Game Changing Twists Throughout Survivor History

Cam Kuhn looks at some of the most game-changing twists in Survivor history.

“39 Days, 16 people, 1 Survivor!”

Oh, the days of classic Survivor. As we embark on our 34th (yes 34th!) edition of the greatest game show on television, we brace ourselves for a season filled with “twenty of the most competitive players of all time.” The idea of who’s considered a “game changer” is open to interpretation, but there is one game changer that no fan can deny – the Survivor creative department. Over the past 16 years, the creative team behind Survivor have done a great job adapting to what the fans want and bringing us true, game-changing twists along the way.

We have already been introduced to one major new twist this season: the removal of tie-breaker revotes. In Survivor: Game Changers, if a vote is tied then the castaways will be forced to come to a unanimous decision or instantly go to rocks. This small twist could add a whole new wrinkle to the game, and I’m sure there will be more twists and turns to come in the milestone Game Changers season.

So in honor of Game Changers less than a week away, here are a few twists from over the years that changed the rules of the game and made the viewing experience that much better.


Survivor: Cook Islands, CBS.

Survivor: Thailand first introduced us to the mutiny twist. While none of the castaways took up the offer, viewers at home were just anxiously waiting for Shii Ann Huang to jump ship on her Sook Jai tribe and join the Chuay Ghan five.

Fast forward eight seasons to Survivor: Cook Islands. After the four racially divided tribes had been condensed into two, some tribe members still felt as though they were not on the right tribe. Candice Cody (then Woodcock) and Jonathan Penner stepped off their Aitu mat at the last second and rejoined their old Rarotonga tribe members, leaving the number division at eight to four, in Raro’s favor.

This move was a game changer because it left the Aitu four, led by Yul Kwon, severely outnumbered but more determined than ever to overcome the odds. With the help of Game Changer Ozzy Lusth’s challenge prowess and Yul’s hidden idol, the Aitu four were able to mount a jaw-dropping comeback and make it all the way to the final four. Had Candice and Jonathan not stepped off the mat, there’s a good chance the game would not have turned out the way it did and Candice might not have ever been asked back to play Survivor.

While the mutiny twist didn’t become a staple in seasons to follow (only showing up briefly in Survivor: Tocantins, but never used), it did create an interesting dynamic, and it’s a surprise Survivor hasn’t tried it since or at least adapted it for the modern era.

Unpredictable Merge

Survivor: Cambodia, CBS.

For four straight seasons, Survivor was as predictable as can be. Sixteen players, one voted out every three days, a merge on Day 19/20, with the jury starting at the final nine. In Thailand, this format was adjusted.

In a suspected merge, the Sook Jai and Chuay Ghan members moved to Chuay Ghan beach together but didn’t, in fact, merge (very One World of them). Who can forget the look on Shii Ann’s face when she found out she had jumped ship too early and was still part of a tribe with her fellow Sook Jai members?

While the “fake-out” merge is a twist within itself (repeated later in Survivor: Gabon), it’s not so much the trickster element that changed the game but the unpredictability of when a merge can happen. In modern day Survivor, we have seen merges as small as nine and as large as thirteen. It is a constant guess for both castaways and viewers and adds to the dramatic effect of the gameplay. One of the better decisions Survivor made as it caused people to up their strategic planning.

Three Tribe Format

Survivor: Kaoh Rong, CBS.

In the original returnee edition of the show, Survivor: All-Stars, for the first time, the cast consisted of 18 castaways rather than the usual 16. With two extra castaways it meant that instead of the standard two tribes of eight, for the very first time, the cast would be split into three tribes of six.

I remember reading a magazine interview where Mark Brunett made a comment: “Imagine a tribe that’s in charge. If there are two other tribes with smaller numbers, they can combine forces and take down the tribe in the lead.” This was exactly the idea. And while it didn’t play out as smoothly in All-Stars as some might have liked, the three tribe split definitely paid off in seasons such as Philippines, Cagayan and Kaoh Rong.

The benefits of having three tribes start the game are plentiful. Not only does it create more competition, but the smaller tribe allows the audience to get to know each player easier, as well as making the game itself more fluid and less likely to see a Pagonging. It’s the reason why it has become much more common in the current “big move” era of Survivor.

Exile Island

Survivor: San Juan Del Sur, CBS.

The concept of Exile Island was first introduced in Survivor: Palau when Janu Tornell was sent a new beach where she had to fend for herself and spend the night alone. It was originally just a one-time twist in the season, an exercise meant to highlight both the physical and social side of Survivor – could a person survive in the wilderness alone and could they work their way back into the tribe once they returned.

But clearly production saw more in the idea and in the twelfth season, Survivor: Panama, they decided to make Exile Island a recurring feature, even giving the season an “Exile Island” subtitle. In Panama, the winners of the reward challenge could choose who to banish to Exile from the losing tribe. This method became the standard way Exile worked in several of the following seasons. It allowed players to think strategically about their choices, for example, continuing to send the same person back-to-back to weaken them or neglect them from potential alliances. Terry Deitz was consistently sent to Exile Island during Panama. There was an advantage of being on Exile, though, it meant you would receive a clue to a hidden immunity idol. Sometimes the idol would be hidden on Exile Island itself or back at camp.

Exile Island was a popular feature throughout Survivor’s middle seasons. It was used in every season between 12-18 except for Survivor: China (S15). And the concept continued to evolve. In Survivor: Micronesia, two people, one from each tribe, would be sent to Exile and could choose to look for the idol together or on their own. In Gabon, a banished player could opt to look for the idol or stay in a shack with food. In Tocantins, the two people sent to Exile had to pick between two urns, one containing an idol clue and mutiny offer, the other containing nothing. Also, players’ strategies evolved regarding Exile, creating cross-tribal alliances and sharing info, although it never developed into a major part of any season.

Eventually, Exile Island ran its course, it became dull and felt like it was taking away time that could be better spent. It was last seen in Season 29, Survivor: San Juan Del Sur. (Yes, Julia Sokolowski spent time alone after the tribe swap in Kaoh Rong, but it wasn’t an official exile island).

Final Three

Survivor: Samoa, CBS.

Cook Islands isn’t just known for race relations and the mutiny twist; it was also the season that first brought us a Final Three instead of the standard Final Two. At the time, I was a little confused and thought it was too much. I lived for the days of the 4-3 Colby v. Tina vote where one vote was the difference between winning and losing the million dollar prize.

While the Final Three has never produced a tie (although it came close between Yul/Ozzy, Bob/Susie and Fabio/Chase), it has made final tribals more interesting and alliances less structured. It’s also designed to keep in as many contenders as possible, rather than a clear frontrunner dragging an obvious goat to the end. Another great part of this is the final four tiebreaker, which leads to a fire-making challenge, that determines who makes it to the end and who does not. I can’t think of anything more fitting than a fire challenge for fire representing your life.

Yes, some people are vocal in their dislike for the Final Three as they feel it waters down the final vote and makes the end-game more predictable (less maneuvering is needed when three people can sit at the end). And it is true in recent seasons that the Final Three has led to some clear blowouts as people have wisened up to how to utilize it best. Although, that is potentially a problem with how the jury system works rather than the Final Three itself. Ultimately, the Final Three is one of the show’s biggest game changing twists and is here to stay.


Survivor: Kaoh Rong, CBS.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the tiebreaker will see its own evolution this season in Game Changers, but it has been an ever-changing rule since the beginning of the game.

In the first season, Survivor: Borneo, there was no protocol for breaking a tie, the tribes would just have to keep revoting until someone broke it (see Sue Hawk vs. Kelly Wiglesworth). In Survivor: The Australian Outback, we saw Mitchell Olson and Game Changers castaway Jeff Varner eliminated in tie-breaker votes. In this season, tiebreakers were broken by previous votes cast at tribal council, a method that many found unfair due to the unbalance of tribes going to tribals. If there were no previous votes against the players, then the tie would be broken in a trivia challenge (see Lindsey Richter vs. Carl Bilancione in Survivor: Africa).

On the flip side, the final four tie, which is now dictated by a fire making challenge, was determined by a rock draw, which forced out Paschal English in Survivor: Marquesas. Although, it has often been said that this was a mistake by production and that the rock draw rule should never have been used at the final four in the first place.

At some point, the previous votes cast idea was scrapped and the rock draw at final four was reassigned. The deadlock vote changed to a rock draw and the final four tie turned into a fire making challenge. We first saw the final four fire making challenge in Palau, six seasons after Paschal’s rock draw in Marquesas. The fire making challenge has been used as the final four tie breaker ever since and has created some intense television. We’ve seen it happen on several occasions, including between Game Changers castaway Cirie Fields and Danielle DiLorenzo (Panama), and most recently between fellow Game Changers player Aubry Bracco and Cydney Gillon (Kaoh Rong).

As for the first deadlock rock draw, it happened in season twenty-seven, Survivor: Blood vs Water, by Game Changers castaway Ciera Eastin. And again, in the most recent season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, by Game Changer Zeke Smith. The rock draw specifically has forced players to jump ship and not allow for tribes to be so set down tribal lines. Making tribals and the game that much more entertaining.

Idols Reentering the Game

Survivor: Samoa, CBS.

Idols have had many evolutions. From when they are played, how they are found, and what they look like, the rules have shifted many times.

In Micronesia, the first idol was reentered into the game. After Ozzy and Jason Siska’s inability to play the idols they found, Amanda Kimmel was fortunate enough to find the rehidden idol when she needed it and ended up saving herself at the final six.

From this season on, idols reentering the game has been a staple, and it has completely changed the shape of the game in many seasons, famously by Russell Hantz in Survivor: Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains.

Wonder Powers Activate!

Survivor: Kaoh Rong, CBS.

If you look back at seasons where idols are not played correctly, the season tends to lean towards the more boring side, except for one. In Kaoh Rong, the “Tyler Perry” super idol resurfaced but with a whole new twist. While one player had a normally powered idol, the combination of two idols could become a super idol and be played after the votes were read. We had seen this sort of power in the early days of idol play: Panama and Cook Islands, as well as the random entry of the super idol in Cagayan. These were all really boring and unfair, for it gave legends like Terry Dietz, Yul Kwon, and Game Changer Tony Vlachos way more than power than any player should have.

With the new wrinkle of getting others to trust you with their idol, it added a layer that was completely unpredictable. In a season where idols dominated many conversations and many votes, no idol was ever played during Kaoh Rong. In one of the more memorable tribals, Scot Pollard and Game Changer Tai Trang both had idols and had plans to play the super idol after Jeff Probst read the votes. However, Tai did not choose to play the idol, eliminating Scot with an idol in his pocket. Had Tai and Scot played the idols like any other season, both would have been safe and Aubry would have gone home. This wrinkle not only forced you to trust others but really compromised the idea of playing the idol only because you feel in danger.


Tribe Swap

Survivor: Cambodia, CBS.

I think this speaks for itself. After the deadlock tribal vote in the Australian Outback which sent Jeff home, Survivor saw potential to switch things up. In Africa, we saw the first tribal swap, as three players from each tribe switched places, which took power away from the Samburu leader, Silas Gaither, and ended up sending him home.

Over the years we’ve seen many variations of tribal swaps: three to two tribes in All-Stars, four to two in Cook Islands, drafting of two players in China, two swaps in one season in Gabon, and from bigger to smaller tribes in Cambodia. It took some time, but the tribe swap has been a major factor of very successful seasons and is one of the key components in creating a more fluid, exciting game. The more times a tribe swaps it provides more opportunities to make new allies and therefore the alliances (and the game itself) become less rigid.

If you look at rankings of best Survivor seasons, you would be hard pressed to find many in the top ten that don’t include a tribal swap.

“If anybody has a hidden immunity idol and they’d like to play it, now would be the time to do so…”

Survivor: Cambodia, CBS.

The hidden immunity idol is hands down the best and biggest game-changing twist in Survivor history. First introduced in Survivor: Guatemala, it is the reason for many different evolutions of the game, many fantastic blindsides, and created many Survivor legends in the process. People have flipped the game with idols, gone home with idols, even created and played fake idols. Survivor went ten seasons without idols, but it is incredibly difficult nowadays to imagine a season without them.

The best transformation of the idol, ironically, came in Survivor: Fiji. Not only was it the first season to have multiple idols, but even more important is that for the first time players were forced to play the idol before the votes were read. Now, playing an idol involved a gamble. Do I play it? Do I not play it? What if I waste it? What if I’m voted out with it in my pocket? No longer were players invincible like Yul Kwon and Terry Deitz.

But most importantly, it provided immense entertainment in the level of shock on players faces when a castaway who was scheduled to be eliminated saved themselves and bounced the vote back on someone else. If you didn’t jump and scream at the TV during Russell Hantz’s idol play on Kelly Sharbaugh in Samoa or Kelley Wentworth’s idol play on Andrew Savage in Cambodia, you simply aren’t living.

Also, the way the idols themselves are hidden has created lots of fun and drama. No one will forget Wentworth snatching that idol during the first immunity challenge in Cambodia. We’ve also seen fun clue adventures across the beaches and caves of Micronesia and the plains and jungles of Gabon. Tai almost killed himself climbing a tree to grab a key which opened up a lockbox in Kaoh Rong. And, of course, Russell became the first person to find an idol without a clue in Samoa.

Yes, sometimes idols are overused, and when production continue to replant them (see Samoa and Caramoan), it can become a little tiresome. But overall, the hidden immunity idol changed the game for the better, upped the strategic gameplay, and made for some fantastic television moments.


Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more Game Changers news and features. And don’t forget to check out our Playing With Game Changers interviews. Survivor: Game Changers premieres March 8, 2017, on CBS.

Written by

Cam Kuhn

Cam Kuhn is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas and proud super fan of Survivor. He works as an education consultant for a technology firm and blogs in his spare time. Cam has applied for Survivor 4 times since turning 18, written his college thesis on the communication styles of Survivor, and won Corinne Kaplan's season 32 cast assessment via auction.

8 responses to “Game Changing Twists Throughout Survivor History”

  1. Pretty good list except for the final three. If you’re going to have final three as a game changing twist then you might as well put Redemption Island, Medallion of Power, and Outcasts on here as well. Final three was good for Cook Islands when the players weren’t expecting it, but they should have gone back to final two after that.

    • Final three made it possible to get up to 20 castaways for season, which got us to see more characters.
      Final three doesn’t let the person who won the final immunity challenge to pick completely on his own who to take to the end, which was too much power for a single challenge.
      Final three gives an hell of lot more interesting FTC and gives the jury different types of games from whom to choose who they thought played the best one.

  2. It was Stephanie Dill who was contemplating mutiny, not Shii-Ann. She-Devil was in the majority alliance at the time. Stephanie should have done it. Lots of wasted opportunities in this season.

  3. Great list…was going to add also there should be a section of returning players in general. That could encompass Redemption Island, the outcast twist and returning players in general.

    Thailand really had the chance to be a great season. If they had the same set up (oldest picking tribes, fake merge,mutiny offer) in a season post S25 it would make for a great outcome with how they cast the show lately.

  4. Overall a good writeup, but you could technically say that Gary Hogeboom was the first to find an idol with no clue.

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