Critical Play: Is this game balanced? – Survivor

Despite Survivor having 40+ seasons, I watched my first season earlier this year and to my surprise became hooked by how interesting of a game it was. 

Rules (skip if you’ve seen Survivor):

In the game of Survivor, sixteen or more players, split between two or more “tribes”, are taken to a remote isolated location and are forced to live off the land with meager supplies for 39 days. Frequent physical and mental challenges are used to pit the teams against each other for rewards, such as food or luxuries, or for “immunity”, forcing the other tribe to attend “Tribal Council”, where they must vote off one of their tribemates. Signaling the halfway point in the game, survivors from both tribes come together to live as one, making it to the “merge”. At this point, survivors will compete against each other to win individual immunity, which prevents that player from being voted out at Tribal Council. Most players that are voted out after the merge form the game’s “jury”. Once the group gets down to two or three people, a Final Tribal Council is held where the remaining players plead their case to the jury members. The jury then votes for which player should be considered the “Sole Survivor” and win the show’s grand prize. 

In my opinion what makes this game so interesting to watch is how balanced it is between strategies. That is, while there are certain specific strategies that help players get further in the game, like having an alliance, there is no optimal strategy that guarantees a player an advantage over the other players. This is because of the three game mechanics mentioned above: Tribal Council (TB), the jury, the merge. 

Firstly, weaker physical players get voted out early as they don’t help win immunity challenges and drag the tribe down. However, a player that is too much of a physical threat helps the tribe win challenges, but puts a target on their back since after the merge, they are more likely to win a lot of immunity challenges. Similarly though, a player who is not physically threatening is less likely to get voted off near the merge, as other players will deem them easy opponents in individual immunity challenges. Therefore a player must balance being useful but not threatening in challenges.

The same goes for players that are too aggressive in their social strategies (scheming; making alliances): they are too threatening, and get voted off early. One potential work-around for players trying to be socially aggressive is to simply vote off your enemies or blindside your friends before they have a chance to vote you off. This is where the jury comes in to counterbalance that strategy. If everyone in the jury has a personal grudge against the aggressive player they can simply choose to not vote for them at the end. 

One may say that a better strategy would then be to simply be friends with everyone, and then no one will vote you off, and people will vote for you in the jury since they like you. This strategy is counterbalanced not by the jury but TB. If other players sense that you are too likeable and likely to get votes at the jury, they’ll vote you off before you even get to plead your case. Well then, perhaps the best strategy is to simply lay low, let other players do the hard work and get punished for being too friendly or too aggressive, and simply sneak your way to the final TB. This strategy is counterbalanced by the jury. People who do this simply don’t get votes at the end as other players deem that they did not make enough “big moves” to deserve the win. 

These are simply some of the basic dynamics that arise as a result of the fundamental mechanics of Survivor which make the game an incredibly difficult one of trying to balance many different variables such as keeping and maintaining alliances (fellowship) and winning immunity challenges and social engineering (challenge). Furthermore, these mechanics make Survivor a very balanced game where (as they always say) “anything can happen!”. There isn’t any one most optimal strategy, which leads to incredibly diverse play styles that make the game very interesting to watch, and I can only imagine how fun it would be to play. If you haven’t seen Survivor, give it a shot!

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