Survivor: Cambodia

The Survivor Strategic Game: New School

A recurring theme of this season has been a new evolution of Survivor strategy. Stephen has become the mouthpiece for the idea that the game has changed significantly this time. While it’s definitely a faster game that its original formula, I’m not convinced we’re in unprecedented territory. The concept of smaller, fluid voting blocs has appeared in the past. We can look no further than the way that Rob played in the Amazon’s post-merge game for an example. There was no dominant alliance that ran the show in that season. Tony went even further in Cagayan and recruited different groups to remove his targets. The comparisons aren’t identical to this season, but they show how we might not be in such unparalleled territory.

What’s been different this time is the consistency of the switch-ups. They started right from the beginning and haven’t really subsided. Varner joined Shirin and Spencer to vote out Vytas and then switched to the other side in the following week. Abi-Maria joined Savage and Tasha and then turned around and voted for Woo. Most players aren’t staying with alliances, and those that do are paying the price. Small groups are sticking together, but there’s less pressure to stick with one group. Still, these trends don’t signify a brand new game. Instead, they feel like the next logical progression. When you add returning players to the mix with more to prove, it just enhances the motivation to act before it’s too late.

A more aggressive post-merge game benefits players like Ciera and Kelley. A more aggressive post-merge game benefits players like Ciera and Kelley.[/caption]

We’ve seen many players this season talk about not falling prey to the errors of the past. Stephen wants to control his fate and not hide behind a larger threat. Jeremy hopes to avoid the spotlight by keeping big players in the game. Ciera is even more driven to make big moves after waiting too long in her first game. Restricting the cast to one-time players has created a situation where everyone feels like it’s their last shot. Some have spent years hoping for another chance. This desire helps remove the fear of betraying an alliance. This could inspire them to act too soon, but few want to look back and realize they missed an opportunity.

Another major factor in this change is having two swaps and an early merge. Most players spent only short chunks of time together. It’s no coincidence that Jeremy and Stephen have played the entire game with each other. This was also true of Ciera and Kass, who developed a close bond over the full game. The producers helped to create this new strategy, and it was hardly inadvertent. Mixing the tribes frequently helps to avoid predictable votes. It also creates more of a free-agent mentality because there’s little common ground. I expect this will become the norm in future seasons. The edit now focuses on strategy, and the game’s twists support that approach.

An Old-School Symbol

Kelly Wiglesworth was a baffling player who didn’t benefit from the lack of screen time. She talked about the long gap since her first appearance but lacked a clear narrative. The editors clearly decided there wasn’t enough to warrant more attention. It’s unfortunate to not have a better picture of Kelly’s game. Her exit interview with Rob revealed that the game was important to her, and Kelly tried to play under the radar. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy, which has served others well. It’s tough to discern more because of how the show portrayed her. Kelly seemed more like a symbol than a real contestant. Having someone from the first season was important, but her role played more into the “evolution of the game” theme than anything else.

In her final words, Kelly gave the typical response that she was voted out for being too big a threat. The edit gave us little evidence that she was playing such a good game. She voted on the wrong side of the numbers several times and didn’t have a clear strategy. Even so, Stephen made the successful case that Kelly was a threat to win. The question is whether that perception related to her actual game or her status from Borneo. Kelly didn’t make waves and seemed friendly, and being likable is crucial at the end. She talked with Josh Wigler in her exit interview about avoiding the drama, and that is a solid plan. Even so, that doesn’t seem important enough to warrant Stephen’s daring move. He risked angering four players to remove Kelly from the mix.

Kelly's bond with Joe made her a bigger target for Stephen.

Kelly’s bond with Joe made her a bigger target.

Another factor in Kelly’s exit was her connection to Joe. She even referenced that bond during her final words. The editors caught a brilliant shot of Joe and Kelly sitting on the beach. They both sat in the exact same position and had identical hair. It’s a hilarious image but also reminded us of the connection between them. Both play straightforward games that focus on challenges and physical skills. They also were considered threats because they aren’t great strategists. Joe has made attempts to change his approach, but he’s still focused on immunity wins. Kelly was a loyal ally for Joe and worth taking out since he wasn’t on the table. In the words of the Operative, if your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to.

Grabbing an Edge

It’s no coincidence that two players who made a move this week both had grabbed advantages. Jeremy found his second idol hanging from a lantern in the dead of night. It’s remarkable that he’s been able to grab two idols without anyone realizing it. He did benefit this time by realizing how the clues were hidden. The others were mostly just taking shots in the dark. It feels a little unfair for Jeremy to have a huge edge, but he did have to sneak out to grab it. Thankfully, we aren’t in Tyler Perry idol territory. The votes will come Jeremy’s way eventually; he’s too big a target. He may need both idols to have a shot at the million.

Stephen will need to step up his social game to capitalize on his advantage.

Stephen will need to step up his social game to capitalize on his advantage.

Even more intriguing was Stephen gaining the ability to steal a vote at Tribal Council. His quick thinking at the immunity challenge won him a narrow victory over Spencer. The choice made sense for Stephen, who wasn’t going to outlast everyone. I was surprised to only see two make the attempt, but it was futile once they hesitated. After struggling mightily at many challenges, Stephen had to gain confidence from this small win. The downside is the increased target going forward. Everyone knows he has the advantage, and they may vote for him just to remove it. Dan Foley learned how this mysterious benefit can be a double-edged sword.

How valuable is this advantage? It does give Stephen more power than Dan had last season. Instead of just being able to add a vote, Stephen can remove another one. If played correctly, that gives him the ability to swing the numbers more significantly. For example, let’s assume that Stephen is facing a 5-4 disadvantage in the final nine. An extra vote just allows him to even the score at 5-5. With this power, he can actually flip the numbers and create a 5-4 scenario in his favor. The real trick is knowing exactly where the votes are going. That’s quite a feat. Stephen’s best chance may be to use this power in a split-vote situation. He’d be more likely to know where the votes are and wouldn’t need a huge shift to change his fate.

The Fallout

Much of this episode (including the title) focused on the “witches’ coven” of Kelley, Ciera, and Abi who started in the minority alliance. While I wasn’t a huge fan of people repeatedly calling them witches, it created an interesting dichotomy between “stay the course” and “make big moves” philosophies. It made sense for Ciera to push the others to make a move; a change would keep her game alive. On the other hand, was it good for Stephen, Jeremy, and Spencer? That’s a tougher question, and the answer won’t be clear until the end. Will the three women stick with their new allies or look for a better deal? I doubt they’ll go quietly into the night.

It will be interesting to see if Tasha will work with Stephen and Jeremy again.

It will be interesting to see if Tasha will work with Stephen and Jeremy again.

Building a new coalition made sense for Stephen; he recognized that he wasn’t a top ally for people like Joe and Keith. He’d prefer to grab more power while retaining players he can trust like Jeremy and Spencer. Stephen also seems comfortable playing with Ciera and Kelley. They have a similar mindset about the game and want to make things happen. You can’t say the same thing about Kimmi and Keith, who seem content to just vote out the easiest option. We’ve seen Stephen talking to Tasha about plans, and she helped make the case to keep him last week. It isn’t clear who she’ll really blame for betraying her trust. Will she still work with Stephen again?

I’m not convinced removing Kelly served Jeremy’s plans. He’s in a good spot because he found the idol but remains a prime target. Ciera spoke this week about Jeremy being a threat. Smart players won’t let Jeremy reach the final Tribal Council. If Joe wins immunity, he should pitch Kelley and Ciera on going after Jeremy. He was blindsided by Kelly’s exit and shouldn’t feel any loyalty now. Only Stephen and Spencer would probably oppose it. This prospect reveals the new danger for Jeremy, who can’t sell the “Bayon strong” idea anymore. He’ll need to keep forming new voting blocs or be forced to use his idols in the near future.

Did Jeremy hurt his game by voting out Kelly?

Did Jeremy hurt his game by voting out Kelly?

Giving all the unknowns on the horizon, choosing which players occupy the best position is very difficult. Despite his successes this week, Jeremy could have torpedoed his game. The “coven” found new allies, but they’re still considered dangerous players. Kelley, in particular, stands out because of her idol play last week. The blindsided group of four could bond over their anger about the latest betrayal. It wouldn’t take much to flip the script again. With these challenges in mind, I’ve taken my best shot at sifting through the unknowns.

Who’s in the best position?

Spencer: Unlike Jeremy, Spencer has played a more fluid game. He scrambled to survive on all three of his pre-merge tribes, but that doesn’t mean he’s doomed. Spencer has found a comfort zone where he’s supporting the majority but isn’t leading the charge. He’s performed well at several challenges but hasn’t built a huge target because of Joe. Spencer raised the right concerns about Stephen’s plan, but he stuck but his allies. I doubt he’ll get blamed for Kelley’s exit, and there may be opportunities for him with any new voting bloc. The other players won’t forget about Spencer, but there are more imposing options right now.

Stephen: I have mixed feelings about this pick and nearly put Jeremy here. Getting the advantage could be Stephen’s undoing if he doesn’t play it right. He also stuck out his neck to remove Kelly. Even so, I don’t feel like Stephen will become public enemy number one. First of all, people expect him to scheme and make moves. Joe pointed out this fact last week in targeting Stephen. He hasn’t acted like the perfect guy who respects the honor of the game. Stephen also isn’t a challenge threat, so he can still turn the tables on Joe when (if?) he loses. There are dangerous waters ahead for Stephen, but I think he can navigate them.

Who’s in trouble?

Kimmi: This choice is more about flexibility than the others’ perception of Kimmi. She has developed good bonds with some players. I’m not convinced that Kimmi can adapt her game to the current framework. She pushed for the most direct option and doesn’t seem willing to work with Ciera, Kelley, and Abi. Kimmi could be a useful ally in the right situation, but I have a feeling she won’t take kindly to Kelly’s blindside. If Kimmi can adjust her style, there’s still a chance she can make a big impact. The odds just aren’t as likely given her approach so far.

Joe has no margin for error.

Joe has no margin for error in challenges.

Joe: With each successive win, the legend of Joey Amazing continues to grow. He’s done a great job at challenges and has tried to stick with the numbers. Even so, it’s hard to believe that Joe could survive if he loses immunity. That gives him only a single path to the finals. It isn’t impossible to believe that Joe can win them all, but his odds are still pretty low. He didn’t find the idol, so there’s no exit strategy if he falters in even a single challenge.

This was a surprisingly direct episode in a season of surprises. The editors showed us Stephen’s plan and didn’t present the usual second option as a smokescreen. They showed Kelly’s direct game and gave a clear picture of what was coming. I doubt that will happen too many times in the future. Next week’s two-hour episode should clarify a lot of my questions about this group. Can Joe make it past Thanksgiving? Will Stephen use his advantage correctly? Has the game truly changed? I can’t wait to find out where this thrilling season is heading.

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