Scheme and Plot
This is still the primary rule, and it will be for as long as Survivor is airing, even when the producers throw in twists that focus on survival instead. It may seem almost silly to have to say it, but almost every season we’re surprised when somebody doesn’t realize they need to do this. Looking at the preview information about the contestants for this season, it seems like, once again, most of them know going in that they need to follow this rule, so we’ll have to see how they do.
But on the flip side, take a look at someone like Ozzy, who came in second on Cook Islands and then came back for a second shot in Micronesia (before coming back two more times). He specifically said in an interview with me after his first go-round, “I didn’t do enough politicking and did too much fishing.” I don’t think it can be summed up any better than that. Even in Ghost Island, with the reduced rations that Jeff Probst suggested would bring new focus on being a provider, scheming and plotting was still more important while all that “provider” talk fell by the wayside! Ozzy’s second time around, he did more politicking, but he also trusted that the friendships he had formed outside the game would completely carry into the game – Parvati obviously had other ideas as she actually wanted to win rather than just handing him a million dollars. And in his other return visits, he just played the same game over and over again, apparently still never moving into real scheming and plotting.
But not everyone has learned from such examples. In Survivor 43, Nneka came into the game with a plan to play honestly. She said in pregame interviews, “Even though the game is one where people very easily resort to lying and cheating and backstabbing, I see myself challenging how that is played and going with the opposite of that. And we’ll see how that works out.” Well, we saw how that worked out – not well for her. I’m happy to say that even Nneka herself recognized it after the game as she told interviewers that she no longer thinks it’s possible to play the game without lying! It was too late for her but hopefully future players will take note.
From the very beginning, you have to start making alliances and cementing relationships. And I do mean the very beginning! Yes, it can be difficult to know whom you can trust after just a couple days (witness what happened to Kel and Mad Dog way back in The Australian Outback, if you can even remember those folks), but either you do it or you’re gone. This is especially true with the new accelerated format! Too many players have come into the game saying once their tribemates get to know them, all will be great, but you don’t have time to just sit back and wait. Later in the game you can rework alliances according to what is necessary to stick around, but early on you should make use of whatever relationships present themselves – if you don’t, you might not have to worry about what happens later in the game because you won’t be around.
What this means is that, first, you need to seek out alliances as soon as possible. Find any way to connect with people you’ve just met. You’re both cops or firemen, or one of each? You’re from the same state? Great, find a way to bond over that. Don’t be pushy – you don’t want to be instantly tagged as being overbearing about it – but look for good opportunities to form early relationships. Denise said in her social media Q&A after Winners at War that she needed to be much more active with strategy and trying to form alliances from Day 1. Not having an alliance is not a good strategy – you need them.
Second, if you are approached by somebody about being in an alliance, what do you say? To steal a line from Ghostbusters, when someone asks you if you want to align, you say “YES”! Never ever ever say “no” or “I’ll think about it.” It’s better to lie and be on someone’s good side than immediately paint a target on yourself. If you hem and haw and worry about who to trust, you’ll just end up out of the game. Don’t wait to forge bonds, do it immediately!
There are too many examples throughout the years, both good and bad, to list them all here. But I’ll mention a few:
Cirie showed that making alliances immediately is more important than anything when her tribe chose to keep her and her fear of leaves over somebody who could help them build shelter, start fire, get food, etc. And she went on to become a legend.
J.T. and Stephen from Tocantins made a rather odd-appearing alliance very early and they stuck to it the whole way through. Becky in Cook Islands made a very early alliance with Yul, and they stuck together all the way to the final three. In Vanuatu, the older men joined together immediately and stayed solid, allowing them to progress much further in the game. Meanwhile, the younger men all fell quickly because they failed to consider it important.
Tony made early alliances and then discarded them when necessary (or at least when he felt like it) in Cagayan. Then we saw Natalie Anderson make an early alliance with Muffin, which lasted the entire game even when Natalie had other alliances that she probably intended to be the main ones.
On the flip side, many others who were voted out early said in post-game interviews that they waited until their tribe had lost an immunity challenge to approach anyone, or they didn’t know who to trust so they didn’t talk to anyone. For example, when I talked to Nina from One World, she talked about being surprised at how fast an alliance had formed without her. She said, “We hadn’t even hit the beach and they had already aligned and knew each other by first name and nicknames. I was a little surprised by that.” She, on the other hand, said, “I was wanting to wait and see where strengths and weaknesses were.” Whoops. Jeremy in David vs. Goliath not only wanted to wait until the tribe lost a challenge before strategizing, but he actively campaigned against anyone else scheming and called out people for doing so in a tribal meeting that he pulled together! What did he get for his troubles? He was the first one gone from his tribe. Jimmy Johnson did something similar. In post-show interviews he said, “I really thought when it came to the point, I could form some alliances, but I wanted to get into the game a little ways to see who I could trust and bond with and go the distance with.” He waited too long… and then he was gone.
We do need to remember that the early alliance has to be big enough to be meaningful. For example, the beginning of (original) Fiji had Jessica, Erica, and Rocky in a very tight three-person alliance. But they were in a tribe of nine – you do the math.
Mind you, it isn’t always the best idea to stay in a tribal alliance. Outback’s Amber, for instance, should not have continued voting with her tribe after Jerri was booted. She should have approached the remaining Kuchans and formed an alliance that would at least have carried her a bit further. She probably would still not have made it to the finals, but she could at least have had a better chance. Obviously, Amber made up for this misstep in All-Stars, but the China season made us wonder about this issue anew, as the pecking order present in Todd’s alliance was pretty obvious, and it seemed like several of the members should have taken the hint and jumped ship to join up with the opposition to overthrow Todd. But they never did. Players need to keep a close eye on that pecking order. If you’re not near the top, it’s time to rework things!
As part of this, players need to appear to be part of the overall tribal alliance, but they should also keep their options open. This is precisely what Rob, Alex, and Matthew did in Amazon, pretending to still be part of the all-male tribal alliance, but actually being out to get rid of Roger and Dave. Rafe did something similar in Guatemala, convincing his tribemates he was their ally while apparently planning to go far with Danni instead. Players need to be opportunistic – convince the others in their original alliance that everybody should be loyal, but then take whatever opportunities they have to form other alliances to keep them safe and jump alliances if the need arises.
One item of note to mention occurred back in Thailand – Brian Heidik’s variation on this theme. He created a tribal alliance, but also a number of sub-alliances that the others weren’t aware of. He had a pact with Clay, one with Ted, and one with Helen. (Jan was along for the ride in each of them). Everybody was happy and secure – until the axe fell. This gave Brian the ability to figure out which opponent he would rather face in the final two – eventually leading to his picking, and beating, Clay. But if the others had taken a great dislike to Helen, for example, he could have simply changed his plan. This was a risky maneuver because if any of them had talked about Brian, he might have been found out. But done well, it can set up a good player right in the center of an alliance web.
Chris used a similar maneuver at the end of Vanuatu, having alliances with two duos – Twila & Scout and Julie & Eliza. He made them both feel secure and then voted out Julie & Eliza. And Todd also seemed to have sub-alliances within his alliance, helping to ensure loyalty because even though it seemed obvious to viewers that certain players should have jumped ship, they felt like their best bet was to stay with Todd.
Parvati did it in Micronesia. She had the five Favorites alliance, the all-women alliance, the three female Favorites suballiance, and the Natalie Bolton/Alexis suballiance – all going on at once! So when it looked like Amanda was going to get voted out, Parvati told Natalie and Alexis she couldn’t vote against Amanda, but she didn’t stop them from deciding to do it. If it had worked, she would have still been aligned with Natalie and Alexis (both of whom had told Cirie they wouldn’t turn on Parvati) for the final three. When it didn’t work, she still had her alliance with Amanda and Cirie. She was set either way!
We saw Tony do something similar in Cagayan. He had several alliances and sub-alliances, and bounced around among them as he felt the need. Sarah learned from him as the winner of her first season and took that knowledge to win Game Changers. She made partnerships with each individual player but also told them that nobody else would expect they would be working together so they should both keep it quiet. As we’ve seen throughout the series, this is a great way to be able to maintain a secret. Then in Winners at War, Tony aligned himself with two different groups – one that was close outside the game, and a group of stragglers. And he’d tell both groups he’s with them. And it worked! An interesting thing that Tony said after the game was he made the moves that would work for him and didn’t worry about “building a resume” because his game would speak for him. I thought it was very interesting that he said when you’re trying to build a resume, your timing is usually off. He wanted to get ahead each time he voted someone off.
In Ghost Island, we saw a situation where a duo acted like Brian Heidik together. Winner Wendell and runner-up Domenick had Laurel, Donathan, Chelsea, Sebastian, and Angela all working with them independently and thinking they were the real alliance. Then the duo voted them out in turn. They also mimicked Brian in the way they managed to keep everyone from talking to each other about turning on them. As Sebastian told Rob in his post-game interview, “As soon as someone opens their mouth on Survivor, you go home.”
Another aspect of this rule is that you have to remember not to underestimate your fellow players/opponents. Just as you’re scheming and plotting, it’s likely that they are as well. Sure, there will be a few who won’t but don’t make assumptions that can come back to bite you. You’re trying to get rid of all of them, but they are trying to do the same to you!
An additional part of plotting and scheming can also be making good use of sneakiness. Tony had his spy shack and then his spy nest. But long before him, we saw Sandra hiding behind the bushes in Pearl Islands and overhearing Burton and Jon talking. She was able to use that information to talk to Rupert (who mostly ignored it) and Tijuana (who changed her strategy based on it but then caused Sandra to turn against her anyway). And then she did it again in Heroes vs. Villains, spying on Russell as he tried to secretly look for the hidden immunity idol. We’ve seen others following people during idol-hunts, rummaging through belongings, you name it. A recent season of Australian Survivor featured George, who hid in various places, including just lying down in the tall grass to overhear other people talking. All’s fair in Survivor and war!
That means other players may be doing the same thing. So if you are going to plot and scheme, make sure nobody else is listening! Just ask Rupert and Jenna L. in All-Stars about this, since they were talking about booting Boston Rob… and Rob walked up! And let us not forget Jean-Robert’s loud voice giving away his plans while Todd and Courtney were within earshot.
Special Corollary to Rule 1: For many years there has been a special side note within the second rule because we’d seen a growing number of instances of players keeping their scheming too secret, such that the jury didn’t really know they were playing the game and punished them for that when it came time to vote for the winner. The prime early example was when J.T. took all the credit for strategy even though Stephen was pretty much an equal partner. At least one of the jurors told me in an interview at the time that it wasn’t that they saw him as more of a backstabber or were bitter – they simply didn’t give Stephen enough credit for the scheming and plotting he did, which they only later saw on television. I think that’s one reason Stephen put so much emphasis on making visible moves in his second season. We saw something similar in Kaoh Rong when Michele beat Aubry and many viewers were up in arms (some still are!). Could bitter feelings have been in play? Yes. But several of the jurors have also said that while we saw Aubry’s game on TV, they didn’t see it out there. Aubry apparently spoke at length in the final Tribal Council about what she did and how she played, but much of the jury simply didn’t believe her because they didn’t see it.
Since then, it seems like we’ve seen a rash of these situations. Ryan got no credit in Triple-H, Laurel got no credit in Ghost Island, and even Domenick suffered from it a little on Ghost Island – and it only took a little since the final Tribal Council vote was the first ever tie! It may have also impacted Mike in David vs. Goliath. And we saw it yet again in Extinction Island when a guy who had barely been in in the game beat two players who weren’t seen as strategizing enough throughout their entire 39 days. It’s not limited to American Survivor either, since Jeanne had the same exact problem in the sixth South African season. And Australian Survivor player Harry talked about one of his tribemates by saying Baden could get to the final two and claim a lot, “but what is it really worth if nobody’s seen it?” Exactly! Players need to find the balance – scheme and plot, not too much, but be sure by the time it comes to the jury that they will know you’ve been playing the game and not just coasting by.