Total War: Three Kingdoms is based on China’s Game of Thrones
Romance of the Three Kingdoms may not have dragons or Starks, but the epic story resembles HBO’s Game of Thrones
By now, it’s a story familiar to many: A stocky, hammer-wielding warlord takes over an ailing dynasty, but he’s soon assassinated by those closest to him. The already-fragile empire is then sent into chaos, with many claiming themselves as the rightful heir to the throne.
You can be forgiven if this description has you thinking of HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones. But I’m actually talking about Romance of the Three Kingdoms, China’s most iconic historical novel based on the tumultuous Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. And it’s also the setting for the hit strategy game Total War: Three Kingdoms, which has sold more than one million copies in just one week.
Even beyond superficial plot elements, the two have many similar elements. That’s in spite of the fact that Game of Thrones is an epic fantasy with dragons and zombies while Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical novel that is light on magic.
Still, with Game of Thrones gone from our TV screens, if you’re looking for another big epic, Three Kingdoms might fit the bill. Here are four ways the two stories resemble each other.
Robert Baratheon and Dong Zhuo
As you may have gathered from the intro, both stories have a similar beginning: A usurper takes over a crumbling, centuries-long dynasty before getting taken out by people close to him. A classic betrayal story. Et tu, Brute?
In Game of Thrones, Robert Baratheon ended the rule of House Targaryen in Westeros. His reign proved (relatively) short-lived once his wife hatched a plan to assassinate him, kicking the Game of Thrones into high gear.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms has its own long-running dynasty that gets overthrown. The Han dynasty, headed by the Liu family, ruled China for centuries before a fat, drunk, powerful warlord named Dong Zhuo takes over by dethroning the emperor and installing his own child emperor. His fortunes are no better than those of Robert Baratheon, though. Dong’s adopted son winds up sticking a spear through the warlord’s heart, sending China further into chaos.
Tywin Lannister and Cao Cao
It seems like most compelling epics can’t do without a ruthless but meticulous anti-hero who is synonymous with fear in the eyes of his enemies.
In Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister serves that role. He is perhaps the most feared man in the Seven Kingdoms, despite having neither dragons nor sorcery on his side. He’s always three steps ahead of his opponents, and after the fall of Robert Baratheon, the patriarch of the Lannister family becomes Hand of the King.
That’s similar to Cao Cao in Three Kingdoms. Decisive and extremely manipulative, Cao Cao is a bona fide tactical genius who fills the power vacuum left by Dong Zhuo and becomes the empire’s imperial chancellor. He also wields his power through the same puppet emperor installed by Dong. Cao’s son, who later forces the emperor to abdicate, ultimately declares independence and erects the first of the eponymous three kingdoms.
(And in case you’re wondering, yup, that’s the same Cao Cao from the Dynasty Warriors series.)
House Tyrell and the Sun family
Tywin’s role in raising House Lannister to a triumphant place in the Seven Kingdoms overshadowed the rise of another family: House Tyrell. The rulers of the Reach are quiet, unflappable -- and ambitious. The betrothal of Magaery Tyrell to King Joffrey brings them into the limelight, but their position as rulers of the agricultural heart of Westeros always gave them an outsized amount of power.
The Sun family in Three Kingdoms is eerily similar. They, too, rule a warm, lush and wealthy land, this one in southern China near the Yangtze River. With the devout support from their followers, the Sun family has an extremely firm grip over their kingdom.
The Sun family is also similar to House Tyrell in another way: Both place a big emphasis on family bonds and education.
The Battle of the Blackwater and The Battle of Red Cliffs
One of the most iconic battles in Game of Thrones is the Battle of the Blackwater, which results in a major power shift in Westeros. In Three Kingdoms, it’s the Battle of Red Cliffs that changes history forever.
Both battles also see the use of a similar strategy: A chain to stop ships, and fire. So much fire.
In Game of Thrones, the battle commences after Stannis Baratheon leads his armada to King’s Landing. Outnumbered, Tyrion Lannister somehow lures the Baratheon fleet into a trap before setting the ships ablaze. While this is going on, Tyrion uses a huge chain to keep the enemy ships from retreating.
The same sort of scheme was used in the Battle of Red Cliffs. Faced with an armada four times its size, the Sun and Liu coalition sends burning ships straight into their enemy’s chained-up fleet.
Where are the Starks and the Targaryens?
OK, so this is where the comparison collapses. There are no good comparisons for the Starks and the Targaryens. And as a historical novel, the Three Kingdoms doesn’t have to account for an external doomsday threat or grapple with overly-powerful mythical creatures.
At their core, the two stories are very different. But they are both sprawling epics with plenty of backstabbing and intrigue. So if you are a fan of Game of Thrones and looking for another epic to sink your teeth into, Romance of the Three Kingdoms might just be your jam.