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".
Eighteen castaways, separated into two tribes of men vs. women, are stranded on the remote islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. After a shocking welcoming ceremony with a local tribe, the nine men and nine women are sent their separate ways to search for their camps at night. At first light, both tribes struggle to make fire and build shelter. Lopevi (the men's tribe) is shocked when Chad reveals that he is an amputee, having lost his right leg below the knee only 20 months earlier. Over at Yasur (the women's tribe), Eliza's constant chatter and Twila's workaholic attitude are rubbing some the wrong way.
A tribe deals with very grim conditions as one castaway has a tearful meltdown after finding maggots in the tribe's food. A wild chicken wanders into the Yasur camp and sends the hungry tribe into a frenzy as they try to catch the chicken with a machete. One Survivor tries to take advantage of tensions between two tribemates after a loss at the Reward Challenge. Two castaways think they are the swing vote, leading to a very unpredictable Tribal Council.
Post-Tribal Council fallout leaves one Survivor feeling the heat from tribemates. At another tribe, differing work ethics and personalities lead to a clash between two members. Both tribes are shocked when they gather for a Challenge and are told that there will be a double Tribal Council. A twist at the end of the Challenge puts one castaway in a very influential position. Tension and politicking run rampant at both camps as several vulnerable castaways jockey to survive. Two will leave Vanuatu. Who will it be?
Tempers flare at both camps after the double Tribal Council. Alliances seem clearly drawn and several Survivors have trouble holding back their frustration. The Tribe that wins Reward is surprised by a prize that sends them a visitor for 24 hours. Homesickness plagues Bubba, who is comforted by a tribemate. One Survivor plays puppet master in an attempt to pit one tribemate against another.
Both tribes receive unexpected visits from Vanuatu natives bearing a message with consequences for all the castaways. A massive earthquake rocks the island, literally shaking things up for the tribes. A trip for one tribe leads to bonding and makes one castaway very happy. One castaway is caught by a tribemate while attempting to communicate secretly with a member of the opposing tribe.
Feeling vulnerable, one castaway gives an impassioned, persuasive speech in hopes of breaking the tribe's alliances. In a piglet-herding Reward Challenge, could one tribe's chance of winning be hurt by a member's fear of handling pigs? Things get very relaxed at one camp, where one castaway decides to do some nude sunbathing, and a walk to gather food fuels an alliance. Conflicted over how to vote in the upcoming Tribal Council, one castaway prays for a sign to guide the decision. POOF! The sign appears.
One member's lack of work ethic prompts negative reactions in the tribe. After winning a hard-fought Challenge, one tribe is rewarded with more than just sustenance. One Survivor, in danger of being voted off, wins a Challenge for the tribe, thus buying more time on the island. A potential target at Tribal Council, one Survivor tries to convince the rest that another tribemate should be next to go.
A Survivor gets fed up with the tribe and is ready for a change. One castaway uses charm, flirtation and cuddling in an attempt to get in good with a tribemate. Anxiety about a possible tribal merge leads one Survivor to make one-on-one pacts with numerous others. One castaway gets into a war of words with a tribemate after being told what to do.
Fetching Tree Mail, one Survivor is surprised to get more than just mail, but the meaning of the surprise remains a mystery. One group of Survivors hatch a devilish plan to screw over their tribemates. Hatred drives two Survivors to serious lobbying to get each other voted out. One Survivor's guilt over aligning with a faction is exacerbated by a tribemate's words.
Two Survivors become "sacrificial lambs" and are tied up by their tribe. A surreal Reward drives one Survivor to overindulge and pay for it later. After a tumultuous night in which one castaway struggles to keep the camp together, it is decided that the most useless tribemate should go. One Survivor is torn between joining a new alliance or thwarting an existing one. A tribemate exploits this indecision to work a plan. Before Tribal Council, one Survivor makes a last-ditch effort to sway a tribemate. Will it work?
One Survivor tries to solidify a Final Four position, but is crushed to learn that things aren't always what they seem. The Survivors are surprised by an emotional reunion with their loved ones. But only one castaway gets quality time with their loved one. At the Immunity Challenge, castaways are surprised to get special help for the competition. One Survivor approaches a tribemate with a plan for the upcoming Tribal Council vote. Caught off-guard, the tribemate tries to deflect the vote. How will the voting go down?
One tribe member accosts another for breaking a pact. The tribe is irritated by two tribemates who show little desire to contribute to routine camp life. A suddenly powerless castaway attempts to sway an undecided tribe member going into a crucial Tribal Council.
One Survivor is alienated from the tribe after an outburst that jeopardizes any chance of being in the Final Four. Tempers flare when one tribemate refuses to tell another the whereabouts of some buried provisions. When a tribemate catches two Survivors talking strategy, an altercation erupts that makes everyone realize what's at stake. Working both sides of a divided camp, one Survivor makes conflicting promises going into Tribal Council. Which way will the tribe member vote? And who will make it to the Final Four?
Two Survivors get into a fight after one says the other doesn't deserve to be there. The Final Four savor their accomplishment making it this far in the game and partake in a feast, but one Survivor is annoyed by the company. Two final and most crucial Immunity Challenges play out and in the end, only two remain. Who will be the Final Two to face the Jury and be crowned Sole Survivor?