Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: How to Handle a Power Outage

Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.

Diplomatic View: How to Handle a Power Outage

Survivor: Game Changers– How to Handle a Power Outage

Survivor is one of the few shows that I can say I’ve seen every minute of aired footage, because ever since the first group of players got stranded by Probst, it immediately caught my imagination. I’ve talked about my love of the game diplomacy and how I’ve always seen Survivor as a twisted version of that (hence this being the Diplomatic View) and players of both games sometimes face the same critical moment: What do you do when the power to affect your fate is in someone else’s hands?

In a general sense, your fate is always reliant on other players in Survivor. With the exception of players who have been given an extra vote, either earned or stolen, the only surety you have is the word of other players. That is what makes Survivor a game where even the most powerful players can be blindsided, and that’s part of why we love it. As an aside, I find it fascinating that as powerful as vote manipulation advantages are, they’ve had little impact in results at tribal council.

All but the luckiest players face the moment when they’re on the wrong side of the numbers. This can happen in a dozen different ways, as we’ve seen. Unbalanced tribes going into the merge, a key ally being medically evacuated, or a player flipping on your alliance are all ways that strong players have found themselves on the wrong side of the number. But the far most common way, as we saw this week, is Jeff uttering those fateful words, “Drop. Your. Buffs.”

In the vast majority of cases that’s the end of things. We watch the player’s torch get snuffed and their alliance slowly whittled down and we have some ammunition for an end of season ‘What Might Have Been’ column. There are many reasons for this but the one that looms the largest, in my opinion, is power… or rather the perception of power.

(I warned you a few weeks ago that I’ll sometimes go onto esoteric tangents… This is one of those. Feel free to skip down to ‘this translates to Survivor’).


I’ve always been fascinated by power… not in the sense of wanting it for myself, but in the sense of how we as human beings set up hierarchies once we started gathering in groups larger than three or four. Or, put another way, once we started gathering in groups larger than the number of people we could  physically dominate single-handedly. Once we began gathering in tribes, kingdoms, and countries our leaders became people we might never see in person or interact with, and yet our leaders they remained.

One of my favorite quotes about this comes from Game of Thrones, a riddle exchange between Varys and Tyrion:

Varys: “Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and the rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?”
Tyrion: “Depends on the sellsword.”

Varys: “Does it? He has neither the crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.”

Tyrion: “He’s has a sword, the power of life and death.”

Varys: “But if it is the swordsman who rules, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey, the executioner, or something else?”

Tyrion: “I have decided I don’t like riddles.”

Varys: “Power resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

Put another, simpler, way: power perceived is power achieved.

This was particularly true in older times when we didn’t have the tools of modern technology to close the distance between ourselves and the people that lead us. What made a king a king, or a queen a queen? That enough people believed they were what they were. A small blip in the number of people who believe that and you have a rebellion, which can be put down by those who still do believe. If the number who stop believing is too large, though, you get a revolution that sweeps the land tearing down those who rule… and often only resulting in slightly different people ending up in charge again.

For me that’s always been fascinating, that as people we are only governable as we consent to be governed, and that in history those who ruled also constantly had to fear that this consent would be wrested away, on large scale or small. To make that more difficult for them, belief in the system didn’t always translate into belief in the ruler. More than one leader was deposed by a trusted advisor, relative, or officer, whom people were more loyal to than their king.


This translates to Survivor since, as we said before, players don’t have control of any vote but their own. As long as the members of your tribe think you’re in control, however, they’ll go along with your plans… in part out of fear that if they don’t go along with those plans they’ll be the player that ends up going home.

Faced with that fact, normally we see players on the wrong side of the numbers scramble around a bit, then make the trudge to final tribal council, and then get their torch snuffed. Particularly on seasons with all new players, contestants in the majority are far less willing to shake things up until they’ve whittled down numbers on the opposing side. For me the ultimate example of this is Survivor: Thailand where, for the most part, Brian was able to walk down to the final slowly snuffing the torches of his fellows.

Which brings us to why I like returning player seasons.

Returning players, having been through the game before as either winners or losers, are generally far less willing to accept whatever the current status quo is. While it’s a tendency that’s starting to catch on amongst new players, it’s more prevalent with returnees. In some cases, it simply means they’re less prone to fully buy into the premise of someone’s leadership, and in other cases they still feel the sting of their elimination and they’re going to do anything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen this time.

On these returning seasons, when a player is flailing to save himself/herself we tend to see something come of it more often than we do otherwise. It doesn’t always result in the player saving himself/herself, and it doesn’t always have a lasting impact…but when it does it’s both fun to watch and leads to interesting possibilities down the road. Sometimes we get Amanda finding an idol out of desperation, other times we get Russell getting Tyson to vote himself out of the game, and sometimes we get Lex betraying his ally because he’s sure Rob will pay him back for it.

Returning players are less likely to accept their fate in the game, are generally more open to flipping allegiances, and tend to be on the lookout for ways in which they can break the wheel of power in a way that will put themselves on top. About half the time it works; the other half of the time the player goes down in flames anyway, but it always makes for good television.

What’s made this season fascinating is that we’ve had goings-on at tribal council that we’ve almost never had. We’ve had tribal councils with scrambling before: the high-water marks for that being the council where Jessica was forced to pull her fate, and the tribal council where Russell turned on Danielle and sent her out of the game. For all their machinations, however, those tribal councils didn’t feature a player openly campaigning for the ouster of a player they were allied with and whom they came to tribal council intent on voting with as Tai did with Ozzy.


Granted, Tai isn’t the most strategic of players. We’ve talked before about him being fairly easy to manipulate and that he makes spontaneous decisions. But given how sheepishly he double-crossed Scott at tribal council, the fact that he openly threw Ozzy out as a target was astounding.

We can safely assume that Sandra attempted to change the way the vote was leaning before they went to tribal council. She’s too much of a veteran player to not try to take advantage of the time at the beach to try to get the target shifted to another player. She specifically referenced how hard it was to get people to engage with her strategically on the beach, so obviously it’s something she worked on. Other players may have bemoaned their fate at tribal council and accepted it, Sandra turned that act of surrender into an opportunity for Tai to hang himself.

While Sandra didn’t end up saving herself, she did accomplish several of her goals. She exposed fault lines in the opposing alliance, revealing Tai’s unreliability and Zeke’s exasperation with his flightier alliance mate. She reminded Ozzy of the blindside he suffered in Fans vs Favorites, and got him thinking about whether his alliance could really be trusted. While the Queen may have left the island, it seems likely the aftershocks of her exit will be felt in the next few weeks.


Diplomatic Disqus

Christian Bugia chimed in regarding JT’s claim about not feeling that he could retrieve his idol:

JT just felt too confident at that point, he could have reason like going to the bathroom or having a confessional to retrieve it.

I’m inclined to agree here. The other part of my thinking is that the worst thing that happens if you retrieve your idol is that they know you have one. If they weren’t planning on voting you out, that’s not very likely to change their vote. If they were planning to vote you out it might change their plan if they don’t think they can successfully split their vote. Putting in the time to find an idol and then leaving it behind, is an incredibly reckless move.  It’s somewhat typical of JT’s game without Fishbach to ameliorate his boldness as a player.

Dave L chimed in regarding the problem of bringing idols to camp, and particularly players being unable to hide them somehow.

It’s a design flaw of the game that this is an issue. They should give players confessionals right before tribal where they can retrieve it, or make it so that bags can’t be searched or something.

I’m torn on this personally. I honestly wish idols were a bit harder to find, even non-veteran players have a reasonable chance of finding them given the limitations of the places producers can hide them. There should be some degree of challenge regarding moving them about, and retrieving them before tribal. As with Christian Bugia, I don’t think it was retrieving the idol that was the problem, and I do think they do a fair number of confessionals before the scramble time on the beach.

I’m a fan of Michaela’s as I’ve stated previously, but Patti Renshaw doesn’t quite see things that way:

Personally I can’t WAIT until Michaela gets voted off for all the tea sipping & hair flips just shows her immature attitude towards others. Even though JT was an idiot he walked off with class.

Michaela is young still, and it’s tough not to engage when someone makes the decision to vote you out of the game a personal one, rather than a strategic one. JT’s arguments against Michaela were about her as a person, not her as a player of the game. In that situation, I can completely see giving in to the temptation to make the decision to vote JT out equally personal. I’ll also admit I found the tea drinking hysterical, but I can understand there are people it rubbed the wrong way.

Lastly, Christine Lariviere chimed in regarding Debbie:

I think you may be correct regarding Debbie. She might be dehydrated or vitamin deficient.

Debbie got lucky this week with a trip to the new ‘exile island’ that in this case meant that she got to spend time on a boat and feast on as much food as she could eat. On top of that, she got a visit from one of the best strategic players of all time, Cochran. The extra nutrition and hydration didn’t seem to make that big of a difference this week, but we’ll see if any of Cochran’s advice settles in with her.


Key Points: Vote Early, Vote Often

Sometimes you’re on Exile Island, other times it’s the Love Boat

Debbie’s streak of lucky breaks appears to continue this week. Last week some combination of acting, dehydration or complete breakdown made Debbie turn on her tribe, but they didn’t go to Tribal Council so she remained in the game. This week Debbie ended up on the outside of the tribal re-organization looking in and sent to Exile Island. The producers are softies this year, however, and not only is Exile Island a floating palace for Debbie, but she gets a visit from one of my favorite Survivors, Cochran.

For April Fool’s Day, there were a lot of Survivor players who ‘revealed’ that they were the players returning to visit Debbie, including Boston Rob (who, I admit, fooled me). But of all the possible Survivor returnees Cochran might be the best of them to serve as an advisor for a player in the current game. Cochran is a Survivor nerd like the rest of us, so he likely knows a lot about the other returnees. Additionally, while others’ games are rooted almost entirely in their charisma and personal magnetism, Cochran’s game is heavy on analysis and numbers which is knowledge that’s easier to transfer to someone else.

One of Cochran’s charms is he’s kind of the avatar for all the other Survivor nerds who wish we could get off the couch and get in the game. His interviews regarding Debbie, and the advice he gave Debbie, were what we’ve been screaming at our television through last week. While Debbie seems impressed by him and like she’ll take his advice to heart… I don’t know if one day on the boat is enough to overcome her instincts.

What will hopefully help her is the advantage she received at the end of Cochran’s visit. In my mind the producers did a very good job balancing the advantage given against the fact that it was not an earned advantage. Anyone could have ended up the odd person out. It was only luck that got Debbie to Exile, so having the advantage be over-powering would have been unfair. While each of the three advantages is good, none of them is truly game breaking.

A fake idol we’ve seen be effective in the past. They’ve been used for both trapping another player into a false sense of security and deflecting attention in votes. An extra vote is extremely powerful seeming, but historically on Survivor, they’ve amounted to almost nothing. Lastly, the tribal immunity advantage is great for your tribe… but isn’t all that good for a player as individual. All three are interesting advantages, but none of them is guaranteed to have a big impact on a player’s place in the game.

While I think the extra vote is the advantage that brings the clearest cut individual power to Debbie, which is why she selected it, the fake immunity idol may have given her a better shot at going deeper in the game. Debbie was likely to be in the minority on any tribe she comes back to, though we can quibble over the exact numbers, and her missing the initial three days of bonding time weren’t going to help. Giving the entire tribe an immunity advantage would certainly have been appreciated, but tribes have ‘appreciated’ people by voting them off at the next opportunity before. The extra vote is only useful if there’s an even balance in the tribe, or if a super-majority attempts a split vote. Neither situation is likely to happen here, and using the extra vote effectively in even the best situation is surprisingly difficult to do. Just ask Fishbach.

But for players who haven’t yet been to the Exile love boat, it is completely believable that an immunity idol could be found there. They’ve been hidden there in many past seasons, and players expect that there will be advantage for people facing the horrible conditions on Exile. Her new tribemates would be likely to suspect that she had a chance at an immunity idol, and it would be easy to subtly let them see that she returned from Exile with some form of idol or advantage… letting them make their own connections. The fear that a player who isn’t seen as a strategic threat has an idol would make other layers more likely to include her in their alliance as a weapon to use against others. A fake immunity idol could be a bluff that wouldn’t be called until after the merge.

On the other hand, it would be appropriate for this topsy-turvy season if Debbie was the first person in Survivor history to use the extra vote to devastating effect.


52 Card Pick-up

The favorite shuffle of drunk people and little kids is 52 card pick-up, where you just throw all the cards on the ground and walk away. Well the Survivor producers must have been enjoying their fruity alcohol drinks because we’re mixing everything up again. The two tribes offer an interesting mix of playstyles and players, and are more even than you might expect for random picks. Let’s look at the new tribes:

New Mana: Troyzan, Michaela, Sierra, Hali, Aubry, Cirie, Brad.

New Nu-Nuku: Sandra (Debbie), Sarah, Varner, Andrea, Tai, Zeke, Ozzy

Nuku would appear to have an advantage in pure physical strength, due to have four male members to Mana’s two, but Mana has some of the stronger female players, so it may balance out. Looking forward in the game I’m fascinated that Zeke, Andrea, Cirie, and Aubry are still in the game and we have, for the most part, not gotten a whiff of them being under threat.

After the last several weeks of drama, this was the first week we started to get a sense of Zeke trying to lay the groundwork for the kind of alliance he had on his season. I’m a fan of him reaching out to Varner, partly under the assumption that the merge is coming soon, and partly because if Varner thinks they’re allied then Varner won’t throw random votes his way. This tribe also adds Debbie, who on the surface is an easy vote out.

Unfortunately for Zeke, the chaos of the last tribal council could cause both chaos back at camp and pressure to eliminate Tai from the game. The other players know that he’s adept at finding immunity idols, but will that be enough of a reason for Ozzy not to insist on his ouster? I would have said that, unless something extremely strange happens on this tribe, Andrea, Tai, Zeke, and Ozzy should all be able to make the merge. But given the last tribal council, Debbie’s extra vote, and Tai’s two immunity idols, I think we can expect that something strange will happen if they go back to tribal.

On Mana, things are a bit less sunny for some of our strategic favorites. While Michaela, Aubry, and Cirie are in the assumed majority with Hali (or Sierra), Troyzan’s immunity idol puts them in significant danger. As much as I hate to say it, I expect that if Mana goes back to tribal council, Cirie will end up going home via hidden immunity idol. Needless to say, I’m rooting for Mana in challenges going forward.


With three immunity idols, you get the power to make Jeff participate in a challenge

Give all respect to Tai. Regardless of whether you think there are too many idols, or that they’re too easy to find, the fact remains that not all players go hunting for them. Of the players that do go hunting for them, no one has been as successful recently as Tai has. This episode he found two idols, though you could say he really found the same idol twice. Personally, I appreciate Tai deciding to check immediately whether there was a second idol at the same location. On Survivor: China, it was that kind of thoroughness that led to James getting two immunity idols… which he later got voted out with.

Tai isn’t the strongest emotional player, and his situation is extremely precarious after openly suggesting that Nuku should vote out Ozzy at tribal council. Tai is unlikely to repeat James’ mistake, and his nervousness should translate to a willingness to use his immunity idol(s) at the vaguest hint of danger.

Even two immunity idols are unlikely to get Tai to the final tribal council as a player. However, it’s likely to ensure that if other strategic players aren’t careful they’ll end up heading home before Tai does.


Do not go gentle into Ponderosa

Zeke prefaced one of his early confessionals with the fact that they were going to be voting off Sandra, but that he wanted to placate Varner and try to work with him going forward. Given that, it’s clear that barring some extraordinary events Sandra’s reign was going to end. That didn’t stop Sandra from giving it every shot to work out in her favor. Her opening salvo at tribal council, couched in acceptance of her fate in the game, opened the door for discussions of things going some other way… an opened door that Tai walked right through.

I will admit, I was absolutely dumbfounded when Tai started whispering to Sandra and Jeff who he wanted to target… then realizing that three is less than four, he opened it up to the entire tribe to see if he could get that fourth vote. While Sandra had outed Tai to the others when he was whispering to Varner, she didn’t need to do any additional stirring of the pot. Tai was more than willing to stir the brew himself.

In the end Queen Sandra was forced to go to her summer palace at Ponderosa, to a round of applause from the rest of the Nuku tribe, but that doesn’t mean that they got through it without a few new scars. The ties between Ozzy and Tai were certainly strained, Zeke has to be reconsidering whether he can take Tai deep into the game, and Tai has to think he’s going to need his idols. Never has a vote that was so obvious, added so much stress and strain to a tribe. That’s part of the fun of returning players and particularly this group.

Good on Sandra, the only player to win it all twice, who showed us what going out in style looks like. She left with a smile on her face and seemed to have no hard feelings that she came up short.



  • Debbie met Presidents and Prime Ministers on the original Love Boat
  • Is the fact that Zeke was forced to list out all his allies, and how he did so, going to irk some of them who feel they’re on the outside of his alliance?
  • I find it interesting that Brad is counting Sierra amongst his allies. While they’ve been together for much of the game, we haven’t really seen them doing a lot of strategizing together.
  • Sierra’s legacy advantage stated it could be used with either 13 players left, or 6 players left in the game. Based on this, I’m assuming that next week isn’t the merge but the week after will be.
  • It’s a little amusing to hear that Troyzan is still bitter about being ousted by Kim Spradlin and her alliance.


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

Seasons with returning players are always interesting and exciting, generally the producers up their game to give us interesting challenges and new twists, while the returnees play the game harder than they did the first time. This season hasn’t disappointed. Though some have disliked the specific twists we’ve seen, it’s indisputable that the producers are doing their best to keep it interesting. It’s the players who have turned their games up to eleven.

The real game in Survivor starts post-merge, and that’s generally when all the things we later remember and reference occur. A mark of the best seasons is when the moves pre-merge are both entertaining on their own and set up events that follow. This season, Sandra’s ruthless destruction of alpha players who crossed her path not only entertained, but it changed what I was expecting we’d see in the post-merge game. Either through Sandra’s intent, or strategic play by her opponents, several strong challenge players have already headed home… which puts an even larger target on players like Ozzy who remain.

With only a few weeks left until the merge, players should start thinking about that… including Ozzy. We rarely see merges with more than a handful of outsized personalities. Things are shaping up now for one of the best merged tribes in Survivor history.


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