There were 81 members of the Donner-Reed Party that got snowbound in the mountains a few weeks short of their California goal in late 1846. Of that number, 45 survived the winter. Of the 36 who did not make it, 4 or 5 were murdered and at least 17 were cannibalized. It was a story of heroism and selfishness, hope and horror, endurance and desperation, and a cautionary tale of how quickly we can become something far different than who we think we are when hardship sets in.
Donner Party is a 2-5 player card game that plays in 30-60 minutes and is suitable for players 10 years and up. It's a boxed game with 108 poker-size cards, 60 mini cards and 4 pages of rules. Note that the age recommendation is based on game complexity, not content. The content suitability is up to your own personal judgement.
In Donner Party, surviving is only half the game
As you take the role of settlers in one of the three encampments stranded in the High Sierras, doing what it takes to keep you and yours alive is easy. It is just that the easy route costs you the game. Players acquire hidden amounts of Shame for the unsavory things they do to stay alive, and whoever ends the game with most Shame loses, regardless of how good their score is. So, to win you need to have the best score and the second worst set of ethics. It is simultaneously awful, tactical and darkly humorous. You can snag a draft copy of the rules here.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web
“a nice tightrope in the middle to walk, knowing that survival is important – but being able to live with yourself afterwards” - boardgamebuds.com
“Ewww!” - theboardgameshow.com
“Do you eat your final hoarded morsels and hope for the rescue to happen, or let someone in your party starve and see the points they represent slip out of your grasp? The only way to answer these questions is to back Donner Party. We have already.” - bestplay.co
Gameplay: Play is both cooperative and competitive. How quickly you get through the winter depends partially on the total health of the settlers, so the more people who are healthy, the faster the game ends. Each turn there will be Forage available, but usually not quite enough to feed everyone. Sometimes the weather will close in and there will be little or none. Players bid the amount of Shame they are willing to draw to represent just how conniving and desperate they are to get some of that limited food supply. And if people are not fed, they get weaker. And if they get weaker, they do not forage as well, and if they do not forage as well, the winter can become very long, and options other than foraging begin to have an appeal.
And once you have done something that costs another player points, the veneer of civilized behavior comes off and it quickly turns into "every family for themselves..." It's a self-reinforcing vicious circle. Shame does not affect your score, so if someone has more Shame cards than you, odds are it will help your game position to do something shameful yourself. It really depends on the players and the weather. We have had mild winters where almost everyone made it through, and desperately vicious ones that looked like a cannibal version of the Hatfield & McCoy feud. You might want to play a certain way, but circumstances could make it impossible.
Everyone starts off with a Family and Hirelings, each of which has a Health value and a healthy and weakened side (and weakened is forever, you can never go back to healthy). Here's a sample start for a player, with a Family (green) and hirelings (gray):
If you zoom in, you see that Patrick Breen starts with an extra Food card, which at first seems like a pretty big advantage. However, you get extra points at the end of the game for having the oldest or youngest surviving settler and the Breen camp is unlikely to have either. So, this player has to make up that potential lack of points by having more healthy Settlers at the end of the game, and the extra Food card (Jerky) gives them a head start on that.
You have a personal Forage step based on the total Health of your party (the Settlers above have a total health of 9), and then a group Forage step based on the number of players. In the group Forage step there is always less Forage than the number of players, and one of the Forage cards is always face-down. Players bid the amount of Shame they are willing to draw to have first pick of the Forage shown. Winter weather can reduce or even eliminate your personal Forage or the group Forage, but those who get no Forage get an Action card instead.
Then, you have to feed your Settlers. You do not have to feed your Settlers completely, but if you can, you have to feed them something. If you do not have enough Food, Settlers get weakened. To keep it historical and make the gameplay work, there are a few rules for weakening your Settlers, like all of them have to be weakened before any die of starvation. You can play Action cards to either mess with other players or improve your own situation (like giving you extra Food for that turn), as long as you think the Shame cost is worth it. You can see some more of the cards over at the Facebook album for the game.
This process continues until the winter is over or rescue arrives in March 1847. Victory goes to the player with the highest score, unless of course that player had the most Shame. You get points for surviving Settlers, with a bonus for Healthy Settlers, having the oldest Settler, youngest Settler or keeping your core Family intact. Which is where things like Settler age come in. If you have the second-oldest Settler in play, you're going to be looking for an angle to knock off the oldest one at the minimum Shame cost to yourself.
The weather varies with each game, since some of the Forage cards for each winter month are removed at random before play. You might have an easy winter, you may have a horrific one. Similarly, there is a "Final Rescue" card in the last month (March 1847), but if/when it shows up that month is anyone's guess. It would be embarrassing (and increase your Shame) to have dug some unfortunate out of a snowbank for dinner only to have a rescue party from Sutter's Fort show up with supplies the next day.
If people are hungry enough for the game (sorry, couldn't resist), the economy of scale means I can do a full quality upgrade. Same components, just better. Sturdier box, snappier cards, glossier rules. I'll take what is already good and make it better.
Here is a short video showing bits of a Donner Party game at GenCon 2016. We had 5 players, so I sat out and taught the rules as we went along. The game works with 2-5 players, but like most games of this type, the best interaction and backstabbing and playing off people against each other requires 3 or more.
History: Donner Party takes place during the westward expansion of the United States in the first half the the 19th century. This is the same era as the "you have died of dysentery" Oregon Trail meme. The settlers took some bad advice, got delayed and had internal conflicts, with one murder before they even got to the High Sierras. And then they got stuck. The game starts after that first heavy snow, when the settlers realize they are spending the winter there, have made shelter and killed their livestock. They had no idea the snow would eventually get 7 meters deep and that they would not be able to find many of the animals they had counted on to sustain them through the winter.
Patrick Breen kept a diary during the ordeal, and many of the other survivors wrote about their experiences afterwards. The cards, actions and events in the game are based on these, though how the game actually turns out and whether your settlers survive is up to luck and skill. Notes from the survivors or other historical events are on every card, and the cards also have icons to show the historical fate of that person.
For instance, George Donner (age 62 at the time) cut his hand while repairing a wagon in October and the injury festered. It took him months to die from the combination of exposure, injury and malnutrition, and after he died, his body was cannibalized by the survivors. His age is important since you get points for having the oldest surviving settler, but the other icons are simply for...flavor.
Complexity: It isn't. For all this, the rules are only 4 pages long and the game is designed so that you can learn while you play and that someone who has played it can teach others without even needing the rules. It is all about the interaction between players, second-guessing and manipulation of circumstance. And a bit of luck doesn't hurt either.
Art: This was actually a tough call. Some are going to like it, some are not. That is always going to be the case. The spectrum of possibilities for Donner Party ran from purely historical (or faux historical) to Munchkin-esqe, each of which would add its own personality to the subject matter. I eventually went with "serious caricature", a simplistic style that does not ignore the horror and drama of that winter, but does not treat it as total slapstick either. Where possible, the settlers are based on available photos, otherwise dramatic license has been taken. The art has gone over well in playtesting, but half the time new players have their cards turned sideways and are paying more attention to the historical info.
How it came to be: Donner Party and hopefully other games to come have their genesis because of the GenCon game convention in Indianapolis. After four days of non-stop gaming and not enough sleep, the ten-hour drive home in the middle of the night requires a bit of effort to stay awake for.
So, I design a game during the drive with the assistance of whoever I'm traveling with. It keeps me awake and I help keep the driver awake. The core concept for 2015 ended up as "Cannibalism: The Card Game", and from that delirious Red Bull-fueled beginning the actual rules and game mechanics were hashed out. Of course, it took a year to turn a legal pad full of scribbled notes and sketches into an actual game, but here it is. And if it works out, there will be more...
A special thanks to: Alexander Chepelev (cargocollective.com/alchepelev) for his input and numerous revisions on the artwork, Mark H. Walker (flyingpiggames.com) for assistance in playtesting and Kickstarter prep, and Rickard Anjemo (email@example.com) for his work on the videos, especially the mining and splicing of archival pictures and public domain video for the intro piece.
Risks and challenges
There should not be a lot of risk at this point. This is my first Kickstarter, but I have been in the game business for 30 years and I'm familiar with most of the perils and pitfalls. The game is complete and tested, it has no bizarre custom components, the artwork is done, prototypes made, estimates gotten for everything from the minimum viable print quantity up to moderately optimistic and fulfillment options are in place for the US, Canada and EU. In addition, I'm getting lots of advice from Mark Walker at Flying Pig Games, who has done this rodeo several times and lives just a few kilometers down the road. His experience will be invaluable in helping a first-timer like myself.
Now, if this turns into Exploding Kittens I might pop a blood vessel, or if China implodes I'd have to scramble for other printing options, but that seems to be the extent of actual risk at this point.
My only real concern is that I'd like to make sure it is in people's hands for the holidays, and given the propensity of Kickstarters to take longer than anticipated (even after taking this into account), unforeseen delays seem to be par for the course. I hope there aren't any, but if you are a veteran Kickstarter backer you know how these things are.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)