Two, Three or Four Starting Tribes?


Feature Articles return this week with new Ozlets Jarrod Loobeek and Ivan Ornelas teaming up to bring you a debate about which starting tribe format works best on Survivor. First in the hot seat is Jarrod, who argues that the two tribe format is the best because it increases the rivalry between the tribes, makes come back victories more exciting and the edit is more balance. Ivan then argues that three or more starting tribes is better because it allows a wider range of characters to come out of the game, it makes everyone play the game harder and results in a less predicable season. So read on, pick a side and let us know what you prefer to see in regards to starting tribes on Survivor!

Two Tribes

While starting with three or four tribes can be a refreshing change, there’s something to be said about the dynamic produced by the classic Survivor format featuring two original tribes going head to head from Day One. While the two-tribe format is viewed by some as overused and predictable, I would argue that the advantages it provides far outweigh its negatives and there’s a reason why Survivor keeps coming back to the two tribe method.


Division of Screen Time

By far one of the greatest advantages of beginning with two tribes is the division of screen time between the camps. The basic structure of every Survivor episode revolves around the challenge/s and Tribal Council with the remaining time designated to showing camp life and strategy. In three of four tribe seasons the audience is lucky to get multiple looks at each tribe, leaving less time to fully explore individual characters and indulge in non-essential footage. In the classic two tribe format, there’s plenty of time to cross back and forth between camps multiple times in each episode and more of a chance to get to know each player individually. While combined Immunity and Reward Challenges are not dependant on the number of tribes and have featured in most recent seasons, there tend to be less time constraints in two tribe seasons allowing greater leeway for separate Reward and Immunity Challenges. In my eyes, two challenges per episode easily trumps just one and allows for much greater shifts in momentum.

Greater Tribe Rivalries

Another advantage of the two tribe format is the intense rivalries that can form between the tribes. While it could be argued that these rivalries form based on individual personas and season based gimmicks, there’s definitely a more heated dynamic when it comes to Tribe A vs. Tribe B as opposed to three or four tribes going head to head. The whole ‘Us vs. Them’, do or die mentality just isn’t present when there’s more than two tribes and great tribe rivalries like Koror vs. Ulong or Moto vs. Ravu. Add in back and forth challenge wins like what occurred in South Pacific, these can only really exist when there are two tribes. In addition, the challenges in two tribe Survivor seasons help foster competitiveness and drama between the tribes, with physical one on one type challenges yet to feature during three or four tribe seasons of Survivor.

RivalriesTwo tribe seasons produce better tribe rivalries and allow for more intense one on one challenges.

“Pagongings” Can Be Interesting

While the main argument for the use of more than two tribes is to prevent “Pagongings”, keeping a tight group together from Day One in a two tribe season isn’t as easy as it would seem and can provide a whole heap of entertainment. While most viewers want to see an unpredictable Merge, complete dominance by one side can be still be interesting to watch. In Borneo it was exciting to see the concept of a tribe alliance form and dominate post-merge. In Thailand, it was a great underdog story to see a tribe that had struggled early take control of the game, while in South Pacific it was fascinating to see the consequences of Cochran’s flip and how just one player can completely change the game. On top of this, from a social point of view, I’m always keen to see just how well clear tribe majorities can manage the threat of their members flipping and conceal who is on the bottom of the alliance. While at times frustrating, tightly controlled alliances like those led by winners Rob Mariano and Kim Spradlin showcase the importance of a strong social game. If you really hate “Pagongings” it’s important to note that they can still exist in seasons that start with three or four tribes like All-Stars where post-absorption Chapera, (Amber, Rob, Jenna, Rupert, Tom and Alicia), dictated the post-merge game.

OriginalPagongingThe original Pagonging was fascinating to watch and many others have provided plenty of entertainment as well.

More Exciting Comebacks

One of the best things about the two tribe format is that comebacks are truly exciting. While in three or four tribe seasons, the players who find themselves in the minority early tend to hold the balance of power as the game progresses, in seasons with just two tribes, the tribe behind in numbers after the Merge is well and truly in the minority. In these situations, the players in danger have to scramble to try and drive a wedge between the members of the dominant alliance and triumphant upheavals make for great viewing. Who didn’t enjoy watching the three remaining Jalapao members outwit and unravel the opposing six strong Timbira alliance post-merge? Then there’s Chris Daugherty who was able to overcome the obstacles of a male versus female tribe lines and eventually win Survivor: Vanuatu. Even though he’s far from my favourite player, I was intrigued by how Russell Hantz, (with the help of his Foa Foa tribe mates), overcame an eight to four deficit at the Merge.

JalapaoThreeWatching tribes like Jalapao overcome majorities with twice their numbers is truly exciting to watch and demonstrates the real underdog status of minorities in two tribe seasons.

While recent three tribe seasons like Survivor: Philippines and Survivor: Cagayan, (from what we’ve seen so far), have turned out to be great viewing, I’m still a firm believer that Survivor should keep coming back to the two tribe format. In two tribe seasons we see bigger rivalries, more difficult, thus more rewarding comebacks and increased screen time at each camp. Just when you think Survivor has become predictable, it proves you wrong and I think the two tribe starting formula still has a whole lot more to give.

Three or More Tribes

Twenty-three of the twenty-eight seasons of Survivor so far have featured two opposing tribes at the start of the game. It seems like the default setup for Survivor and it has given us some good rivalries, from Pagong and Tagi in the very first season, then we had Drake and Morgan, Zhan Hu and Fei Long and Upolu and Savaii. There have been so few seasons with three or four tribes that in the seasons leading up to Philippines, many people thought that the idea of more than two tribes were dead and gone. However, having more than two tribes in a season has often been a good thing. Whether or not it makes Survivor more easy or difficult depends on what type of player you’re talking about and it depends a lot on the player’s opinion. This is why there should be more seasons of Survivor with three or four tribes.

survivor all stars castSurvivor All-Stars, the first season with more than two tribes, was a whirlwind of exciting moments one after the next, adding to the joy of seeing some of Survivor’s best players from seasons one to seven.

More tribes allows for more variety and more important and/or memorable characters

ZaneMany of Survivor’s most interesting or unique contestants have appeared on seasons featuring more than two starting tribes, including some who didn’t get far in the game, such as Zane and Cao Boi

Exile Island and Cook Islands multiple tribe format was intended to bring more variety, (in terms of age and ethnicity respectively). In Survivor: All-Stars, we were going to get a lot of players that would make for an interesting season and then in Philippines and Cagayan we got some variety. Let’s look at Philippines. Matsing had two African-American contestants, a sex therapist and three very different contestants in there twenties. Kalabaw had an African-American contestant, a lesbian contestant and two younger and two older contestants. Tandang gave us an African-American contestant, a Hispanic contestant and Lisa Whelchel, a rather famous television actress from back in the day. Cagayan had one third of the cast coming from minority backgrounds and a lot of other interesting players such as Spencer, Kass, LJ, Tony and Sarah; another example of a well-rounded cast. Plus, some of the early boots from three or four tribe seasons, such as Misty Giles, Billy Garcia, Cao Boi Bui, Cristina Coria, Angie Layton, and Sarah Dawson have reasonable fan bases and are memorable players.

Tree or four tribe seasons force players to play the game harder.

PlayHarderEven players with a good understanding of the game or physical powerhouses appear to be especially vulnerable in this format, making the game much more interesting.

In a standard season with two tribes, within the eight to ten members of the tribe there are usually three to four players that are either token weak players or have poor social games and often lead to obvious first or second boots from their respective tribes. This allows certain players to just relax for a few days, thinking they’ll assimilate into a majority alliance by default and go from there. However, with only four to six members on your tribe and with at least one switch and a Merge on the horizon, playing a good social game from Day One becomes a must. The importance of two-way alliances, (Rob and Amber, Malcolm and Denise), is very much increased and it causes some more interesting voting results and strategies, such as Tina Scheer’s and Cliff Robinson’s eliminations. Isolating one person could be deadly and every vote matters. These are the types of games where strategic minds such as Cirie Fields shine.

Less Predictability

DeniseMost winners of these seasons aren’t necessarily pre-game favourites.

Currently the four winners of three or more tribe seasons are Amber, Yul, Aras and Denise. Aside from possibly Yul, I don’t think any of these four were considered favorites to win their seasons but they were involved in some interesting story arcs and journeys to make it to the end. Amber did what should’ve been impossible in making it to the Final Two while being in a romantic relationship, which put a target on her back especially as the numbers dwindled. Aras came from a dysfunctional tribe full of contestants that got on each other’s nerves but he stayed chill and worked his way to the end. Yul received a lot of help from a very strong Hidden Immunity Idol but he played a smart and subtle game at the same time. By the time people realized Yul was a smart player, no one was able to do anything about it. Denise survived every single Tribal Council and was only immune on one occasion. Yes, there were more Idols in play in Survivor: Philippines due to there being more tribes but at least they weren’t replanted after they were used. The Tribe Switches and Merges produced different results. Sometimes original alliances stuck whilst others saw new alliances formed. The only Final Two/Three that consisted entirely of players from the same original tribe in one of these seasons was All-Stars with Rob and Amber.

That’s why I think three or four tribes are a good idea, (mostly three tribes in my opinion), and should be used more often. In more recent three or four tribe seasons, there tends to be more Hidden Immunity Idols, they tend to not be replanted after they are used or leave the game somehow, which could actually be a good thing for some people, especially since not everyone is a fan of the Hidden Immunity Idol.


IvanOrnelasFooter_thumb.jpgWho do you agree with Jarrod or Ivan? Comment below to let us know!

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18 Comments on Two, Three or Four Starting Tribes?

  1. Three tribe seasons are good but I wish we could have a season where there isn’t a clear weakest link tribe (Sabgoa, Matsing, Luzon) and we can actually merge three tribes into one.

  2. Sam Hatfield // April 14, 2014 at 10:32 am // Reply

    Personally I like the three tribe format the best. Four is a stupid gimmick just because of how quickly the tribes are dissolved. I would still love to see an “Anarchy”season with no tribes as an interesting twist. Still, as always enjoyed reading the article.

  3. i think 2 tribes should be used most of the time with 3 tribes for special seasons such as this current brains, brawns and beauty. like for future seasons where they want returning players i think the 3 tribe format would work best because you could have 2 tribes of fans and then 1 6 player group of returnees reducing the number of returnees and making fans happy about the excess of returnees.

  4. In 3 tribe seasons we get to know every single person in the game. Everyone does more and that makes it more interesting. In 2 tribe seasons, we always get a low amount of people in the spotlight, with the boot only getting some attention the episode they leave in. If a tribe gets Pagonged, its easy to see who is going to win the game early on while its more unpredictable and exciting with all the characters of 3 tribes.

    I do think both formats are good, but they should do 3 tribes more often.

  5. I find two tribes interesting if only there’s a balance of immunity wins e.g SoPa and there’s a huge comeback during the merge. Which is why I like three tribes better, it’s more interesting, better dynamics and yeah the unpredictability of it. I hope they do more of it, or a five tribe format? eh but that would be interesting to watch I think. A “One World” season would be interesting to see again too, but it should not be divided by gender and will last up to the merge, no switches whatsoever. By the way, kudos to your first article Ivan!

  6. turbofrog89 // April 14, 2014 at 5:12 pm // Reply

    A great analysis. Both Jarrod and Ivan make great points, and it’s tough for me to pick a side. Ivan makes some excellent points, but I feel that two of the three points he makes are possible in 2 tribe seasons. Many two tribe seasons have had great diversity (other than Fiji, of course) and many two tribe seasons have minor predictability. However, this doesn’t mean I’m totally against 3 or 4 tribe seasons. Both Philippines and Cagayan have proven that the format works for 3 tribe seasons, and that goes for Panama and Cook Islands as well. No season with more than two tribes has ever been truly horrible (or if you want to be specific, One World-ish). Seasons with more that two tribes should certainly happen more often, but I feel that two tribe seasons should remain the staple here.

    Also, good job to both Jarrod and Ivan! You both have done well in your respective Oz debuts.

    • All-Stars and Cook Islands are extremely unpopular seasons.

      • I guess it depends who you ask. A lot of people like the pre-merge of All Stars, they just think the season turned sour in the post-merge. But the episodes that Hatch was around for were well liked. Personally, I really like All Stars overall, even the final tribal council.

        I’m not a fan of Cook Islands, but I do think it had good moments to be fair.

  7. Three tribes format is the best imo. I’d love a three tribes season with all of the starting tribes remaining until the merge. It could be easily done with a tribe switch at 15 people putting 5 people on each tribe, and then a merge at 12/11 people.

  8. Shane Taylor // April 15, 2014 at 5:38 am // Reply

    I actually enjoy the 4-tribe formats. It does have weak spots. I think the tribes should last longer that way better bonds can form. I’d like to see them do a 4 tribe season. And maybe do a tribe switch, but not a tribe dissolve. The only problem with it is the lack of players on the tribes.

    • They could have 4 tribes with 5 people on each. Keep it at 4 tribes for 4 rounds before changing it to two tribes. That way we could have 4 episodes with 4 tribes and 4-6 episodes as two tribes before the merge.

      • Ratchael // April 16, 2014 at 8:29 am //

        And what do you do if a tribe is down to 3 people after the first two TC and then down to 2 people after 3 TC?

  9. print Fiend // April 15, 2014 at 3:12 pm // Reply

    I find it interesting that Jarrod cites Palau and Fiji as two tribe seasons that had great rivalries; they both really started as one tribe seasons.

  10. “Pagongings” Can Be Interesting? Mmm not really…

  11. I’d say when we’re on a run like the one we’re on right now with 3 or 4 good consecutive seasons, keep it simple with 2 tribes. But if we ever hit a drought with several boring seasons in a row, maybe mix it up a bit with 3 tribes or even no tribes at all!

  12. I don’t understand the hating on Cook Islands and All-Stars. All-Stars was dramatic and had some great strategists and some underdogs like Rob, who people thought didn’t even deserve to be on the season. Cook Islands was just awesome. The Aitu Four comeback, Cao Boi, Candice and Billy’s love story, and many other things made it one of my favorite seasons. I’d like a mix of the traditional 2 tribe and some oddball 3 or even 4 tribe starts.

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