Oregon Trail Card Game 

To review a card game, I first have to go back in time to give context.
I feel like an old man saying this, but growing up in the ‘80s was a different time. The Internet as we know it was science fiction, video game home consoles was a recent phenomenon, and the personal computer revolution was in its infancy. Steve Jobs playing the long game realized to speed up the adoption of PCs children would need exposure sooner than later. A program started in Minnesota and California, later spread across the nation resulting in an Apple II computer in every classroom in America. Schools, of course, purchased “educational” games such as Odell Lake, Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego, Number Munchers, and for us living on the Canadian border, Cross-country Canada. You can ask anybody my age what was their first computer game, and repeatedly you’ll hear one game, the legend, the immortal, “The Oregon Trail”.

On initial glance, the sales pitch for “The Oregon Trail” doesn’t seem like something children would get excited over. You play pioneers in 1847 leaving Independence, Missouri, struggling to make it to the Willamette River Valley in Oregon before the onset of winter. Many games from the era were simplistic, one screen arcade games that often were endless with increasing difficulty meant you losing was inevitable, e.g., Asteroids, Pac-Man, Frogger. In comparison, “The Oregon Trail” had a stated start and an achievable end goal. But, even greater was the multitude of choices presented, and decisions made early in the game could come back later to haunt you. Difficulty was presented as choosing a profession; the banker had more money and thus could purchase a greater amount of starting supplies, but the farmer would earn more points given their financial handicap. Then you had to decide when to leave; leaving early meant greater time to reach Oregon at the cost of less grass for the oxen, but leaving later meant better weather conditions but less time to reach Oregon. Then you had to purchase supplies: food, clothes, ammunition, spare wagon parts, and oxen. Then there was more choices that could be changed throughout the game, rations and pace, choosing between health or preserving food supplies/increased distance on the trail. There was more choices about when to rest, when to purchase new supplies, when to hunt, how to cross a river, etc. Ominously, as the journey progressed, party members deteriorated in health, succumbing to typhoid, dysentery, snakebites, or drowning during a failed river crossing. Subsequent playthroughs meant coming across the tombstones of previous failed expeditions. Grim stuff for a second grader.

Fast forward three decades to “The Oregon Trail Card Game”. Deceptively, the back of box presents “choices” for the players to make, two of which aren’t in the game, stopping to rest, and choosing who dies of dysentery. In the box is a dry erase marker and a laminated board, one side for party member names, and the other side TBD tombstones. There’s a custom, six-sided die with pixelated numbers. And, filling out the card component is 58 trail cards, 32 calamity cards, and 26 supply cards. Ostensibly, winning the game means playing 50 of the 58 trail cards. Thus the difficulty of the game is not a calculated choice over starting income, supplies selection, and starting month, but a random draw from a limited pool with only a 14% variance. Players get a random draw of supplies, the card count based simply on the number of players. The only way to obtain more supply cards is hopeful draw of the two towns or two forts in the entire trail pool. Two supply cards can be traded for a particular supply, but it’s a costly, desperate move given the practical irreplaceable of supply cards. Trail card differences are limited: simple paths, river fords that rely on even/odd results of crossing, but the large majority calls for drawing a calamity card. To remove a calamity, e.g., extreme cold, cholera, etc takes a supply card or two. You can leave them in play, but drawing another one either means death for one party member, or death for the entire party. Some of the cards are instant death, e.g., snake bite, dysentery, which can be frustrating as its random draw from the pile. In some games we played, all players except one were taken out early in the game. Besides erasing their name from the board, and writing their tombstone epithet, dead players only have one final action in the game, to “will” two of their supply cards to other players, and any remaining are lost. Ultimately, instead of players making tough pioneer choices, they are merely bystanders to chance on the trail to Oregon. It’s sad given the potential, but the card game isn’t well thought out, and comes off as a simple cash grab preying on nostalgia.


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