For years, Survivor fans have dreamed of an all-winners season. And for years, host Jeff Probst talked about how it would never happen. “We can’t do all winners,” Probst told Us Weekly as recently as 2018. “As a producer, I would never suggest it. I would say it’s not a good idea.”
As Probst saw it, the problem was casting constraints. A Survivor season needs an equal number of men and women, and also needs a good mix of explosive players, subtle strategists, and friendly social players. With some winners probably not wanting to play again (and some who CBS doesn’t want back), casting a 20-player season is difficult.
Well, the idea that Probst didn’t like two years ago is finally happening. The show’s 40th season is Winners at War, and it features 20 champions coming together for the most anticipated season in series history. The season premieres Wednesday night, so now is the perfect time to get ready. Whether you’re a Survivor superfan, returning to the show after a long absence, or have never watched before, here is a FAQ to help guide you ahead of the premiere of Winners at War:
Who is in the cast?
There are 38 total Survivor winners, so not everyone is coming back for this season. Here is the full list of contestants and their starting tribes for Winners at War:
Dakal (Red tribe)
- Tyson Apostol (Season 27, Blood vs. Water)
- Sophie Clarke (Season 23, South Pacific)
- Sandra Diaz-Twine (Season 7, Pearl Islands and Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains)
- Wendell Holland (Season 36, Ghost Island)
- Yul Kwon (Season 13, Cook Islands)
- Sarah Lacina (Season 34, Game Changers)
- Amber Mariano (Season 8, All-Stars)
- Kim Spradlin-Wolfe (Season 24, One World)
- Tony Vlachos (Season 28, Cagayan)
- Nick Wilson (Season 37, David vs. Goliath)
Sele (Blue tribe)
- Natalie Anderson (Season 29, San Juan del Sur)
- Danni Boatwright (Season 11, Guatemala)
- Jeremy Collins (Season 31, Cambodia)
- Ben Driebergen (Season 35, Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers)
- Michele Fitzgerald (Season 32, Kaôh Rōng)
- Adam Klein (Season 33, Millennials vs. Gen X)
- Rob Mariano (Season 22, Redemption Island)
- Parvati Shallow (Season 16, Micronesia)
- Denise Stapley (Season 25, Philippines)
- Ethan Zohn (Season 3, Africa)
Even casual Survivor fans will recognize that CBS tapped some of the most iconic names, including Sandra (the only two-time winner, at least for now), Boston Rob, and Parvati. But for the most part, this season leans heavily on recent winners. While the most recent champions (Chris Underwood and Tommy Sheehan) didn’t make it (likely due to time constraints), the winners from Seasons 31 to 37 are all represented. Overall, only six of the 20 contestants won their game in the first half of Survivor’s run—the rest are all from the past decade.
Who was the most disappointing casting cut?
My kingdom for Tina Wesson, the winner of Australian Outback, the second season of the show. She hasn’t been seen since Blood vs. Water in 2013, but would have been a delightful addition for this season. She reportedly was called about coming back, but for unknown reasons didn’t end up in the final cast.
Speaking of early winners, Season 1 champion Richard Hatch is also not returning, though that’s for the best. The last season of the show involved a high-profile incident of inappropriate touching and sexual harassment, and Hatch has a history of similar conduct on Survivor, when he competed in a challenge naked in Season 8 and made contact with fellow contestant Susan Hawk, who later quit the game over the incident. Probst made it clear that Hatch’s behavior was part of why Survivor didn’t ask him to return: “Given his history on our show, it did not seem appropriate,” the host told Us Weekly in January. “We were in a different time and different culture back then and we would never let him run a challenge naked now. … I didn’t feel comfortable having him out on the show and representing a show that is for families.”
Who is the most surprising addition?
Having both Rob and Amber—a husband-and-wife duo who first met on All-Stars in 2003 and ran the table to the end, where Amber won over Rob in a tight 4-3 vote—is a real treat. Rob has played numerous times since, but this is the first time Amber has been back since that season.
Similarly, Ethan hasn’t been back since All-Stars. In the 17 years since he last played he survived cancer—twice. He may have the best story of any of the contestants on the island this season.
And I have to shout out Yul, one of the greatest strategists ever who hasn’t played since he won Cook Islands in 2006. For years, it sounded like Yul would never come back. In 2012 he said, “I can’t say I had a lot of fun that season,” and it sounded like he only occasionally watched the show.
What’s at stake?
I almost always forget there is prize money on the line. While all of these contestants once walked away with $1 million, this season the prize is doubled: $2 million. There is also bragging rights on the line—and to these people, that’s probably worth as much as any check from CBS.
Who has the most to prove?
This cast has a good mix of inarguable legends and those who could become one with an impressive performance. But some have much more to gain than others, and none have more to prove than Ben Driebergen. The military veteran won Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers with the help of a ridiculous run of immunity idol finds and benefited greatly from the fire-making twist that allowed him to avoid getting sent home at the final four. But he says he wants to show everyone that he’s not just a “lucky-twist guy.”
“This time, I want to have fun with other people, and get to the final three, and build those relationships. And show everybody that I’m not just an idol hound,” Ben told Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross. “I just want to be able to go out and play another game and win it another way.”
A strong run in this season would show that Ben can hang with some of the best players. If he does that through sharp strategy and social play, he’ll demonstrate he’s not a one-trick pony. But if he goes on another immunity idol run, he’ll prove that he’s one of the greatest idol finders in show history—and that’s worth celebrating, too.
Some under-the-radar winners can similarly prove that they didn’t just skate to the end on their respective seasons. Michele has talked openly about how criticism of her subtle playing style frustrated her after her win in 2013’s Kaôh Rōng: “I am proud of myself; don’t get me wrong, but when it was airing, and I was watching it, and I was seeing all this stuff online and all of this criticism and controversy that was surrounding this season, especially my win, and it makes you second guess everything a little bit,” she told EW. “And so it’s sad to say that that really impacted my experience, but it did. I’m out here to prove to myself that I deserved it the first time, to prove to everybody else that I deserved it the first time, and watch me do it again. It’s a little bit of redemption for me.”
Sophie had a similar style, and talked about how it’s just harder to make compelling television out of players like her: “It’s less showy,” she said. “I’m really excited to put it to the test in this game and see if this game does not require an under-the-radar player, if this requires a more flashy player to win, can I be that flashy player? I think I can, but I haven’t proven it yet.”
Understated players like Michele and Sophie don’t always get the credit they deserve, but a second win can change all of that.
What are the connections between cast members?
It’s complicated, to say the least. I did my best to illustrate it:
As you can see, most of the connections center on players who have appeared on numerous returnee seasons. Rob and Sandra have each played with five other contestants (including each other), while Parvarti has four connections. Tyson is next with three, and no one else has more than two. Meanwhile nearly half the cast have no connections whatsoever—something Nick described as a “disadvantage” in pregame interviews. “I’m just hoping that there’s enough people that have the same disadvantage I do that we can come up with some numbers,” he said. However, Nick’s quote reveals how it can be an advantage to come into the game with a blank slate. There’s potential for a dominant “lone wolves” alliance.
But this is only in-game connections. Players have relationships with each other outside the game. Tyson, for example, is friends with Jeremy in real life. And, oh yeah: Rob and Amber are married.
Is there a sneak peek of the season?
What an oddly prescient question—it’s almost like the person answering the questions is also the one writing them! Anyway, yes, CBS released the first four minutes of the episode last week, which you can watch here:
There’s a lot to unpack already, but let’s focus on Sandra’s comment about feeling “betrayed” by Rob. She and Rob spent all of Season 39, Island of the Idols, together on, well, the Island of the Idols. They weren’t actually playing the game, but were there to mentor the newbie contestants who were sent to the island. Apparently in all that time, Rob never mentioned that he was also competing on Season 40. But did Sandra? Did Sandra reveal that she was on the season, leading Rob to lie about his own involvement? Even if that’s the case, Rob is one of the most iconic contestants in the show’s history, and he’s about to become the first player to play in five seasons—Sandra had to know Survivor wanted him for an all-winner season.
At any rate, Sandra isn’t on Rob’s tribe to begin the season, but this feud won’t be put on pause. Sandra is paired up with Amber, Rob’s wife—there’s a chance for revenge if Sandra puts the target on her. Rob knows this, too: He told EW pregame that “I know the second Sandra sees me out there and she knows Amber’s out there, she’ll use that against us as soon as she can.”
Who has the biggest target on their back?
Us Magazine interviewed the contestants before the season and asked them who their “biggest competition” is, and Sandra was name-dropped six times. That’s what she gets for being the only two-time winner in Survivor history.
Sarah was second with five mentions—she played a dominant game on 2017’s Game Changers, the last all-returnee season, which is clearly fresh on everyone’s minds. Similarly, Jeremy was the runaway winner of Cambodia, another recent returnee season.
But what about who isn’t a threat? Eight contestants—Adam, Amber, Ben, Danni, Ethan, Nick, Wendell, and Yul—weren’t picked by anyone. They could come into the game completely under the radar.
Is anyone else at an obvious disadvantage?
Some of the contestants who haven’t been on in a while may find the modern game to be complicated. The number of twists has exploded in recent seasons, and modern Survivor game play requires players to be working their fellow tribemates as well as doing everything they can to find idols and advantages. Recent contestants know this well (looking at you, Ben), but those who haven’t been back in a while will need to adapt.
“There’s a huge learning curve,” Denise Stapley, who hasn’t been on since Philippines in 2012, told EW before the season. “You know, I watch at home. We’re religious Survivor watchers, and there have been times when I’ve watched and my head hurts. Like, my head literally hurts because I’m trying so hard to keep track of things, and remember who has an idol, or what the advantage was, or just to pay attention where should they be looking.”
Compared to some contestants, Denise is hardly at a disadvantage. Ethan Zohn and Amber Mariano haven’t played since Season 8, which was before Survivor had even introduced immunity idols. They’re like NBA players who played before the 3-point line. Plus, every player other than Ben, Wendell, and Nick last played before the fire-making twist was introduced. In current Survivor seasons, the fire-making challenge at the final four determines the last spot for someone to sit on the Final Tribal Council, rather than the usual voting, which has big implications on late-game strategy.
Additionally, any player who hasn’t played Survivor in Fiji before is at a disadvantage. The show has been filming on the same islands for the past seven seasons, and as Danni noted in her pregame interview, “some of [the other players] maybe have searched these very beaches for the idols.”
Finally, anyone who has never played on a returnee season before may find the level of play in Winners at War a bit jarring at first. In his EW interview, Jeremy said “There are a lot of people out here that I’ve seen so far that have won their first season, and they don’t know what it’s like to step on the beach on a returning season, an All-Star season or whatever you want to call it, and how crazy it is out there. And how it’s 100 miles an hour right from the jump.”
What ridiculous twist did they cook up this time?
This will be the first season to feature a currency system, called fire tokens. Each player begins the game with one fire token, and castaways who are voted out have to will their token to someone still in the game. Players in the game can then use their tokens to purchase everything ranging from food to immunity idols.
“One of the things we wanted to accomplish with 40 was to try to find some ground that might give us room to play going forward,” Probst told EW before the season. “So we went back to the basic idea: Survivor is about a society that forms, and they form their own rules. And they decide who stays and who goes home. And over time, every society ends up having a currency. So we’re looking to add another layer to the society with a Survivor currency in the form of fire tokens.”
Is that the only twist?
Of course not. Modern Survivor seasons have ramped up the twists and advantages to ridiculous levels and have shown no signs of slowing down. When Cirie went home without a single vote (because every other player was immune) in 2016’s Game Changers, CBS should have realized the show was twisting itself into a pretzel. Instead, we’ve just gotten more changes to the rules—and this season features the Extinction Island twist that debuted two seasons ago.
Players who are voted out will immediately go to the Edge, an island with few resources and even less to do. But if they tough it out there, they’ll have a chance to win their way back in the game. This twist was first introduced in Edge of Extinction, and it resulted in Chris Underwood coming back in the finale to win after previously being the third cast member voted off.
The Edge and fire tokens work together in the game. If a player on the Edge finds an advantage, he or she can sell it to one of the players still in the game, and then use the tokens to buy resources to make life on the desolate island a bit more bearable. It’s Survivor’s attempt to construct a real supply-and-demand economy.
But this is an awful lot to add to Survivor, especially for an all-winners season that would have been the most anticipated in the show’s history even without a bunch of twists. The twists may even take away from the season—fans want to see the all-time greats go head-to-head at the game they are legends at, not watch them try to parse all these new rules.
The bigger problem lies not in how twists and advantages affect the game play, but how they affect the show. Explaining the rules takes time. Checking in on the contestants on the Edge takes time. Showing the idol hunts takes time. Presenting the strategy takes time. Pretty soon, there’s no time left for the character development that makes Survivor a compelling show. It’s just impossible to jam all of this—plus two challenges in most episodes—into 45 minutes of TV and still have time for the players themselves. The best seasons have always spent the necessary time to flesh out a compelling cast: Heroes vs. Villains is one of the best seasons ever, and it featured only one mild twist (a double Tribal Council). Similarly, the best recent season was 2018’s David vs. Goliath, which featured few twists outside of a vote-steal advantage and an idol nullifier.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Queen Sandra herself talking about the explosion of twists and advantages in a pregame interview with TVLine:
I don’t understand why we have so many idols. After you find an idol, that should be it. I hate the idol nullifier. When I played my first time, there was no such thing as idols. You made sure you went to tribal council with your torch lit and you left with your torch lit. You didn’t spend the whole day looking for idols because that’s your only saving grace. You figured it out. My mouth is my saving grace, the relationships and bonds I build are my saving grace. Not digging and climbing trees and looking under rocks, none of that.
Probst has said that he brought back the Edge twist to get the players he wanted to sign on, essentially guaranteeing former winners that they wouldn’t be off the show entirely after one episode. That might be true (and it sounds like the Edge will be going extinct after this season), but this season could still get messy.
All right, who is going to win?
The beauty of Survivor is that winning the game is like walking a tightrope. Contestants have to make “big moves” and demonstrate visible, dominant game play without becoming such an obvious winner that they put a target on their own back and get blindsided. As a result, there is no real favorite to win. The cast has some loud personalities (Rob, Tony, Sandra Diaz-Twine) and some more subtle players (Michele, Adam, and also Sandra). I lean toward the latter sorts of players. It’ll be tough for some of the biggest stars to get the target off their back, while under-the-radar contestants have a chance to play the game they want without as much scrutiny. But these are all former winners—anyone could take home the prize.
Ugh, OK, my editor is insisting I stop being a coward and make a prediction. Pencil me in for Michele.