How to Win Without Fighting in ‘Game of Thrones’

Daenerys Targaryen and Jorah Mormont on the battlefield. Credit: HBO

If you’re not caught up on “Game of Thrones” through Season 8, episode 3, then stop reading this and tell the god of SPOILERS: “Not today.”

As winter finally arrives in the final “Game of Thrones” season, the Night King’s chances for a victory look very good. His massive army of zombies — its ranks filled with undead humans and giants and even a dragon—is poised to overrun not just the human stronghold of Winterfell but also the entire continent of Westeros. The only hope for Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen and the forces of living is to kill the Night King and therefore break his unholy magic spell that raises seemingly endless hordes of the dead to fight for his cause.

This is a moment that calls for the Night King to make the most of his army’s unique strengths by exercising patience. Instead, he gambles upon a riskier strategy by ordering an immediate frontal assault that exposes himself in the process — and he ends up losing everything.

The Night King begins with all the advantages to win a long war of attrition that exhausts both the forces and supplies of the living. His army of zombies (known as “wights” in “Game of Thrones” lore) has the unique advantages of not needing food, shelter, or sleep. The wights do not suffer from the cold winter weather that comes howling down out of the North to accompany the Night King’s march south toward the lands of the living. On top of all this, the Night King has the extraordinary power to replenish and even grow his military forces by simply raising the dead en masse from battlefields and graveyards alike.

By comparison, the armies of the living awaiting the Night King’s onslaught at the stronghold of Winterfell are already facing a severe supply problem even before the fighting begins. Jon Snow’s smaller army of Northern bannermen and Free Folk (Wildlings) has been reinforced by Daenerys Targaryen’s armies of disciplined Unsullied spearmen and Dothraki horsemen — not to mention Dany’s dragons Drogon and Rhaegal. Unlike the army of the dead, these armies of the living all require food, shelter, and rest.

The “Game of Thrones” depiction of military logistics — the organizational challenges of transporting and maintaining armies — has always been haphazard at best when medieval-era armies sometimes appear to move at lightning speed across continents and the Narrow Sea. But talk of food and other supplies needed to sustain large field armies or castle garrisons has never been entirely absent either.

In fact, some of the most compelling and poignant “Game of Thrones” story themes have revolved around the coming dangers of the long winter and the human suffering of war-torn lands facing privation and famine. Taken together, those story threads make it possible to piece together the logistics situation facing the armies of the living and the people of the Seven Kingdoms as the long winter and the Night King threaten their survival. They also point to a winning strategy for the Night King that deliberately avoids seeking battle with the strongest armies of the living.

The arrival of the Targaryen forces in the North immediately puts a huge strain on the supply situation at Winterfell, where Sansa Stark had been carefully collecting and hoarding grain and other foodstuffs in anticipation of the coming winter. She voices this concern during the equivalent of a war council meeting at Winterfell:

“May I ask, how are we meant to feed the greatest army the world has ever seen? While I ensured our stores would last through winter, I didn’t account for Dothraki, Unsullied, and two full-grown dragons. What do dragons eat, anyway?”

It’s clear that time is against the living with so many mouths to feed and limited food supplies. The fact that Daenerys previously voiced similar concerns about feeding her large armies only emphasizes the importance of this factor (more on that later). That food situation becomes a ticking time bomb that puts pressure on the living to achieve a quick and decisive victory over the army of the dead — a victory that can only be won by killing the Night King.

With time on his side, the Night King has many more strategic options available in achieving victory. One of the simplest ways to deal with the armies of the living assembled at Winterfell would be to surround them with his army of the dead, cut off all supply lines, and effectively put the castle under siege. The wight army would not even have to actively attack in order to starve out the armies of Jon and Daenerys, who would face mounting pressure to seek a decisive battle before their forces weaken.

The X factor is that Daenerys and Jon can ride the dragons Drogon and Rhaegal into battle and use the dragons’ fire-breathing capabilities to make the fantasy equivalent of napalm bombing runs from the air. The dragons have also proven that they can serve as flying transportation to ferry a limited number of people on their backs. But it’s highly unlikely that the dragons would have the carrying capacity to either evacuate thousands of warriors and civilians from a besieged Winterfell or bring in enough food supplies from the outside—and it’s clear that most of the surplus food in the North has already been stockpiled at Winterfell.

Having killed the dragon Viserion and raised it from the dead as his own battle steed, the Night King has some options in countering the living dragon air force despite a 1:2 dragon disadvantage. He has also demonstrated a solid throwing arm with his ice spears that allowed him to kill Viserion in the first place and could still threaten the remaining dragons. And his apparent immunity to dragon fire makes him a unique threat to the remaining dragons as long as he retains a supply of ice spears to throw.

If the Night King uses the mere threat of his undead dragon or his own presence to keep the living dragons in check, the armies of the living have very limited options once they become besieged at Winterfell. And by effectively neutralizing the most powerful military forces opposing him, the Night King gains even more strategic options in turning his attention to the soft southern lands of the Seven Kingdoms.

If the armies of the living gathered at Winterfell aren’t in the best shape from a supply standpoint, the rest of the Seven Kingdoms seem even more woefully unprepared for surviving either an onslaught of the Night King’s undead army or the coming of winter.

At the start of “Game of Thrones,” the Seven Kingdoms are enjoying the waning months of what is described as the longest summer in living memory. According to a discussion of the small council at King’s Landing during Season 2, a long summer is typically accompanied by an equally long if not longer winter. Given how Ned Stark mentions the long summer lasted nine years, it seems that the coming winter will last for approximately a decade, if not longer.

There is also a possibility that the Night King’s coming may herald an even longer winter through a dreadful repeat of the Long Night — a legendary period from 8,000 years ago when the Night King and his White Walkers descended upon Westeros for the first time. The White Walker invasion with its armies of the dead supposedly threatened to bring an endless winter to the continent and exterminate all life. The character of Old Nan tells that story to Brandon Stark in Season 1:

“Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts. And women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept and felt the tears freeze on their cheeks.”

It’s possible that the Long Night’s duration and impact has been greatly exaggerated in the retelling after thousands of years. But the war-torn Seven Kingdoms already faces a dire food shortage that would likely mean many people starving to death even during a decade-long winter.

The civil war that breaks out following the death of King Robert Baratheon — known as the War of the Five Kings — could not have come at a worse time for the Seven Kingdoms. The end of the long summer should be a time for collecting and storing the last crop harvests needed to survive the long winter. Instead, many farmers likely end up being forcibly conscripted to fill the ranks of rival armies, whereas others are killed, robbed or driven off their farms during the conflict.

There are many clues pointing to the grim possibility of mass starvation come winter. When the War of the Five Kings breaks out, the Lannister forces holding the capital of King’s Landing already face a tough food situation. Petyr Baelish (aka “Littlefinger”) summarizes the situation at the start of Season 2 during a small council meeting: “We have enough wheat for a five-year winter. If it lasts any longer, we’ll have fewer peasants.”

Littlefinger’s words come as refugees fleeing the conflict pour into King’s Landing. The capital is also initially cut off from the two main breadbasket regions that supply the most grain to the Seven Kingdoms: the Reach that is controlled by House Tyrell and the Riverlands held by House Tully. Both the Tyrells and Tullys oppose the Lannister control of the Iron Throne early on, which eventually leads to food shortages among the refugees and populace of King’s Landing.

The capital’s food shortages become bad enough so that a riot breaks out in Kings Landing as an angry crowd attacks a royal procession consisting of many Lannister family members. The violence is preceded by the starving populace begging King Joffrey’s procession for food:

“Please, your grace, we’re hungry!”

“Please, your grace, give us some food!”

“Bread, your grace, please!”

The Lannisters eventually find some relief from the food shortage by forming a temporary marriage alliance with the Tyrells and gain access to supplies from the Reach. A conversation between Olenna Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister leads to Olenna listing the Tyrells’ supply contribution to sustaining the population of King’s Landing:

“What is it, 12,000 infantrymen the Tyrell family has supplied? 1,800 mounted lances. 2,000 in support. Provisions so this city might survive the winter. A million bushels of wheat. Half a million bushels each of barley, oats, and rye. 20,000 head of cattle. 50,000 sheep.”

But the overall food situation for the Seven Kingdoms worsens as the Riverlands, the other main breadbasket of Westeros, becomes a frequent battleground for marauding armies crisscrossing the region during the War of the Five Kings. Many unhappy scenes suggest that the Riverlands’ farmers probably aren’t having much luck in tending and harvesting their crops unmolested.

The fate of the Riverlands is driven home during the wanderings of Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane (aka “The Hound”) when they encounter a dying farmer whose hut was also burned down by raiders. The Hound also ends up stealing silver from a farmer and his daughter who were kind enough to provide hospitality, and coldly explains his actions to Arya in response to her outrage: “They’ll both be dead come winter; dead men don’t need silver.” He later returns with the Brotherhood Without Banners to find the skeletons of the farmer and daughter — the Brotherhood’s leader Beric Dondarrion speculates that the farmer took his daughter’s life and his own rather than face starvation.

The widespread destruction in the Riverlands leaves the Reach as the main breadbasket region sustaining much of the Seven Kingdoms by the time Daenerys Targaryen’s armies arrive in Westeros to challenge Cersei Lannister’s rule in King’s Landing. The Tyrells switch their allegiance to Daenerys, but strategic blunders allow an army led by Jaime Lannister and former Tyrell bannerman Randyll Tarly to crush the Tyrell garrison at Highgarden and seize control of the Reach.

After the sack of Highgarden, the Lannister forces loot House Tyrell’s gold reserves for the purpose of paying back Lannister debts and to replenish the war chest for future expenditures such as hiring the 20,000-strong Golden Company. But Jaime also orders his subordinates Bronn and Randyll Tarly to clean out the Highgarden granaries and send soldiers to collect the current harvest from all the farms in the Reach — even if it means leaving the people in the Reach without supplies to survive the winter.

Bronn: “I’m not much for shoveling wheat.”

Jaime: “No, but motivating reluctant farmers to hand over their harvest — I bet you’re going to have a real talent for that.”

When news of Highgarden’s fall reaches Daenerys, she is almost as concerned about the food supply situation as she is by the loss of her ally. Tyrion tries to soften the blow by pointing out that Daenerys still commands the largest armies in the form of the Unsullied infantry and Dothraki cavalry, but Daenerys retorts that her armies “won’t be able to eat because Cersei has taken all the food from the Reach.”

Daenerys decides to strike a strategic blow at the Lannister forces by targeting their strung-out wagon train loaded with food supplies as it heads back to King’s Landing. The Lannisters manage to get all the stolen gold safely through the gates of King’s Landing, but Daenerys attacks soon afterward by leading a force of Dothraki cavalry into battle from aboard her dragon Drogon.

The resulting Battle of the Goldroad leads to the apparent destruction of most of the supply wagons that hadn’t made it into King’s Landing and were likely loaded with the much-needed grain from the Reach— Jaime later tells Cersei that the dragon burned 1,000 wagons. It’s unclear what the food supply situation looks like in King’s Landing at that point, but it’s undoubtedly a severe blow to the city’s ability to survive either the long winter or a protracted siege.

Furthermore, it’s clear that the Lannisters were hoarding food supplies at the expense of the Reach and many other regions of Westeros. That makes it seem certain that many farmers and villagers living outside King’s Landing likely face starvation in the coming winter. The looming specter of widespread famine and winter’s impending arrival both represent golden opportunities for the Night King to exploit.

The Night King has several options if he chooses to keep the armies of Daenerys and Jon bottled up at Winterfell. He has what appears to be an overwhelming numbers advantage over the armies of the living, given that Jon once described the Night King raising “tens of thousands” of dead Free Folk who were slaughtered at Hardhome to form “the largest army in the world.” And those undead reinforcements came on top of the preexisting wight army that the Night King brought to Hardhome.

First, the Night King can remain outside Winterfell with the majority of his army and split off smaller but sizable detachments led by his White Walker generals to cause terror and confusion in the south. The appearance of marauding zombies in the Riverlands and the other regions near King’s Landing would likely send many panicked people fleeing to the perceived safety of the capital or other major walled cities. A sudden influx of refugees would further strain the food supplies and potentially lead to more rioting or infectious disease epidemics among the crowded and malnourished urban populations. And eventually the city garrisons could collapse under siege or simply because disease and starvation take their toll.

A second and likely better option for the Night King would be to leave enough forces to keep the armies of the living at Winterfell in check while he himself heads south. A southern campaign led personally by the Night King would effectively accelerate the same process of destroying the Seven Kingdoms. After all, the Night King could continually raise fresh armies of the dead from all the crypts and graveyards of Westeros — not to mention recruiting tens of thousands more people killed on battlefields or left dead from famine, pestilence and exposure to the elements. His undead dragon Viserion could also act as both swift conveyance and as a mobile siege weapon for blasting holes in city and castle walls.

It’s unlikely that the Lannister forces would be able to stop even more modest contingents of zombies. Cersei gambled on the idea that the armies of Daenerys and Jon would defeat the Night King in the North, and therefore spent most of her time preparing to confront Daenerys’ dragons rather than the army of the dead. A lack of mass-produced dragonglass weaponry would render most of the remaining Lannister armies and the mercenaries of the Golden Company ineffective in combat against the wights, unless they resorted to more widespread use of fire and possibly even wildfire out of desperation.

Trapped in Winterfell, the armies of Daenerys and Jon are better prepared and equipped to fight the wights, but would still face almost impossible odds as long as the Night King kept himself safe from harm. Even if the armies of the living somehow break out of a besieged Winterfell and try to pursue the Night King, they would have to fight their way through a growing rearguard horde of wights while the Night King rampages through the southern lands and raises fresh recruits from the newly slain.

Last but not least, it’s hard to overstate the difficulties of winter campaigning for armies that consist of living human beings. Medieval warfare operated on a seasonal cycle with active military campaigns during the warmer months and armies temporarily disbanding to seek food and shelter during the winter, as historians pointed out in a Time Magazine article examining the impact of winter on warfare. From a logistics standpoint, medieval armies lacked the supply chains to keep large numbers of men and horses fed on the march — they depended on being able to forage and pillage the surrounding countryside for food and fodder.

“Game of Thrones” has already demonstrated the folly of winter military campaigns through the example of Stannis Baratheon in Season 5. In a huge blunder, the southerner Stannis set out upon a foolhardy march from Castle Black at the Wall with the overly ambitious goal of capturing Winterfell — then held by Roose and Ramsay Bolton — before the onset of the long winter.

The Baratheon army’s ill-fated march was marked by great human and animal suffering as the men and horses staggered through snow drifts. A severe winter storm forced the army to hunker down in camp and effectively cut the supply line stretching back to Castle Black. Stealthy raids led by Ramsay Bolton destroyed most of the Baratheon army’s meager food supplies and killed or drove off many of the horses. Meanwhile, the Bolton army sat safely behind the walls of Winterfell as Roose Bolton remarked upon the challenges of military campaigning in winter:

“As long as we stay behind these walls, they can’t touch us. Not to mention the snow is so deep, we couldn’t get an army through to engage them even if we wanted to.”

Stannis finally got his starved and depleted army to move out on foot when the winter storm passed, but only after losing all his horses and many of his men due to desertion. The staggering remnants of the Baratheon army proved no match for the well-fed and mounted Bolton army that finally came out to finish the job.

With that cautionary tale in mind, it’s worth remembering that the armies of Daenerys and Jon already face a food shortage even with Winterfell’s supplies at hand. Trying to carry whatever food they could while marching and fighting against an encircling army of wights in winter weather would be to court death and disaster.

In any case, the Night King could likely use his power of summoning winter storms to keep the armies of the living from venturing outside the shelter of Winterfell. He demonstrates that power both during the “Hardhome” episode of Season 5 and “The Long Night” episode of Season 8, when a rolling blizzard front effectively creates whiteout conditions that reduce visibility to almost zero. Such conditions help render the dragon advantage of Daenerys and Jon fairly ineffective during much of the “ Long Night” battle for Winterfell.

If the armies of the living did foolishly try to venture outside Winterfell’s walls and fight the army of the dead in whiteout conditions, the results might resemble a magnified version of the nightmarish blizzard battle between Jon Snow’s small expedition beyond the Wall and a zombie bear — except this time with tens of thousands of wights and zombie giants charging in at the vastly outnumbered and encircled human forces.

Given all the Night King’s advantages in being able to field an all-weather army of the dead that needs no supplies, his best bet is to avoid risking himself in direct confrontation and focus upon destroying farms and villages, keeping the strongest human armies besieged in their castles, and pushing the food shortage problem of the Seven Kingdoms to the breaking point. True to the original Long Night that supposedly lasted a generation, such a long war strategy would truly threaten to wipe out all life in Westeros.

This long war (or Long Night) strategy never comes to pass. Whether because of sheer arrogance or some nagging impatience to finally kill off that annoying line of Three-Eyed Ravens, the Night King chooses to hurl his massive army of wights directly at the walls of Winterfell in what he must imagine to be the decisive battle. He nearly succeeds through a combination of overwhelming numbers and some decidedly terrible battlefield tactics displayed by the armies of the living, but is defeated in the end by master assassin Arya Stark.

No one can really begrudge Arya her shining moment in the spotlight as the savior of humanity. But there is a lingering sense of lost storytelling opportunity in how the main existential threat never makes it past Winterfell to challenge the rest of the Seven Kingdoms — especially when the show has already woven in plenty of storytelling threads about how unprepared Westeros is for the long winter and its attendant dangers. It’s truly a shame to let those go, because such story lines about the universal need for food and shelter often featured striking intersections between the otherwise seemingly disparate lives of nobles and the masses of commoners.

You would think that the near-immortal Night King who spent thousands of years biding his time in the Lands of Always Winter would have learned something about patience and playing the long game. But then again, it’s also possible that the Night King’s unique capability to operate without much concern for logistics also blinded him to the importance of supplies as the weak point for the armies of the living. Whatever the case, he could likely have benefited from learning the Westerosi version of that hoary saying: “Amateurs study tactics, armchair generals study strategy, but professionals study logistics.”

Science and technology journalist. Military history enthusiast. Asian Groot in Brooklyn. I grew up with video games.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store