Greg Porter is the designer for Donner Party an intriguing game about the infamous “Donner Party”. It’s a game of survival and shame. This is his story of how he took a historic event about cannibalism and made it something you’d actually want to play.
For some subjects, turning history into a game is easy. It’s called “wargaming”. Whether tactical or strategic, from ancient history up to the present, you just set the stage and set loose the units. If your game engine is ticking properly, you generate historical results. But it is not guaranteed. Sometimes Germany takes Moscow, sometimes the Lancasters lose the War of the Roses, sometimes the American Revolution doesn’t pan out and the Founding Fathers become “those traitors who got hanged”.
But sometimes, you have to design a game where the historical ending is always the same, it is just how you get there that differs. And this can be difficult in a competitive game. If you are doing a game about the Falklands War (1982), there is never really any doubt that the UK is going to get a military victory. So a game on the subject has to have an alternate victory condition, like how long it takes the UK to win or how many losses the Argentines can inflict.
Donner Party is the same way. We know it happened, we know a lot of people died and we know a lot of awful things (and some heroic ones) went on during the winter of 1846 while they were trapped in the mountains just short of their final destination.
But it would not be much of a game if the same people survived every time (or if no one survived!), or if they could make it without doing anything awful or if there was no in-game penalty for doing bad things.
In this case, the game balances it out with what happened afterward. The tragic story of the Donner Party was huge news when it happened. Tragedy, loss, cannibalism, murder! The newspapers could not get enough of it. And to some extent, the events of that winter followed the survivors around for the rest of their lives. Lewis Keseberg was the most (in)famous example.
He died in poverty fifty years later, many of his descendants changed their names, and even today the wikitree.com genealogy entry for him has the note “This Profile Contains Graphic Accounts of Cannibalism”.
Hell of a legacy to have.
Of course, he had the bad luck to be the last survivor found, and when they found him he had a pot of human flesh on his campfire. They nearly lynched him on the spot.
As a historical side note, there was an attempt to prosecute Keseberg for the murder of Tamsen Donner, but it went nowhere for lack of evidence (no surviving witnesses), and the cannibalism for the settlers, in general, was forgiven under extenuating circumstances. Keseberg sued for defamation of character for the way he was treated in the media and won, but as an example of how the courts felt about him, he was awarded 1 dollar in damages and had to pay all his own court costs.
Donner Party has a Shame mechanic. You can do awful things to survive, in fact you have to, and each time you do you draw one or more Shame cards.
These have random values from zero to 3, and you do not get to look at them until the end of the game. Whichever party of Settlers has the most Shame at the end of the game loses, regardless of their score. So winning is about having the best score but being slightly less scummy than at least one other player in the way you got there. You can be as Shameful as you want, as long as it is less than someone else. This is the same sort of mechanic used in the game.
Whichever party of Settlers has the most Shame at the end of the game loses, regardless of their score. So winning is about having the best score but being slightly less scummy than at least one other player in the way you got there. You can be as Shameful as you want, as long as it is less than someone else.
With Donner Party the distribution of historical deaths is known. The winter hit the men harder than the women because they were burning more energy, and it hit the very young and very old more than those in the middle.
Settlers in the game are two-sided cards, with a healthy side and a weak side, with icons to show their historical fate and informational text running down the side. When you start running short of food, your party has to take starvation losses first from the oldest member of your party, then the youngest, then your choice of anyone in between. And no one in your party can die of starvation until everyone has been flipped to the Weakened side.
You get more points for a healthy settler at the end of the game than for a weakened one, and you get bonus points for having the oldest or youngest Settler in play. Whoever has the oldest Settler knows that the player with the second-oldest is angling for a way to knock off the competition at a minimal cost in Shame.
The native American guides hired by and trapped with the settlers were seen as just a little less human. If you have one of them as a hireling they are worth as many points in the end as a settler, but anyone who murders or cannibalizes them suffers a little less shame than normal for doing so. It’s all pretty ugly if you look at it too close, but it was a different time and a desperate circumstance.
And the last angle is that the actual settlers did not know if or when rescue would arrive, or what the exact weather was going to be. And neither do the players. You cannot consume your food supply so that you exactly run out on the turn relief arrives, because you simply don’t know when that will happen. You just know that you need to keep your settlers alive to have any chance of winning, and you have to decide how many of them you will keep in the game and how much Shame you are willing to draw to do so.
All of these combine in Donner Party to give a desperate uncertainty to each new turn. The healthier the players are as a whole, the faster you get through the Forage deck that represents the winter months.
Do you keep your Settlers completely fed so that they forage better, or hold some food back and put them on partial rations so you have something to eat in case Bad Weather (or worse, a Blizzard) cuts into the foraging next turn?
Will you bid to take a lot of Shame to have the first choice of Forage, or play Shame-generating Actions to keep your Settlers alive? When you see the Forage deck getting thin, you know the Final Rescue card could be drawn at any moment, but since random Forage cards are removed from the deck before play, the game might also continue until the deck runs out, the snow melts and spring finally arrives.
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 on Kickstarter by visiting here. We have already.