SurvivorSurvivor: Caramoan

The Buffington Post: What’s Wrong With Idols?

One of the fun things about being able to write for such an intelligent audience of Survivor fans is that we can go a little bit deeper into nuances of the game. I want to take a moment this week to talk, not so much about Survivor: Caramoan, but about Survivor as a whole—specifically about the Hidden Immunity Idol, its place in the modern game, and where I think the future might be headed. I appreciate being that we’ve been given the platform to express a perspective which I think has been underrepresented in the discussion about the Hidden Immunity Idol, and I very much want feedback from all of you. You guys are the Survivor Superfans. You’re one of the greatest untapped resources on the planet when it comes to thinking about this game. If Survivor production were smarter, they’d be listening to you. I hope you’ll let me know where your heads are at once you’ve read what I’m about to say.

Is the Hidden Immunity Idol a good idea, or not? And, more importantly, does it work in the game as it was intended?

The arguments in favor of having HII’s present in the game are strong. In theory, they allow for shake-ups in the power dynamics of a tribe. Much like a tribal swap, they can shuffle the deck in the early rounds of the game and allow for the creation of new alliances or the solidification of an old one. But I suspect that their true function was always intended to be something else entirely—to facilitate unpredictable tribal councils —and that’s where I think Hidden Immunity Idols fail.

I’m not alone in having reached this conclusion. One of my favorite castaways of all time, Dave Ball of Samoa (okay, the first Samoa), once said the same thing: “The value of a Hidden Immunity idol is not in escaping the vote. It is in binding together an alliance.”

malcolm and corinne

Malcolm used his to bind an alliance.

And I think we’ve seen this play out over and over again. The best and most skillful way to use a Hidden Immunity idol, going all the way back to Yul Kwon in Survivor: Cook Islands is not to play it—ever. That’s how Yul does it, baby. That’s how Kim Spradlin does it. That’s how Malcolm Freberg does it. That’s how Sandra Diaz-Twine does it. That’s how Russell Hantz—oh wait.

Russell Hantz does play idols. Interesting. And when Russell plays idols, we have unpredictable tribal councils (sorry, Kelly Sharbaugh). Therefore, Hidden Immunity Idols facilitate unpredictable boots and QED create exciting seasons. They’re a good thing. Debate over.

Woah, woah, woah. Slow down, Cao Bui. While it is true that Russell Hantz is far and away the all-time leader on the Idol-Playing Leaderboards, he did so in an era of Survivor when he was the only player out there actively seeking them out. If Russell played again, God forbid, I have to think that he wouldn’t be quite as cavalier about playing his idols because his underlying assumption—that he could always go out and find another one—that’s no longer the case. The “Infinite Ammo” Survivor cheat code doesn’t work anymore. We will never see another season where a player makes it to the end of the game by playing 39 Hidden Immunity idols.

Indeed, the opposite is now true. To play your Idol means that a new Idol will likely become activated, and may easily be found and recovered by anyone. Indeed, the person who will be hunting the hardest is likely to be the one person you would least want to find it. Control once held is difficult, and dangerous, to relinquish.


“It’s control. If we don’t play it, it doesn’t get played.”

I thought Corinne’s secret scenes from last week’s episode really elucidated the way that modern Survivor castaways think about the Idol. “It’s control. If we don’t play it, it doesn’t get played.” Curiously, and perhaps counter intuitively, the real power of the Hidden Immunity Idol is in not playing it. The history of the game is clear on this—the winningest way to wield an Idol is the Warren Buffet strategy. Buy and hold.

So if we extrapolate outward from that starting point, we find that an unpredictable Tribal Council is actually the least likely outcome when a Hidden Immunity Idol is in play. Playing an idol is now one of the most dangerous possible moves. It’s hugely unlikely that it would happen more than once in a season.

Rob and Stephen discussed possible solutions to this problem in their excellent Survivor Think-Tank podcast last May, and put forth a possible solution. Should Hidden Immunity Idols come with an expiration date? It’s an interesting idea, and we’d have to see it in practice before we could say for certain whether or not it would work, but my suspicion is that it wouldn’t work.

Let’s imagine a scenario where every Hidden Immunity Idol must be played within two tribal councils of having been found—as suggested by the Think Tank. If we suppose that the first one will be found within the first week of the game—as has historically been the case in most post-Samoa seasons—then we can presume that the first Idol will be played sometime between the holder’s fifth and the eighth overall Tribal Councils—in other words, right around the merge. An idol once played is certain to be recovered immediately, so we’d have to see the next one played by an individual player’s seventh to tenth Tribal Council. Then the ninth to twelfth, and so on. Indeed, the pattern becomes so regular and predictable as to be easily nullified. In other words, an expiration date is really just a guarantee that an Idol will be played, and every player will anticipate it and move to block. An unpredictable tribal council becomes the least likely outcome.

But what about the other benefits that Hidden Immunity Idols bring to the game? They give a minority alliance a fighting chance against even an overwhelming numbers disadvantage, right? There’s no way we have an Aitu 4 or a Foa Foa 4 without them. Perhaps that’s the best thing about Idols—they can level a playing field and give everyone a fighting chance. It’s egalitarian. It’s good for the underdog. Right?


Hidden Immunity Idols passively encourage Pagongings. Just ask Sherri.

I actually don’t think so. Far from preventing Pagongings, it’s my position that in the modern era of Survivor, Hidden Immunity Idols passively encourage them. Just ask Sherri.

If an Idol is held by a minority alliance, every player in the game now knows how to split votes to flush it out. It’s become standard practice. In the old days, this might have been messy and fraught with peril, but now it’s routine. It’s my position that someone in a minority alliance cannot possibly hold a Hidden Immunity Idol for long in the modern era of Survivor. It will be flushed, and flushed again, until it is eventually and inevitably recovered by someone in the majority. In other words, it’s my position that the power of the Hidden Immunity idol is one-directional. It amasses more power where power already exists.

Many Survivor fans have voiced criticism of the Hidden Immunity Idol in the past, citing that it is an unfair advantage or that it somehow undermines the integrity and fairness of the game, and those criticisms have been rebuffed by Jeff Probst and the Survivor production staff. The response has always been the same: Hidden Immunity Idols make for entertaining TV, and that’s good for the show. What’s good for the show is good for the game. But I actually believe this is a hot-hand fallacy at work. I don’t think Hidden Immunity Idols are mechanically capable of producing the kinds of results they are being expected to. It just won’t work.

How do you feel about Hidden Immunity Idols? Do you love them, like them, or hate them? I think this is one of the most important issues to the future of this game, so I encourage you all to leave your feedback.

Stay tuned for plenty more Survivor analysis from our excellent team of bloggers, with new columns up every day!

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