Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: The Art of War

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: The Art of War

Survivor: Game Changers – The Art of War

I’m going to start this week’s Diplomatic View on Survivor: Game Changers with a disclaimer. For those of you who haven’t read a lot of Diplomatic View articles, particularly articles on the old Reality News Online site, I can be a little bit esoteric at times. I’m a bit of a nerd, and my interest in reality television links up with many other interests to filter my world view… while the primary theme for this week’s article isn’t all that weird… I did once compare Russell Hantz to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand… so you have been warned.

In the board room, play room, and writer’s room you’ll often hear references to the ‘Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, less oft-quoted is an equally relevant book ‘On War’ by Carl von Clausewitz. One of many quotes that Clausewitz is attributed is ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means’, sometimes ‘politics’ is replaced in that quote by ‘diplomacy’ and that’s part of why I mention it in this week’s column. Fighting for your place in the power structure of a tribe or, in the case of this week, a restructured tribe is a form of warfare, particularly when the tribes are small and you find yourself out-numbered.

To quote Clausewitz:

War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will. To secure that object, we must render the enemy powerless, and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare.

Last season we talked about the trap that players fall into, when they assume that loyalty to the buff they wore for 8 days overrides any personal conflicts players might have. This week Probst fed into that assumption when he pointed out the imbalanced make-up of each of the three six-person tribes. What players, especially experienced players, should remember is: Just because these players were together briefly, doesn’t mean that they are all happy with each other. The premise that players would unite behind the idea of their old tribe, voiced by Probst, and reinforced by Culpepper was an obstacle for Caleb and Hali. But accepting that premise is what truly sunk their games.

Some of the most interesting moments in Survivor have come from a player looking at the situation they found themselves in, as put forward by the opposing alliance or tribe, and deciding they weren’t willing to accept that as the only possible reality. The Black Widow alliance voting out Ozzy, Dreamz going back on his word to Yau-Man, Malcolm using all of his idols to send Phillip home,  Neleh and Pascal flipping their loyalties–not all of these moves worked out for the people who made them, but they each involved a situation of a player seeing what the ‘inevitable’ conclusion was and deciding they weren’t okay with it.

When Caleb and Hali’s newly formed Mana came back to their beach, both Hali and Caleb immediately came to the conclusion that it had to be one of them who would go home next. While Caleb did talk with Tai, it was only in the context of confirming that Tai would be on Caleb’s side to stay in the game a little longer. Not anything else.

On a six-person tribe, to swing a 4-2 balance of power all it takes is one vote. On a season of strangers who have no previous relationships that can be difficult, because there’s no particular reason for someone to choose you over their alliance. But on a season of returnees, that’s not the case. To have a chance to stay in the game, Caleb had to ruthlessly play on his relationship with Tai and get Tai to join his side. Tai is an emotional player, who makes ‘good’ gameplay decisions when someone else convinces them that the gameplay decision is good. He was a turnable vote. At the point where Tai’s loyalty is turned, it’s easy enough to go to Debbie and Sierra and ask them if they’re willing to pull rocks to save Culpepper… which is highly unlikely.

It’s quite likely this wouldn’t have worked. If Tai had flipped then Culpepper might have recruited Hali to his side; maybe Debbie and Sierra would have gone ahead and pulled rocks anyway. There are dozens of things that could have made that plan not work. However, accepting that it’s either Caleb or Hali to go is 100% guaranteed not to work in favor of either of those players.

In Survivor, and just about any competitive game, if you find yourself accepting the premise your opponent presents… you’re going to put yourself in a bad situation. As we’ve discussed, not all big moves work, and not all attempts to save yourself will work either. But in a season of returning players I want to see every player fight to stay in the game… sitting back and letting the other alliance pick which of you goes home isn’t how you change the game.


Diplomatic Disqus

Andy Pfeiffer chimed in with his candidate for ascension for this season:

Sierra’s my bet for this season’s new entry into the Pantheon; Hali, Debbie, and Tai would definitely require adjustment. Hali’s a bit aloof and doesn’t know most of this cast, Debbie’s a female Coach as advertised, and Tai got picked apart by Cirie the instant he opened his mouth. I don’t see any of the three of them achieving greatness.

Sierra getting the advantage means she’ll certainly have a chance to make the leap this season depending on what she does with it. I just wasn’t ever impressed with her play in her first season. Not just in terms of effectual play, but in terms of any attempts to impose her will on the game at all. I still think Andrea and Michaela are the players most likely to make ‘the leap’.

Damnbueno chimed in with:

I think the ability to adapt is the most important trait in any season. Occasionally dumb luck will step in and clear a path with quitters or medevacs, but for the most part, you’ve got to read your situation and know how to adjust to improve it. Good players can do it; bad ones can’t.

This is true, up to a point. Sandra’s strategy is, for the most part, one of adaptation… but the problem is that only takes you so far. You can adapt to many different changes in strategy and occurrences, but if the change that comes is people deciding that you have to be voted out… that’s a little harder to adjust to. A successful Survivor player has to be able to adapt, but it has to go hand in hand with the ability to influence players towards the path you want them to follow.


Key Points in Episode 2

Tribe Switch: For those who weren’t in my living room, I giggled like a school girl when the tribes split into three tribes. It’s something I’m always in favor of, and I predicted we’d get it in the podcast at the start of the season. Don’t let me take too much credit though, because I also predicted they’d go to four tribes at 16… which they clearly will not be doing. However, I’m not the biggest fan of the selections being completely random. More often than not it results in some fairly unbalanced tribes, like we’ve just seen.

There are several reasons that Survivor does these tribal shake-ups. One it keeps one extremely dominant tribe from just laying waste to the other, and marching down to the merge with a predictable final winner. Consider Survivor: Palau, other than the cringe-worthy aspect of watching one tribe get systematically destroyed, there wasn’t all that much drama to Tom Westman’s victory.

The key reason, as most of us see it, is that it gives us a chance to see the drama turned up to eleven. It gives players in a bad situation a chance to flip the odds in their favor; it makes players who are in control of the game scramble to keep their heads above water. The producers can’t guarantee that there will be blindsides in any season, but by shaking up the tribes you get the same kind of drama that comes with blowing up the dynamics in a tribe.

Ozzy vs Cirie Part Two– Tavua Boogaloo: One of the most interesting parts of the tribal shake-up for me, is how it changes the dynamics that existed on original tribes. Ozzy, last week, was all about removing Cirie from the game. This week, with them both on the newly create Tavua, Ozzy has changed his tune in confessionals.

Much of this may have to do with the removal of players whose loyalty he felt he could trust: Tai, JT, Debbie, Brad… all of whom he had reason to feel were a solid core against Cirie. The first reaction of most contestants after a shake-up is to try to consolidate their power and, for Ozzy, it was easy to look around and find most of your most reliable allies weren’t helping you build your new shelter. Given that Cirie is, by perception, the most powerful non-Ozzy player on her tribe… it makes sense for him to try to create an alliance with her.

The problem for Ozzy is that Cirie knows he wanted her out of the game, and while Cirie is always willing to go along to get along… she’s not going to forget about it. This is one of the more interesting questions in the early game for a tribe. Any alliance that’s formed is still untested until you’ve gone to tribal council, so you don’t really know who your allies are. That’s why it can be dangerous to choose a target for your alliance before you know you’re going to tribal. If that player catches wind of what was going on, and stays in the game for long enough… you can almost guarantee that player will become an enemy down the line.

Culpepper makes the right moves: One of the key points of Survivor is being in control, without trying too hard to force that control down the throats of your alliance. This becomes most important when voting comes up. Sometimes you need to let your intended victim stay in the game longer so that your alliance members feel they are getting their way. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t try to argue the point… and Culpepper did one of the best jobs I’ve seen of someone coaxing his alliance member after his target.

He started off by conceding to Tai that whatever he wanted to happen would happen, making it clear that it was Tai’s choice either way. After that was cemented, he raised the question as to whether Caleb was bad for Tai’s game… making it not a question of what Brad wanted to happen… but of what Brad was afraid would happen to Tai’s game. It was really well done, and I respected the heck out of the move that sent the Beast Mode Cowboy home.



  • Debbie invented Immunity Challenges (she didn’t, but on her season it seemed that if you asked Debbie she’d done every single thing ever in life… she’s toned that down this season).
  • The former Nuku members who got thrown off of their beach are the most unfortunate players. That camp is one of the best we’ve seen since the Have / Have-Not days
  • JT’s plan to get some room to go idol searching was actually genius.
  • Credit to Troyzan for looking for, and finding the immunity clue. Bad on the other Tavua members for not following him throughout the day.
  • To goat? Or not to goat? Answer in the comments.


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

In a way Mana’s losing streak continued this episode, in that despite the tribal split giving them an advantage on one tribe, they still ended up with one of the original Mana going home. While tribal loyalties don’t really mean much, this does only strengthen the ties of previous Nuku members and put the Mana players further behind the eight ball. Next week could be a change of luck for the former Mana, however. With two tribes facing elimination and with Troyzan having an immunity idol, there’s a significant chance that Tavua will see the Ozzy vs Cirie battle decided by default with Troyzan’s vote.

The ouster of any of the big players from the former Nuku should shake up the group dynamics where currently they seem content to simply wait and get down to the merge. With the exception of Culpepper’s block on the new Mana tribe, no player is truly in control, and no alliance has really been tested. A double elimination will likely go a long way towards clearing up the big picture.


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