How many hidden immunity idols and/or advantages in one season of Survivor is too many? Is it when you break double digits, with 10? (Note: Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers weighed in with a girthly nine idols and two advantages, for 11 total. Not counting Chrissy's final "advantage" won at the last immunity challenge, which turned out to be nothing of the sort.) How about when you get up to more than one per episode, around 14 or so? Is it a hundred? A thousand? Come on, that's crazy talk. They won't get anywhere near that until at least Survivor 40, or so.
But still, there must be some point at which Survivor becomes less a game where the key to longevity is creating social bonds and strategic partnerships (or winning a key challenge), and becomes more a matter of wandering off into the jungle and grabbing an idol.
Here, we will attempt to answer this question with numbers. Well, numbers and letters. You can't write words without letters. Unless you're communicating in binary, in which case, you'd probably be a robot. You're not a robot, are you?
Wait, don't answer that. After seeing the ratio of Google bot scrapes to unique page views on this site... let's just say, chances are, you are a robot. But let's try to move past that.
As a probable robot, you'll likely enjoy a nice, fancy graph, won't you? Well, either way here is one:
So... as you can see, there's been a *bit* of an uptick in total idols per season since they emerged, going from just two in Fiji and China, where idol rules evolved to their current format (ten years ago), to a whopping nine last season. In the pre-season interviews for Ghost Island (conducted after HvHvH had filmed, but before it aired), producers like Jeff Probst and Matt van Wagenen seemed a bit testy when asked about the avalanche of idols and advantages combining to take out Cirie in the (then just-aired) "Advantage-geddon" Final 6 Tribal Council from Game Changers. To their credit, they are correct in that most of that was due to Tai and Troyzan having hoarded pre-merge idols until then, plus the legacy advantage. Presumably, they would also point out that "much" of the many HvHvH idol count came from people playing then re-finding idols (Joe once, Ben twice). Which is mostly accurate.
While idol-playing rules have stayed pretty much the same since Fiji and China, idol-hiding norms have evolved quite a bit. And by evolved, we mean "have ballooned out, like a tumor." For instance, way back in season 15, there was an idol in each original camp, and with only two tribes, that meant two idols. Also, in those olden days, idols were generally held onto, unplayed, for long periods of time, and because producers probably worried that at some late point in the game (final six, just as a completely random example), too many hoarded idols might create a situation where everyone, or all but one person, was immune, no more were hidden once both were found. Obviously, losing someone under a flurry of idols would be terrible, and something the show should never allow to happen.
Still, idols do introduce more variables and uncertainty at Tribal Council, which is good. And since *more* idols means more chances that at least one might actually get played, eventually, production decided to throw another idol out at the merge camp. And then they also expanded the game to three initial tribes, or two tribes swapping to three, so naturally, that requires another idol. Oh, and when idols leave the game in someone's pocket, or by being played? You guessed it, that warrants another idol being hidden. Generally, if the number of outstanding idols exceeds the number of current camps, no more are hidden, so it's difficult to have more than five or six a season. Unless Malcolm needs a second one to pull off a cool move in Caramoan, of course. Or if one of the idols is called a Legacy Advantage. Or if Ben and Lauren are bored in camp one day, and hey, what the heck, they only have an extra vote and an idol between them, so let's give them a present! But, you know, other than that, Survivor has tight, strictly followed rules about these things.
Generally, that rule is: The more, the better. The last three seasons have each had no fewer than five idols. Chances of a regress below three per season seem vanishingly small. Jeff Probst has repeatedly praised the aggressive gameplay in the past few seasons, and a significant portion of that aggression has been idol-fueled. How much higher can the single-season total go?
Rules are rules, but advantages can break them, or whatever
Speaking of rules, at the same time as idol use has accelerated, we've also witnessed the birth of the Tribal Council Advantage era. (We add "Tribal Council" to differentiate the S30+ "Secret Advantage" explosion from the earlier usage of "advantage" to describe a reward/auction prize that conferred an advantage at the next immunity challenge, last used by Mike Holloway in Worlds Apart.) We've made a list of instances of this modern advantage, here. They... come with a lot of rules.
But one unifying concept about them has been slight manipulations in the voting process: an extra vote here, removing someone's vote there, simply blocking someone from voting at all. The other unifying concept has been, in general, that they don't work. Mostly because, as Dan Foley amply demonstrated the first time it was tried in Worlds Apart, publicity kills most of the advantage. Everyone knew he had one, since he bought it at the auction, which made him a vote magnet (more than he already was, at least). Then forcing him to announce, at Tribal, that he was using it before the votes were cast? That alerted Carolyn that this might be a good time to play her idol. And boom, advantage reversed. Same two problems, slightly different usage and counter-tactics, but largely the same results for Stephen Fishbach in Cambodia.
Perhaps in response to contestant complaints (because nobody listens to fan complaints, obviously), MvGX saw a slight tweak that increased advantage functionality, with the introduction of actually secret advantages (like Adam's still mostly useless Reward Steal one), and HvHvH showed further evolution with ones that had to be played at the upcoming Tribal Council, regardless of which tribe attended. Thus, Ryan's Super Idol (which we counted as an idol in the table, but was marked "Secret Advantage") went to Chrissy. It wasn't played, but it ended up being the foundation of an alliance. Also, Jessica successfully (since there was no way it could "fail") remotely blocked Devon from voting. Hooray, guaranteed success!
Used sparingly, these seem like fairly benign attempts to goose the action, although part of that harmlessness results from neither having had any real effect on the outcome... yet. Either way though, these expiration-date advantages can't be hoarded until one Tribal Council in which the all combine their powers to become one giant, super-shitty outcome. So a tentative thumbs-up, at least until these start showing up every other episode.
Oh wait, that's apparently the whole idea for Ghost Island. And by "every other episode," Jeff Probst appears to be hinting the actual meaning is really "at least once per episode." Yay?
Also, when it comes to advantages, let's not forget that after the HvHvH merge, production returned to more convoluted yet open-ended advantages, like Lauren's having to not vote one time, pocket the parchment, then use that same parchment (at her leisure) to vote twice at some future Tribal. Which, true to the history of long-lived advantages, didn't work out so well. To be fair, part of the blame there is that Lauren eventually decided not to keep her advantage completely secret, which led to it being universally known, and thus made her a target. (As did her idol that also required a ridiculous amount of work to assemble.) But the key point here is: There's the possibility of single-episode advantages popping up every episode before the merge, while still having a hoarded orgy of idols (etc.) pile up for Advantagegeddon II after the merge!
It's the best of both worlds! (By which we mean One World and Worlds Apart, everyone's top two favorite World seasons. Actually we don't mean that, we just wanted to find some way to shoehorn in that joke. Sorry, this parenthetical is getting really long and even more pointless than it originally seemed. That's okay though, because you're probably a bot. And if you weren't, you probably stopped reading long ago.)
So where are we headed? No matter what, with one person heading out to the Advantage Superstore every episode, and Probst's pledge that additional items can still be found in camp, Ghost Island seems highly likely to plow through the previous advantage ceiling of three per season. Probably before the merge. Will that combine with an HvHvH-like level of idol recycling and reuse? Maybe! Will that thoroughly distort Survivor beyond all recognition of the game that Richard Hatch once won? Who knows, but we'll start finding out in a couple of days. Fingers crossed!