Which Survivor Game Changers Actually Changed The Game?

Breaking down the Survivor: Game Changers cast and whether or not they actually changed the game.

Yesterday, Inside Survivor revealed the title and theme of Survivor: Season 34, the all returnee season which will air February 2017. Survivor: Game Changers – Mamanuca Islands is the mouthful of a title we will hear a lot of next year. A theme based around players that in some shape or form helped change the game. The question is – does this title apply to everyone on the cast?

The Season 34 cast is a hodgepodge of names including winners, jurors, early boots, heroes, villains, legends, and non-entities. Pinpointing a common link between these twenty castaways has proved insanely difficult. If it’s true that the originally planned theme for this season fell through, then it’s reasonable to assume production needed a generic sounding title that just about works under the circumstances. Game Changers fits that requirement. Now it is up to CBS and the producers to convince us that this cast fits the theme

Let’s go through the cast and determine whether or not they changed the game.

Disclaimer: Does not include discussion of the Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X representatives, given that we don’t know how they played in that season.

Changed the Way the Game is Played


It doesn’t take much convincing to sell Tony Vlachos as a game changer. His erratic and paranoia-charged game-play is still fresh in people’s memories. He flipped on allies several times, altering the course of the game and keeping things unpredictable. His Survivor: Cagayan victory was perhaps the biggest game changer of the past ten seasons. It gave birth to the current “big moves era” that we saw most prominently in last year’s Survivor: Cambodia. His win influenced the showy post-merge game of Natalie Anderson in Survivor: San Juan Del Sur and the in-your-face boldness of Mike Holloway in Survivor: Worlds Apart. With idols, blindsides and spy-shacks, Tony’s impact on the game is huge.


When Sandra Diaz-Twine won Survivor for the second time, it changed the game in one monumental way. It proved that a former winner could come back and win again. Previously, when winners returned in Survivor: All-Stars, they were immediately targetted due to their prior success. Many fans thought it would be impossible for someone to win the game twice. Sandra’s second victory on Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains was a definite game changer, and that is likely how CBS will sell it. Also, her “as long as it ain’t me” strategy has had a significant influence on the game. We’ve seen other players openly adopt this style of play – people like Ciera Eastin and Kelley Wentworth in Cambodia were happy to cut allies and change plans to save themselves, and even most recent winner Michele Fitzgerald used this approach.

Changed the Game their Season(s)


You can look at J.T. Thomas as a game changer in two distinct ways. In Survivor: Tocantins, he played what is perhaps the greatest social game in Survivor history. He was able to turn the game around from a severe numbers disadvantage at the merge and become the first player to play a “perfect game” – meaning he won a unanimous jury vote without ever receiving a vote against him. That is a game changer within itself. On the less positive side, you could point to J.T.’s blunder in Heroes vs. Villains, where he gave his idol to Russell Hantz, as the moment which changed the entire scope of the game that season. Whether it’s his god-like social game, or his willingness to make a bold play, CBS shouldn’t have trouble pitching J.T. as a game changer.


The self-proclaimed “gangsta in an Oprah suit”, there is no denying that Cirie Fields is a game changer. The mom that watched Survivor from her couch, she came into Survivor: Panama as a fish-out-of-water and was expected to be an early boot. But what emerged instead was a shrewd social player and killer strategist. Her read on the game dynamics in both Panama and Survivor: Micronesia allowed her to maneuver swiftly through the game, pulling off blindside after blindside. A pioneer of the 3-2-1 and “vote the goat” strategy, CBS will have no problem selling Cirie as a game changer.


In his first appearance, on Survivor: Cook Islands, Ozzy Lusth became the poster boy for challenge dominance. His efforts played a huge part in the underdog comeback of the Aitu 4, which changed the way the season was heading, and he almost won the game. His physical prowess stepped up the competitive nature of challenges in seasons to come and created a new archetype in casting, the “challenge hero” (influencing players like Joe Anglim). Also, in Survivor: South Pacific, Ozzy voluntarily sent himself to Redemption Island in an attempt to give his tribe an advantage. CBS will likely sell Ozzy as a game changer in this way.


In Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, it looked like the trio of Kyle Jason, Scot Pollard, and Tai Trang was unstoppable, due to the possession of two individual idols that could combine into a Super Idol. That was until Aubry Bracco, champion of “emotional intelligence”, used her strategic and social skills to talk Tai into flipping on his allies. It was the vote that changed the direction of the game in Kaôh Rōng, as in one fell swoop, the trio was broken up, and the threat of the Super Idol was removed. Aubry went on to control the rest of the game, always landing on the right side of the vote, and made it all the way to Final Tribal Council.

Attempted to Change the Game


Ciera Eastin is very much a modern “big moves era” player. She has shown in both of her previous seasons that she is willing to shake up the game to save herself. Ciera is remembered most for voting out her mom and forcing a rock draw in Survivor: Blood vs. Water. Two moments that CBS could easily sell as game changers – even though they didn’t alter the course of the actual game. In post-merge Cambodia, Ciera was constantly trying to find a crack, making up lies and forcing people’s hands. Her game-changing attempts never quite led anywhere, but her potential as a game changer within an individual season is probably how CBS will pitch her for this season.


Malcolm Freberg is a similar style game changer to Ciera. He hasn’t had an overall impact that has changed the entire landscape of Survivor, but he has made big moves that categorize him as an individual season game changer. Malcolm came very close to making the Final Tribal Council and winning in Survivor: Philippines. He wasn’t able to find the same success in Survivor: Caramoan, but with his back against the wall, he pulled out all the stops – taking and giving out idols in equal measure. Like Ciera, his game-changing attempts didn’t alter his fate all that much. CBS will likely highlight his “Hold up, bro” moment as an example of how he has the potential to change the game at a moment’s notice.


In both of her seasons, Andrea Boehlke found herself in a solid position to change the game, but her attempts failed. In Survivor: Redemption Island, she won the duel to re-enter the game and tried convincing the girls to get together and strike against Boston Rob Mariano. But it was too late, and her plans fell on deaf ears. In Caramoan, she prevented Malcolm from finding the reburied idol. She managed to get the idol for herself and could effectively choose which way she wanted to get to the end. But she didn’t act fast enough and was blindsided. No doubt that CBS will highlight these moments as Andrea’s attempts at changing the game.


This one is a bit more of a stretch. But Troyzan Roberston probably falls into a similar category as Andrea in Redemption Island. Trying desperately to change the game but failing to do so. Up against Kim Spradlin and her dominant all female alliance, Troyzan had to rely on winning immunity to survive. He tried to convince others that Kim was too dominant, but he wasn’t able to get his point across in a way that made people want to align with him. He even had an idol, like Andrea in Caramoan, and was unable to use it to his advantage.

Changed Some Votes


Jeff Varner never really got going in Survivor: The Australian Outback, his game brought to an abrupt end at the first merge vote in a crucial tiebreaker. He tried to make up for that in his second chance in Cambodia, coming out of the gate swinging. The Ta Keo tribe initially split down the middle, with an alliance of “old school” mentality players versus “new school” style players. Varner believed that his fellow old schoolers needed a kick up the ass, and so he aligned his vote with the new schoolers at the first tribal council, booting Vytas who had aligned himself with the old school. But just as it seemed like new school was in charge, Varner changed the game again, targeting Shirin Oskooi at the second tribal council. Post-swap his game fell apart, but he proved he has the potential to change the game.


Debbie Wanner is more of a job changer than a game changer, but she did have her moments in Kaôh Rōng. At the Brains tribe’s first Tribal Council, Liz Markham and Peter Baggenstos thought they had control of the game. Using Debbie and Joe Del Campo as their puppets, they set their sights on Neal Gottlieb and Aubry Bracco. Debbie, however, took the game into her own hands and changed course, mounting a counter attack on the Liz and Peter duo, and sending Liz out of the game. She didn’t get a firm hold on the game again after this initial vote, but she did play with gusto and showed potential to change the game when necessary.


There is no doubt that Tai Trang played hard in Kaôh Rōng. He was constantly looking for an edge in the game. Tai found an idol and won an extra vote advantage. He had many opportunities to change the game. His most significant game-changing votes came post-swap and post-merge. Deciding to vote our his former Beauty tribe member Anna Khait set Tai and his game on a new path, one where the other players started to view him as a flipper. His most significant vote though was when he refused to give his idol to Scot, and instead flipped to join Aubry in voting him out. Unfortunately, Tai was unable to get an actual grip on the game afterward, wasting his extra vote, and receiving no votes at the Final Tribal Council.


If anyone has a better suggestion of where to place Sarah Lacina concerning this theme then, please, let us know. This one doesn’t quite work, but it’s the only category she just about fits in. Sarah was a big part of one of the most manic tribal council’s in Survivor history – Cagayan’s double-idol, Kass McQuillen flipping merge vote. It was definitely a vote that changed the game that season. But it would be disingenuous to say that Sarah caused it – at least directly. If anyone changed the game here, it was Chaos Kass, who was born at this very tribal council. But maybe you could say Sarah’s arrogance as the swing vote was what caused Kass to flip and therefore was the catalyst for the entire thing. This particular vote is likely to be what Jeff Probst talks about when he brings up Sarah in his future cast assessment.


Much like with Troyzan, it’s a bit of a stretch to fit Brad Culpepper into this theme. He didn’t last particularly long in Blood vs. Water, and he actually had early control of the game. His significant moment, other than being yelled at by everyone on Redemption Island that could be considered a “game changer,” was when he decided to blindside John Cody. Brad had formed an all-male majority at the start of the game, but after worrying about the potential of Candice Cody returning to the game, Brad switched the vote from Ciera to John. This blindside changed the direction of the game and quickly led to Brad’s downfall. He also set a precedent for people burning immunity idol clues – so if you want to consider that a game changer, go ahead.

Changed Nothing


Now it gets to the tricky part of the cast list. Hali Ford was a perfectly likable, quirky character on Worlds Apart. But “game changer”? Hmm. She was a member of the No Collar tribe, she went skinny dipping with Jenn Brown, and came into the merge with a numbers disadvantage and wasn’t able to change her fate. So how do CBS spin her story to fit this theme? It would seem that their easiest option would be to present her as a “potential” game changer. A sort of wild-card. Focus on her quirkiness and how she had a different perception of the game than other players. There is no issue with Hali returning; it’s just going to be harder to fit her into the season’s theme.


It was evident as soon as Caleb Reynolds got stretchered out of Kaôh Rōng that he would be returning at the first opportunity. It makes sense why they put him on this season, even if he doesn’t quite fit the theme. It’s hard to say Caleb was a game changer given that he was only there for four episodes, and all we saw in that time was his relationship with Tai and his challenge performances. They can’t even spin it that his evacuation changed the game for the dominant Beauty tribe, given that their success continued with a Beauty member winning the season, and another in the final three. At best you can maybe say that his early exit lost the Beauties their numbers advantage, but that only really affected Anna – it would be a push to say Caleb is a game changer because Anna went home the episode after he left. Maybe you could say Caleb leaving caused Tai to start flipping? Who knows?!


Much like Hali, Sierra Dawn-Thomas was one of the nicer, more likable people on Worlds Apart. But it’s tough to present her as a game changer. In fact, she had numerous opportunities to change the direction of the game, but she didn’t. Again, like with Hali, CBS would most likely have to focus on her potential to change the game. Perhaps look at how her failure to change the game last time ultimately cost her, and how she regrets that, and how this time she wants to take those chances to shake up the game. On paper, Sierra is probably the hardest to sell on this theme, but there is potential for her to change perceptions.

That’s how we could see CBS spinning this theme for each player. Rather than looking at the subject as “those who changed the overall game of Survivor,” it works better if you interpret it as those that changed the game in their actual seasons. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Survivor: Game Changers – Mamanuca Islands airs March 2017.

Written by

Martin Holmes

Martin is a freelance writer from England. He’s represented by Berlin Associates for comedy writing and writes about TV and entertainment, currently for TV Insider and Vulture, previously Digital Spy, ET Canada, and Yahoo. A finalist for the Shortlist Sitcom Search in 2012 for “Siblings,” Martin received his BA in English with Creative Writing from The University of Hull. Martin is the owner and editor-in-chief of Insider Survivor.

30 responses to “Which Survivor Game Changers Actually Changed The Game?”

    • Yeah, I was actually a bit offended to see Cirie anywhere but the “changed the way the game is played” section. If she were not a WOC would she get the respect she deserves?

      • I did have her in that category at first but switched it. Her game is very intricate and multi-layered. Whereas Tony’s “big moves win” has become the new mantra of the show since S28, and Sandra’s “as long as it aint me” is one of the most repeated and talked about strategies every season. Cirie has definitely influenced the game, as I said in the post, but in terms of CBS spin its not quite there.

      • If WOC means woman of color then I highly doubt that that has anything to do with her placement on this list. Note how Sandra (a WOC) was listed in the top category. No one is going to disrespect someone as a Survivor strategist based on gender or ethnicity. The vast majority of people aren’t that awful and shallow.

    • I agree. Cirie is miscategorised. She ushered in a new era of strategy for people who were, before that, not likely to survive to the merge unless their tribe was particularly dominant. She took Sandra’s “as long as it’s not me” strategy another step… she figured out often how to make it not only not her, but also the person she wanted it to be to change the dynamics in her favour.

      I also think Ciera is another interesting case. I think she absolutely can’t go in the ‘changed her season’ category because she didn’t. She tried, but she failed. But, I think it is arguable (especially long term) that she may be a legitimate game changer of the way the game is played. Her approach to never letting her name be second in line in both of her seasons is really significant. She is in a sense a product of the Sandra strategy but she takes it a step further by saying ‘anyone but me PLUS I want to look flashy making it not me’. In many ways I think she is a forerunner of Tony, and when you get to season 31 and you get so much talk of needing to build a resume, I think a lot of that is rooted in the play of Ciera and Tyson (and Hayden) in 27 and the way they battled for, in many ways, being the person with the deserving resume.

      Is she a symptom or an innovator? It’s hard to say. Is Tony the guy who changed the game simply because he proved you could win that way? Ciera misses out because she didn’t win and it didn’t work? Possibly, but I think Ciera’s play created an archetype for young women, in particular.

  1. They could also push that for Varner that he “changed” the game since they changed the tie-breaker rule because of him, although that was more so because of Tina Wesson and Deb “ROCKS” Eaton

  2. It depends on whether you look at game changers in the context of their own season or the overall series–obviously any returnee season is going to have a few people that stretch the theme but if I’m Jeff Probst doing an intro video for the cast, I’m really going to have a tough time selling Caleb as a game changer. We’ll get some platitudes about how he gave so much heart, but let’s be real; it’s the first time he’s eligible to return and that’s why he’s here. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it kind of goes against Probst’s whole “We come up with the cast and then figure out a format” spiel because so many of these are hard to justify (even Varner, one of my all-time favorites–I’m still pumped to see him again though).

    This would be an awesome format for a final season, and I like the title “Game Changers” more than “Legends”…and even though on paper it might seem like it would favor old-school players (Cesternino is the first name that comes to mind when I think “Game Changer”), I think you could easily come up with a balanced cast.

      • They have reached out to him before (he has said they talked to him about BvW) but has said he rather talk about the show than play again.

  3. You could maybe make the case Hali changed the “government” game, because she’s a criminal defense attorney. I know that has nothing to do with survivor, but it makes sense. Caleb could be for the way people view medevacs. A lot of people thought survivor could’ve been staged, but Caleb put that theory to rest. I still have no idea how Sierra fits this theme though

  4. I think they could’ve brought other real game-changers.
    Neleh (besides with paschal) was the first to turn his back on her alliance because she was on the bottom, and chances the whole survivor game
    Cesternino, its not necessary to explain why
    Fairplay, who was the funny guy on camp, while being the biggest villain on confesionals (also he played the same game as RobC)
    Danni, but its clear that she denies the offer
    Maybe Bolton? convincing someone to give up inmunity just to gain one more day on the island
    Yau Man, or also Dreamz
    Sugar and her strategy of “i’ll reach the final doing all what my pussy wants”)
    Erik Cardona. Well really “on game” he did nothing new, but his speech, playing with the jury and inspirating them on who has to win was epic and brand new on survivor, i think

    There are some others like Candice or Penner on their mutiny, Russell, Boston Rob, Parvati… but they have played enough lol

  5. Brad- pioneered the voting off of individuals purely on the basis of whether their loved one would swap with them.

    Sarah- turned on Cops R Us when she heard them chanting ‘Top 5’.

    Caleb- encouraged the other Kaoh Ronger’s to play extra hard maybe?

    Sierra- voted out Joaquín, potentially making Mike’s path to victory easier?

    Hali- tried desperately to recruit Sierra for a women’s alliance against the Blue Collars?

  6. Hali could fit in a negative way. Not getting rid of will when they had the chance really bit them later.

  7. I don’t think people give Brad enough credit for his game in BvW. Was he a goofy character I was well done with by the time he left? Yes. Could he legitimately be argued as one of the biggest game changers on the list? I actually think so. He was the one who wanted to get rid of Rachel because of Tyson. Nobody else was shown thinking that way yet. That’s game changing in a way few people on this list have played. He might not be the best player (we’ll see if he’s learned) but I’m not sure why people don’t see him as a game changer.

  8. it can also be taken in the way that how the seasons changed the game and not exactly that peson

    Brad was on Blood V Water which changed the game cause it was family v family

    Troyzans season they all lived on the same beach which changed the game

    Andrea redemption island changed the game

    Hali and Sierra their season changed with Dans second vote

    the Koh Rong crew had two big game changers with the 3 medivacs and the vote out jury

    and so on ahaha

  9. I still say this game is about autonomous players that while involved with alliances, played very separate games from their cohorts.

    I still fully expect a schedule of events that will reward lone-play and little alliance building rewards.

    Everything will be presented as “one against 19”.

  10. It’s obvious that they made up a theme for the pool of contestants that they ended up with. The “game changer” theme is the best they could come up with. As people have said before, I am sick of themes.

  11. I think they will be seperated into “Players, who changed the game” and “Players, who want to change their game”

    • If they’ll divide this way we will end up with a trove of all stars (tony, Sandra, JT, Malcolm, cirie, Aubrey, Andrea etc) and a tribe of the boring people ( brad, Hali, Sierra Trojan etc).
      I can only hope it won’t be like this because if so we will lose a lot of the great players before the merge from the “people who changed the game tribe”

  12. OK, if this is truly a “Game-Changer” season, then where are the following folks?:

    Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien: changed Marquesas with the way she convinced Paschal and Neleh to flip on the Rotu 4.

    Rob Cesternino – among several other moves, his turn on Alex in Amazon.

    Twila Tanner – remember, she was the one who told Chris how to turn on the Ami-Leann women’s juggernaut in Vanuatu.

    Danni Boatwright – showed everybody how to use a Survivor Auction-won advantage.

    Yul Kwon – his use of a found idol to convince Penner to flip and start the rise of the Aitu 4 still ranks as the most masterful ever seen.

    Todd – showed how you can convince people not to play idols and then blindside them.

    Others who changed the game, but I know Probst doesn’t want them back ever again:

    Brian Heidik – showed how to juggle alliances and keep it a secret.

    Fairplay – introduced the reprehensible lie!

    Hantz – the Hidden Immunity Idol KING!

  13. I really think cirie has a chance. Andrea draws to power players and if she is smart she knows that of the men on her tribe go in to a merge with malcom…yeah Tai isnt a guy who is all “i need dry meet” so that and debbie is debbie. Tho thats 4 ppl but i think they might bring more ppl in mhm cirie is a SOCIAL player. I just hope cirie makes a New generation Black Widow Brigade. In a tribe swap she could make official alliance with her, andrea, ciera, aubry, and debbie/ sandra.

  14. Caleb didn’t change “nothing”, Martin.

    Caleb changed the way people look at participating in challenges. He gave his all to the bitter end for salt and pepper even. He fits the theme much more so than Hali and Sierra.

  15. Varner changed the game because he pioneered the voting bloc strategy that was seen throughout the rest of Cambodia.

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