge better of my opinions than those who believe in ancient books.” Translated by Richard Kennington, (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2007), 57. Also, an echo of Machiavelli’s teaching on fortune can be found earlier in the text when he refers to theuse of his new practical philosophy resulting in making “ourselves like masters and possessors of nature,” 49.

7 Aristotle, Politics, translated by Carnes Lord, 2nd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 5.

8 Ibid., 4.

9 Consider Francis Fukuyama on Aristotle’s and Hobbes’s different understandings of humans and politics. He refers to the “Hobbesean fallacy”: “the idea that human beings were primordially individualistic and that they entered into society at a later stage in their development only as a result of a rational calculation that social cooperation was the best way for them to achieve their individual ends. This premise of primordial individualism underpins the understanding of rights contained in the American Declaration of lndependence and thus of the democratic political community that springs from it. This premise also underlies contemporary neoclassical economics, which builds its models on the assumption that human beings are rational beings who want to maximize their individual utility or incomes. But it is in fact individualism and not sociability that developed over the course of human history. That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts. Aristotle was more correct than these early modern liberal theorists when he said that human beings were political by nature. So while an individualistic understanding of human motivation may help to explain the activities of commodity traders and libertarian activists in present-day America, it is not the most helpful way to understand the early evolution of human politics. Everything that modern biology and anthropology tell us about the state of nature suggests the opposite: there was never a period in human evolution when human beings existed as isolated individuals,” The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 29-30.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics, translated by Carnes Lord, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method, translated by Richard Kennington. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2007.

Fukuyama, Francis. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, second edition, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Mansfield, Harvey. Machiavelli’s Virtue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Newell, Waller. Tyranny: A New Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Pangle, Thomas and Timothy W. Burns. The Key Texts of Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.