A Diplomatic View–Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
Since the beginning, the perception of gameplay in Survivor has changed several times. We’ve gone through periods where physical play was seen to be predominant, to where we’ve settled in today where social-strategic play is seen (rightfully) as a pre-eminent, winning, play-style. I personally have always been a fan of strategic players, but as I’ve watched the show over the years I’ve particularly come to focus on a diplomatic view of the game. It’s not just how you make decisions, and execute decisions, but small aspects of how you relate to the people around you can often have an outsized impact on the results of the game. The Diplomatic View focuses on that combination of social and strategic. It looks at why a season full of players run over by Boston Rob happily vote for him to win a million dollars, yet why Russell Hantz couldn’t win the game for love or money.
In that respect, Survivor has always reminded me of a game by Avalon Hill called “Diplomacy”, which was published in 1959. “Diplomacy”, unlike most other board games, has no dice, cards, spinners, or any other elements of random chance. Diplomacy takes 7 players, puts them each on a board representing Europe and starts them out on an even footing. Everyone is reaching for the same victory condition, domination of the continent, and they can only get there with the help of their fellow players. Each player starts with a small number of pieces and all moves come down to simple numbers– do more pieces support the move or stand against it?
The game is almost entirely about talking to your fellow players, with small periods in between negotiating blocks where orders are read and executed. A typical game can last 4 – 12 hours, during which players will form, and dissolve, countless alliances until one player emerges as the victor. If “Diplomacy” had an immunity idol, monsoons, and a host in a blue shirt, you’d have a fairly typical season of Survivor in miniature. Just like the game of Survivor, how you’ve treated your fellow players can be the determining factor for which side of a devastating blindside you find yourself.
I’m thrilled to have been invited to join Rob’s site for this season, as I imagine we will have a lot to talk about with the intersection of the disparate worldviews of Millennials and Gen X’ers (confession I’m a Gen X’er myself, born in 1972). Each week, I’ll be looking at both how players are executing their strategic decisions, how relationships are forming on the tribes, and the diplomatic mistakes that seem certain to doom players’ games.
The first episode of the season is always a pressure cooker for the castaways, as they finally get to talk to the people they’ve only seen from a distance up until now. The castaways need to immediately start figuring out who they can go further with in the game, who seems to be reliable and who the dead weight might be. This season there was even more pressure added since a monsoon, and resulting evacuation, disrupted the normal timing around camp. Jeff Probst revealed on Twitter on Thursday (@JeffProbst) that during the evacuation each of the teams was taken to an empty room at the base camp hotel with no beds, no food, and most importantly: no talking.
As a final aside, kudos to the producers who cast this season, as they seem to have done a remarkably good job of finding people who embody most of the stereotypes we assign towards these various generations. That couldn’t have been more clearly exemplified by that first chat on the beach when Jeff asked the two tribes about the perceptions of their generations, and these fine folks jumped right into it with both feet. That leads us to…
Key Points in Episode 1: May The Best Generation Win
Remember that tribes are fleeting, but first impressions are forever.
It seems like every season just gives an opportunity for tribes to say something interesting on the beach before he sends them off to camp. There are lots of things the players can say that will gain them diplomatic capital for later in the game, or at the least be non-specifically, non-offensive. Essentially, the best response is something along the lines of: ‘I’m really excited about my team, though looking at these other guys I can see this will be a tough challenge’. What you probably don’t want to do is what Paul did, which is to jump in with both feet and run down the other tribe. Certainly, it went over well with his tribe, and that will serve him well later in this episode. But if Paul has seen any Survivor seasons at all he should know that he can expect to be together with this tribe for maybe 12 days, before things get shaken up. At that point, he’s going to be pushed together with at least a few of the people who he ran down on the initial beach, and it might just be him who gets sent home with a participation trophy. You can’t know what will stick from the other tribe’s impressions on the beach, so giving them any early reason to dislike you is a strategic, diplomatic, and social mistake.
This is new Survivor: keep your eyes open for clues at all times, and know what to do with one when you get it.
We have grown accustomed to Survivor starting with a scramble for gear and food, either on the beach or in a boat or truck. What we’ve had to adjust to is the fact that producers also go out of their way to drop clues, hints, and powers in all sorts of places… up to and including challenges (thanks in part to Dalton Ross’ campaign of pestering Probst). While Jessica coming across the clue was happenstance, she made the immediate correct decision to grab it, pocket it for later, and to keep gathering vegetables and gear.
The question that Jessica faces now is a tough one, made much tougher given the nature of what she found. Had this been a clue to an idol, her path would have been extremely straightforward: find a few people you can trust, share the information, use them so that she can find the idol, unify behind having it. Jessica’s envelope didn’t contain an idol clue, however, it contained a power. More specifically, it contained the vesting option to exercise a power that doesn’t fully vest until day 36. This presents a lot of difficulties that an idol clue doesn’t.
Firstly, we don’t actually know what the power does. Given that it can only be exercised on day 36 it’s most likely relating to the final immunity challenge, or the tribal just before it. Regardless, we can assume that whatever the power is will be useful to only the holder of the advantage; they won’t be able to leverage it to assist any of their alliance members who have survived to that point of the competition.
Secondly, the power must be passed on to someone else when Jessica is eliminated from the game. Any difficulties in leveraging the power because of its nebulous nature or exponentially increased since she can’t take the power with her when she goes. Using this power to form an alliance would be like telling her bodyguard that she made him the sole beneficiary of her will. It would be encouraging behavior that is detrimental to her long-term game.
The big question has been: Should Jessica reveal she has this advantage? The answer, in my opinion, is no. For now, the best bet for Jessica is to bury that envelope in the back of her mind and leave it there. The power is a poison pill that can’t help her until she can use it, so until that time there’s certainly no need to share it. While there is a risk that it will be found, or that the power will be revealed through the course of the game, that’s literally a risk for tomorrow. She needs to get through 33 more tomorrows before that risk actually matters.
Remember high school: Cliques are bad and math is hard.
Figgy, Taylor, and Jay were apparently the popular kids in high school and are clearly quite popular on their beach… at least with each other.
From a gameplay standpoint, I have absolutely no objections to forming an alliance on day one. I’m certain that Day 1 for me would involve touching base with everyone on my new tribe, trying to see who I would be able to work with and who was too much of a threat to my personal game. The key here is that each of these tribes has 10 people, so the work of a player isn’t done until they’ve got a semi-solid group of 5 players on their side.
From my perspective, the ideal alliance a player should endeavor to build is something akin to a Russian nesting doll. They want a five-player alliance that they sit at the center of. Within that five-player alliance, they want a three-player alliance that they are also at the center of. Within that three-player alliance, they want to be part of a duo, and they want to be the dominant partner of that duo. Like a Russian nesting doll, these sub-alliances should be hidden until they’re forced to be revealed. When done successfully this keeps the people on the bottom rungs of the alliance fiercely loyal without realizing that they’re the first ones to go.
Taylor, to his credit, has the duo and the three-member alliance. The problem for him (and for Figgy and Jay) is that’s essentially where they stopped building the alliance. The second problem is they’re just having so much fun together that they can’t help but make it obvious… and their tribemates can’t help but see the alliance that they’ve formed is extremely tight… and also in the minority.
Triforce might be a great name for an alliance, but math is a cruel mistress who isn’t impressed by cool names. A three-person alliance isn’t in a position to dominate a tribe of ten, but they represent an extremely dangerous subset. Unless the Triforce exercises some fancy footwork, they could find themselves being picked off one by one.
Trust me, I’m trustworthy, and I trust you!
David’s strategic position fluctuated more than the barometer did when the cyclone came in. He started out as the comedy sidekick of the core alliance on the Gen-X tribe. None of them really viewed him as dangerous, but they liked him and had looped him into their group. The problem for David, and it may be because he’s used to the frenetic atmosphere of a TV writers’ room, is that he simply can’t quietly go about his business.
In the course of three days, he went from accusing someone of having found the idol, to looking for the idol himself, to confessing that he hadn’t found one.
It’s easy to point to him looking for the idol so publicly as his biggest mistake, but I think the key issue was earlier when working with Chris and Bret. In that very brief span, David went from stating if their tribemates came back with nothing in their hands it meant they had an idol, to aggressively asserting how much he trusts them and he hopes they trust him. This included him calling Chris to him as if there was an emergency, just to share that information with him.
At the end of that conversation, Bret and Chris dismiss David as being paranoid, and fairly clearly dismissed him in terms of him being a key player. It doesn’t matter if David is smart. To his tribemates, he’s exhausting and is apparently constantly paranoid about what’s going on around him. David made it clear in that conversation that no real strategizing can go through David; he can barely be used as a number. His performance in the immunity challenge didn’t help the perception that he’s a lightweight.
It’s early in the game, and things can certainly change with tribal shake-ups and different challenges ahead, but David has dug himself an incredibly deep hole in a short time.
Pay close attention to your tribemates and act on the information that gets you.
It’s quite possible that no matter what Rachel did, she was going to go home. Other writers have talked about the fact that it doesn’t take much to be the first victim of tribal council. Failing at a challenge that you say you’re good at is a good way to draw the target, and it’s almost impossible to shake the target off of you once it’s there.
But Rachel received a gift this week. The majority on the Gen-X tribe made it clear that she was going to go by not talking strategy with her at all. She even made an observation about that back at camp, while talking to Cece. Unfortunately, she didn’t do anything about it. In post-game interviews, she made it a point of saying that she played with integrity, citing that she didn’t lie to Jessica when Jessica asked if she might be targeted because of her infection. I’ll give her credit for that, but any of us can play with integrity… from our couch.
When Rachel perceived that she was on the outside looking in, she needed to initiate a full-on charm offensive and talk to all of her fellow tribemates about that challenge and what happened. She had an easy out to say that David was frenetic and distracting when she was trying to solve the puzzle, especially considering David’s demeanor up to that point. We know that votes rarely change at tribal council and that it’s hard to move people from the person they decide can go first… Rachel had to do her arguing at camp.
In addition to that, at tribal council, she still might have managed to survive had she pointed the finger for the puzzle failure at David. Because doing so at tribal would have spun David up into a paranoid seizure, which might have gotten others to decide he had to go.
Rachel seems like a nice person and a smart person, but she had a clear warning about what was coming and didn’t do enough to try to dodge that bullet.
Closing Points and Looking Forward
This was an interesting first episode, with the unprecedented evacuation of the players. From a strategic standpoint, however, this episode was a flashback to seasons past. From the clique alliance to David’s paranoia we haven’t broken new ground yet, but it’s always exciting to see how these things play out.
Given the size of this cast, we’re probably about 3 weeks from any kind of tribe shake-up, and each tribe seemingly has a clear sub-group of players that they can target should they go to tribal council. Looks can be deceiving, though. The Millennials tribe has yet to be tested and until a tribe is actually facing tribal council, the bonds of loyalty haven’t been locked in yet. We’ve seen tribes do a complete 180 in the face of their first tribal council, and the Millennials are prime candidates for that.
I look forward to sharing my perspective as we go forward, and I hope this season is as exciting as Probst has promised us it will be.
For more blogs this season: RHAP Survivor Blog Schedule