Stephen Fishbach's 'Survivor' Blog: Why 'Survivor' Is a 'Game of Emotions' More Than 'a Game of Strategy'

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS

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Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

Erik Reichenbach is a former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.

“People do not forget how you make them feel.” – Sabrina Thompson, Survivor: One World

At last, this season is starting to heat up. This episode, the Survivor swap forces players to scramble for safety, and the show’s new single-serving advantages start to pay strategic dividends.

Have you ever noticed that every single Survivor swap shares one moment in common?

Every swap, across every season, there’s always that moment when Jeff Probst asks the odd person out how he or she is feeling. And they always respond with the same pre-fabricated line.

“Well Jeff, I’m a little nervous looking at these numbers, but I’ve got a great feeling about this new tribe!”

And we are left to wring our hands for this poor solo player, journeying off to a new beach against impossible odds.

Actually, though, the odd person out is often the luckiest one of all. On a three tribe swap, it’s fantastic to be a solo operator. Both of the other two sides will desperately want your vote.

On the new Blue tribe, Healers Joe and Desi are facing off against Heroes Alan and Ashley. That leaves Hustler Devon in the middle – and everybody wants to align with him.

Joe tries to use fear to swing his vote. “[The Heroes] came to us, it was like, why don’t we take Dev out,” he threatens Devon.

But Devon doesn’t buy it. He’s much more inclined to trust Ashley. After all, Devon is a surfer, and Ashley loves the beach. How much more do you need? Devon and Ashley hug to cement their new alliance.

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I know that Survivor champ Jeremy Collins was cringing watching that moment on television. The Collins doctrine states that you should never hug and never shake hands. Never make any grand physical gesture that alerts everybody watching that a new alliance has been struck.

It could have been a sweet blindside, but Desi sees them hug; she tells Joe; Joe decides to make himself a target; and suddenly camp is in chaos.

At Tribal Council, Devon’s vote is made irrelevant, as Devon unwraps the “advantage” bequeathed to him from Jessica on the Red Tribe.

“That is not an advantage,” Devon says, doing his best Keanu.

Giving the (dis)advantage to Devon is a misstep from Jessica. She says in a confessional that her goal is to help the Healers. It would make better sense for her to invalidate one of the Heroes’ votes (Alan or Ashley), thus pressuring Devon to join the Healers in a majority. Is Devon really going to draw rocks for people he just met?

Instead, by invalidating Devon’s vote, Jessica ensures a standoff.

But Joe has an idol, and he correctly reads Ashley’s face and saves himself – sending Alan home.

Single Serving Advantages

The vote cancel is now the second single-serving advantage of the season – an advantage that can only be used at one tribal council, and has to get passed to a member of the losing tribe.

I’m really digging this new advantage structure. One of the problems with advantages has been that that they incentivize players to hold onto them forever. As I can testify, it is very difficult to know when’s the perfect time to play it. Moreover, the big advantages rarely have a significant impact on the game.

By creating single-use advantages, the producers force the players to play them, immediately. Even if nothing happens – as with Ryan and Chrissy’s super idol – they offer opportunities for players across the tribes to communicate, sabotage each other, and develop relationships.

By creating a series of multiple one-offs, the producers are changing what an advantage means. The advantages become strategic tools, not epochal game-changing Death Stars. By shifting both players’ and viewers’ expectations for what an advantage can accomplish, the producers leave a lot of room for experimentation.

I think this is a very fun development, and I hope it goes further.

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Red Tribe

Jessica’s advantage also causes problems for her on her new tribe.

Jessica decides to tell Cole and Dr. Mike about this secret she’s discovered in her bag of chips. She thinks she’s building the bonds in her small group, but she seems to have forgotten that literally three days ago, Cole was running his mouth all over the Island about Joe’s immunity idol.

So once again, Jessica is betrayed by Cole and his promiscuous lips.

“Jessica’s secret is kind of like my olive branch to give to people,” Cole says. “I can extend this information and maybe they’ll see me as more trustworthy because I’ve chosen to tell them something that I had no obligation to in the first place.”

This could be a smart strategy. Information is one of the few ways you can actually prove trust on Survivor. Using someone else’s information to your advantage might be a savvy way to build allies without needing an advantage of your own.

But as with any strategy, so much relies on execution. I thought Cole was smart when he told Ben. But by the time he told Lauren, so that everybody on the tribe knew, it was clear he had overextended himself.

In a classic example of Survivor telephone, Lauren checks in with Dr. Mike; Dr. Mike asks Jessica; and Jessica blames Cole.

Cole ends up looking shady. Worst of all, when Devon inevitably finds out who robbed him of his vote, he will likely hold a grudge. Jessica’s well-intentioned attempt to share ends up harming her game.

Survivor comicCredit: Erik Reichenbach
Erik Reichenbach

Yellow Tribe

The Fishy this week goes to Ryan for finessing his conversation with Chrissy. In an episode where everybody else is mismanaging information, Ryan leverages his perfectly.

Ryan actually could have been in a dangerous position at the swap. The new yellow tribe consists of two Hustlers (Ryan and Ali), two Heroes (Chrissy and JP), and a Healer (Roark). As mentioned, the swing vote is typically not the target, so Roark is likely safe. Ryan could be in trouble merely for his archetype. The small nerdy guy might be considered a strategic threat without being a physical asset.

So it’s crucial that Ryan win some allies. Fortunately, he lucked out to have swapped to Chrissy’s tribe. He approaches Chrissy in the forest, and after establishing the fact that they’re both from New Jersey, he tells her that he was the one who gave her the super idol at the first tribal council.

Chrissy asks him why he chose her.

“I just had a good vibe, and I wanted really to play the game with you,” he says. “It was an easy decision.” Then he gives her a hug.

Who knows if Ryan is telling the truth. Maybe he gave the idol to Chrissy because she seemed weak in the first challenge. Maybe he thought he could save an older player on a young and strong tribe. Maybe he really did just feel a good connection with her.

The important thing is that Ryan makes Chrissy feel safe.

“He made me feel so loved,” Chrissy says. “I feel very, very secure.” The score of soaring woodwinds let you know this is a moment that matters. Survivor is a game of strategy. But even more than that, it’s a game of emotions. How you make someone feel is probably the largest determinant in whether they ally with you, especially on a new player season.

I think Ryan suffers because many people compare him to Cochran. A skinny nerd in distinctive red apparel – what are we supposed to think?

Ryan doesn’t have Cochran’s skills as a storyteller. His awkward metaphors about birthday parties and tricycles don’t come close to, say, this vanilla-flavored gem.

But Ryan is like Cochran in how skilled he is at making other people feel good about themselves. On the Hustler tribe, whenever he spoke to Devon, Ryan mentioned what a great strategic team they were; alone in confessionals, he talked about how he wanted to use Devon as a tool. Ryan made Devon feel like a valued strategic partner.

Like his tribemate Ali, Ryan is expert at making people feel good. If the two work together, they could go very far.

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.

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