Survivor: Cambodia

The Strategy of Evolution

The hallmark of the post-merge game has been an evolution of strategy, as proclaimed by Stephen Fishbach, in the form of voting blocs. And the hallmark of the post-merge game online commentary has been “… No, pumpkin, no.”

There’s a small problem with semantics here as nobody seems to fully agree on the precise distinction between a voting bloc and an alliance, but the consensus is one of duration. Your alliance may be where your long-term loyalties lie, but a voting bloc will give you the numbers to swing a given Tribal Council.

Of course, the concept of a voting bloc is nothing new in Survivor. Offering themselves up as a voting bloc is a standard tactic for the minority and one with a respectable amount of success. Does Stephen himself really believe that this is an evolution of strategy, or is this just a sly reference to Rob and Josh’s audiobook?

I’m sure every player wants to believe their season to be a great one with unprecedented gameplay, and it’s certainly possible that Stephen has been influenced by his own wishful thinking, yet by that same token, this makes the notion of an evolving game a strategy in itself. It’s become clear in recent seasons that players would like to make ‘Survivor History’—what better way than to innovate a new tactic? Ciera kept imploring the other players to start playing. Stephen told them that they were about to take Survivor to the next level. Which one do you think the other contestants were readier to agree with?

So the truth of what Stephen was saying is less important than if the other players believed it. But Survivor has always been defined by what other players believe. Reality isn’t as important as perception because perception becomes reality. We roll our eyes at Jeff’s insistence that big moves are how you play the game, because history has proven that small moves are more successful. Yet the players have had the JP rules drummed into them so often that they have started voting accordingly. The last few seasons have all been won by “Go big or go home” strategies, and this season looks set to continue that trend. Are voting blocs about to become the new ‘big move’?

Between a Voting Bloc and a Hard Place

Stephen first started talking about evolution in regards to the lack of a hierarchy in this game—insisting that nothing was as cut and dry as somebody being on top and somebody being on the bottom. Again, this isn’t that new—half of Survivor is leaving the bottom feeders with hope, many a player has fondly believed that they are the one who is really in control of the game, and nobody ever won without a hefty dose of luck.

Still, Stephen identified the voting blocs within the sprawling alliance of nine, and after the walking strategy-deterrent, Andrew Savage, was bounced from the game, Stephen made his move. He couldn’t get Joe out, but Joe had already lost one close ally in Savage, and taking Kelly away would weaken him further. Kelly had talked about a sub-alliance that excluded Jeremy and Spencer; the Witches’ Coven were willing to vote out anybody from the dominant alliance. Stephen added these two blocs together to make a new majority.

That Tribal Council, he and Ciera voted with each other; three days later, they voted for each other. That’s the second edge of the voting bloc sword.

The trick to voting blocs is having allies loyal enough to help you through the fallout of the vote. Stephen’s results on that score were mixed, but despite what the edit (and Savage) would have us believe, he had some very strong relationships. He was tight enough with Kimmi that she accepted the Kelly blindside and voted with Stephen the following Tribal Council. He was tight enough with Jeremy that Jeremy played an idol for him—Savage didn’t get that kind of devotion!

Less forgiving, Tasha voted for Stephen the night Ciera went home. However, Stephen and Tasha had been in cahoots at the beginning of the game, and Stephen managed to regain her trust before he was actually eliminated.

Cross her at your peril.                          Cross her at your peril.[/caption]

Obviously, his reward challenge picks got Stephen in trouble, but I disagree that they were a mistake. Stephen needed Tasha back on board to regain his majority—whether that was his actual alliance or simply his next voting bloc. (By this token, throwing the reward challenge would have been a mistake too.) Giving her the reward was an apology for leaving her out of the loop as well as a gesture of forgiveness for her vote against him. Jeremy was simply a safe pick, since you had better take the person who played an idol for you. (Jeremy also falls under Stephen’s theory that if you don’t take your allies on reward, they don’t stay your allies.)

Spencer complained, but that felt more like sour grapes than a legitimate observation. You can criticize those picks, but there is no right pick, and I think the advantages of winning back Tasha outweigh the risks of picking her. (For more insight on the reward and this week in the game, I can’t do better than point you to Stephen’s own blog.)

Of course, while Spencer hadn’t been betrayed by Stephen, he had also voted against him the previous Tribal Council, and it could be argued that he was also a safe, neutral pick as the second place finisher. But between Spencer and Tasha, I’d assume it would be easier to talk Spencer around. It’s been well documented that Tasha couldn’t bring herself to even talk to Kass after her flip in Cagayan, while Spencer was at least open to discussing a potential alliance. I’m sure it was that logic over emotion that Stephen was fooled by. It appears that Spencer (and probably everybody else) had assured Stephen that Ciera had been the driving force behind that vote.

What surprises me is that Jeremy didn’t tip him off. Even if Jeremy also believed that Ciera was the main culprit, he knew the full extent of Spencer’s concerns about Stephen because they’d argued about it. Why didn’t he warn Stephen or otherwise work on soothing Spencer? No doubt Jeremy didn’t want to spread dissent and paranoia in his own alliance. He gave Stephen an idol, but he withheld that vital information. Stephen might well have taken the same people on reward, but we can assume he would have put more effort in with Spencer and/or decided against splitting the vote.

What Stephen failed to realize was that to his fellow “game-bot” he was a bigger threat than Joe or Jeremy, especially when he was making these moves between voting blocs (and pipping Spencer to game advantages). It’s not entirely clear how the jury would have received him, but Stephen was playing the game Spencer wanted to play.

Foot, Meet Ball

I have always pegged Spencer as a conservative player; he wants to make the big move, but he’s too cautious. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it makes him less dangerous than somebody like Malcolm who’ll upset the apple cart in the hopes that it might advantage him. All through Cagayan, Spencer skulked in the minority, going along with somebody else’s plan. This season didn’t look to be any different… until this pair of episodes when he finally went for the big move and somehow pulled it off when Joe was free to be targeted.

There’s a lot of controversy over that call. It took five immunities for Joe to lose one, and he wasn’t far off a fifth win. It is perfectly conceivable that he could win the remaining immunities—but still improbable. Mike might have won last season that way, but Terry, Ozzy and even Spencer himself can attest that it’s not a reliable plan. (It’s worth noting that if, like Stephen, Spencer thought there was a good chance Joe had an immunity idol, he might have wanted to fry bigger fish than Abi.)

Spencer can’t guarantee that he’ll get another chance to vote Joe off, but the odds are better than those of getting a chance to break up a foursome after final nine. Stephen, Tasha, Jeremy, and Kimmi might have considered Spencer their ally, but Spencer didn’t want to play with them, and I suspect that the most underrated of Survivor variables, age, was at play here. The age range between Stephen, Tasha, Jeremy, and Kimmi are all in their late thirties / early forties, with an age range spanning just six years. Our young lad, Spencer, is fourteen to twenty years younger.

Of course, this season skewed old from the start, with only four players in their twenties—the first of them was voted off this week: Ciera. How much of a coincidence is it that Spencer’s newest voting bloc (or is it an alliance?) includes the four youngest players of the season? With Stephen’s alliance, three of which were respected power players in their own right, Spencer could never hope to be more than an intern. With Kelley, Joe, Abi, and Keith, Spencer can stake his claim to leadership.


                             Searching for Joe’s flaws

This won’t necessarily be a moot point if Joe reaches the end. As Colby and Ozzy proved, an immunity streak doesn’t guarantee a victory. One of the best ways to deal with an immunity threat is to undermine their status with the jury. Kelly would probably vote for Joe regardless, and Spencer is unlikely to win Savage over with the argument that would persuade other jurors, but the fact remains that Joe has yet to vote anybody out of this game. He can claim that his social game let him dodge the vote, but how does that square with his insistence the previous Tribal Council that if he lost immunity, he would be gone?

There’s a lot of game left to play, and Joe could improve his résumé, but equally, Spencer’s got the time to sideline Joe and make him a running joke rather than an actual contender. Chances are, he’ll be able to vote Joe off anyway, but turning Joe into his own personal goat would be an even better move.

I won’t deny that Spencer losing to Joe in the finals is an entirely plausible outcome of this move. However, had he not made the move, the outcomes of losing to Tasha, Jeremy, or Stephen were at least as plausible. In the end, I like the call… I hate that it took Stephen out, the last of my three favorites, but if Stephen wasn’t going to win, then I’d rather he were on the jury than a losing finalist for a second time.

The Big Semantics Question

This is what the game now hinges on: is the majority an alliance or a voting bloc? Ironically, this group is precisely the group Kass was trying to bring together at the merge: her Ta Keo Five plus Spencer and Abi—yet another strike against Joe when it comes to the jury. His dithering at the merge achieved very little except to almost give Stephen’s group the crack they needed to take over the game completely. Perhaps Joe benefits from Kass’ departure, or Ciera’s, but the others could present events as bringing Joe back into line after he tried to turn the tables on them– none more so than Kelley Wentworth who got out Joe’s biggest champion, Savage.

Kelley has a good working relationship with everybody in the current majority (perhaps with everybody in the game). In fact, everybody in that voting bloc might be closer to her than they are to anybody else, so it’s most definitely in her best interests to keep this as an alliance, but that’s also why everybody else should be treating it as a voting bloc (though Joe, perhaps, should take what he can get.)

Tasha declared that voting blocs were done when she believed that her alliance had taken the majority. Her feelings on the issue may have changed since Stephen’s torch got snuffed, and with her performance at Angkor and throughout Cagayan, we know she’s not going to go down without a fight. That said, she was the secondary target the night Stephen went home… The majority is already wary of her.

Is the same also true of Jeremy? Keith, of all people, talked about Jeremy going next, but as much of a Nale-Fan as I am, I don’t give too much credence to Keith’s perception of the game. To us, knowing that Jeremy has another idol in his pocket, and tearful confessionals about his pregnant wife on standby for his winner’s montage, it’s harder to believe that they wouldn’t target Jeremy, but the fact remains they haven’t. If the in-game perception was that Stephen was the greater threat, perhaps we underestimated Stephen’s chances of beating Jeremy in the finals. But Jeremy’s been playing a good social game too… he’s kept his working relationships with everybody open this time around, he’s not stood out in the challenges, and now that he’s played his idol, people are less likely to suspect that he has another.


                    The New Frontrunner / Target

Jeremy’s idol might be his best bet to change their fortunes, since chances are the majority will stick together to get out at least one more threat before changing tacks again. If he can draw the votes to himself and play his idol, he can take out Spencer or, better yet, the lynchpin, Kelley. With neither side having the numbers to split the votes, this brings up the tantalizing possibility of both targets playing their idols, nullifying all votes.

Of all Stephen’s allies, Kimmi is the player most likely to stick around, but it’s unlikely she’ll have the wherewithal to pull anything off. She was well-positioned as an informer, until she left camp at the wrong time. (I hope that was for a confessional and not to go clamming—considering how long Kimmi’s been at that beach, are there even any clams left?) Her relationships with the current majority must have soured after they split the votes between her and Stephen the night Ciera went home, and nobody’s going to put her in the loop until they feel confident they can trust her.

Of the majority, Keith is probably the best chance the minority have, in part because of that age variable. Keith has made a few references to getting rid of the golden boy, and he noted this week that Spencer and Joe are the players to beat in immunity, which makes it all the more surprising that he voted with them. Yet Keith is the kind of player who goes with the options presented to him rather than creating his own. On his original tribe, he agreed to be part of the Bayon Alpha alliance. On Ta Keo, he was enthusiastic (i.e. spitting) over their final five, but he abandoned that at the merge and has simply tagged along with the majority ever since. Had Stephen’s group reached out to him and kept him close, he would probably have voted with them. He could be talked around again, but it’s not clear who holds the most sway with Keith.

If Keith’s loyalties are better suited to short-term voting blocs than a long-term alliance, Abi was born for voting blocs. Even this episode, she was getting antsy about Spencer and Joe, and if the minority are looking for somebody to flip, Abi must be in their sights. Yet I think approaching her could be more trouble than it’s worth. They split the vote between Joe and Abi, and we all know how Abi feels about her name being written down. When you’re in the minority, it’s best to stay under the radar, but Abi doesn’t care to keep her conflicts under the radar. If Tasha tries to whisper sweet nothings into Abi’s ear again, she might find herself the center of an in-camp explosion.

This puts the game back into Spencer’s hands. Jeremy and Tasha need to reconnect with him, to talk up the threat of Joe or Kelley and swear up and down that they want to go to the end with him. That means forgiving him his most recent transgression. Tasha might well see this flip as comparable to Kass’ in Cagayan—I wonder which she’ll forgive first.

Yes, Virginia, There Is an Evolution

I could make a hundred different predictions about what is likely to happen, but the only thing I’m confident about is that voting blocs will remain. Yes, Stephen started this new attitude and emphasis on temporary voting blocs, and it didn’t work out for him. But many strategies failed on their first introduction and were honed later. Remember when Cao Boi pitched the idea of flushing the hidden immunity idol with a split vote to the person who actually had the idol? Or when Rob Cesternino changed the entire face of the game while failing to win Amazon? Even Rob’s strategy of gathering the bottom-feeders had its roots in T-Bird’s refusal to accept her fate and cooperate with the majority in Africa.

Of course, the usual laws of Darwinism apply. Not everything that happens on Survivor is going to reappear and be refined. Some plans are just dumb. But voting blocs are too useful a tactic. Viewers of The Genius have seen how a game can function with no alliances but ever-changing voting blocs. I don’t believe either Spencer or Stephen are Genius fans, but at the rate Survivor is drawing from the online community, somebody with a working knowledge of The Genius will be on the show soon and ready to implement some of those tactics.

Of course, as we have repeatedly noted, voting blocs have been around since the dawn of Survivor. Richard Hatch even used the term in the first season. Somebody’s going to pull out a win from these shifting dynamics, and maybe this kind of jumping around will become more prevalent, but is this season really marking a developmental milestone? What has Stephen done that nobody’s ever done before?

There's that ray of hope!

                               There’s that ray of hope!

Answer: He’s introduced ‘Voting Bloc’ to the Survivor lexicon.

Obviously, he didn’t coin the term. Many of us have been using it for years on blogs, podcasts, and social media, and it gets mentioned now and then on the show itself. But it wasn’t part of the casual vocabulary until Stephen used it about fifty times in one confessional. That episode, it rolled off Jeremy’s tongue about as comfortably as ‘sub-alliance’ rolled off Keith’s in San Juan Del Sur.

Now everybody’s using the term, and while none of us can quite agree on the exact definition, it’s going to be defined (and quite probably redefined) for seasons to come.

It’s a form of linguistic relativity. People from different areas of the worlds are better or worse at distinguishing between two colors, depending on whether there is one word for them in their language or two. Ever since Borneo the term for a group of people working together on Survivor has been ‘alliance’. Now there is ‘voting bloc’ so players must learn to distinguish between the two. More new terminology will likely needed… Are you really ‘flipping’ on an alliance if you plan to go back to it for the next vote? And will such behavior go from intolerable to accepted as quickly as alliance-making did?

Maybe I’m wrong, and in a year’s time, nobody will be talking about voting blocs anymore, but considering how much more exciting than alliances they are, Jeff Probst would be wise to promote them. Ultimately, I think this will be Stephen’s legacy, and if you’re not going to win Survivor, isn’t changing the face of the game the next best thing? (If not better.) Certainly, for an English major, increasing the game’s vocabulary can only be a personal triumph.

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