Whether you’ve never missed an episode of Survivor, or you dropped off sometime during George W. Bush’s first term, an all-winners’ season is an inviting prospect for anyone who’s ever loved the show. Survivor: Winners at War, which premieres February 12 and features a cast of former winners spanning the show’s 20-year run, seems designed for true fans of the game, past and present. Since it features players whose wins date from as far back as 2001, producers are clearly hoping that viewers whose interest has waned over the years will be pulled back in with the tantalizing prospect of seeing their old-school favorites giving the game another shot.
But while the fundamentals of Survivor — alliances, challenges, Tribal Councils, Jeff Probst himself — have remained much the same over the years, a lot has changed. If it’s been a few years since your last visit to the Survivor island, you may be surprised to learn that in the modern era, nearly every episode features some kind of rule-bending advantage designed to throw the Survivors a curveball, and not all of them are immediately easy to understand. To get you ready for what will undoubtedly be a twist-packed season, here's a primer on the twists that are most likely to rear their heads in Winners at War.
Idols have been a key component of Survivor for so long that it’s hard to imagine there’s anyone left out there who might not know what they are and how they work, but they’re also so key that anyone coming into the series for the first time, or after a very long break, could get a little lost without an idol primer. If that describes you, the next three paragraphs are for you.
The first hidden immunity idol was introduced to the game in Season 11 (Survivor: Guatemala) and basically functioned as a get-out-of-getting-voted-out-free card: once the votes were read and your number was up, you could use it to declare a mulligan, and whoever had the second-most votes would go home instead. Two seasons later, in Survivor: Fiji, the rules were adjusted so that idols had to be played before votes were read. Most, but not all, idols thereafter have functioned this way.
Contestants initially had to decipher a series of vague scavenger-hunt-style clues to acquire hidden immunity idols, but in recent seasons, finding an idol has mostly been a matter of finding some time to get away from the rest of the tribe and scour the surrounding woods for strange-looking trees, rock crevices, and other potential hiding spots. In a bid to make contestants play them more often, Survivor has also recently begun attaching expiration dates to a few idols; where they were previously valid until four or five contestants remained, some idols are now playable at only the next one or two Tribal Councils.
While some old-school fans continue to lament them fifteen years after their first appearance, there’s no denying the fact that idols are an integral part of the modern game. All but two season 40 contestants (Ethan and Amber) have played on seasons where idols have been a factor. In fact, 13 of the 20 winners had idols in their hands at some point over the course of their winning games. There will likely be a generous handful of idols in Winners at War, as there have been in most recent seasons. Winners at War contestants will ignore the influence of idols at their own peril.
No matter what else happened in Survivor, for a long time it was an immutable fact that every player’s vote still counted equally at the end of each episode. Beginning in Season 30, the show began to experiment with bending those rules. Contestants in Survivor: Worlds Apart were the first to have the opportunity to obtain an extra vote, which came in the form of an additional piece of parchment that the holder could use to cast a second vote at any tribal council. Variations on this twist have allowed a player to effectively steal another player’s vote and cast a second ballot. Other twists have allowed a player to block another contestant from voting altogether or lose their ability to vote at the next Tribal Council.
Methods for obtaining these advantages have varied from season to season — they’ve been purchased at auction, won in challenges, and functioned as the prize in games of chance. There’s no official word on whether any vote-related twists will be back for Winners at War, but it's a fairly safe bet that we’ll see at least one of these mid-game, perhaps on offer for purchase (more on this season’s in-game currency in a moment).
Back in the day, contestants played idols predictably and made adjustments to voting strategy accordingly. Then Survivor threw a curveball by introducing the Idol Nullifier, which made its first appearance in Season 37, Survivor: David vs. Goliath. After winning, finding, or otherwise obtaining an Idol Nullifier, a contestant could play it by marking it with the name of the person they suspect will play an idol and adding it to the urn when votes are cast. Should that person then play an idol, all votes for them are reinstated. Again, nearly every player in Winners at War has had to strategize around the possibility of idols, but only one — Season 37’s Nick Wilson — has ever seen a nullifier in action. Throwing one into the mix for Season 40 would force contestants to rethink their strategy on the fly, which is why it seems almost inevitable that we’ll see it here again.
Survivor has played with the idea of allowing voted-out contestants a chance to return to the game on several occasions, from the Outcasts twist in Survivor: Pearl Islands to Redemption Island, which has appeared in three seasons. For Season 38, Survivor introduced Edge of Extinction, an island where contestants were sent after they were voted out of the game. They could then choose to leave the game or wait it out and compete for a chance to return, and anyone who stayed on “Edge” until the final 5 would earn a spot on the jury.
Like most twists of this ilk, Edge of Extinction was largely unpopular with viewers in its first outing. While it did allow viewers to get to know some huge personalities that would have otherwise had just one or two episodes’ worth of screentime, and the much-larger jury made for an exciting final Tribal Council, the largely irrelevant drama on Edge mostly just took time away from the action in the active game. When a contestant managed to return from Edge and win the million dollars after having played only 12 days of the actual game of Survivor, it felt like it madea mockery of the entire process. (That particular winner is not part of Season 40’s cast, although his absence is probably down to recency rather than any measure of how production felt about his win.)
It makes sense that Survivor would want to have a mechanism in place to assure their all-star cast will appear onscreen in all 13 episodes, which probably accounts for why Edge is back for Winners at War. Still, due to its dismal first outing, fans are justifiably wary of it, with some taking to social media to forcefully call for its, well, extinction.
Season 40’s newest twist is also its most complicated. Nobody has ever seen Fire Tokens in action before, and while we’ve been assured their mechanics will make sense once we’ve seen them in action, unpacking this twist with only Jeff Probst’s cursory description is a bit of an undertaking.
When the game begins, each of the Survivor: Winners at War contestants will have one Fire Token, and it’s been implied (but not confirmed) that over the course of the game they’ll have opportunities to earn or win more. Once they’re voted out of the game, contestants must bequeath their tokens to still-active players before going to Edge of Extinction. On Edge of Extinction, they'll be able to search for various luxury items and in-game advantages hidden throughout the island, which they can offer for sale to players still in the game. Players on Edge who have successfully traded for Fire Tokens can then use them to purchase advantages that will help them when it comes time to compete for a chance to return.
Fire tokens, as a concept, have tantalizing implications within the game. If the twist is executed well, it might build a bridge between the active game and Edge of Extinction in a narratively satisfying way. However, if Fire Tokens prove too complex for viewers to grasp right out of the gate, and/or if the payoff isn’t big enough, they could also drag down the season.
Survivor's 40th season kicks off with the two-hour premiere of Survivor: Winners at War on February 12th at 8:00 PM ET on CBS.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.