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Cindy Crushes Programming with a Live Action Donner Dinner Party Game

Today, Cindy Shutts discusses how she played a live action Donner Dinner Party game with her teens.


My teens, like most teens, are very interested in true crime and mysteries.  Last year I made a life size board game version of the old classic video game of the Oregon Trail. It was very popular with the teens that had learned about the tabletop game version now available. This year I decided to do something different and a bit darker.  So I decided to do a program about the Donner Dinner Party.

First, I realized it had to be much harder than the Oregon Trail. I did some research in The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis and I had previously read the Donner Dinner Party by Nathan Hale about the actual events. I learned there were a lot more members of the Donner party than I had thought there were.  These sources gave me a lot of ideas.

Getting Started:

  • Set up a square game board on your floor with 40 spaces. Spaces are described below. You will want to use a large meeting room for this.
  • See resources at the end of this post for additional supplies discussed in the post.
  • Dice

Divide your teens into groups of 4. I made supply cards that included water, food, medicine, and spare parts (below in resources). Every team gets two of each supply cards to begin with.

The game board that is located on the floor includes forty spaces. The corner spaces of the board are tasks they have to accomplish and the General Store. Corner spaces are: General Store, Pick a Fish, Pick a Berry, Knot Tying

Players begin the game on the corner with the General Store. Teams will roll a dice to move from space to space on the board.

Every space on the board had a different card on them. Here are a few examples “Grandma died! Lose a turn as you bury her!” “Find an Empty Wagon, Take Parts card!” “Oops— Snake! Your oldest player has died! “The spaces get progressively worse for the player as the game continues much as the real Donner Dinner Party continued to go downhill. (See resources)

The teams’ first corner task is to pick a fish. I had a bunch of fish cut out and turned over. All they had to do was pick a fish and not a skeleton fish. If they picked a skeleton fish, they would lose a food card.

Another corner games space was pick a berry and see if it is it edible. I did research on different berries and had a picture of the berry on one side and the other side had the name of the plant and if it was edible or poisonous. If they picked a poison plant, one of the people in wagon passes away.

The final corner is knot tying. This gives teens a chance to learn a valuable skill.

After this game, we played one more Donner game. There is a game version of the Donner Dinner Party called Donner Dinner Party a Rowdy Gamer of Frontier Cannibalism. This is a fun mafia style game where you can either be a cannibal or a pioneer.  If you are a pioneer you try to successfully make it through a game round and get enough food to eat. If you are a cannibal, you try to ruin the pioneers’ attempts to gather food.

Thoughts: This program super fun and the teens loved it. They may have not survived, but they loved having an adventure and also learned about history.

Support Materials:

Donner Party Supply Cards

donner party fish

Donner Cards

Donner berry game



  1. This sounds so great! None of the PDF links at the end are working. Not sure if this got lost in the server shuffle?

  2. Catherine Lynch says

    This looks amazing and what a different activity! I, too, am not having success with the links listed. Is there a way to get them fixed?

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