Before we get into the Donner Party game itself, tell us a little about your background in tabletop games.
I’m mostly into role-playing games as my business (BTRC.net), but I’ve been playing board games of all sorts as far back as ASL and Star Fleet Battles. And I like almost any sort of competitive tabletop game, card-based or otherwise. Small World, Cosmic Encounter, Dominion, Agricola, Cataan, the works. I ran into Mark Walker (Flying Pig Games) purely by accident several years ago, and we playtest stuff once a week on a pretty reliable basis. Odd that two small companies are in this remote neck of the woods, but it has worked out for both of us. I was Mark’s main playtest opponent for Night of Man (and the upcoming ’65 Vietnam skirmish game), and he’s helped out with Donner Party. I’ve got a huge backlog of board and card games I’ve designed over the years and finally decided to publish using Kickstarter. Donner Party is the first, with a modest goal and no odd components to gum up the production process.
The ill fated Donner Party expedition of 1846 is the inspiration for your game. What can you tell us about that historical event?
It was just one of those “perfect storms of bad luck” things. They lost people before they even got to the mountains. Accidental deaths, disease, old age, fights, murder, that sort of thing. They lost vital supplies to Indians, took a short cut that wasn’t, and the delay let them get just far enough into the mountains to get buried by an early blizzard. The only stroke of luck they had is that someone had built a few temporary cabins as shelter a few years before. Without that, they would have all spent the winter in homemade tents (and some of them did). There are a number of books, movies and a PBS special on the subject for those interested in digging into more detail.
Page 28 of Patrick Breen’s diary, a member of the Donner Party, recorded his observations in late February 1847: “Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that she thought she would commence on Milton and eat him. I do not think she has done so yet; it is distressing.”
The events of the Donner Party story are clearly one of extreme survival. What aspects did you feel were most important to integrate into your game design?
I think the key to the game is the Shame mechanic. None of them wanted to eat the dead, and it haunted many of them, as well as having one of the survivors be vilified by a sensationalist press afterwards. Accumulating Shame for doing questionable things is how you survive the winter, but whoever has the most Shame automatically loses. So, you have to keep an eye out on what the other players are doing and try to be just a little more ethical than they are. And this makes it interesting from a group dynamic and a random weather standpoint. If all the players are cutthroat, it can get very bloody. If everyone is being restrained, no one wants to be the first to accumulate a pile of Shame. And the weather is different every game, so how ethical you want to be might not match what you need to do to survive. You might have a mild winter where nearly everyone makes it through, or a killer winter where being ethical means starving to death.
I think every tabletop gamer enjoys a game that delivers on its theme. How well does the Donner Party’s theme of surviving under some of the harshest conditions stand out during game play?
All the cards have comments or diary entries from the actual survivors, and the cards are also based on events that were done or talked about. For instance, there were two Native American guides that had been hired and who got stranded with everyone else. But they were not ‘white’ and by the standards of 1846 were not as valuable. These guides refused to eat human flesh and eventually got so weak they could barely walk. Those with them didn’t wait for them to die. They were murdered, and then eaten.
This is amazingly harsh.
In game terms, this is reflected by you getting less Shame for murdering or eating the card representing these guides. Two of the other personalities in the game have notes regarding this event. One of the settlers was one who suggested killing them, and another is one who secretly told the guides about this plan, giving them a chance to escape. Unfortunately, they were too weak and were found collapsed in the snow not too far off.
Similarly, there is an Action card called “Fight”, based on the suggestion that two people be picked to fight to the death so that the loser’s body could help sustain the living. The settlers voted down this proposal, but it was taken seriously enough that it had to be voted on. Having the historical context on each card brings out the theme a lot more than a card that simply says “Fight: do X”.
The historical text on the above cards read as follows:
Martyr: “Mr. Graves was fast passing away. He was conscious and exhorted his grief-stricken daughters to use every means in their power to prolong their lives.” Dec. 24, 1846
Hoarded food: “Each family build some kind of house and killed all their cattle, as they not live; the ground being covered with snow.” Nov. 9, 1846
They’re aren’t a lot of games that incorporate cannibalism as a mechanic. What have the reactions been to this taboo subject?
There’s not been much response other than the occasional “Ewww!”. The games we play abstract our worst impulses all the time (e.g. warfare), so it does not seem to push any taboo buttons. What it does seem to bring out is innuendo and word play on the subject. The line “what it lacks in taste it makes up for in flavor” is not mine. That came from one of the players. And last I checked, five of the Facebook pages mentioning the game degenerated into that sort of thing, so overall the cannibalism theme is not turning anyone off.
In a nutshell, how does the game play and how do you win?
- You get a “family” of 3 Settlers and 2 hirelings, for a total of 5 people to shepherd through the winter. All of these are actual members of the Donner Party and may have a special game ability.
- Your personal group of Settlers gets a Forage step.
- There is a group Forage step where you can bid Shame to get first pick of extra food.
- You have to feed your Settlers as best you can, either with Forage or Actions (like Grave Robbing).
It is a little more complex than that, because the Forage step also includes weather and every round has a Party Leader who acts as the tie-breaker for deciding who gets the prime pick of communal Forage. Plus, the order in which Settlers are fed makes a difference, because some of the cards cascade onto players who have not acted yet. There are 5 months (November 1846 through March 1847), and a game will generally last 6 or so rounds, or not quite 1 month per round. So it moves pretty fast (and the rules are only 4 pages long). Since each Settler is either Healthy, Weak or dead, casualties can accumulate quickly.
Winning in a nutshell? You get points for your survivors, with a bonus for the oldest Settler, youngest Settler and keeping your entire family alive. And this is where some of the other Actions come into play. If you have the second-oldest Settler, you’re going to be angling to find a way to knock off the oldest one at a minimum Shame cost to yourself. Since Shame does not subtract from your score, you can accumulate as much as you want, so long as someone else has more. I tell new players “you want to have the best score and second-scummiest set of ethics”.
Thanks for sharing your new game with us on The Board Game Show. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Well, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the game is a Kickstarter right now and is ending on October 12. I’m not planning to run this through normal retail channels, so if you are interested, the Kickstarter is where you get it. It’s a boxed game with 108 main cards and 60 smaller cards for Shame and other purposes, and the price is a very reasonable $25.