Sixteen or more castaways are split between two or more "Tribes", are taken to a remote isolated location and are forced to live off the land with meager supplies for roughly 39 days. Frequent physical challenges are used to pit the tribes against each other for Rewards, such as food or luxuries, or for "Immunity", forcing the other tribe to attend "Tribal Council", where they must vote off one of their players. Once about half the players are remaining, the tribes are merged into a single tribe, and competitions are on an individual basis; winning Immunity prevents that player from being voted out, while several that are voted out at this stage form the game's "Jury". Once down to two or three people, a Final Tribal Council is held where the remaining players plead their case to the jury members. The jury then votes for which player should be considered the "Sole Survivor" and win the $1 million prize. Survivor has introduced numerous modifications, or "twists", on the core rules in order to keep the players on their toes and to prevent players from relying on strategies that succeeded in prior seasons. These changes have included tribal switches, seasons starting with more than two tribes, the ability to exile a player from a tribe for a short time, Hidden Immunity Idols that players can use to save themselves at Tribal Council and a chance to return to regular gameplay after elimination through "Redemption Island".
As twenty castaways row one large boat through the waters surrounding Palau, host Jeff Probst points them towards their new beach and indicates there will be two machetes and a map to water waiting for them. In addition, he indicates there will be two Immunity necklaces for the first man and the first woman to reach the shore. With that, Probst departs and the anticipation and panic sets in. Who will stay in the boat? Who will be first to jump? Who will win Immunity? By the end of the first episode, three castaways will leave the island.
One tribe's beach is overrun with unwelcome little visitors. One Survivor is suspicious about a special alliance developing between two tribemates. While enjoying a feast, a tribe notices one member's reclusive behavior. A tribe attempts to recover a lost provision. Will they be successful in the task, or will they succumb to exhaustion?
One tribe relaxes after winning a Challenge, which annoys a tribemate frustrated with the lack of a work ethic. A war of words erupts between two tribe members as one lays into the other for being bossy. Just as a Challenge is set to begin, one tribe faces a setback when a member suffers an injury. Will this affect their ability to compete? Two fearless castaways take it upon themselves to confront some deadly creatures on the island.
Tensions rise within both tribes when they are forced to choose leaders for the next Reward Challenge. What role will the leaders play? One castaway becomes annoyed when a tribemate complains of having no energy and doesn't help the tribe. Spirits are high within a tribe when they win a Challenge and an extraordinary Reward. It is still early in the game, yet signs of tribal division emerge when one group considers banding together to vote out a tribemate. Who is the unlucky one?
Low morale for one tribe sinks even lower when they abandon their camp in search of a cave for shelter from a storm...and get lost. One castaway neglects fire duty and dozes off, and a tribemate becomes bitter having to lose valuable sleep to pick up the slack. One tribe is taunted and tormented as they have to sit and watch the other tribe enjoy a great Reward right in front of them. Both tribes face several unexpected twists that throw them off their game.
Tensions flare between two tribemates when one blames the other for the tribe's loss in a Challenge. A tribe's high morale is not enough to keep one Survivor from being annoyed by a tribemate's uselessness around camp. After a miserable night in a typhoon, one Survivor has an emotional and physical breakdown. One undecided Survivor makes conflicting deals with two tribemates going into Tribal Council. Who will be next to leave the island?
Two Survivors battle to provide for their tribe. One brings home a clam; one brings home a shark. Sitting out a Challenge, one Survivor finds it hard to watch from the sidelines and doubts the tribe's ability to win. A tribe member is suspicious of a potential alliance forming between two very friendly tribemates that could spoil a game plan. During a crucial Immunity Challenge, one Survivor takes over for a struggling tribemate. Will it be enough to win?
A Survivor becomes irritated with the tribe's living conditions and lack of maintenance around camp, which has attracted unwelcome visitors. Several weeks surviving on an island has driven one Survivor to exhibit unruly behavior, much to the concern of a tribemate. The Survivors get a chance to sample a Palauan delicacy, which can be rather difficult to swallow. Who has the will to stomach this indigenous cuisine? Two Survivors disagree on how the tribe should enjoy their Reward, leaving one of them feeling defeated and annoyed with the final decision.
One Survivor struggles to endure a hard night as life on the island becomes tougher this deep into the game. After being excluded from a tribal excursion, one Survivor throws a tantrum. One tribe enjoys a memorable evening, especially for the member who overindulges a bit.
An unexpected performance by a tribemate during a Challenge results in a victory for the team. One castaway confronts her tribe, leaving everyone feeling uncomfortable and leaving her feeling alienated. A twist at a Challenge brings very bad news for one Survivor. In danger of going on the chopping block, a Survivor makes a heartfelt plea not to be voted off. Will this plea fall on deaf ears?
Some Survivors entertain the idea of forming a secret alliance and persuade a tribemate to join their pact. A Survivor heeds some advice and makes personal hygiene improvements, delighting the tribe. As the game nears its conclusion, three castaways formulate individual strategies for surviving the upcoming Tribal Council.
The aftermath of an emotional Tribal Council and stormy weather combine for a night the tribe will never forget. To their surprise and delight, some Survivors are overwhelmed by a visit from their loved ones. A strong alliance leaves one castaway on the outside looking in, with Immunity the only chance for survival. Paranoia sets in as alliances crumble and some Survivors feels like they've lost control of the game.
Gender lines are drawn as one group hatches a plan to vote off the Survivor who doesn't win Immunity. One Survivor feels betrayed when the winner of a Challenge chooses a different tribemate to enjoy the Reward. Going into Tribal Council, one Survivor holds the power and is torn between an alliance and a friendship. Which way will the vote swing?
The Final Four rethink their strategies when a once-solid alliance dissolves with the slip of a tongue. After an emotional Tribal Council, arguments erupt, feelings are hurt and friendships are questioned. A shocking development during the Final Immunity Challenge promises to go down in Survivor history. Tears and harsh words fuel a tense session between the Jury and the Final Two.