Survivor: Cambodia

The Survivor Strategic Game: Why It Worked

It’s sometimes difficult to really delve into the strategy of a Survivor finale, particularly when everything goes according to plan. Last season, Mike Holloway had a single path to victory and followed it. Jeremy also won a convincing win and technically played a perfect game. Even so, it was hardly a simple road. Despite the lopsided 10-0 win, few things went according to plan in Cambodia. Power players emerged and were quickly dispatched, while others hung back and waited for the right moment. The extra twists and shake-ups were frustrating for the leaders but kept everyone on their toes. It took real skill to navigate such a tricky game.

This week’s very satisfying finale included one of the show’s greatest Tribal Councils and barely took a breath in the rush to the finish. Three different players won immunity, tears were shed, and no one backed down. There were no horrible gaffes at the Final Tribal Council, and the jury mostly avoided the bitter route. Kimmi emerged from a quiet edit to nearly dethrone the champ while Keith remained his unique self. Spencer and Tasha made a strategic error by sticking with Jeremy, but both showed real determination throughout the season to make the end. To put it mildly, I enjoyed this season.

Jeremy was all smiles this week and took home the top prize. Jeremy was all smiles as he took him the million.[/caption]

It’s tricky to compare this season to others because certain parts were unprecedented. We’d never had a fan vote to choose a cast or so much pre-gaming out in the open. There were quite a few twists, and the show continued to evolve. On the other hand, there were old-school moments through brutal weather, physical deterioration, and raw emotions. No one quit even when the odds were against them. There was less posturing for the camera, and it was just cool to see this cast again.

So what made this season work? There were a few average episodes, but even those had enough personal moments to keep them interesting. To be fair, the edit was still a bit too obvious and telegraphed some exits by sidelining Kimmi and Keith. I also would have enjoyed a few more unique challenges, particularly in the finale. On the other hand, the season just clicked right from the start. It felt epic without losing sight of the relationships that drive the votes. There were heroes, villains, and wild cards, and few fans could agree on who fell in which camp. Summarizing this season’s success isn’t easy, so I’ve boiled it down to the most basic categories. Let’s take a look at the reasons why the cast, the twists, and the strategy truly delivered this time.

The Cast

It’s a little deceptive when Jeff claimed the fans picked this season’s cast. Admittedly, we were choosing from a limited pool. There was no option to pick Chicken or Lil for a second chance. I also expect the producers were confident they could project a majority of the cast before the votes. Regardless, this format raised the stakes. Players repeatedly spoke in their exit interviews about disappointing their fans. It wasn’t just about winning the million. No one wanted to walk meekly to their demise. Kimmi’s choice to go after Jeremy was a perfect example. She was in little danger at the final six, and Keith would have probably left if she’d stayed quiet. On the other hand, there was a game-changing potential for Kimmi if her plan worked.

Bringing old-school players like Kimmi back to compete helped make this season work.

Bringing old-school players like Kimmi back to compete helped make this season work.

What made this cast shine was having such a unique mix of players. Old-school contestants like Varner and Kimmi had waited so long and brought real passion. Kelly wasn’t thrilling TV, but having such an iconic player made this game feel more epic. A guy like Stephen was still battling the demons of his choices the first time. Even recent players like Jeremy and Kelley didn’t take this chance for granted. You had unemotional strategists trying to work with chaotic tornados like Abi. Even a more one-dimensional guy like Woo wasn’t a dud. The finale showed what can happen when you bring together such a determined group. There was no sense that anyone was just going through the motions, and it pained them to exit the stage.

In simple terms, I just liked watching this cast. Keith was hilarious once again and still looked amazed that he was on Survivor. The ridiculously large jury was filled with characters (including Savage’s awful beanie), and the Ponderosa videos were must-see TV. Tribal Council was great fun, and not only when big moves were happening. Spencer hilariously claiming that Kimmi wasn’t a pawn as long as she followed their plans revealed quite a lot in a brief moment. It was an arrogant statement that re-enforced her feelings while trying to calm them. I mention this example because it’s just one of many. This group brought it and fought through every vote.

The Twists

An obvious reason for the voting blocs and unpredictable results were the frequent swaps. In particular, switching to three tribes after two episodes really shook up the status quo. It forced Tasha and Savage to connect with Abi and undercut parts of the Bayon core. There’s a risk in having too much producer interference, but it felt necessary in this type of season. Pre-game alliances were in place because of the public vote. Players had weeks to make deals while campaigning to return. The producers wanted to ensure that a strong alliance wouldn’t control the game. The early merge at 13 also brought more chaos during a potentially dull time.

Kelley proved all season that she was a power player.

Kelley proved all season that she was a force.

Another huge factor was the hidden immunity idols, which worked because they remained a mystery. Having Jeremy and Kelley find them also worked in production’s favor. This wasn’t a case where the idol basically leapt out and grabbed Keith like in San Juan Del Sur. Putting the idols at challenges was brilliant and helped build tension in contests that aren’t always thrilling. Beyond their ability to change the game, the idols delivered great drama. Watching everyone’s shocked faces when Kelley turned the tables on Savage was a classic moment. Finding idols in a weird tree had become standard; mixing up the formula was needed to make them exciting again.

I’m still not sold on the vote-stealer as a great advantage, but it did lead to exciting moments. The big question is whether the edge outweighs the danger of the information being public. Stephen’s fate supports the idea that it’s best to avoid this trap. I’ll be interested to see if we see this type of advantage again. Next season’s players won’t be aware of Stephen’s fate, so there’s still a chance it will get another shot. Will a third player fall victim to the curse? Regardless, I don’t mind the producers injecting a bit more variability into the mix with this extra twist.

The Strategy

Spencer was a big part of the constant shifting of alliances.

Spencer was a big part of the constant shifting of alliances this season.

You can call the voting blocs a new evolution of strategyTM or just a more fluid kind of alliance. Regardless, the acceptance of the constant shake-ups kept everyone on their toes. My predicting skills were even worse than usual, and I didn’t just lose my edge. It was difficult to read this group because of the frequent shifts. For example, Spencer joined Stephen’s plan to vote out Kelly and then went after him in the next week. After saving Joe and removing Stephen, Spencer turned around and voted against Joe the next time. There are plenty of other examples of this trend. Falling on the wrong side of the numbers wasn’t a death sentence until the final run.

Prior to the game, players like Kass, Joe, and Stephen seemed to have little chance because of pre-conceived notions. Kass was too unpredictable, Joe was a physical threat, and Stephen was a strategist. Amazingly, all three made the merge. Part of their success was through luck and team challenges, but each had a chance to take a real shot. Many identified Vytas as a tough competitor who could make waves, and he went out first. It was exciting to realize early on that we wouldn’t just see the obvious targets going early, however. This wouldn’t be another Survivor All-Stars. The fact that Jeremy was rarely targeted and won supports the difference.

Keith and Kimmi weren't able to pull off their play, but it led to an amazing Tribal Council.

Keith and Kimmi weren’t able to pull off their play, but it led to an amazing Tribal Council.

Before closing out this season, I have to spend more time on the big Tribal Council. Kelley actually might have succeeded if she hadn’t played the idol. If we assume that Jeremy only used his idol because of Kelley’s play, we would have seen a 3-3 tie. If the deadlock led to rocks, Kimmi, Keith, and Tasha would have gone to rocks. It would have been identical to Blood vs. Water but with no Redemption Island. The chances of success for the underdogs were only 33%, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

If Kelley had planned to play her idol and was certain she was the sole target, another move was splitting the three votes between Jeremy and Tasha. Putting one vote on Tasha would have sent her “to the house”. It’s fun to consider the different options, though I can’t blame Kelley’s group for not going this route. They had no idea that Jeremy had a second idol, and I doubt anyone considered the rules in this rare situation. It’s the kind of scenario that’s unlikely to ever happen again because so many variables were involved in creating it.

What’s Next?

Jeff teased season 32 during the reunion, and it looks even more brutal than this one. Most fans already know the cast, which includes a Big Brother player and former RHAP blogger. I loved the Second Chances group, but it will still be fun to meet new players. I’m curious about when Survivor will bring back the fan vote. This spring feels too soon, but it wouldn’t shock me. A more likely move is using it for season 35, but they may want to keep up the momentum now. Players are coming out of the woodwork already to pitch for a second chance, and it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

I’ve been thrilled to connect with all of you this season and debate my incorrect picks. While a short break will be refreshing, I’ll be ready to roll for the fifth time when Survivor returns in February. I’m amazed at the show’s longevity and believe we’re in store for a lot more greatness next year. Happy holidays!

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