The host explains that the new wrinkle is one producers plan to be around for a long time.
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

One of the reasons Survivor has been able to make it all the way to season 40 is the show’s ability to evolve via new twists that manage to keep the game (and show) fresh after 20 years. Not all of those twists work out (Medallion of Power, anyone?), but if the show was too scared to try out new ideas, we never would have gotten hidden immunity idols, or advantages, or any other number of surprises that keep players on their toes.

The next big twist that could dramatically alter the landscape of the game moving ahead for years to come will be unveiled when Survivor: Winners at War premieres Feb. 12 on CBS. While most of the attention on the season is naturally focused on the 20 returning winners (see their new photo portrait gallery here), the introduction of a Survivor currency is arguably a bigger deal in terms of the impact it could have on the show as we know it.

That currency comes in the form of something the show has dubbed “fire tokens.” What the heck are fire tokens and how do they work? We spoke to Jeff Probst out on location in Fiji, and the host explained that the fire tokens concept is not seen as a one-season deal, but rather something that could play a major role in the society-building we see on the island for Winners at War and beyond.

“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,” says Probst. “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.”

So how do the tokens play into the game? “Think of tokens as money,” Probst explains. “And the way it works is, everyone starts with one. And when you are voted out you have to will it or bequeath it to somebody still in the game as you head to the Edge of Extinction.” But while players still in the game are then gathering the fire tokens of those who are voted out, that doesn’t mean they have all the power. Rather, it gives the active players the opportunity to barter with those now on the Edge of Extinction.

“Now players in the game have tokens,” continues Probst. “People on the Edge have nothing. But what the Edge does have are advantages — that are of no value on the Edge of Extinction but are very valuable in the game. So it becomes supply and demand. I have what you want in terms of an advantage. I’m going to sell it to somebody in the game for your fire token. Your fire token gives me what I need because it allows me to buy an advantage in that return challenge to get back into the game. So now we have a true economy in which you have what I need, and I have what you want. And here’s the price and I’m offering to sell it to you.”

Credit: Timothy Kuratek/CBS

Much like the way money buys power in the real world, fire tokens will now offer an opportunity for advancement in the Survivor one. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Because a key component of the fire token transaction will be targeting the right people for the exchange. “The next layer is, as the game progresses, and you’re on Extinction, you don’t really know who has tokens left,” says Probst. “You don’t know what’s been happening over there. So I’m offering to sell to somebody, hoping that they either have enough money — and, if not, they can borrow it — or go into cahoots with somebody to get enough, because they have only until sundown to pay for it. And otherwise, it’s over. I don’t get anything for the advantage. They don’t get the advantage. I don’t get my tokens.”

Probst tells EW the deal is done completely in secret: “I would send you the advantage, and it says ‘This advantage has this power and it costs this many tokens. You have until sundown to pay for it. If you don’t, it goes away and no deal is done.’ So as the game gets deeper, these advantages become more valuable. Because there’s only a few people left, and they all want them. Which means I can charge more for them. And the more I charge, the more tokens I get. That helps me, because I’m trying to get back in to catch you. You need me. I need you. I got what you need, you got what I want. Supply and demand. It will ebb and flow. And the idea is, if it works, in future seasons, who knows? Maybe you’re not looking for idols, you’re looking for tokens. And with tokens, you buy whatever you need. That’s the big idea.”

It’s important to note that in Winners at War, players on a tribe can also pool their tokens to purchase food, items, or advantages by presenting them at any challenge. The items initially available are coffee and pastries (3 tokens), a small bag of beans (4 tokens), a regular bag of rice (5 tokens), two pillows and blankets (4 tokens), a tarp (5 tokens), or an advantage in the challenge (4 tokens).

Whether the fire tokens become a permanent part of Survivor or just end up as a one-and-done probably depends on how it plays out on Winners at War. It’s a big gamble. Then again, what about season 40 is not big?

Watch the video at the top of the post to see Probst explain the fire tokens twist. Also make sure to check out the Winners at War cast photo gallery. For more Survivor articles, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss, and for exclusive season 40 photos and video, follow me on Instagram @thedaltonross.

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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