The Donner Dinner Party (Chronicle Books) Game Review

6
An intriguing premise for a game that ends up being "just another social deduction."

I have a secret confession: I'm tired of social deduction / hidden role games. They almost always play out the exact same way: people yell, and whoever yells loudest wins. 

But they're still enjoyable, provided that the mechanics are all there. In order to be engaging, a social deduction game needs to give someone enough material to work with on both ends. One side needs to be able to achieve plausible deniability. The other side needs to be able to figure things out despite that deniability.

An excellent example of a social deduction game is Deception. In Deception, players know that someone was murdered. They know a few clues about the murder. But they need to figure out whose weapons and scenery fit those clues. Everyone is under the equal weight of suspicion and, for the most part, everyone has a good chance at success.

The Donner Dinner Party is not like Deception.

First, Let's Begin With the Positive Aspects...

Everyone who saw the Donner Dinner Party immediately lit up. It's an attractive premise. You're stuck in the mountains. You need to eat people to survive. And oh, yeah -- some of you want to eat people, enough so that they will poison the food supply. That's not all, the game itself is well put together and oddly whimsical. Everything in the box is textured, including the tokens. The book feels good. A tiny frying pan counts your turns. It's overall a nice little game.

OK, But...

That's sort of where the game devolves. In Donner Dinner Party, everyone goes "hunting." You can come back with empty hands, fish, squirrels, poison berries (and apparently all berries are poison), or medicine. (Nevermind the fact that hunting and coming back with medicine is a bit off.) If there isn't food enough for everyone, then someone has to get eaten.

This, by the way, is where part of the premise falls apart. The cannibals, presumably, just want to eat people and don't care if they die in this passage. They're also sabotaging an expedition that, for the most part, is guaranteed to end up eating people. And while I hesitate to say that 1846 is too soon, there is a weirdness to this. 40 actual people died during the Donner Party disaster. In another hundred years, are we going to see "Columbine's Press-Your-Luck Extravaganza"?

There's one thing that you can do, essentially, to figure out if someone is good or bad: look at their card if you're team leader. But because everyone's hands are random and it's fully possible to get empty hands and poison berries, this doesn't really tell you anything.

And that's the problem with the Donner Party. For a social deduction game, there's actually very little social deduction. The game actually plays out mostly randomly. People form alliances very quickly at the beginning of the game and once the crowd turns, it's even more vicious than an ordinary crowd, because they have essentially nothing to go on.

Cannibals are reduced to either producing no food or producing only berries, at a significant risk to themselves. And the game often ends half way through, because it's easier to lose at the beginning than at the end (somewhat counterintuitively), and it can become impossible for the cannibals to win towards the end. At the end of each round, the cannibals win if they outnumber the pioneers. If a couple of cannibals are killed right away, they'll never be able to outnumber the pioneers before the game ends. If enough pioneers are killed in the first two rounds, the cannibals win almost automatically.

We had one game resolve itself in the very first round because a pioneer died and took another pioneer with him.

A Game of Suspicion and Luck

The Donner Dinner Party is less a social deduction game and more a game of "suspicion and luck," and that's one of my problems with these types of games. It's mostly set up so that players can begin needlessly harassing each other, and none of the conclusions reached are logical ones. At certain points I feel myself losing my mind because people will outright tell me that I'm lying when I'm formulating something that should be just a logical statement. At other times someone will come up with something that makes logical sense, but they'll be shouted down simply because no one trusts them from three games ago.

These aren't problems you encounter in a game like Deception or Shadow Hunter. In these games, you have time to think things through, make logical arguments, and progress on your own path. It isn't even the type of problem you encounter in something like Werewolf, which gives you a ton of information to work with and a few logical choices. The Donner Dinner Party is what I like to call a "lynch mob game," in which there are very few ways to tell if you're right, people on your side cannot prove that they are, and it generally comes down to people turning against whoever they like the least. 

So what we have here is an exceptionally attractive, well-built game that plays quickly and is very intriguing to people. Nevertheless, most people I played it with wanted to play it once or twice and the never again. The experience of playing the Donner Dinner Party just isn't fun, not only because there isn't enough information to go on, but also because it's essentially an "elimination party game" that gets less fun as people are excluded.