Survivor Kaoh Rong

The Survivor Strategic Game: The Basics

This is not a blog about how Jennifer lost the game at Tribal Council. I’ll definitely analyze what went wrong for a player who many picked to win this season. First, what’s really struck me thus far is the different feeling of this season’s first two episodes. I’m not sure that “old school” is the right way to describe the tone of Kaoh Rong. It’s still the modern game with three tribes, hidden immunity idols, and talk about big moves. Even so, we’ve really honed into the basics of the show’s formula at the start. Players are having fights about drinking water, struggling to start a fire, and making questionable bathroom choices. These examples show the more episodic look at camp life and the game thus far. It’s a fascinating change of pace.

The obvious reason for this shift is having a cast of new players, who are a sharp contrast from the seasoned vets of Second Chances. The returnees made errors, but most didn’t seem overwhelmed by the situation. It feels like this group has never seen the show, and that isn’t a criticism. Tai’s anxious enthusiasm while searching for the idol is everywhere. Returning players don’t stand up on the bench at Tribal Council unless they’re just trying to be good TV. Jennifer’s realization that she was heading home raised the nervousness to new heights. This fresh take on the game may not lead to brilliant strategy, but it feels genuine and is still intriguing.

Liz appears to be in control with Peter on Brains, but the conflict with Joe is risky. Liz appears to be in control with Peter on Brains, but the conflict with Joe is risky.[/caption]

On the Brains tribe, the conflict between Joe and Liz could have happened on Borneo. The comparisons to B.B.’s frustrations in that second episode are obvious. Survivor has changed quite a bit, yet its common themes never really disappear. When you put very different people on a tribe and deprive them, anything can happen. Joe is a disciplined guy who’s able to handle a lot, but this environment is not his comfort zone. Liz handles great responsibility in her job, but that’s a more familiar stress. Not having water can bring anyone to his/her breaking point; I get irritable when I don’t eat for three hours. These players are in uncharted territory.

This cast already is experiencing killer fatigue, and that adds to the rougher atmosphere. They don’t look like players who’ve been on the beach for six days. Who has time to discuss an innovative strategy when you’re facing sunburn, ear-chomping bugs, and massive dehydration? The conditions have forced everyone to play differently, and that fact changes the show.

One reason Tribal Council was so surprising was that we’d seen limited hints Jennifer was doomed. Starting a fire and getting water was more prevalent, especially on two tribes. The Beauty players almost look like they’re on a separate season. Nick described their difficulties in an extra scene, and they have the best situation. Winning challenges has given their scenes a lightness that’s missing on Brawn. Beauty was just around for comic relief this week.

Adjusting the Edit

Another factor in the change is a conscious decision by the editors to take a back-to-basics approach. I attributed last week’s slower pace to the 90-minute running time, but it was the same this week. We’re spending more time just hanging out at each beach without talk of alliances. Much of Second Chances felt chaotic and intense while Kaoh Rong is more of a slow grind. We aren’t seeing the massive thunderstorms (which apparently did happen) on the screen. Instead, the editors seem intent on fully presenting the brutality and boredom. You can basically feel the Cambodian heat simmering through the screen. What will this cast look like on day 30?

Last week, I discussed the cloud of doom that loomed over the premiere. That danger wasn’t as present during this episode; my mind has adjusted to the conditions. There were still fun scenes like Peter humoring Debbie into saying even more ridiculous things about her many skills. Debbie is definitely one of the standout characters, and it has nothing to do with her gameplay. The best players are probably staying quiet and out of the way. The editors are using a more episodic structure and just grabbing fun interludes. Tai’s quest for the idol turned into a bloody fight with a tree instead of a desperate move for survival in the game.

That doesn’t mean all the behavior is carefree and entertaining. Jason’s ugly comments about Alecia show the flipside of the tough conditions. He’s upset about his sunburn and their awful beach, and Alecia is the obvious target. Jason seems to know the strategic game, but he’s failing in the social game. He’s found a worthy ally in Scot, but I don’t get the sense there’s a real friendship beyond the game. The survivors of the Brawn tribe will be free agents ready to find new allies. I definitely get that sense from Cydney, who flipped on Jennifer very quickly.

Tai and Caleb in Survivor 32: Kaoh Rong

We spent more time on character moments like this one than with strategy this week.

A benefit of the slower pace is having the chance to understand a wide spectrum of players. Jennifer only lasted two episodes but made a real impression. The only exception is on Beauty, where Tai and Caleb grabbed the screen time this week. I have a feeling we’ll meet them all down the road. We’ve definitely escaped the days when Russell Hantz ruled the edit while others barely registered. It’s humanized the entire cast, even the sour Jason. We’re certainly in store for more physical and emotional turmoil, and I’m on board with this group. I don’t need a dry erase board to diagram the alliances, but there’s still plenty to digest in a different vein.

Shaping the Narrative

Digging even further, here’s an overview of the nine primary scenes from this episode:

  • Brawn: Alecia irritates her tribe after the vote.
  • Beauty: Tai searches for the hidden immunity idol.
  • Brains: Joe and Neal start the fire, and Debbie acts crazy.
  • Beauty: Tai and Caleb start a bromance
  • Brains: Joe and Liz battle over the fire.
  • Brawn: Alecia is an outsider but starts a fire.
  • The Immunity Challenge
  • Brawn: Jennifer plots a big move, and then changes her mind.
  • Tribal Council
The editors have allowed quite a few characters to stand out this season.

The editors have allowed quite a few characters to stand out this season.

I’ve listed these scenes to illustrate the lack of a single narrative in this episode. The title “Kindergarten Camp” relates to Joe’s frustrations with his younger tribe members. Two scenes explain that rift, which made me predict that the Brains would lose the challenge. Instead, these moments provided a likely set-up for events down the road. The scenes on Brawn focused mostly on Alecia’s redemptive story, but the beats weren’t super-obvious. I expected that the editors wanted to give Alecia a little screen time before her exit. Even when Jennifer started talking about an all-girl alliance, it seemed like a fake-out to keep us guessing.

This list also shows how the three-tribe format benefits the story. We spent time with each group and had a solid grasp of where they’re headed. The premiere gave us key information about the alliance on Beauty, so there was little need to provide an update. Instead, we saw odd yet endearing bonding with Caleb and Tai. These scenes might pay off in the vote, or they could just be for entertainment value. I’m fine with either scenario and don’t mind the shift away from constant strategy. It’s a fun counterpoint to the excitement in Second Chances.

Losing the Game

I’ll admit that I was more blindsided than Jennifer by this week’s result. Perhaps the laidback style made me expect a predictable ending? Regardless, this did feel like a case where a player in a good position destroyed her own game. On the surface, approaching Alecia and Cydney about an alliance made sense for Jennifer. She didn’t like the way Jason and Scot were treating Alecia and wanted a new plan. The risks did seem to outweigh the rewards, however. Darnell was last week’s victim because he was more threatening than Alecia. That example should have raised warning signs that Jason wouldn’t hesitate to remove another threat.

Jennifer's game was in trouble even before Tribal Council.

Jennifer’s game was already in trouble before Tribal Council.

The show made it seem like Jennifer’s mistake happened at Tribal Council, but it probably happened earlier. In her interview with Josh Wigler, Jennifer claimed that both Alecia and Cydney ratted her out to Jason that day at camp. This supports my feeling that she lost the game the moment she approached Alecia. Jennifer had a bad read on both of the other women and believed they’d want to take out Jason. Instead, Cydney and Alecia were opportunistic and saw the chance to adjust their spots. It wasn’t a terrible move for either of them.

I’m intrigued by the way that Cydney has approached the game. She formed a bond with Darnell and then voted against him and appeared close to Jennifer this time. I was surprised to discover that Scot voted against Alecia, though I expect he knew what was happening. Cydney is following the Kelley Wentworth game (from the future!) and ensuring she’s on the right side of the numbers. Voting out Jennifer also made sense for her short-term game. Alecia remains at the bottom, while Cydney moves up to #3 on the tribe. If she’d decided to vote out Alecia, Cydney was a likely target if Brawn lost another challenge. It isn’t clear if she ever really considered taking out Jason, though her confessionals seemed to indicate she was on board.

Alecia, Cydney, and Jennifer on the Brawn tribe

The plans for a women’s alliance on Brawn did not last for very long.

Alecia is a wild card and might surprise the guys if they aren’t careful. Anyone who spends five hours alone trying to make fire is quite resilient. She’s hardly a strategic mastermind based on her funny conversation with Jennifer. On the other hand, Alecia really pounced on Jennifer at Tribal Council. She told the truth and made sure Jason realized he was the target. Any doubts that he had were confirmed by Jennifer’s anxious behavior. Her final plea was a great TV moment, but the ship had sailed. I don’t see Alecia winning, but she’s definitely a tricky player who could torpedo anyone’s game. Jennifer learned that lesson the hard way.

Beauty Rules the Day

Based on the edit and their performances thus far, I’m skeptical Beauty will visit Tribal Council anytime soon. In a season with ugly conditions, building momentum and winning rewards becomes even more crucial. For that reason, I’m not including any Beauty tribe members as being in trouble. I also don’t believe anyone on Brawn is really in a great position. Jennifer’s exit makes it clear that anything could happen. Both Sarah and Scott picked her as the winner in our Bloggers’ Roundtable, which shows how unpredictable the results have been thus far. The editors aren’t tipping their hand nearly as much this season.

Who’s in the best position?

Peter: I may have misjudged Peter by comparing him to David Sampson originally. Watching him listen to Debbie’s ridiculous antics, I realized that he may be a contender. Peter is talking trash in confessionals, but he’s been on a good behavior at camp. Liz and Neal are clashing with Joe, which makes them vulnerable if anyone flips to the older duo. Peter also mentioned that he’d like to keep Debbie around, which shows an important understanding of the long game. In a secret scene, his comparison of Survivor to a big hospital mostly fits. He seems more mature than a guy wearing ice-cream pants and should have a better chance to connect with Joe.

Michele, Anna, and Julia are all smiles so far.

Michele, Anna, and Julia are all smiles so far.

Michele: We barely saw Michele or Anna this week, so my impressions are based more on the premiere. The dominant pre-merge tribe often falls apart in this type of season, but I don’t sense any Tandang-like dysfunction on Beauty. There’s no need to complicate the situation right now, and Michele appears to be enjoying the experience. Her only secret scene discussed the challenge, so I don’t have a great read on her game. She’s in a very good spot either way, and I’ve yet to see any warning signs.

Anna: The benefit for Anna over Michele is her alliance with Julia, which could pay dividends when the going gets tough. She’s in the middle of a solid group and should coast even if Beauty goes to Tribal Council. I still wonder if Anna will eventually overplay her hand (pun intended) and sabotage her own game. She has a good chance to do well, but she seems a bit more proud of herself than Michele. Anna should coast to the merge if she keeps the laidback attitude.

Who’s in trouble?

Debbie Wanner on Survivor 32: Kaoh Rong

Debbie needs to step back and work on relationships.

Debbie: There’s a part of me that believes Debbie’s crazy behavior may keep her in the game. On the other hand, she’s still the obvious victim if the Brains go to Tribal Council. She may be entertaining for a few minutes on TV, but that’s different than living with someone for 24 hours a day. It’s still unclear how tight the younger players are on the Brains tribe. In a six-person group, it doesn’t take much to change the dynamics. Even so, Debbie’s lack of self-awareness is still a crutch that could lead to her exit when they visit Jeff. In a secret scene, she spoke about her tribe enjoying her cheers during the challenge. I’m not convinced that’s really the case.

Joe: We saw a lot of grumpy Joe this week, and he can’t put himself in that position. Joe needs to find a way to bond with the younger players, or he could pass Debbie as the prime target. We’ve seen players like Mike Holloway battle their tribe and then do well, so Joe could be fine. He just needs to put on a good face and not reveal his frustrations so openly. Joe spoke in a secret scene about keeping his mouth shut, but I’m not sure he’s hiding his feelings as well as he thinks. Joe needs more allies than Debbie for when his tribe loses a challenge.

Alecia on Survivor 32: Kaoh Rong

Alecia showed her mettle but still has an uphill climb to survive the next Tribal Council.

Alecia: I’m not as convinced by this choice, but Alecia still appears to be at the bottom on Brawn. Kyle and Scot aren’t fans, and it would take a Jennifer-like mistake for Cydney to go first. Alecia’s best bet is that Brawn wins a few challenges and can reach the swap. She wouldn’t be the obvious target at that point, so it’s just about survival. It looks like Brawn will be hunting for the idol next week, so that’s another possible route to help her succeed.

An Intentional Matsing?

Looking ahead, the Brawn tribe appears to need challenge wins to stay afloat. On the other hand, those victories might not help individual players’ long-term success. It may be time for the Intentional Matsing. Let’s play this out and think about the next few weeks. I expect a swap to two tribes during episode 5. There will be 14 players left at that point, barring a medevac. That switch-up would create two tribes of seven, and we’d probably have two more episodes before the merge. If the Brawn tribe wins the next two challenges, they’re still facing an uphill battle since at least one tribe will have more players. Why not change the equation and not try to compete?

Admittedly, this strategy does not benefit all of the Brawn tribe. If they would decide to throw the next two challenges, Alecia and probably Cydney would be voted out of the game. It does benefit the remaining pair, however. Jason, in particular, should function better as a free agent than as part of a diminishing group. If he’s the lone Brawn player with three from the other two tribes, they’ll need him to gain an edge. There should be holes all over the place by that point. Players will also be itching to vote out their own after 12 days. This spot would be tougher for Scot, who can’t downplay his physical status. He’d need to really play hard to sell his value. Like Malcolm or Denise in the Philippines, Jason becomes less threatening without allies.

Going a step further, Jason should try to form a tighter bond with Cydney. She’s the better choice for the marriage of convenience in the Intentional Matsing. We’ve definitely entered fan-fiction territory here since we haven’t seen them working together much. Scot is the most obvious partner for Jason as the other Brawn guy, so executing this plan would be tough after the merge. People would expect them to work together again. Cydney and Jason might have better luck selling their loner status to their new tribes. They’re more imposing with a group of three or four heading into a tribe swap. There’s little danger coming from a few stragglers who survived constant defeat. The last two survivors can even cite their poor challenge play as a reason they aren’t a threat. There’s rarely been a better spot to execute the Intentional Matsing.

I don’t expect this scenario to play out, however. The editors have set up the split on the Brains for two weeks, and I doubt we’ll need to wait three more weeks to see it happen. I’m intrigued to watch these new players try to navigate the game’s complexities. Jennifer’s fate showed how little it takes to lose control. We may be in store for a very unpredictable season.

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