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.

Donner Dinner Party

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.

Donner Dinner Party

Donner Dinner Party

Why cannibals?

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.

Donner Dinner Party

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.

Donner Dinner Party

Donner Dinner Party

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.)

Donner Dinner Party

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.

– – –

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.


Jenna Homen

Community Manager at Chronicle Books. When she's logged off, she can be found cooking, camping, or in a museum. You can follow her on Twitter at @jn_na.
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  • Joanne Parker August 10, 2017 at 8:59 am

    Chronicle Books is a fine organization and I am surprised and appalled at “Donner Dinner Party Game.” The Donner party was a human tragedy — 42 people died. There are descendants of members of the Donner Party. There is Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, California. There’s nothing funny about cannibalism. It’s not a subject for “rowdy, loud, filled with laughter” activity.
    This doesn’t show “dark humor,” it’s an example of poor taste, depravity, thoughtlessness and stupidity.
    Chronicle Books should eliminate it from its site and let some creepy organization that specializes in bad taste sell it. You have a wide audience and I doubt that many people find this suitable.


  • Funclutter September 5, 2017 at 7:29 am

    Joann Parker: I agree with you, your thoughts are mine exactly. Of all the topics available for a game, making a buck on a tragic situation is poor form.


  • tragedyplustime November 14, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    I very much understand the points of view expressed above, but I am a bit taken aback. Instead of having a conversation about how people’s humor may differ and some people’s humor may be more or less insensitive than others, why would you demand that a publisher remove it from their site? Is the idea that we as a society will feel less reverent to this tragedy because a few members of our society purchase a game that makes light of it? Or is it that ALL tragedies ever are never to be made light of because morality demands that of us as humans (flawed humans)? I think the high and mighty attitude is very conversation stammering and just unhelpful.

    I would like to know… do you think call of duty should be recalled because it depicts real historical events of war? Do you think that Monopoly should be recalled because someone inevitably has to buy Baltic Ave. and lacks money and represents the unjust distribution of resources in the real world?

    This is just a completely high and mighty demand and I am sure it was typed up on a laptop made in China by people barely getting a wage and which will eventually be discarded as toxic waste in a place very far from your own home. Get over yourself and your arbitrary placement of standards on something like a board game. Use your ivory tower to fix something that is current in the world why don’t you.

    I am sure that you would also really enjoy http://secrethitler.com


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