Donner Dinner Party: An Interview with the Makers of This Irreverent Game
(Warning: Put on your dark humor pants before reading this.)
Say howdy to the new game Donner Dinner Party! Fast-paced and rowdy, players are transported back to 1846 as members of the ill-fated wagon train, stranded atop a mountain with dwindling provisions.
In true social deduction fashion (i.e. each player has a hidden identity, team alliance, trait, or agenda), players are either pioneers or cannibals…and they must avoid being tonight’s dinner or become one of the hungry, suspicious scoundrels. And by scoundrels, we mean cannibals. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Besides questions like “why?” and “really?”, we were curious about the game-making process as a whole, so marketing manager Brittany Boughter went to directly to the source. Read on for an interview with Forrest-Pruzan Creative about the inspiration and making of this subversive game.
Brittany Boughter: How did you come up with the idea of turning the Donner Party into a game?
Forrest-Pruzan Creative: We have several different ways that we approach game design. A game may start with an interesting mechanic, but a game can also start with a compelling name. In the case of Donner Dinner Party, we started with the name and worked on the game from there.
What research did you do about the Donner Party before making this game? How much of the game is based in truth, and how much is fiction/myth?
We really pride ourselves on a fully-integrated thematic approach. We want players to feel immersed in a game, so we did a massive amount of research and held this close to us while designing. For example, we scanned pages of the handwritten diary of Patrick Breen, one of the Donner Party members, to determine which animals and fish would be used for food in that region. The diary was also used as inspiration for the handwriting style that appears on the front page of the rules.
The tension and desperation of the historical event is what we find compelling. Just like any great film or piece of entertainment, a great game integrates moments of peril. There were people in the party who withheld from taking part in the cannibalism, so it isn’t necessarily the cannibals, but rather the tension of the relationship between the cannibals and the non-cannibals that we find interesting.
Let’s talk about the game-making process in general. Once you have an idea for a game, what do you do next?
We are very collaborative. When we have an idea, we will usually start by working in a group to brainstorm interesting mechanics or thematic elements. If we are excited about an idea, we will create a rough prototype to see if it’s fun. If we think we are onto something, it will move into design. Play-testing is included every step of our process.
How long does it take to develop a game?
There is a pretty big range here, and it depends on the type of game we are creating. If we are creating a working prototype and rules for a publisher, it won’t take as long as a game with full art direction, illustration, and package design. Balancing (note from Chronicle Books: in short, balancing is the testing process that assures that cards and strategy options are distributed fairly equally—you can read more about it here) is another factor—Donner Dinner Party is a game with a large player count, so we need to test the game at 4 players versus 10 players, and everywhere in between. We balanced the deck with many Excel spreadsheets and programmed algorithms.
How many rounds of testing did you do for Donner Dinner Party?
Hundreds of rounds. Balancing a game with this range of players is a bit of a beast. Thankfully, the game is extremely fun, so playing it over and over again, as well as observing the game being played, always felt fresh.
What’s something someone might not know about developing a card game?
With a deduction-based card game, illustration and design can make or break it. For instance, if some cards have a white border but others do not, players can look for this edge, deduce role cards based on the design, and game the game. Integrating the illustration, design, and mechanics is extremely important. This is why we test a game in its rough prototype form, but also when it has been fully designed.
What’s your favorite part about Donner Dinner Party?
The variety of gameplay. Every game feels different in some way. When Ol’ Tasty is involved, it really mixes it up. (Note from Chronicle Books: you’ll have to get the game to find out what exactly that means.)
What has been the best reaction to the game?
For such a dire theme, the game sessions tend to be rowdy, loud, and filled with laughter. Also, a majority of the play-testing sessions went an hour over schedule because play-tester groups did not want to stop playing the game.
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Got a dark sense of humor? If you made it this far, you most certainly do—see it in action below, and then go ahead and get Donner Dinner Party today.
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