With the premiere of Survivor: Blood vs. Water mere hours away, I figured I’d take a look back on some of the seasons that helped define and reshape the game. Sure, some of these seasons might not have been the best from an objective standpoint, but my criteria with this list is in looking for exciting seasons with a high volume of strategic gameplay. Of course, a great game doesn’t always make for a great season, as One World, Thailand, and Panama showed us. Survivor might often privilege big personalities, but it’s always been the strategic component, in conjuncture with those over-the-top characters, that have made for the best, most exciting seasons. So let’s have a look at my top ten. And remember, this is only one Survivor nut’s opinion! Offer your thoughts, analysis, and your own top ten in the comments below! I’ll look forward to reading them!
#10: Survivor: All-Stars
I went back-and-forth on whether this season deserved to be in the top 10 over, say, Survivor: China, which gave the world Gravedigger James and the finalist with the greatest inverse relation between in-game play and jury performance (Amanda Kimmel). However, I ultimately settled on All-Stars’ inclusion for two reason: 1) in many ways it popularized the Armor strategy employed by later winners such as Natalie White (Samoa), Chris Daugherty (Vanuatu) and J.T. Thomas (Tocantins). It’s a strategy whereby a player pairs with someone who takes all the bad rap for the decisions of the pair/group, so that the jury gives them the million in the end by virtue of their partner being so unlikable. Amber let Boston Rob take all the heat throughout the game, and was able to parlay that into a million dollar win when the jury decided that even though Boston Rob did a hell of a job in coming out on top after starting from the bottom, they didn’t want to give him any money for it.
What’s funny is that this is a strategy Boston Rob would later employ himself in Redemption Island, taking Phillip Sheppard and Natalie Tenerelli with him to the end because everyone hated them so much. While Rob likely would have won that season no matter who he’d taken with him, many people were blind to his cutthroat gameplay thanks to the shenanigans of Phillip. Even though he wasn’t playing a strategic game himself, Phillip Sheppard annoyed and infuriated the other tribe far more than Boston Rob ever could have.
The second reason I opted to put All-Stars in the top 10 was for how its success shaped later seasons of the game. It’s doubtful the show would have continually brought back former players if All-Stars had proven to be a dud, from a strategic/dramatic standpoint. Yet it’s arguably one of the most intense seasons in the history of the show. It also went a long way in popularizing the “power couple” dynamic that would make for some awesome television in later seasons (hey there, Survivor: Tocantins!). Even people who’ve never seen a single episode of Survivor could easily get into it. All-Stars took an experiment (put a bunch of well-known castaways back in the game) and, for better or worse, made it a Survivor tradition.
#9. Survivor: The Australian Outback
This was an important season for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the future of the series was banking on the success of this season. Was season one in the summer of 2000 a fluke? Or would the show prove to be a consistent cultural phenomenon? As it turned out, Survivor was every bit as monstrously popular in its second season as it was in its first. However, it’s also one of the most important seasons from a purely strategic standpoint. Tina Wesson introduced a style of gameplay that has often been imitated, but never really duplicated since (hell, Tina tried it on All-Stars and ended up being the first person voted out). Tina is arguably the first Survivor to employ the “Grandma” strategy, essentially flying under-the-radar while endearing herself to everyone, even her enemies, with her warm, motherly personality. In addition, she also would go out of her way to make it appear as though she offered no physical or strategic threat, simply biding her time and making very shrewd moves alongside allies like Colby, who appeared to be an unconquerable challenge beast. In the finale, Colby openly admitted he was likely forfeiting the win by taking Tina to the end, giving up a guaranteed million had he taken along the much-hated Keith. But Tina had so endeared herself to him that he felt she deserved to be taken to the end on principle. That’s how good Tina was.
Of course, Tina’s win also relied on a lot of luck. Had Michael Skupin not fallen into an open fire and been evacuated from the game, Tina’s alliance might not have been able to recover and rally to the end. And really, even the best players need a certain amount of luck to see their strategies realized.
#8. Survivor: Cook Islands
Cook Islands is notable not for its controversial “racially-segregated tribes” mechanic, but for the high-level of strategy employed throughout the season. This is the season that not only gave us two all-time greats in Jonathan Penner and Parvati Shallow, it’s the season that asked the question of whether physical prowess or strategic acumen is more important. Ozzy Lusth played one of the greatest physical games in the history of the show, while Yul Kwon turned in one of the most remarkable strategic performances the series had ever seen up to that point. It was a clash not only of players, but of ideologies.
Ultimately, strategy won the day once it became apparent that while Ozzy’s physicality certainly would take Ozzy himself far in the merge, it was Yul’s strategic acumen that brought the alliance to the end in the first place. Yul was able to turn the fortunes of his alliance, which included Ozzy, around by using the hidden immunity idol to convince Penner to flip and to bring whatever numbers he could with him. It was the first time an idol had been used in such a fashion, though it wouldn’t be the last time. Due in large part to Yul’s quick-thinking, the hidden immunity idol has become an exceedingly powerful game mechanic, used each season to wrest power from the majority while giving underdogs a fighting chance. In winning the game on the strength of this move, Yul made the case for the hidden immunity idol’s inclusion in subsequent seasons, though very few have used its power half as effectively.
#7. Survivor: Tocantins
Tocantins was a remarkable bit of business, loaded with some of the game’s most colorful characters, but also the most strategic. James “J.T.” Thomas is one of the best to ever play the game, if only because he found a way to make Tina Wesson’s “Grandma” strategy work for a guy in his early 20s. J.T. was so well-liked throughout the game that players often turned a blind eye to just what a complete challenge monster the guy was, even players who should have known better (like Tyson and Coach). The season is most notable for making an even greater case for the use of a Power Couple strategy, as J.T. and Stephen Fishbach were like two sides of a coin, with J.T. playing the physical and social aspects of the game, and Stephen taking the kind of analytical approach to strategy that had rarely been seen. Few remember that it was Stephen, and not J.T., who made many of the key decisions on who to align with, who to vote out, and who to keep in for another week. It was these decisions that took the pair all the way to the finals. Of course, in a game where juries often reward social interaction over strategic acumen, Stephen wasn’t exactly rewarded for being the cutthroat player of the two. But then, some would argue that J.T.’s strategy the entire time was to buddy up to people while Stephen cut their throats. At the end of the day, Stephen was the one with the blood on his hands, and J.T. was the one with green in his pockets.
#6. Survivor: Vanuatu
Chris Daugherty gave one of the best jury performances in Survivor history when he essentially set aside his ego and told every juror what they wanted to hear, with apparent earnestness and sincerity, even if it was denigrating to himself. But Chris only got to this part of the game by playing on the feuds within the merged tribe — a tribe at where he was at the bottom of the pecking order by simple virtue of being male. This was the second Battle of the Sexes season after Survivor: Amazon, and the men had been all but eradicated from the game by the time the merge came around. The writing was on the wall for Chris, as it had been at the beginning, where he was pegged for elimination from the very first day after proving to be a challenge liability to the other males of his tribe. But Chris had miraculously came to be the last man standing precisely because he presented no real physical threat. In addition, the women didn’t really perceive him as a strategic threat either. So none of them were expecting him to team up with the women at the bottom of the female pecking order, such as Scout, Twila, and Eliza.
The alliance was able to turn the tables on the majority by spreading rumors and create an air of paranoia and mistrust that caused votes to split, and tables to turn. It was some truly virtuoso work from Daugherty and his cohorts, and it’s all the more important to the game for how it informed later underdog performances. In Samoa, the foursome of Russell, Natalie, Mick and Jaison were able to turn the tables on the majority Galu alliance by creating a similar atmosphere of paranoia and doubt, and the result was that the foursome on the bottom ended up being the foursome on top by the game’s end. In many ways, Vanuatu stood as evidence that the game is never truly lost until your torch is snuffed out or your buff is tossed into the flames. No matter the situation, the game can always be turned around, if even for just a vote or two.
#5. Survivor: Pearl Islands
Pearl Islands introduced a whole new level of deception in the form of a player with a rare lack of shame or self-restraint. Jonny Fairplay’s lie about his grandmother’s death during a loved ones reward challenge was the kind of move that had been unheard of in Survivor up to that point. Even though lying had always been a part of the game, players had often, for some reason, seen reward challenges as somehow being outside the game, particularly when said challenges involved loved ones. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone to lie during a reward challenge before. Yet now there’s no point in the game where players aren’t on their toes, questioning everything their enemies and allies say, whether it’s at camp, at tribal council, during a challenge or on a reward getaway. In addition, it showed just how early you could start playing the game, as Fairplay had set up the lie weeks before even coming out to the Pearl Islands, with instructions for his friend to tell him his grandma had died if he came out for a family reward challenge. In essence, one fib changed the way people approached Survivor.
Even though the lie didn’t win him immunity, it was still a strategically savvy move, as it went a long way in softening others’ opinions of Jonny Fairplay for a time, as he’d spent a large portion of the game being That Guy You Can’t Trust. Of course, this persona ultimately helped him make it further in the game, since Jonny Fairplay was one of the few people who was open about his duplicity. You always knew what you were getting with him, and you couldn’t always say that about other players, some of whom liked to plot in secret (because this is Survivor, after all).
Yet Fairplay wasn’t the only strategic mind out on that island. In addition to divisive fan favorite Rupert Boneham, the season also gave us the only two-time winner, Sandra Diaz-Twine. With Sandra, the “anyone but me” strategy took hold, and it’s the rare kind of strategy that hasn’t really worked out for anyone else but her, showing just the amount of skill it takes to be able to pull off something like that. Sandra essentially approached the game by offering herself as a swing vote to anyone who needed it, constantly switching loyalties and proving herself as changeable in alliance and temperament as Jonny Fairplay himself. Yet where Fairplay lacked the restraint to be able to rein in his ego, Sandra was able to form actual friendships beyond just what she could do for others, or what they could do for her. Despite her acerbic persona in the game, multiple former players, most notably Rupert Boneham, have attested to Sandra’s kind, endearing personality. When you put that kind of personality together with adaptive, self-preservationist gameplay, you have a completely different kind of Survivor. Here is a woman who shunted the long-held Survivor instinct to preserve the alliance. Instead, Sandra’s first, last and only instinct was to keep herself in the game. It was actually genius in its simplicity at the time. Hell, I’d argue it’s genius now, given the number of players who still give primacy to preserving their alliance, even at the possible detriment of their own place in the game.
#4. Survivor: Borneo
The first of anything is always going to be influential, but the first season of Survivor was really a watershed moment in reality television. It introduced a peculiar cross-breed of competition and social experiment that spawned one of TV’s most successful franchises. But beyond what it meant to TV in the 21st century, Survivor: Borneo meant the world to its franchise, as it essentially taught people not only how to play Survivor, but how to succeed at Survivor.
Richard Hatch is seen by many as one of the greatest to ever play the game, and with good reason. It was Hatch that came up with the concept of voting in blocs, forming alliances to control the vote at each tribal council. In addition, he popularized the use of multiple alliances within an alliance. Like spokes on a wheel, Richard had deals with each of his tribemates, with none really knowing about the other deals he had in place. It took a considerable amount of juggling to keep everything from getting out in the open, along with a lot of luck in the form of the feud between Sue Hawk and Kelly Wiglesworth. Richard also had help in the form of a persona as colorful and attention-grabbing as himself, retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch. These different factors, coupled with Richard’s outlandish personality (as he was prone to walking around camp completely naked), allowed him to appear as less of a threat than he clearly was. His skill couldn’t be discounted in those early portions of the game. The other tribe was happy to vote off whoever was weakest in challenges, or whoever did the least work around camp, but Richard would orchestrate the ousters of players who were a threat to him and to his alliance, an idea that hadn’t yet occurred to anyone. At the merge, when he had hard-working, well-liked Gretchen voted out, he justified the decision by declaring that she was too well-liked to keep in. Nobody was thinking about the end game at that point: except for Richard.
Now, we have contestants thinking about the end from Day One (or “Day Zero”, as Blood vs. Water will introduce), while paranoia festers throughout, as no one wants to be a victim to the next Richard Hatch. Castaways are always coming up with new alliances, new plans and contingencies. The legacy of Richard Hatch is Survivor strategy itself.
#3. Survivor: The Amazon
While Richard Hatch more or less invented Survivor strategy, Rob Cesternino refined it. The first of the Battle of the Sexes seasons, Survivor: Amazon was a rollercoaster ride of shifting allegiances, double-dealings, and desperate plays. The season was notable for showing the different levels of socialization between male and female tribes, as the male tribe seemed to descend into a strange Alpha-Beta hierarchy, while the female tribe fostered more of an intellectual suspicion among its members. More than any other season but the first, up to that point, blindsides were the strategic move of choice for alliances.
Rob elevated the preemptive strike to a thing of beauty, as he engineered the blindside of hotheaded Alex, who’d nonchalantly told Rob that he’d vote him out first if it came down to it. Yet Rob was able to take the vitriol against him and turn it into a new alliance, teaming with Heidi and eventual winner Jenna to orchestrate the elimination of other high-value threats, such as deaf Christy. In another instance of the game never being over until the torch is snuffed out, Rob even tried to make a final immunity deal with Jenna during the final challenge, promising to take her to the end if she simply stepped off the balance beam and gave him immunity. These are only a handful of the moves Rob made that elevated the season, and it’s all the more remarkable for how he wasn’t the only person operating at an exceedingly high level.
Jenna Morasca used beauty and likability to overcome the “pretty girl” deficit, proving herself to be more than capable at challenges, while also showing herself to be adaptable at strategy, aiding in the ouster of best bud Heidi when it became apparent that she was a threat to her position in the game. In many ways, Jenna’s game was more complete than Rob’s, since Jenna was never really in any serious danger, despite outward appearances. Her control over the players in her alliance was about more than the fact that she was beautiful or likable, and had everything to do with her willingness to adapt, to hear out the proposals of other players who felt they might have something of value to offer to her cause. Seriously, she had no reason to trust Rob, but she gave him a listen and was savvy enough to recognize that there was merit in axing players like Christy. Moreover, she could use Rob to deflect attention from herself, until she could cut him loose and take someone with less of a valid claim to victory with her to the end. In every measurable respect, The Amazon was an all-time great season.
#2. Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
The first Fans vs. Favorites season saw an unprecedented level of gameplay, as Parvati Shallow showed just to what extent a person could be manipulated, en route to one of the most well-deserved victories in the history of the game. Her “black widow” alliance of women who ensnared unwitting males in one trap after another was an incredibly high-functioning alliance, as they picked off one threat after another until only four remained. Well, four + Erik Reichenbach, who’d won immunity. But never let it be said that the “black widow” alliance ever gave up on voting someone out just because they had immunity. By promising to keep him around if he offered a show of good faith by giving one of them immunity, the alliance was able to get Erik to willingly surrender his immunity, resulting in a momentous blindside that completely reshaped what was possible in Survivor. If a player was good enough, they could find a way around her alliance having to devour itself before it had to. And if a player was gullible enough, the game could be completely turned on its head.
The “black widow” alliance is the representation of everything a high-functioning alliance should be: a five-person dynamic split into a 2+1+2 formation. Parvati and Amanda were the core two, with a third in Cirie to give them a stronger position, while roping in Natalie and Alexis from the Fans as the bumpers to the alliance, loyal foot soldiers used to boost numbers — soldiers who could be dropped or replaced at any time. Together, the group sent Ozzy packing before he could play an immunity idol, then doing the same to lovable goof Jason. Amanda also used a hidden idol, waiting to use it until it would have the greatest effect, playing to rescue herself while eliminating Alexis without actually having to be responsible for voting her out directly.
Once it came down to three, Parvati played on her core alliance with Amanda to convince her to knock off Cirie, and though the jury tore into both players, Parvati eventually won the season by allowing Amanda to take all the blows for the tough decisions throughout the season. It was remarkable to see just how much control Parvati had over her alliance, and just how badly Amanda crumbled in front of the jury when asked to answer for her actions. Parvati was unwavering in defending her game, and earned her million. However, some argue she should have been a two-time winner, given her performance on her next season…
#1. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains
No season of Survivor has ever been as wall-to-wall insane as Heroes vs. Villains, which pitted some of the most conniving players in the history of the game against one another. While most seasons usually take until the merge before lighting up, this season was pretty much on fire from the word “go.” We had Russell feuding with Boston Rob and thwarting “Plan Voodoo” by convincing a paranoid Tyson to accidentally vote himself out. We also had Russell turning Jerri and Coach against Rob, and changing the game by tricking J.T. to smuggle him a hidden immunity idol by intimating that Parvati was running the Villains tribe.
Of course, Parvati actually was running things, producing one of the best strategic games of all-time. In one incredible tribal council, Parvati used her two hidden immunity idols (one of her own, and one she convinced Russell to give to her) to protect both targets in her alliance from the votes by the Heroes alliance, securing a majority for her alliance. But it wasn’t strictly the Parvati and Russell Show, as Sandra’s “anyone but me” strategy clashed with Russell’s cutthroat, scorched-earth play style. The strength of her strategy, once again, was in never appearing to be a threat to anyone. Thus, when Russell won final immunity, he felt he would have a better chance against Sandra, assuming she’d done nothing to really earn her place in the finals, completely ignoring the amount of allies she had on the jury.
At the final tribal council, all Sandra had to do was point out how hard she tried to help the Heroes vote out the villains throughout the game — which was true, although the intel she fed to the Heroes often went ignored, to their detriment. She also argued that she remained true to the core alliance she formed with Boston Rob in the early stages of the game, and remained adaptable only to get to this point. In essence, she did what she had to do without burning any bridges. It was a remarkably subtle game, though not nearly as flashy as Russell’s, or as manipulative as Parvati’s. Sandra won in a 6-3-0 blow-out, though one could easily see the argument that this was the first and only final three so far where every one of the finalists had a legitimate case for the win. Three completely different play styles were represented in that final three, and each one was certainly valid in its own right.
The legacy of Heroes vs. Villains is in what it tells future players of the game, whether they’re newbies or returning castaways: the ability to stay true to the alliances you form early in the game is of prime importance, as is your willingness to adapt to frequent changes in circumstances. Rigidity in a game like Survivor gets you nowhere, as evidenced by Russell’s refusal to soften his social game, and Parvati’s short-sightedness in realizing the amount of damage her association with Russell was doing to her reputation. Heroes vs. Villains was a hell of a season, where everyone was given a clean slate. No one was viewed negatively for having won before (as in All-Stars), nor were friendships formed outside the game considered to necessarily be valid inside the game. It was a free-for-all that represented an evolution in the way the game is played, as the game is always in flux, and those with the best chances of winning are the ones who recognize that changeability and adapt to it. Yes, luck is involved, but the best players are the ones who don’t rely on chance to carry them through. Survivor is about much more than luck. It’s about adaptation.
So what do you think? Sound off in the comments with your own top 10 list, and let us know what you think are the best seasons of all-time! And be sure to come back later tonight for a full recap/review of the season premiere of Survivor: Blood vs. Water!