The major story sold to the audience post-merge in Survivor Cambodia was that we were entering a new era of Survivor where alliances were no more and voting blocs would form and dissipate vote to vote. As Kaoh Rong was filmed before Cambodia we've yet to see if this "new" strategy will have any long lasting effects on the game. In today's feature article New Zealand Ozlet Nick Chester contemplates Cambodia's legacy and questions whether voting blocs were a true evolution in Survivor strategy or merely a product of the season. Read on to find out whether voting blocs are here to stay or merely a bump in the road.
‘Things are changing now, not just in this game but I think in the history of Survivor strategy. I think we are seeing an evolution in the way the entire game is played.’ Stephen Fishbach, Survivor: Cambodia
In his exit interviews for Survivor, Gordon Holmes likes to play the word association game with the recently exiled player about their former tribe mates. Its always a fun section of the interview and reveals in a succinct form what the players thinks of others. If you were going to play the word association game about seasons of Survivor, it’s a fair bet that you may come up with Alliance for Borneo, Personal for All Stars and Brutal for Guatemala. The recently completed Cambodia would probably have to be summed up in 2 words: voting bloc. But what does the term really mean? And does Stephens declaration of it having fundamentally changed the game really stack up. Because lets face it, its really not a new phenomenon at all.
Alliance vs. Voting Bloc
I recently participated in an ice-breaker style exercise, the type you do at team building days at work. Everyone walks around a room, until the referee calls out a random number. You must then quickly form a group of that many numbers anyone left out of group is eliminated, the game then continues with people breaking up until another number is called. The game continues until only 2 people remain. The whole discussion about voting blocs in Cambodia reminded me of this game, with people forming many small groups of 2 or 3, and then joining with other sized groups on a temporary basis to survive one vote before breaking away again.
The basic question we have to ask is what was so different in Cambodia that we haven’t seen before? On a very basic inspection, Jeremy and Tasha were in control most of the game, forming a tight alliance around them which was culled through tribe swaps, immunity idols and challenge wins. Over the course of the season, Jeremys primary allies changed but the general idea of keeping his most trusted allies with him didn’t. So why was his season described as a turning point in Survivor strategy? How is an alliance different from a voting bloc? I think in large part, an alliance has been viewed as a permanent structure, till death (or at least the final 5) do us part. It usually forms early in the game and players stick to it for as long as possible. Some have even been formed on day 1 (see South Pacific and One World), where a majority of the starting tribe comes together and sticks together until the end, no questions asked. It is an incredibly effective way to get a group of like minded players to the end as a collective unit. And alliances for the most part are larger groups of 4-5, or even more. This isn’t always the case, but it seems that Survivors move to have more seasons start with 3 tribes was to move away from large alliances forming early and effectively running the game and ruining the entertainment value of a chaotic post-merge. The rise in different terminology in how people form groups to help navigate the game is probably also in part due to a perception that alliances are unbreakable – and if you really want to be successful in Survivor, you better be prepared to be more flexible than that. Jeff’s constant drum beat regarding making big moves has paid off to the point where alliance has once again become a dirty word, but for completely different reasons than it was back in Borneo – then, it was a sign of immoral or offensive gameplay. Now its almost categorised as stupid gameplay.
Voting blocs (or at least the way they seemed to be set up in Cambodia) are less common than a traditional alliance, but what I can see mostly from last season, as well as a few other examples in earlier seasons, they tend to be smaller in terms of size, where pairs or trios will form close groups but are willing to work with other similar groups on a temporary basis to progress in the short term. It works particularly well in All stars seasons where there are statistically more players with a strategic mind-set, and taking the game itself less personally. The sort of life changing and permanent bonds made by players are less common in returnee seasons. But don’t be fooled there were plenty of tight and reasonably inflexible alliances in Cambodia they were just smaller in number think Jeremy and Tasha, Stephen and Kimmi, Savage and Joe, Kass and Ciera. And of course for all the talk of voting blocs being the buzzwords of the season, close behind this was the term Bayon strong. And the two concepts aren’t in competition, but sit alongside each other, able to be swapped and changed as it is useful to the players themselves.
The forgotten history of voting blocs
‘You don’t have to trust someone to have an alliance with them, you just have to have the same interests. You can hate someone’s guts, but if you can help them get farther and they can help you go farther– hey, we’ve got an alliance.’ Burton Roberts, Survivor: Pearl Islands
The idea of what leads to success in Survivor has changed somewhat over the years but the basic idea of get a tight alliance and use it to protect yourself in order to go as far as possible is not new. The infamous BR rules as described by Phillip are a pretty good guide get an alliance, get an alliance inside the alliance and take out your allies before they take out you. Over the course of 31 seasons, these rules have been bent and broken, and its quite clear there is no one way to win Survivor. But the general idea of having a group of players working together towards a common goal and maintaining at least a decent amount of trust will lead to success is still effective. As recently as Worlds Apart., this tactic was used, and ultimately thwarted only by Mikes impressive immunity run. But recent seasons such as Caramoan, Blood vs. Water, One World and South Pacific have all stuck to this same basic formula, if not including a few wrinkles due to hidden immunity idols and individual immunity wins. It’s a great formula for a group of like minded players to get themselves to the end. Where that becomes a problem is when multiple players are motivated and perceptive enough to understand that sticking with a large group may not benefit their eventual goal of winning the game itself, and this is where aligning, at least temporarily with those outside of your core alliance has been used to benefit this. Of course this can be seen as early at the Australian Outback where Tina, Colby and Keith abandon original tribe lines, keeping Elisabeth and Roger around and eliminating Jerri and Amber instead. However, this can probably be more accurately viewed as a permanent new alliance, just one made up of members from two tribes as opposed to one. The Tina-Colby-Keith-Elisabeth-Roger alliance was pretty much set in stone from the final 8. Roger and Elisabeth didn’t seem to try and create an alliance with Amber at the final 7 (along with Nick), although its possible this was just not shown. As such it’s less of a case of voting blocs as we have come to know them, and more teh creation of the first cross-tribal alliance.
Marquesas saw a really good example of small voting blocs combining to form a big enough group to overthrow the dominant alliance. Paschal and Neleh had little in common with Vee and Sean, but saw the long term value in joining them to progress their own game. These two groups, along with Kathy collaborated on four key eliminations but were never a solid alliance, as the final five tribal council can attest to.
I think many people would view Amazon as the season where interchangeable voting blocs was really born, where Rob embodied the concept that you could flip alliances more than once. But for me, I think its not truly a case of voting blocs but more Rob alone moving from group to group when an opportunity arose. Rob has openly stated that had Alex not put his foot in his mouth at the final 7, Rob would happily have gone to the final 4 with him, Jenna and Heidi. So for my money, the first season to really see interchangeable voting blocs was Pearl Islands.
Following Ruperts elimination, it’s hard to fathom that Sandra and Christa would join with Fairplay and Burton, but this is exactly what happens not only that, but Sandra and Christa become the swing votes as Tijuana and Darrah look to get rid of Burton. This kind of flexibility is quite amazing but shows that these players were really in it to win it and Lil aside, they didn’t seem to take it personally. The swings in the game from this point onwards show that the Pearl Islands players were not loyal to one alliance but had their focus on winning the game for themselves, and using whoever remained in the game friend or enemy to move ahead. However, there were some inseparable groups, such as Fairplay and Burton, or Darrah and T, so this idea of “blocs” was completely there, just not in name.
However it was many seasons before we truly saw fluid alliances that could be called voting blocs happened again. Sure, we had changes in the game but largely a dominant group of players loyal to each other would make it to the end. Even tumultuous seasons such as Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains and Cagayan contain a group of players who remain loyal to each other throughout the game.
The reality is that no matter what your views, it’s hard to say that this idea of fluid voting blocs really began in Cambodia. It’s been a feature in many seasons. What makes it more apparent in Cambodia is the player’s ability to articulate it, potentially with the added purpose of not specifically stating they were in an alliance is the real reason it was a major focus of the season. It definitely gave the season a different feeling from nay, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a unique one.
The real catalysts of change
Whenever Survivor ends and a definitive history is written, it will be interesting to note if Cambodia is treated as this critical turning point, or if the roots are traced a little further back. To me, the on-two punch of Cagayan and San Juan del Sur, in such close proximity to an All Star season is the real reason the game appears to have headed into a new trajectory from a strategic perspective.
First, let’s look at Tony. Ever since his win we have tried to get some perspective on what it would mean for the show and how the game is played. I think we are starting to get an answer. Tony is a living embodiment of the “big moves” way of thinking – that you may only get one shot to take out a threat, even if you are currently aligned with them. Vote them out and do damage control with your remaining allies later. Of course this narrative of Tony’s win misses a lot of the real reasons why Tony won. Ultimately, his win can be put down to a great work ethic (both in terms of camp life and finding idols), likeable personality and one of the most perceptive abilities to read other people ever seen on the show. But his instinctual decision making skills had to rub off on future players, and especially those who played with him. You have to believe that Spencer’s decision to blindside Stephen was motivated by a very real belief that if he failed to get rid of him that night, he may not get another shot.
Tony’s influence on the game is well documented, but the role that San Juan del Sur has played is less so. The season was very under-hyped by Jeff and I think the level of strategic acumen of many players had led fans to think less of the season, much less consider it influential. But as time goes on, I think it will be well respected, at least in terms of the actions of its winner, Natalie. Unfortunately for the viewer, much of Natalie’s game was hidden by the actions of various males on the season who became red herrings in terms of trying to pick a winner. Jeremy, Josh and Jon all seemed to be getting a winner’s treatment, all to be knocked out and leave Natalie in a great position. What I like about Natalie’s game and what makes it so influential is the ability to control her own destiny by keeping good relationships with everyone left in the game. It would have been easy for her to go off on her allies for turning on Jeremy, but she quietly seethes and plots revenge, vowing to beat them all in the end. Where blindsided players often vow revenge in a messy way, often burning bridges with potential allies along the way (see Troyzan), Natalie just remained calm and kept open lines of communication with everyone. This enabled her to know about Jon’s idol, and later use Keith as part of her plan – all the while getting respect at the end of the game when it mattered. Natalie’s game had to have a massive influence on Jeremy, and a good reminder that whilst strategic flexibility is hugely important in Survivor, social flexibility and the ability to get along with everyone will ultimately win the day. The lessons learned in seasons 28 and 29 were reinforced through the returnees from those seasons in 31. If a legacy is created from Cambodia, its roots can be traced to the original seasons and winners of the returning players.
Conclusions A blip or a trend?
The final question is whether Cambodia is going to revolutionise the game of Survivor going forward. Now that this idea has been established, are we going to see a more fluid game where players are less locked into a serious alliance and prepared to move freely as best suits their needs from vote to vote? My guess is that it isn’t likely. Given that season 32 was filmed before season 31, you won’t see any direct impact of it in Koah Rong. But it’s quite possible that players in season 33 and onwards may try to implement these types of strategies going forward. The reason I am sceptical of its chances of success in a regular season is that on a season full of new players, you don’t generally have a high level of strategic players, like you do on an all star season. The Returning players seem to be more willing to take risks and play to win, whereas first time players are much more likely to simply preserve themselves for as long as possible, stay in the majority but not look to play themselves into a situation where they can actually win. For such a strategy, being part of a large alliance makes much more sense. However, I think we are certainly in a trend where we are seeing more fans cast on the show, and even those that aren’t fans are taking the time to study it. This is leading us to have more strategically prepared and savvy players on the island, which is exponentially increasing all the time. Since Philippines, we have had a string of seasons where the post merge has had a number of power shifts and blindsides, and this has to be in part the result of players being less satisfied with finishing 5th or 6th, but wanting to actually win. The idea of voting blocs as we saw them in Cambodia may not be particularly high but the idea that players will be prepared to make more risky moves and not blindly stick with their allies from day 1 seems to be more common than ever before. All of this is likely to lead to great TV, so we as viewers will be the real winners in the end. So whilst it may have been described as a game changer by many, Stephens initial description of it as an evolution of what we have already seen feels much more accurate. The game will continue to evolve and players prepared to use temporary connections to advance rather than stick with a large alliance will become more common as time goes on. The legacy of Cambodia is to build on the mistaken belief that big strategic moves win the game. They help – but ultimately strong social connections win the game, regardless of how it is played.
Do you think Cambodias legacy of voting blocs will set a trend for future seasons? Is this strategy more likely in All Star seasons? Will we see a resurgence in unwavering alliances after Cambodias unpredictability? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!
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