“A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism”
The theme, artwork and texture of the box made this a must buy for me and after a few quick (very quick) games, I am fairly pleased with my purchase: purely though, as a gaming aesthetic.
If you’re looking for a quick (very quick) filler game with little strategy or gameplay, or even better yet, a gate-way game for the less gamey folk in your life, Donner Dinner Party is probably a good fit.
It is a simple guessing game where players have to bluff their way to a a win. Players are either a cannibal, or a pioneer. The game is based on the infamous group of would-be American Western Emigrants commanded (eventually) by George Donner who, following the advice of a questionable guide, leads the hapless pioneers into a wintry Utah nightmare where they resort to cannibalism in order to survive.
The games grisly historical foundation is complemented well by its material composition and its artwork (beautiful oil paintings by James Bennett). The card stock, chips, rulebook and packaging are top quality and are a perfect textile match for the era and a delight to interact with. (The game comes with a metallic frying pan that immediately made me smile with the unpacking). Overall the theme itself is light-hearted and chilling, just like a deduction game such as this should be.
As much as I wanted to enjoy the game, it felt very haphazard in design.
The rules state for example that it takes about 30 minutes to play. If you include reading the rules this is certainly the case, but the actual gameplay itself takes only about 5 minutes. To be fair, I played the game with only three players, 1 short of the minimum but as a decent gamer, the drawbacks of the intrigue portion of the game seem wholly counter to the time expectations of the games’ designers.
The core of the mechanic to the game is that players contribute each round to a ‘hunting’ pool– a series of cards that includes either food, poison, medicine or empty hands. Each round if this pool of cards has an number of food cards contributed to it that equals the number of players, the next round begins, without any consequences. If however there is not enough food in this hunting pool, then players vote to ‘eat’ one of the party. If the game lasts for six rounds, the pioneers, or non-cannibals win. If the number of pioneers ever equals or exceeds the number of cannibals at the end of a round, the cannibals win.
The main problem with this whole setup is the lack of information available to all players and the randomness of card contribution to these hunting pools. For instance, the ‘camp leader’ each round contributes a random card to the hunting pool which means there is always a completely random card that no-one knows gets added to the mix. Second, the hunting pool that players contribute to is completely random as well, which means from a pioneer or cannibal standpoint, there is almost no strategy: why would anyone ever contribute a poison when empty hands are always a ‘safe bet’ on the off chance that a leader, who has the ability to look at a contributing players card, would choose to do so. Lastly, the supply cards, which add another level to the game, include a good deal of ways to effectively end the game flat out (literally in round one).
What all of this translates to is a game of effectively 5 whole minutes of gameplay. Again, to be fair, we were only three players, one below the minimum. However the sheer seemingly randomness of the hunting pool makes this less a game and more a crap shoot. (Slight tweak?: Start the game with each player dealt a single hand of hunting cards equal to the number of rounds and have players use only those cards throughout the game, instead of random draws each round. That way cannibals have the chance to plan out their betrayal and heightens pioneer paranoia as the game wears on, instead of random hunting each round, this might allow for actual strategy and deduction)
I greatly wanted to enjoy this game a good deal more than I did, given its art, theme and material construction (I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way). However the gameplay, which given the fact that it is made by a media studio whose expertise in creating content for that industry probably far exceeds their gaming expertise explains its less than satisfactory run-through. (Note: If you want to pick up a copy of the game from the the publisher themselves, their website, www.chroniclebooks.com, will give you 20% off your first purchase– just wait a few seconds and their discount pop-up window will display)
Will I play it again? Most certainly, its a fun, largely random affair with little thinking involved but that leads to winners being able to adopt the mantle of ‘cannibal’ for a few, fleeting, victorious moments. Is that feeling worth the price tag? As a beautiful aesthetic and quirky title alongside my other games? In my opinion – a delicious yessir.