Survivor: Worlds Apart

The Survivor Strategic Game: Conform or Die


When players give their pre-game interviews, they talk about making big moves, deceiving other players, and dominating the game. What’s rarely discussed is a much simpler concept — conforming. Survivor gives you the opportunity to control your fate, but you’ll never get there without making strong connections in your tribe. Rare personalities like Boston Rob or Russell can enforce their will on a group, but that only works with certain people. It’s easy to arrive on the island with a burst of adrenaline ready to be the greatest player of all time. Many have believed in that plan and departed very quickly.

The term “social game” downplays the extreme difficulty in getting along with others. It’s one thing to deal with a tough co-worker in an office. Imagine spending 24 hours a day with them. Recent seasons have shown failures with this basic ability. Lindsey in Cagayan pulled herself from the game because she wanted to beat up Trish. She wasn’t in a great spot after Cliff’s departure, but her fate could have changed at the merge. A positive example is Cochran in the Caramoan, who found ways to connect with wild cards like Phillip and goofballs like Eddie. His likability was as important to his victory as any strategic moves. Conforming to the make-up of his tribe was crucial.

Nina’s exit may have been pre-written by the make-up of the No Collars. She was much older than the others and had a very different background than her fellow tribe members. Even so, Nina made it way too easy for them to write down her name. She yearned for acceptance but didn’t seem willing to change her personality to connect with others. That’s the main lesson from Nina’s experience in this game. The early boots are frequently people who didn’t connect with their group and made camp life difficult. This show has changed so much in 30 seasons, but the importance of forming social bonds remains critical.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Nina wasn't able to bond with pals Hali and Jenn on the No Collar tribe. Nina wasn’t able to bond with pals Hali and Jenn on the No Collar tribe.[/caption]

Last week, Nina went to Tribal Council expecting to watch Jenn exit the stage. Will’s choice to vote out Vince made her the obvious next victim and revealed limited options. Her only chance was to show that losing Vince was no big deal. She needed to conduct a full-fledged marketing campaign that screamed “I’m one of you!” Instead, Nina made the worst possible choice and accepted her fate. Her simple request was to not feel like an outsider. I’m certain that she was upset and not making a strategic move. On the other hand, there were opportunities to make the case about Will’s exhaustion. Her tribe mates weren’t going to listen because Nina wouldn’t conform. There was no indication that Joe and Jenn could trust Nina as an ally after the tribe swap. She made herself a free agent and kept a huge chip on her shoulder.

A perfect example of how to play this moment was Natalie’s reaction to Jeremy’s departure last season. She was furious about the betrayal yet acted like it wasn’t a big deal. The others had no idea that Natalie was holding a grudge. That situation was a little different because she had built up solid relationships before that point. Even so, Natalie could have torpedoed her game by freaking out after the vote. She was willing to eat spaghetti on a bed with Jon and Jaclyn! It takes a serious gamer to put aside pride and play the long game. The stakes were lower for Nina, but her lack of effort just confirmed others’ suspicions.

The other No Collars spent the episode trying to reassure Nina that she wasn’t doomed. Joe told her to “Just keep playing”, and Hali said “Don’t quit before it’s over.” They may not have intended to keep Nina, but I don’t believe it was set in stone. Will had voted differently from the plan, and losing Vince possibly cost them the challenge this week. Joe talked about his lack of trust in Will, so the cracks were there. Nina didn’t see the openings until it was too late, however. A simple choice not to eat the lizard reinforced that fact. It’s a simple rule in the early game. If your tribe mates ask you to join them in an activity, you do it. They were reaching out to Nina and trying to connect, but she didn’t see it. In her interview with Rob, Nina blamed the loss on being deaf and older. While those were definitely factors in her exit, those challenges also necessitated that she try even harder to connect with the tribe.

The decision to send Nina ahead in the challenge was a head-scratcher. Joe took credit for the gaffe and deserves it, but I’m not letting Nina off the hook. In this situation, the idea of conforming to the tribe’s plans doesn’t really fit. There’s a time to speak up and recognize the strategic mistakes. They were literally short-handed against the other tribes in stopping the water. Nina’s status as an outsider certainly played a role in Joe’s unconventional choice. Her lack of confidence in other areas connected with the decision to push her aside in the challenge. It was dumb and assured their loss, but the logic makes sense given her experiences thus far. I hate to be too hard on Nina, who was following the others’ lead. She meant well and wanted to get along, but her inability to bond spurred her exit.

Hard Work Is Overrated

Winning the challenge was a rare bonding moment for Mike with the rest of his tribe.

Winning the challenge was a rare bonding moment for Mike with the rest of his tribe.

This episode’s highlights took place with the Blue Collars and their hard work battles and inappropriate jokes. Mike takes his work ethic very seriously and credits the “man I call dad” for instilling it. That approach is great in real life, but it’s deadly on Survivor. Players need to understand the personalities of their tribe mates. Escameca isn’t a lazy tribe but doesn’t feel the need to constantly work. Mike believed in Jeff Probst’s description of “blue collar” and didn’t realize it’s a marketing spiel. No one wants to be the killjoy in any part of life. It’s even worse in this game, where you risk becoming a joke that unites the others against you. Individuals who might not get along can bond over their frustrations with Mike. He told them to vote him out, but I’m not sure Mike really believed it would happen. He’s walking a dangerous tightrope and was lucky they didn’t lose the challenge this week.

Mike’s stubborn conflicts revealed his inability to conform to the tribe’s make-up. They weren’t interested in having giant piles of firewood. He’s 38 but came across as much older with his stern lectures. By attacking Rodney and Lindsey, Mike opened up a can of worms about every small slight. Instead of thinking about strategy, they argued over who said thank you. Rodney’s “cool, calm, and collective” strategy was hilarious for obvious reasons, but his approach worked because Mike looked ridiculous. It’s a battle for leadership, and Rodney has the clear upper hand. He understood that who’s doing the most work means nothing for success in the game. It’s about forming bonds and finding ways to connect with others. The way to move forward is through relationships, not carrying trees.

On the other hand, Rodney’s cool approach fell short when dealing with an unfortunate joke from Dan. A note to future Survivor players: keep moms out of the off-color quips. This moment showed how Dan was trying to integrate within his tribe. He recognized that it’s important to connect with the others, even if his methods were awkward. Given how volatile Lindsey and Rodney can be, Dan could benefit if the conflicts keep coming. If he makes the tribe swap, we could blink and see Dan in the top six. The Blue Collars’ success in challenges has made them forget about his earlier mistakes. By conforming enough to not be the obvious target, Dan gave people like Mike time to take his place. It may not work, but Dan didn’t fold his cards early when the others treated him like an outsider.

We’ve seen little of Kelly thus far, but her approach stands out among the Blue Collars. She’s willing to sit back and watch the bigger characters go crazy. The editors haven’t shown us much, but that isn’t always a bad sign. They’ve yet to visit Tribal Council, so her legwork won’t pay off until that happens. She sees the big picture and isn’t getting involved in petty squabbles. We don’t see Kelly battling anyone, so they won’t be running from her when the tribes mix. I can’t say the same thing about most of the others, except maybe Sierra. Building enemies in the tribe just sets you up for failure after the swap.

Reading the Crowd

Shirin’s enthusiasm for everything in Survivor is endearing; she even pulls a Jon Misch and imitates the howler monkeys. Of course, her tribe mates may not share her excitement. Tyler, Carolyn, and Joaquin have all had enough of her personality, and that’s very dangerous. Shirin has a solid ally in Max and was part of the majority in the first vote. However, their success in challenges might come back to haunt her. Would Tyler and Carolyn set aside the original alliance because they’re irritated? Anything is possible. I’m also not convinced that Max would stick with Shirin if the others pushed for her departure.

Tyler will play a major role in determining the fates of Max and others.

Tyler will play a major role in determining the fates of Max and others on his tribe.

Joaquin didn’t help his case by blowing up towards her, however. Tyler and Carolyn may share his feelings, but they weren’t shouting at Shirin out in the open. He’s probably still upset about losing his top ally, but yelling accomplished little. Joaquin showed the idol clue to Tyler, so he did try to earn his trust. What makes me hesitate in accepting this alliance is Tyler not telling Joaquin about the idol. It’s a smart move from Tyler, who now has options moving forward. If he decides to form a new alliance, Shirin may be in trouble. I don’t sense that she recognizes the danger that’s brewing while they avoid Tribal Council.

Who’s in the best position?

Tyler: This week only solidified my feeling that Tyler will control what happens on Masaya. If he decides to go with Joaquin, Carolyn would probably join him given their bond over the idol. He can also stick with the super fans and vote out Joaquin. No one seems concerned with taking out Tyler. He should also have allies with anyone in his tribe following a trip swap, which puts Tyler in the perfect spot.

Hali is playing a solid game in the middle of her tribe.

Hali is playing a solid game in the middle of her tribe.

Hali: Nina’s departure changed little for Hali, who remains the least prominent part of this trio. The impending tribe swap could determine her fate, but Hali has shown an ability to connect with each personality type thus far. Even if she ends up without her allies, there should be a chance to make new allies because there is so much dissension within the other groups.

Kelly: Although Rodney is the more vocal player in the Blue Collar tribe, he’s also put a target on his back. The person who sits in the background can benefit in a tribe with so much fighting. Kelly sits in the Lisa spot from Tandang in the Philippines and seems a lot more adept at strategy.

Who’s in trouble?

Shirin: This is a toss-up between Joaquin and Shirin, but I’m picking her because she’s annoying others at camp. Her plan to call a truce in the idol search didn’t go well, and only Max is a close ally. She’s at the mercy of the tribe swap, which puts Shirin in a tenuous position. I’m pulling for her to do well, but her spot’s looking a bit shaky at this point.

With Nina out, Will is the obvious next boot from his tribe.

With Nina out, Will is the obvious next boot from his tribe.

Will: This is the most obvious choice; Will must hope for a swap before they lose again. The only saving grace would be him discovering the idol, and we’ve seen little evidence about a search. If Will can make the swap, he could sell his status as a wild card to the other tribes. That position may give him an edge to form an alliance even if the numbers don’t favor him within a new tribe.

Mike: Conform or die, Mike.

This was a predictable episode and had limited strategy. We have spent a lot of time observing the tribal dynamics, however. It wasn’t riveting entertainment, but we’re getting a clear sense of these characters. I’m still waiting for the jaw-dropping moves yet have a good sense of each tribe. The foundation is set for the game to take off next week. The two-hour episode should build the momentum and set the stage for a strong post-merge game. I’m still optimistic that we’re heading for a thrilling middle act. There are few obvious front runners, and even more adept players like Tyler and Kelly are holding back and waiting for the right moment. Success on Survivor is all about timing, and the chance to act is coming very soon.

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