Before we dive into what has been another wild and crazy week out on the virgin shores of the Caramoan Islands, I want to briefly congratulate Rob on his 500th podcast. I think I’ve said elsewhere on the site before that I’m actually a bigger RHAP fan than I am a Survivor fan. Even though that’s ridiculous and makes no sense, it is nevertheless true. Survivor is a great game, as multi-faceted and multi-dimensional as are the individuals that play it, but without this podcast I doubt I’d still be watching the show. I have a busy personal life, and it’s not always easy to tune in Wednesday nights at 8:00 week after week. The reason that I still do it is because of the work that Rob puts in for all of us, and because of how much fun you guys are in the audience. RHAP Nation is a great community. Loyal Blog Readers, casual readers, haters and critics alike—you guys make the show worth watching.
And I think that the future of RHAP is bright. The podcast is growing, and the audience is becoming more diverse, and more interactive. More and more current and former Survivor players are joining our community, and bringing with them unique insights and perspectives on this game that we all love. The best days are still to come.
But let’s deal with today’s business. We’ve finally had a tribal swap. The reboot button has been pushed on Survivor: Caramoan. With new tribes come new alliances and new strategic possibilities. The old game is gone. Fans Vs. Favorites is no more. Right?
Dead wrong. As Andy pointed out in last week’s Baker’s Dozen, this tribal swap was almost completely impotent from a gameplay perspective. With 6 Fans and 8 Favorites left, no matter how you slice the pie these new tribes were both going to come out 4-3. The Favorites hold a very strong and, perhaps, insurmountable numbers advantage in any possible scenario.
But it gets worse. The scenario that we got is even more skewed—all of the powerhouse challenge competitors are now on one side, facing off against a very Matsing-esque tribe of weaklings. Start running, Indiana Jones. This new Bikal tribe is going to crumble around us.
And this makes the next few episodes feel almost perfunctory. Barring a ridiculously early merge, we feel almost destined to lose Julia or Michael next week. And given the Survivor rule-of-thumb Stephen Fishbach mentioned on this week’s episode of the Survivor Know-It-Alls, we’re all expecting Merge Day to be Day 19. The producers have painted themselves into a corner here. A poorly-timed Tribal Swap has created a perfect storm. Predictable boots are on the way.
Those of you who wear the badge of Loyal Blog Reader already know this about me—I’m a Survivor Libertarian. I think production meddling in the game is bad for the game from a purely mechanical perspective. I think Hidden Immunity Idols are bad mojo, and I also think the same about Tribal Swaps. So let’s explore that perspective.
One of the problems I have with Swaps is the following: they have to come when the numbers are even. If the value-pitch of the Tribal Swap is that it can level the playing field and create environments that enable the underdog to succeed, then you really don’t want to swap with an odd number of players left in the game and leave one tribe short-handed in challenges. It wouldn’t resonate well with the players, or with the fans. So we’ve got a limited window of possible Swap Days. If we assume a classic 20-player jury-size of 12, we’ve got exactly three possible Swap Days in theory, and only one that really make sense in practice.
You don’t want to swap at 18, because the viewers are still getting used to who’s on what tribe—and the players themselves are still cementing their alliances. It takes a couple of Tribal Councils to work out who’s with who, and if you’re going to interrupt this process in its infancy you may as well have just started the season with 18 castaways to begin with.
Not only that, but what’s the point of creating two brand new tribes of 9? The numbers aren’t tight enough yet. With so long to go before the Merge, and so little time spent in one’s original tribe, there’s very little incentive to count on your old tribe to still be on your side when you meet again. Far better to make a new “Fast Five” alliance with these new guys, and carry on Pagonging like it’s One World all over again. I wouldn’t necessarily mind seeing a Tribal Swap at 18, just for kicks, but I doubt it would ever actually happen. It just doesn’t feel like the kind of thing the Production Gods are likely to go for.
Okay, so that leaves us with two possibilities: 16 and 14. Why not one of those?
Let’s start with 16. A Swap at 16 actually has a number of problems, but chief among them is the following: you’re creating two new tribes of 8, and even-numbered Tribal Councils are known to be boring. It really takes an odd number to facilitate flips in almost all scenarios. Sometimes, with a Hidden Immunity Idol in play, something wonky can happen—but the Rule of Thumb here is that even-numbered Tribal Councils are usually snoozefests. And if it isn’t reasonably likely that a power-shakeup will emerge from a Swap, then there’s really no reason to do the Swap at all.
So now we’re left with the old Survivor hat: the Swap at 14. Two tribes of 7 create unstable power structures, and it’s very likely that an unexpected Tribal Council will follow. Unless you’re dealing with a truly dominant and overwhelming numbers disparity, as we are this season, it’s pretty likely that the old Swap at 14 trick is going to give us some Survivor gold. But it comes at a price.
14, in my opinion, is too late in the pre-merge portion of the game to be swapping. We all know the merge is only a couple of Tribal Councils away. Whatever alliance manages to grab ahold of the reins of this new tribe is bound to have only one mission: Start Pagonging. In other words, it’s my position that the only reasonably likely outcome of a tribal swap is that Pagongings can actually begin before the Merge. I actually believe that, far from creating exciting seasons, Tribe Swaps are yet another force within the game that is passively encouraging this current paradigm of Pagonging.
And it seems we keep coming back to this. Survivor producers want their gameplay twists to surprise the players, and change the way they play the game, but it can’t be done. Survivor forcefully rejects attempts to meddle with its fundamentals. If there is a way to change the way the game drives itself, it’s at least fair to say that we’ve been using the wrong instruments to get us there. I really believe that we need to reorient our thinking.
I’ve been a vocal supporter of the “No World” concept pitched by the Survivor Think Tank last May. As a Survivor Libertarian, I actually view the Tribal Structure itself as the real enemy that acts on the modern game. When you divide these players up, label them, and pit them against one another in a team format, you are creating a petri dish for Pagongings to grow. We’ve seen this play out over and over again. Tribal Structures limit an individual player’s possible strategic options, and, I would argue, it comes at the detriment of the game itself. I want to see this game deregulated, so that a new generation of players can discover new ways to play it. In other words, as crazy as it sounds, I want to Occupy Survivor.
And while my position on this may seem radical now, I fully believe this is the inevitable future of this show. I don’t see any other viable direction we can take. Production may fight this thing tooth and nail, and the power struggle may kill the show; but given a long enough timeline, I fully believe this gameplay model will emerge. Production isn’t calling the shots, not really. The game itself is going to ultimately dictate what it will be.
How do you feel about Tribal Swaps? Is this a gameplay mechanic that works? You guys are the sounding board for these ideas—I love to get you thinking about this game and I love when you’re able to surprise me with startling new insights. I’ve said my piece; the rest of this discussion belongs to you.
Stay tuned for plenty more Survivor analysis from the rest of our esteemed team of bloggers, with new columns up every single day!