Every since their introduction in Survivor Africa, tribe swaps have become a common feature of Survivor appearing in more than half the seasons so far. From tribe pick'ems to rankings and random draws, swaps have occurred in a number of different ways throughout the years. Today's feature article is a trans-Tasman special as Ozlets Nick Chester & Cable Brandon team up to discuss the pros and cons of random draws and potential better ways to split the tribes in future seasons. Read on to find out their thoughts!
For several years now we’ve personally hated the drawing of buffs to decide new tribes and our hatred grew even more when the ridiculous twist of the ‘Have Not’s’ Angkor tribe was born in Episode 3 of Cambodia. While we liked the idea of the third tribe, the decision on drawing new tribes was easy yet terrible. Production could have come up with a more interesting way to separate the tribes in a returnee season and therefore making better television in the process.
The Random Draw
Despite a few forays into schoolyard picks, the random tribe swap has always been the dominant way to shake up the game pre-merge. Whether its smashing paint filled eggs, or unwrapping buffs from little packages, mixing it up in a random fashion has been the norm, and this continued into the most recent season of Cambodia. In fact, we haven’t seen anything but random draws in the last ten seasons, so it’s safe to assume that this is how producers want to do it.
So why have production dumped tribe pick’ems and gone to a random draw?
We can see the reasoning. No matter how you decide to make a schoolyard pick happen, there is a perception that players have an ability to stack the deck in their favour, keeping allies together and their own position strong. The reality is that there is usually at least some level of control by production in a tribe pick ‘em, not something you can say for many of the random draws. Additionally, random draws also have the much more likely outcome of sending someone previously in a safe position spiraling out of the game – just ask Matt Bischoff, Alexis or Kelly Wentworth.
Pros of Random Draws
The Fairest Way – Lady Luck
Random swaps are designed to test a player’s adaptability and perseverance to get through difficult numbers situations, and do so in arguably the fairest way possible. After all, there is nothing more fair than lady luck – anyone could pick the wrong buff and find their carefully constructed alliance in tatters. Do they have the ability to put this back together? This can make for great TV to watch players previously in power scramble for new ground, and also give life to those who were underdogs.
For those who watched Africa in real time, the dominance of the Samburu Mallrats led by Silas, was not all that pleasant to watch, and seeing them get what was coming to them following the swap was highly entertaining. Ultimately I think the reason that producers go with random draws so often is that by its very nature, everyone has the same chance to benefit from it, or be a victim to it. Nothing is fairer than that.
A random drawing of buffs is clearly the quickest and easiest way to shuffle the tribes both on the island and from a television or editing perspective. We went back and found that in the previous few seasons the tribe switch hasn’t taken up too much screen time.
*Cambodia – 1st switch lasted 3:15 and the 2nd just over 2min
*World’s Apart just under 2min
*San Juan Del Sur lasted 3 minutes
These run times also include confessionals and Jeff asking the players their thoughts on their new tribes etc.
So we can totally see why this is advantageous for production as opposed to a pick’em, which can take longer onscreen to achieve. With a show that needs to cram 48-72hrs of story into 43min, every second counts, so trimming the fat from a switch is imperative.
Cons of Random Draws
One of the downsides to creating tribes in such a random way is it has the potential to create incredibly uneven tribes. This has certainly been a common thread in recent times – One World, Caramoan, Blood vs. Water and Worlds Apart being very obvious examples. It is interesting to consider a season like One World, where unlike previous seasons that started in a gender divide, One World was done by random chance. The votes following the swap would have probably been much more interesting and even lead to a more dynamic season if a tribe pick ‘em had occurred instead.
Caramoan is a season that gets well deserved criticism, and the slowest section of the season is unquestionably following the swap, where Bikal gets destroyed in challenges – which is isn’t surprising when Malcolm, Eddie, Reynold and Erik end up on the same tribe with arguably the two strongest females in Andrea and Brenda as well. Micronesia had a pick ’em – why change the formula for Caramoan?
Blood vs. Water saw the tribes essentially split down gender lines – the following challenges didn’t really accommodate this and the Galang tribe was dominated. Apart from watching Vytas worm his way out of trouble, this didn’t leave much interesting viewing as Kat and Laura were sent packing.
But the random draw in Worlds Apart created severely uneven tribes on several fronts. Firstly Escameca got Mike, Joe and Tyler (who would end up winning most of the individual immunities between them), Rodney, Joaquin, and Dan.
Secondly only one female Sierra (arguably one of the stronger challenge threats) got to Escameca. Thirdly the majority of Blue Collar stayed intact. It took Escameca throwing a challenge to keep things from being a complete blowout. None of this leads to compelling TV when it feels obvious which tribe is destined for Tribal Council.
Production doesn’t have a say.
Okay so this is not 100% correct (we will explain later) but in most cases production, like the players have no say in a tribe swap and it’s all in the lap of the Survivor gods. While this keeps the integrity of the game intact and removes the innuendo of production rigging things in favour of a particular player, it can also take the season down a boring and less desirable path that it may not have been heading down anyway. You have to think that Jeff Probst and crew walk away from some tribe swaps and think ‘what did we just do?’
Whilst production doesn’t interfere with the drawing of the buffs, there are little things they can do to try to keep evenness to the tribes. In San Juan Del Sur, both tribes got a bag of buffs essentially meaning that an equal number of players would switch to the other tribe. And we’ve heard in Cambodia that female players took buffs from one tray and males from another, meaning that each tribe would at least have an even mix of male and female players. Why this didn’t happen in Worlds Apart or other seasons for that matter is a mystery or production oversight.
Tribes not getting equally mingled
Following on from our previous point, if production don’t at least have minimal control on the randomness of the draw then there has the potential for the tribes not to be equally mixed, something that a pick’em will always do. As far back as All Stars, Chapera had a 6 – 4 advantage over Mogo Mogo but in a tribe swap where buffs were drawn the tribes did not get intermingled. They stayed relatively intact, swapped camps and the ‘new’ Chapera gained Amber Brkich. While the whole Lex/Rob and save Amber storyline was great television, the fact that the tribes effectively didn’t change must have been a massive disappointment for production.
The Strong getting Stronger and the Weaker getting Weaker
While a tribe switch can hopefully change a maybe predictable season and potential Pagonging into a more even season (isn’t that the main point of a switch) the inherent problem with a random draw is that you can actually make the strong stronger and the weak even weaker. The most recent example being Worlds Apart having Blue Collar (apart from Kelly) stay together and the stronger players making Escemaca a super tribe. They were not going to lose many immunities so the weaker tribe of Nagarote were going to lose players and effectively be weakened going into a merge.
Pros of Tribe Pick’ems
Letting the players decide
Having captains pick a tribe works on so many levels, that we are so surprised it doesn’t happen more often. There are so many factors a captain has to consider when selecting a player, will they be loyal, will they strengthen the tribe, are they a threat we can get rid of, or are they on the bottom and willing to flip alliances. We could go on for a while, so you get the drift. Surely this also gives production more storylines to work with.
Remember the dissolve in All Stars and why Mogo Mogo picked Ethan? So they could have control of his destiny.
In Gabon, Kenny chose the least ranked Kelly because she was at the bottom of the totem pole and he could get her to flip to his side.
While production has no way of knowing who another player will pick, Jeff can direct them by putting certain controls on what players they can select from. In the Cook Islands, captains were randomly selected from the pool of males (Penner & Brad) & females (Cecila & Parvati) then Jeff directed them to pick a player of the same sex, but from another tribe that didn’t share the same ethnicity of players already picked.
As a general rule, the controls that are put in place are you have to alternate your picks between the sexes or alternate between the tribes or both. This allows the tribes to generally be fairly even but also evenly mixed enough to create new alliances and bonds.
Creating great tribes to watch
One of the best tribes to ever watch would have be Casaya for all their dysfunction, love & hate relationships and all round drama. Casaya wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for a tribe pick’em. A hilarious point of the pick’em saw captain Danielle, firstly pick Shane, then secondly Shane picks Courtney and they all lived happily ever after…not.
The new Yasur & Lopevi tribes in Vanuatu added to the season with Bubba famously getting caught by Ami trying to send a message to his old tribe mates.
Cook Islands was more dynamic and interesting when captains evenly mixed the tribes.
The new Ravu tribe in Fiji saw the birth of the Four Horsemen, which was an excellent storyline in a season that many condemn for being below average.
Cons of Tribe Pick’ems
When you leave the picking of a tribe up to an individual, you invariably run the risk of someone making terrible choices or just one that causes a domino effect.
While the following two examples are not tribal switches, the tribe captain can make a bad pick if there are no production controls in place (Gillian in Gabon), or they don’t want to have the pressure of choosing a team (Jan in Thailand). Whilst not switches, this would be Exhibit A & B for production not to do pick’ems as there is no guarantees that a player will make choices that would mirror how production think the even tribes would look like.
In Gabon, Kenny made a strategic selection which we think was a good one for his game, but was a poor one for the tribe overall. Fang by extension was weakened by this move and again struggled.
As opposed to a random draw, the tribe pick’em does have the problem of eating up too much screen time. We analysed some tribe pick’ems from over the years and they varied quite a bit.
*Gabon spent a staggering 9:04 minutes on the first tribal switch.
*Cook Islands spent 5:34 on their tribe switch, which was a three-step affair.
*Exile Island spent just under 4min for their tribe pick’em
While we understand that these running times are prohibitive to current day Survivor, Exile Island proves it can be done in a timely fashion.
Ideas for future swaps
An idea that worked well in season 9 but has never been used again is a great way to ensure a fair and even swap without creating an imbalance in tribes. To refresh the memories, this is where their tribes nominated two tribe leaders. One player then split the players into two new tribes, whilst the other got to select who would get which tribe. This incentivised the one picking (in this occasion it was Scout) to select fair and even teams to ensure she wouldn’t get screwed over, as she had no idea what would happen following that. It seems like something that would work pretty well again, and could even have worked well in Cambodia with three tribes. It’s definitely an idea worth revisiting.
Ranking the tribe, Gabon style
Gabon’s first swap is an interesting one as the tribes were surprised by it happening so early. They were asked to rank their tribes based on strength. Following this, players were asked to draft new teams. The difference here is that it gave the other tribe an insight as to how they perceived each other – something Kenny used to full effect to bring Kelly into his alliance. I like this idea with a bit of a twist – ask the players to rank themselves on strength. Then take the top half of each tribe, and swap them. This would keep the relative strength intact but also create an interesting dynamic going forward. Yes, it’s not a trick you could do too often (as players would get wise to it and maybe not rank themselves honestly) but definitely worth considering for a once-off idea.
Stay or Go
Bring out the paint filled eggs. Instead of them all containing tribe coloured paint, 2-4 of them have white paint. These players stay on their own tribe. However, if they want, after seeing the new tribes they can elect to swap with anyone they want. This creates a bit more strategy whilst still giving the level of randomness – it’s a good middle ground between the two ideas. If a player gets stuck on a bad tribe they can leave – although it leaves that group with a not so subtle message that they don’t like them – almost a bit of a combination of a tribe swap and a mutiny. Could certainly make things interesting down the road.
Tribe Swap Power or Idol Power?
Another possibility is to have everyone randomly draw envelopes. Most are empty except two. These people have a choice – either get to pick your new tribe or take a clue to a hidden immunity idol. If they take the clue, they just nominate someone else to be the tribe leader. Of course this creates a “prisoners dilemma” whereby if both players selected to pick new tribes don’t play along, it could create chaos and mistrust going forward. I think this idea has merit from a production standpoint and they are always looking for ways to destabilise the game. And we all know that idols are an important part of the game in the producer’s eyes. This could create good TV and people passing up control over how the game progresses for a chance at the idol.
Combine a tribe swap with an auction
Each tribe selects a leader (or it is done randomly) that will be responsible for picking new teams. Those two players then get given $500 and an auction is held on the remaining players. Highest bid gets the player on their team, until the allocated number of players has been filled. This could be a really interesting way of exposing allies and showing the true value (quite literally) of the players in the game.
Random swaps can be great – but there always needs to be some kind of check and balance to ensure you don’t end up with completely uneven tribes, as this does no one any favours and just creates dull TV. It seems to us that the best outcome would be to combine the best elements of random and picks to create better and more compelling tribe swaps. We would both lean towards bringing back tribe pick’ems as the cons of a random draw clearly outweighs the pros. Time is the biggest factor in both formats, but as Exile Island proved once before, a tribal pick’em can be done in a timely manner. We say bring back tribe pick’ems at least every second or third season to keep players on their toes. Probst and production are always looking for fresh new ideas to make the game interesting. So be creative with your tribe swaps.
Do you have a favourite format for tribe swaps? Should production continue with random swaps or shake things up by bringing back an old method or trying something new? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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