The Difference Between the Social and Strategic Game

The Social Piggy Bank of Survivor

Save social capital, spend on strategy and laugh all the way to the bank.

Survivor commentary is a lot like tribal council: it’s comprised significantly of analogies – this opening line was one already. My go-to metaphor is increasingly the idea of the “social piggy bank”, where social capital is currency and strategy is how you spend it.

Recent global examples have traversed social mavens like Australian Survivor’s Kirby, who I compared to a millionaire with a gambling problem, or Survivor 46’s Venus, who kept trying to make strategic purchases but was socially bankrupt. It’s a metric that I think points to the structure of social strategic blueprints, and one that can even highlight how to stretch your social budget into big moves if you’re ever on the show.

Social V Strategy

I don’t believe the social and strategic games are strictly synonymous, but instead heavily connected. I see the social game as the very fabric of the game, a not-so-secret weapon, and wielding it strategically can mean decision making, creating plans, calculating numbers and other similarly nerdy pastimes.

On one side of the spectrum, I’ve watched purely social players passively or even actively win friends entirely divorced from strategic acumen. Survivor AU Blood v Water’s Chrissy was innately liked and actively social, pulling out distinctly and intentionally social moves, where she found her way to her tribemates’ hearts through their stomachs and funny bones. It’s a game that carried her to the final five, but her lack of strategic know-how made it difficult to implement and she made one wrong decision that cost her the game at the end. A singularly social game can amount to a win, but the pathway is more difficult, and agency is often reduced.

Chrissy on Survivor AU

Chrissy (10Play)

Conversely, I’ve watched super fans lose a social foothold early where no amount of knowledge can protect them, even if they know how to split a vote. One category of this ilk is what I call the “sentient goat”, the recurring New Era archetype that knows the game so well that they’re painfully aware they have a one-way ticket to becoming a zero-vote finalist. This archetype may have good ideas and know the numbers, but they don’t have the numbers, so it becomes a pointless exercise. A solely strategic game will always be starved. They need miracles. And idols.

Within these extremes, players are dotted along the social and strategic axes across this spectrum. You have reigning champ Kenzie, a self-admitted social player first, whose sparkling personality led the way and won her allies, guiding a strategic game that was more in the backseat, but still very much on the road. Australian Survivor icon King George is maybe the best example of maximizing his strategic purchases on any social allowance. The question is - how?


When it comes to accruing social capital, earning pathways are varied. Think of the social greats – winners like Kim and JT in their crowning seasons and should-be winners like Cirie in all her seasons – their social income is so covered it feels passive. They’re rich, and we watch them strategically dominate from that wealthy basis. More mortal social games, which can be individual and inconsistent, require a tighter strategic budget and thoughtful purchases at tribal council.

In some instances, amassing capital can be anti-social, but it’s a dangerous course. A player like Russell Hantz did build some connections but, particularly in Heroes V Villains, he primarily ruled by fear. He had immense influence, but not through social means. Think of this as a bad check. He spent the season spending ill-gotten funds and Final Tribal Council was the place to settle those irregular accounts.


If you’re looking for tricks to stretch your strategy price plan you’ve come to the right place. George Mladenov strategically dominated two Survivor seasons on varying amounts of social capital, and I’ve identified three key ways he maximized his spending potential.

Firstly, George spent money to make money. This was most evident in his famous episode seven tribal council in Heroes V Villains. George expended some social capital with a player like Jordie and additionally spent his idol – trinkets are another form of currency with an ever-escalating exchange rate – to secure Stevie as capital. Later, when cornered into a difficult decision by diverging ally interests, he successfully spent the capital of Stevie to accrue Matt and Gerry. Understanding the value of your capital and what’s worth investing in is essential – look at what Dee risked to preserve Julie, knowing their loyalty and connection could help spur her to the win.

Shannon, George, and Chrissy (10Play)

This brings me to point two – George was very good at knowing the dollar value of moves. Without the luxury of a broad social game, George saved for specific scenarios. For the merge, he knew the winning price was exactly seven votes, and he used the post-swap and merge vote to lock in what became the Vigilantes alliance. This intentionality and awareness is vital in considered strategic spending.

Lastly, George has an innovative strategic mind. That creativity is tantamount to finding strategic deals. In the eight votes between the final ten and final four of Brains V Brawn, George spearheaded or at least co-crafted four plurality votes, and plurality votes are the ultimate strategic bargain. By savvily converging game awareness of vote splits, capitalizable chaos or disparate groups, with considered social investments, plurality votes spend less to buy a strategic win with a non-majority. So many of Survivor’s greatest moves, such as Cirie’s historic 3-2-1, Tony’s monumental blindside on Sophie and Shonee’s week-long take down of Zach, have brilliantly utilized this strategy at a discount.

On The Island

That’s my main advice to future players: be impossibly lovable or royally strategic, akin to the absolute titans of Survivor social strategy. If that wealth alludes you, remember - understand your limits, know your budget, save with intention and spend wisely.


Possibly the biggest takeaway is to always keep count of your bank balance. Often, we see players push tenuous, short-term bonds too hard too early, or react to the lost agency of being blindsided by trying to reclaim power and make a big move. If anything, being blindsided means you’re probably broke; it’s then time to save, not spend. 

Natalie Anderson is the model of this game plan. After being blindsided at the Jeremy vote, she knew that revenge was a dish best served in cold, hard cash. She waited weeks, built trust with even her enemies, expended some capital to retain a key asset in Keith and eventually spent it all in one of my favourite end games in Survivor history.

You hear “Jaclyn, did you vote for who I told you to vote for?”. I hear “cha-ching”.


Shannon Guss lives in Australia, where she is one of the great minds in reality television strategy globally. She is a podcaster, commentator, editor, journalist, host of international Survivor coverage on RHAP, host of Talking Tribal on 10Play, and has been a production consultant on Survivor South Africa. She also appeared on the seventh season of Australia’s Next Top Model.

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