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Netflix’s The Devil’s Plan is filling the Survivor-shaped hole in my heart

Win gold pieces to survive

Three contestants in The Devil’s Plan look towards a screen, each holding a button. Image: Netflix
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

I’ve always loved competition-based reality TV, especially any series with alliances and backstabbing — think shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother, although the list goes on. I’ve finally found a new heir apparent to the genre, a Korean show called The Devil’s Plan. In The Devil’s Plan, which I mainlined on Netflix, players compete in brain games to win gold pieces. Players who lose all their pieces are eliminated, until there’s one winner left standing.

The show replicates the best parts of Survivor: excellent casting, social strategizing, and competitive challenges. But The Devil’s Plan also refreshes the genre with its emphasis on cooperation. Unlike the shows I watched growing up, every single Devil’s Plan match requires players to cooperate with each other in some way. Alliances are constantly formed and broken both in the shared living space and also during the course of puzzle-based matches. It’s so tense that people cry over math calculations or board game moves, fretting over being targeted or betraying others. It makes for extremely entertaining television.

The contestants in The Devil’s Plan sitting around a poker-style table in a match. Image: Netflix

The Devil’s Plan’s premise, like its matches, is complicated, but satisfyingly so. A group of 12 brainiacs and actors (basically, people who would crush it at puzzles or deception) live in one house. Though players have varied backgrounds, they all excel in their fields — there’s a professional Go player, a seasoned broadcast journalist, a hugely popular science YouTuber, and even a K-pop idol. They play two matches a day: one “competitive,” which always requires tactical teamwork, and one explicitly “cooperative.” During these matches, players win or lose gold pieces. Players can also give pieces to one another between matches, in a sign of trust.

While Survivor’s social game is a huge draw of the series, it isn’t woven into the games the survivors play. Games in Survivor tend to highlight feats of endurance, athleticism, and wit — then players go back to camp and socially strategize based off of who won immunity or who has a protective idol. In The Devil’s Plan, the matches are social games — and this is what makes them so engaging to watch. The first competitive match, for example, is a modified game of Mafia, and pieces are awarded based on how players in each specific role perform. It forces people who have just met to evaluate how much they trust each other, knowing that finding a way to work together is the only way to succeed.

These matches are also just fun to watch and attempt to solve as a viewer. In another competitive match, players play a simple dice-rolling board game, but with a twist. Each player can make a secret “personal rule,” like “when another player gets this item, I get it, too.” Allied players have an advantage here: They can plan rules that synergize to their group’s benefit. As a viewer at home, I puzzled over what my own rule might have been and who I would have allied with, if I were there — one of the most fun parts of watching any competition show.

Two contestants from The Devil’s Plan leaning in to tell each other a secret. Image: Netflix

After a bit of downtime, players immediately head from the day’s competitive match to the cooperative match. The whiplash is extreme, going from secretively strategizing to working as a group. Players weigh “Should I try to win a piece by solving a puzzle myself?” versus “Do I let the person better at this skill benefit the whole group, adding money to the prize pot?” They know if they look too selfish, others may not want to work with them in future matches. But if the group loses, it could all be for nothing.

As the series progresses, frontrunners emerge. A lawyer answers every single question in a cooperative memory puzzle correctly, on the strength of her memory alone. An actress is compellingly contrite toward the people outside of her alliance, who she knows don’t trust her. Where other shows might choose to heighten drama and discord, The Devil’s Plan emphasizes the fact that the competitors all get along during their downtime, forming intense friendships even in just the handful of days they spend together. And though only one person is left standing at the end, every single player has a set of particular skills that makes them worthy of rooting for and fun to watch. I can’t wait for the next season.

The next level of puzzles.

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