Survivor: Why a three tribe format should rarely be used

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

There have been 11 different Survivor seasons to feature three tribes at some point in the game, and two other seasons with four tribes.

Production tends to go through phases in terms of tribal formats. For the longest time, the usual mould for Survivor was two tribes. Then, season 12 and 13 had four tribes! From seasons 25 to 32, half of them started off with three tribes. Now, the current pattern of Survivor it to start with two and then expand to three. The question is which format is the most successful? Here a few reasons why a three tribe format only works in special circumstances.

The bigger the Tribal Council, the greater the potential for exciting votes. I’m not saying that all Tribal Councils with six or fewer people are boring, it’s just that they limit opportunities. Either you stick with your alliance, or you flip to the minority. Whereas, tribes with seven or more people possess the ability for castaways to form alliances and even sub-alliances. When you look at seasons with a larger merge like Second Chance, Millennials vs. Gen X and David vs. Goliath, it’s clear that having more people at one Tribal Council creates a recipe for thrilling blindsides!

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Challenges are harder to watch with three or more tribes. Whenever there are two tribes that can win the same challenge, it feels far less competitive than if there were just one winner and one loser. I find it a lot easier to zone out of a challenge when there are more than two tribes competing. Having only two tribes presents a greater opportunity for entertaining rivalries between the two teams, like in Heroes vs. Villains.

One tribe usually gets pummeled. Still on the topic of challenges, having three tribes usually leads to an unfair playing field. Think of the pathetic Brains tribe in Cagayan, or Malcolm and Denise’s tribe in Philippines that dwindled from six members down to two. It gets a little annoying having to watch the edit focus on the same tribe each and every episode.

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When does a three tribe format work? Due to the lack of alliance possibilities and less competition in the challenges, Survivor seasons tend to suffer when it starts off with three tribes. However, it makes a lot more sense when there’s a surprise expansion from two tribes to three. If this phase lasts for just two or three votes, it’s perfect for blurring up tribal lines and creating more fluid gameplay.

Notice that I said a surprise expansion tribe. Going from two tribes to three was definitely a great twist when they first did it in Second Chance. However, every single season since then that began with two tribes eventually expanded to three. So it wasn’t much of a surprise to watch the Davids and Goliaths form a new third tribe.

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Although I’m still a fan of the expansion tribe, I hope production can switch it up. I’m still waiting for a merge and then after a Tribal Council or two, a return back to two tribes! For now, let’s just hope that production can stick to the solid formula of beginning a season with two tribes.