Survivor: Cambodia

The Survivor Strategic Game: A Question of Trust

It’s easy to get wrapped up in all the shake-ups, new twists, and blindsides that are part of modern Survivor. I love the game’s unpredictability, especially this season. In many cases, however, the “big moves” revolve around a simple question of trust. Players are constantly trying to read others to figure out where they stand. When people make the wrong call, they look silly at Tribal Council after the votes come their way. Others make bold moves to protect an ally that may seem questionable on the surface. Even so, those choices feel necessary because trust is in short supply. When you find someone who’s on the same page, it’s best to keep them around.

There’s been plenty of talk about voting blocs and a new evolution of strategy, but there were old-school elements to both votes this week. Jeremy’s idol play to save Stephen was daring, but it came down to sticking with a pivotal ally. He used a game device to do it, but Jeremy was really showcasing the game’s most basic component. You must build trust and connect with players before voting them out, and Stephen was valuable to Jeremy’s plans. There was no guarantee that playing the idol would help, but Jeremy used sound logic to make that choice.

In the second hour, Stephen’s new advantage failed him when a split vote backfired. On the surface, it looked like the advantage was a double-edged sword that burned him. It built a larger target on Stephen and made him an easy mark. The split vote to avoid the idol looked foolish, and it did lead to his exit. Even so, the reason he lost came down to trusting the wrong person. At Ponderosa, Stephen was stunned to learn that Spencer was targeting him. He believed that Spencer was a true ally and wasn’t gunning for him. That blind spot is what really caused his demise. If Spencer had voted with him, Stephen would have survived the vote despite the unnecessary split. His friendship with Spencer blinded him to his danger as a player.

More Than a Strategic Game

It was tougher to think about the game in the awful weather conditions. It was tougher to think about the game in the awful weather conditions.[/caption]

There’s so much to dissect from this week’s two hours, which set the stage for the game’s final run. Let’s start with the vicious weather, which reduced the cast to a shivering mess. Stephen’s #severegastrointestinaldistress left him sobbing while the rain continued to pour. The awful conditions were a painful reminder that Survivor can still decimate players. This definitely isn’t a relaxing cruise. Watching people suffer wasn’t great TV, but it raised the stakes and reminded us there’s more in this game than strategy. If the rain wasn’t so bad, more people than Keith would have competed against Joe in the challenge. Jeff may have called sitting out a potential “million dollar mistake”, but that undersells the severe physical and emotional impact of the conditions.

Another factor that’s important was each person’s chance to win immunity. Players like Stephen and Ciera didn’t really have a 10% chance of outlasting everyone. Joe was most likely to win given his three previous victories. This also isn’t the same as giving up a chance at immunity to eat peanut butter. There was a tangible long-term benefit for each player. In an extra scene, Tasha explained how important the better shelter was to help her think clearly. It wasn’t just about being a team player. With two weeks remaining in the game, few wanted to endure such misery. Individual comfort probably outweighed strategic considerations of being a team player for the tribe.

Keith was the only player to battle Joe.

Keith was the only player to battle Joe.

It was still surprising to see only two players compete in the challenge. Joe’s choice was a no brainer; it’s hard to argue (despite Stephen’s exit) with his assertion that not having immunity would mean his end. Joe has pinned himself into the corner where winning is nearly essential. He wouldn’t gain enough by being a nicer guy. This also wasn’t on the same level as Mike Holloway’s auction move. Joe was choosing to play the game in front of him. He also probably expected that at least five others would skip the challenge. Keith’s decision makes sense given his style of play. He’s a straightforward guy and has a direct strategy. Keith is tough and seems more capable of dealing with harsh conditions than some of his younger tribe mates.

Jeremy vs. Spencer

Ciera was the victim of the idol, but the week’s real conflict was between Jeremy and Spencer prior to Tribal Council. It wasn’t a direct rift but was more about competing game philosophies. Despite following the plan to remove Kelly, Spencer was ready to target Stephen. The advantage was a huge question mark, and Stephen represented a strategic threat. Jeremy had protected his closest ally by convincing Savage not to go after Stephen, but this situation was different. Few beyond Jeremy trusted Stephen, and the vote stealer was an easy reason to target him.

Jeremy made a strong move to protect Stephen but has a lot more work to do.

Jeremy made a strong move to protect Stephen but has a lot more work to do.

Following last week’s vote, Jeremy hoped the voting bloc trends would allow him to reteam with his former allies to take out Ciera. The problem was convincing them she was a real threat. Spencer made a direct case that Stephen was too close to Kimmi, which was news to us. With Joe and the three women on board, the numbers made it an easy sell to get Tasha and Keith. Neither had been part of Stephen’s plan to remove Kelly either. The interesting part is that Kimmi was the alternate to protect against the idol. Jeremy seems like the logical choice, but he must have convinced the majority he was with them.

Watching Jeremy and Spencer debate the vote revealed an interesting change-up between the allies. The balance of power has shifted towards Spencer based on this week’s two votes. Jeremy has been a leader in the Bayon group and formed solid relationships across the board. Even so, he wasn’t able to make the case either time. The idol helped Jeremy control the vote, but it didn’t make the difference later with Stephen’s exit. In fact, that Tribal Council’s votes indicate that he wasn’t aware the others weren’t with him. Spencer’s edit has focused on building relationships, and that strategy appears to have paid off during the latest votes.

Using the Shield

Jeremy started this game by talking about the need for shields like Joe and Savage to protect him. It’s worked so far, and he hasn’t been a target. On the other hand, Spencer nearly went home several times and didn’t sneak up on anyone. Somewhere down the line, people forgot about Spencer. He seemed less threatening because of his limited power. The obvious vote was Joe after his loss to Spencer in the immunity challenge, but that scenario also revealed an opportunity to remove a different target. Stephen also felt destined for an early exit but had gained influence by connecting with solid allies. Joe became a different kind of shield for Spencer’s plans. Spencer talked in an extra scene about his confidence after that win, and it certainly encouraged him to avoid the easy route.

Spencer overcame the weather to take charge.

Spencer overcame the weather to take charge.

Defeating Joe did more for Spencer than open the door for new plans. It also gave him hope that he could beat Joe again. Defeating the unstoppable juggernaut didn’t seem so impossible. Why not stick with him and take the chance? There are five challenges remaining, and it shouldn’t be hard to convince the group to remove Joe down the road. There is some risk in letting a challenge beast remain. Mike Holloway is the perfect example, though no one realized he was so good until it was too late. If Joe wins the remaining immunities and takes the million, Spencer will look at this moment as the point where he lost the game.

The classic storytelling reward challenge at night was a great touch, particularly for old-school fans. I’m sure that Stephen was losing his mind after he edged out Spencer. The loss didn’t seal his fate, but it didn’t help. Choosing Jeremy was a no brainer, and picking Tasha made sense. She had voted against Stephen with the majority in the last Tribal Council. Unfortunately, it gave him little chance to re-connect with Spencer. The picks were fine, but being away from camp was bad timing. He needed to do more than repair his bond with one ally. We saw Joe and Spencer fishing together, and I expect their discussions weren’t just about what they caught.

The Small Move

We’ve heard quite a lot about big moves this season, and the biggest proponent was Ciera. In her Ponderosa video, she spoke about pushing the others to act. That feels like a stretch, and we’ve seen plenty of examples where the showy moves failed. Malcolm’s daring choice to take out Phillip in the Caramoan was great TV, but it didn’t help his game. Will Jeremy’s play to save Stephen fall into a similar category? Protecting allies with the idol can work, and it’s great theater for the jury. Natalie Anderson’s move to save Jaclyn seemed bigger than it was and sold the idea she was a player. Jeremy won’t have a problem selling his game if he makes the end. It was a big move, but it might be less effective than other smaller moves.

Stephen took a real shot at taking out Joe, and I'm sad to see him go.

Stephen took a real shot at taking out Joe, and I’m sad to see him go.

In a fluid game without large alliances, there’s a risk in only thinking about the current move. Jeremy played the idol and hoped he could rally the majority back to him and Stephen before the next vote. Instead, he could only grab Tasha and still faced a 5-4 disadvantage. There are several positive signs for Jeremy, however. He still has an idol that no one suspects, and few would guess he originally had two idols. Playing one made it feel even less likely that he could have another. He’s also rarely been discussed as a potential target. Ciera made the pitch during a reward, but it fell on deaf ears. Despite losing Stephen, Jeremy still has room to maneuver. If he makes the right small moves and builds new connections, he could make a serious run to the end.

A Numbers Loophole

It’s easy to criticize Stephen’s choice to split the votes, which nullified his advantage and cost him the game. Even without Spencer, he could have grabbed a 5-4 edge and joined Jeremy, Tasha, and Kimmi to vote out Joe. Instead, he departed by an odd 4-3-2 deficit. Voting twice for Abi would have gotten Stephen to 4-4, but that would make little sense. She wasn’t the target. The odd part about these numbers is that Stephen must have trusted others like Abi and Keith. If Spencer had voted for Joe, it would have evened the numbers at 3-3-3. While Stephen would then expect to prevail 4-2 in a second vote, that seems overly complicated.

If I can point to a mistake, it’s having sketchier allies set to vote for Joe. Why not at least have Jeremy, Kimmi, and two from himself vote for Joe? Everything feels too cute and the result of overthinking. What Stephen couldn’t know is that Kelley and Jeremy possessed the two idols. It seems dumber because we have more information. We’ve seen two players leave because of idols when a split vote was possible. By that logic, it made sense to risk it falling apart. Trusting Spencer was the mistake, and splitting the vote just gave him the opportunity to strike.

Who’s in the best position?

Kelley has been great at making new allies.

Kelley has been great at making new allies.

Kelley: Ciera’s departure makes Kelley seem less threatening once again. Playing the idol put her on the radar, but there are still bigger threats remaining. Keeping Joe makes sense for Kelley, who’s never been part of a large alliance. She’s a free agent who will go where the tide shifts. Finding the idol clue was random chance, and having another idol gives her a huge trump card. Who would suspect lightning to strike twice? Kelley’s voted with the group twice in a row, so she may not need the idol in the near future. She’s poised for a serious run to the finish.

Spencer: Varner and Savage were right to target Spencer. Like Kelley, he’s found a way to move between groups without building his profile. He’s formed solid connections with Tasha, Joe, and others. Voting out Stephen is his biggest move, but it means he’ll have little room to hide. Jeremy has an idol, and he might target Spencer if they don’t re-connect. Tasha also may feel betrayed, and she was clear there was only one mulligan. Even so, Spencer has been very resilient so far and should have enough allies to weather the storm.

Who’s in trouble?

Tasha will need the fierce  determination she showed in the challenge.

Tasha will need the fierce determination she showed in the challenge.

Tasha: Despite voting for Stephen in this week’s first Tribal Council, Tasha joined her former allies to go after Joe. This decision made sense given the threat from Joe but could hurt her chances. If Spencer wants to weaken Jeremy but not confront him directly, he could target an ally. Tasha is a fierce competitor and more dangerous than Kimmi. She is a legitimate threat on her own, and the connection to Jeremy makes her an easier sell. Tasha has shown the ability to adapt in the past, so she isn’t doomed. We saw her strategizing closely with Spencer, and their Cagayan past makes it easier. Tasha needs to quickly work to form new bonds or risk getting stuck in the minority. The current fluid game means the opportunity is still there.

Joe: If any group of players was going to let Joe off the hook, it was this group. He shouldn’t feel too confident, however. Spencer proved that Joe was beatable, and I wouldn’t be shocked if that win has a ripple effect. Joe still has little power in the game; he relied on others to save him by targeting Stephen. He made the family visit this time, but I don’t expect him to go much further. He’s a valuable shield for a time but is still too strong at challenges to keep around. If he loses again, Joe should be heading to Ponderosa.

We’re down to eight players, and I’d separate them into three tiers. Abi and Kimmi have little chance of winning but could make the end. Tasha, Keith, and Joe have better prospects and could make the case; however, the edit hasn’t really helped them. Jeremy, Kelley, and Spencer sit in the top group with the highest probability of winning. I don’t expect all to make it, however. In fact, there’s a chance that any could go home next week. The idol makes that less likely in two cases. Since they’ve kept the idol a mystery, Jeremy and Kelley could play a huge role in determining the next steps in the game. Despite the loss of Stephen, this was another thrilling week. Survivor is hitting on all cylinders this season, and I don’t expect that to change.

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