Survivor Kaoh Rong

The Survivor Strategic Game: The Cloud of Doom

Welcome back! It’s time for another Survivor season, and this one felt very different right from the start. Following the tornado of strategy in Second Chances, we’re back to a more standard beginning. That doesn’t necessarily mean this version is worse, however. One of the real thrills in each premiere is learning how new players will approach the game. They can make a convincing case in pre-game videos, but that doesn’t mean they can execute a strategy. A guy like Jason may want to be Russell Hantz, but following his path (foolhardy or not) is more difficult. The opener’s 90-minute running time gave us breathing room to meet the cast and assess their spots. We’ve only glimpsed many of them, but it’s already clear who could run the show.

Before diving into the strategy, I must address the dark cloud that’s hanging over this season. CBS and Jeff Probst have repeatedly hyped just how tough the conditions were for these players. Given how brutal the heat looked in the premiere, it’s clear this wasn’t just a way to promote the season. Even so, building a theme around the environment can distract from the rest of the game. Every time the camera ominously showed a player chopping a branch or walking near rocks, I braced myself for an injury. When Tai climbed a tree, I expected a Woo-like fall. Watching people suffer doesn’t create great TV if it’s constant each week. While Jennifer screamed in pain with a creepy bug inside her ear straight out of Star Trek II, I wanted someone in medical to appear and help. I wasn’t hoping she’d be pulled but did find it quite uncomfortable to watch.

This reluctance shouldn’t take away from the achievements of the players who endured this ordeal, though. The survivors who avoid this devastation will deserve serious credit for overcoming the heat, nasty bugs, and other risks that seem more difficult this time. In his introduction, Jeff called Kaoh Rong the “most grueling 39 days in Survivor history”. It’s his job to frame the narrative, and that makes me nervous. Injuries on Survivor can lead to stunning drama, but seeing them happen repeatedly might become too much. The music and camera work pushed the ominous atmosphere to nearly absurd levels this week. I’m hoping that the editors pull back a little as we move further into the season. There are certainly more dangers to come, but building the season’s theme too much could dominate the rest of the game if they aren’t careful.

The Return of a Familiar Theme

Now that I’ve addressed the scythe looming over this cast, let’s get to the fun! The Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty concept has returned just two years after the highly successful Cagayan season. Worlds Apart also gave us a close variation on this three-tribe format last spring, which makes this theme very familiar. Can Brawn dominate once again? Will the Brains self-destruct and become Luzon 2.0? Can the Beauty tribe prove they’re more than pretty faces? These were the questions just waiting to be answered once again. Despite some comments from players about the tribes, there wasn’t as much emphasis this time around. The labels gave them a way to talk about their backstories, but it wasn’t pushed as hard after the intros.

The Brawn tribe in Survivor 32, Kaoh Rong. Unlike in Cagayan, the Brawn tribe was not ready to dominate at the start.[/caption]

The Brawn tribe seemed most interested in their title, which made sense given the focus on physical skills in the early game. It was no surprise that the two players up for elimination were the smallest ones in the group. Guys like Scot and Jason can look at each other in a second and not wonder about their strength. This approach wasn’t that different on the Brains, where the older players were immediately separated as weaker. In that case, it felt more like a personality split because of Debbie’s quirks and Joe’s quiet demeanor (and age). Beauty was quickly split by gender — an easy way to go in a six-person tribe. The ages of the three women also played a factor in their bond. Anna might be seven years older than Julia, but their personalities seemed to be on the same plane.

One refreshing part of the premiere was the lack of attention on strategy during the first act. This may sound weird in a blog focused on strategy, but I enjoy just watching people get to know each other. Making fire, building a shelter, and chasing down chickens is all part of the Survivor experience. It’s also good to give the audience a chance to get their bearings instead of just diving into the game. Tai Trang has a fascinating backstory unrelated to his status on his tribe. A big downside in losing Darnell so quickly was not getting the chance to learn much about him. He’s an interesting guy and deserved better than being the first boot.

Seizing Control

It was sad to watch Darnell go home first, particularly when the reason was losing the mask in the challenge. I doubt the situation was that simple, however. Few could make the case that Alecia did any better in the challenge. There was definitely more involved with the choice to break the tie against Darnell. Scot appeared most convinced that losing the mask was a deal breaker, and I believe that was his primary reason for voting for Darnell. I don’t believe Scot’s really running the show, however.

Alecia may have survived the vote because she's considered less of a threat.

Alecia may have survived the vote because she’s considered less of a threat.

Jason cited Russell as a model in his bio, and removing the bigger threat seems to follow that playbook. You can tell from Jason’s intro video that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s a character and will stand out, but this game is serious business. Jason might call Alecia “Blondie” and give her little credit, and that’s because he doesn’t believe she can hurt him. I have no doubts he was thrilled with the end result. Jason did vote for “Alichia” originally and possibly changed his vote at Tribal, but the result benefits him.

In his exit interview with Rob, Darnell confirmed that he believed Jason’s vote was strategic. He also didn’t trust Jason, and the lack of a connection between them made it easier. Darnell bonded immediately with Cydney, and a pair is dangerous on such a small tribe. If Alecia had gone home, it would only take Jennifer to turn the table against Jason and Scot. Darnell was a fulcrum who might dramatically change the power on Brawn. He’s a likable guy who won’t make enemies, so taking him out made sense for the leaders.

I don’t believe that Cydney or Jennifer will be thrilled to align with Alecia in the future. She’s still the obvious next target and unlikely to revolt against the guys. Darnell was a stand-up guy and wore his heart on his sleeve, and we saw at Tribal Council how his story connected with Jennifer. Can Alecia make a similar case? Jason and Scot have the power, and the NBA giant is the figurehead. That doesn’t mean Scot has no influence, but he’s more vulnerable to an uprising than Jason. The way that he talked down to Alecia showed the directness of his game. A smart player can exploit that type of confidence, which makes Scot vulnerable to a blindside.

When the cast was announced, Alecia stood out as the question mark on Brawn. In our bloggers’ preview, I wondered if she’d actually last a while because she wasn’t a threat. That status helped her this week, but making the merge feels like a long shot at this point. Alecia struggled at the puzzle and seemed overwhelmed by the entire situation. She overcompensated by calling herself a “mental giant” and listing off her accomplishments in life to the camera. The editors had great fun at her expense and even showed her trying to write her vote without removing the cap. Alecia may be fearless in her everyday life, but we saw little of that fire this week.

Cydney may be a better player than I expected.

Cydney may be a better player than I expected.

The question going forward on Brawn is how close Jennifer and Cydney feel to Scot and Jason. The tie vote was probably just to protect against the idol; no one seemed surprised by it. Even so, Jennifer and Cydney didn’t seem happy to vote out Darnell. They may be part of the majority alliance, but I don’t sense a long-term commitment. If the tribe swap puts them with the right people, either could jump ship. The pre-game videos did not portray Cydney accurately. The longer introduction that’s now available gives a better look at her personality. Cydney seemed down-to-earth and likable and didn’t lose her cool too much at Tribal Council. Her chances seem much better now that we’ve seen her respond well to adversity.

Not Another Luzon

Few things were more refreshing than watching the Brains demolish the competition in the challenge. They held their own in the physical parts, and then Aubry and Liz dominated the puzzle. It was a little surprising to see Debbie (who claimed that puzzles “lie down for me like lovers” ) not on it, but it was a wise choice. For the most part, this tribe was quite functional. Neil seemed less awkward than in his intro and bonded quickly with Liz, Peter, and Aubry. It wasn’t a surprise to see this 4-2 split by age, especially after observing Debbie’s behavior. She cited Coach as a model in her bio, and her lack of self-awareness definitely reached Coach 1.0 levels. Few things bond a group together more than complaining about a crazy fellow tribe member.

Debbie Wanner of Survivor 32, Kaoh Rong

Debbie seems most likely to be the victim if the Brains go to Tribal Council anytime soon.

Debbie is strong and could bring a lot to the table for the Brains, but being stubborn and giving orders rarely works. She spoke about seeing “such a void in leadership everywhere” in her intro video, and that raises a big red flag about her behavior. A guy like Peter is not going to take her seriously for a second. His biggest concern was keeping his amazing intelligence to himself, so he has other things on his mind. Debbie’s attempts to boss around the other Brains just made them resent her. She already has a big target on her back due to her age, and taking the wrong approach will make it easy for the others to vote for her.

I’m hopeful that Joe can separate himself from Debbie and make connections with the younger players. Despite being much older at 72, he’s using a better style and being patient. His best hope is that they continue to avoid Tribal Council for as long as possible. Debbie is the likely first boot, but his age will be a factor in the team game. Joe does seem like a serious guy, so he’ll need to ensure the others are able to connect with him. If he can avoid the vote until at least a swap, he may be able to hide in the background as the big threats become targets. Joe has an intriguing background, and I hope that he sticks around for a while.

One concern for this tribe is Aubry’s physical condition, which might resurface given the extremely hot weather. Liz called her struggles an anxiety attack, and that may be partially true. This moment did feel similar to Boston Rob’s case of “Cry-Baby-Itis in Heroes vs. Villains. The stress and excitement of being on Survivor (especially for a superfan) can take its toll on a person’s body. I’d probably lose my mind on the first day if I was on the show. Aubry was the challenge superstar for the Brains and might have more physical game than we’d expect. I’m rooting for her to do well, so it was a relief to see her recover so quickly. She has solid allies but must be careful to risk becoming a drain at camp. I’m optimistic about Aubry, but it will be a situation to monitor given the harsh environment.

Chickens, Trees, and Idols, Oh Tai!

The headlines from the Beauty tribe were a women’s alliance and the up-and-down saga of Tai Trang. Caleb and Nick were all business in setting up the shelter, which gave Anna, Julia, and Michele the chance to work together. This wasn’t the worst idea, and the real question was who should join them. Tai seemed like the right choice compared the alpha guys. His back story was fascinating, and I hope we get a chance to learn more. Unfortunately, Tai quickly jeopardized this chance through obvious idol hunting. The scene where Nick and Anna confronted Tai was comic gold and showed that he may not be ready to dominate. Tai was quite open about the search, which probably didn’t matter since there was little doubt in the others’ minds.

Tai Trang of the Beauty tribe in Survivor 32, Kaoh Rong

Tai Trang was so much fun in the premiere, but he may be in trouble.

Tai could become the Jeff Varner of this season. He’s entertaining and friendly but also a pretty obvious early boot. He can develop inventive ways to help the chickens but isn’t entirely friendly to nature. I loved seeing Tai rip trees out of the ground after being upset about Caleb slashing one. To be fair, his theory about the idol’s location wasn’t terrible. His timing could use some work, however. It’s hard to say too much about the other guys so far. Nick did grab the narrator role for his tribe, which makes sense for a former RHAP blogger. It isn’t clear who his allies really are so far, however. One of Nick’s main themes as a writer was that a majority of every cast has no chance to win Survivor. It isn’t clear yet if he belongs in that group.

The other question mark in this group is Caleb, who performed aerial feats during the marooning right from the start. I was hoping we didn’t have a medevac before the tribes reached the beach! Caleb’s strategy appears to involve keeping a low profile, which is similar to what Hayden did in the pre-merge game in Blood vs. Water. Julia’s realization that Caleb was on Big Brother didn’t seem to hurt his chances, either. I expect that most of the Beauty tribe will be around for a long time, and I’m surprised to actually put Caleb into that group. In his intro video, he focuses on just working hard. That isn’t a terrible idea on his small tribe.

Both Nick and Caleb should be a little nervous about the women’s alliance, however. While that prospect rarely ever happens on Survivor, this may be an exception. The question is who’s really in charge of that trio. Anna and Julia had a giddy moment of bonding, but Michele seems like the sharpest player. Assuming that Tai is the first person out from this tribe, all it takes is one woman to decide she’d rather play with the guys. I don’t see Nick going out quietly if he realizes he’s on the outs. He should stay close to Caleb, who’s unlikely to keep a secret well.

The Hard Road Ahead

It’s time for me to answer the tough questions about this season’s cast following the premiere. These answers could change dramatically each week, so it’s based on what I know at this point. Also, I’m trying not to consider who’s most likely to get injured. Jennifer’s grisly situation reminded us that anyone could be in danger this season. I’m just happy that my winner pick Michele seems primed for a good showing. There’s still quite a long way to go, however. I’ve made one selection from each tribe for the two questions.

Who’s in the best position?

Michele Fitzgerald of Survivor 32, Kaoh Rong

The Beauty tribe looks strong, and Michele is set up in a great spot right in the middle.

Michele: This was the toughest choice since it’s unclear who’s really in charge at Beauty. Michele stood out because she was less manic than Anna or Julia. She’s only 24 yet seemed less overwhelmed by the situation. I expect Michele to play the middle and vote with the numbers for a while. Although they barely avoided Tribal Council this week, the Beauty tribe should do well in challenges. That’s good news for Michele, who won’t stand out as a prime threat at a tribe swap. She shouldn’t over play unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Liz: After seeing Liz’s pre-game video, I wondered if she was entering the game with too much confidence. Judging by the first episode, she played it just right. Liz volunteered for the puzzle and shined with Aubry. She also built a solid alliance with Neil, Peter, and Aubry. Even if that group doesn’t stick together, I doubt Liz would be the target. She looks to have solid relationships across the board and the right skill set to go far.

Jason: The others should watch out for Jason. He’s here to play and doesn’t seem conflicted about moral questions. Jason’s alliance with Scot was a wise move; the big guy should be a valuable shield who will stand in front. Jason is set to be a standout character and might be a good player too. The warning sign is his arrogance, which was evident in not calling Alecia by her name. Jason believes he’s smarter than everyone else, and people may see through it eventually. He’ll need to form solid bonds so allies have his back when the tide shifts against him. I don’t see much danger for him on Brawn until a swap and possibly even further.

Who’s in trouble?

Tai: We’ve now entered the obvious part of these answers. All three choices stand out as the likely outsiders. Tai has the best chance of rebounding from being caught looking for the idol. Memories are short on Survivor, so he could regain their trust. The challenge for Tai is not being identified as a weak link. If the three women stick together, they may just decide to keep Caleb and Nick for challenge strength. Tai is definitely strong and agile, but he still might not escape the perception. The others won’t see him as just a kind older man anymore. Tai has some work to do and would really benefit from avoiding Tribal Council for at least another episode or two.

Debbie: I had my doubts about Debbie going into this season, but even those concerns underestimated her odd behavior. It’s never wise to come across as the crazy older woman on Survivor. She has the physical strength to avoid that stigma but seems lost in the social game. There are few cases in this world where people want to hear someone excessively talk up their accomplishments. Neil doesn’t care that Debbie is a fire expert; he just wants her to make fire! Judging by next week’s preview, I don’t believe Debbie will get the memo. She feels like the definite first person going home from the Brains barring an injury.

Alecia Holden of Survivor 32, Kaoh Rong

Alecia was all smiles when the Brawn tribe reached the beach, but her joy may be short-lived .

Alecia: The tie vote revealed that Alecia’s tribe members had no concerns about her leaving the game. This is a really bad sign for her immediate prospects. A results-oriented guy like Scot won’t forget that she didn’t perform well in the challenge. There also seems to be a personality disconnect between Alecia and the other women on Brawn. Anything could happen, but it would take a coup directed at a power player to save her game. I wouldn’t put it past Jason to try to gain control using Alecia, but it feels too early at this point.

Jennifer’s Ears: She seems like a good player who’s building solid relationships, but Jennifer must protect her ears. Word travels fast among the bugs in Cambodia! I refused to use the CBS photo with a close-up of the invader leaving her ear. I’d prefer not to spend too much time thinking about that awful experience.

This was a solid premiere with an interesting cast though it was really sad to lose a potentially engaging player in Darnell. The serious hype on the bad conditions makes me wonder if we’re going to lose other potentially big characters in the pre-merge game. Have the producers decided they need a different hook because the strategy isn’t there? I’m not ready to believe that theory, but it has been a really weird pre-game set-up for this season. It’s like they remember what happened with Vanuatu and Nicaragua and are trying to avoid that scenario. I still have high hopes for this group and can’t wait to see what happens. I just hope the injuries don’t distract us from the rest of the game.

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