Jeff’s Game Shelf: Oregon Trail

Pressman’s Oregon Trail card game is good for a shot of nostalgia, but has poor mechanics and limited replayability.

Because this is my blog, I am going to make it exactly as unfocused as I am. So let’s have a little something about what of my abiding hobbies: board games! The games I cover here aren’t necessarily new or great. They’re games I have on my shelf, and want to say something about.

Admittedly clever tagline

A lot of my friends have fond memories of Oregon Trail, the educational computer game that many played in school. It’s remembered with variable fondness for a couple of reasons:

  1. You played a video game in school
  2. The game hated you

As a video game, Oregon Trail passed me by. I did not attend a school with regularly accessible computers until high school, and even then the computers were in limited enough supply that there wasn’t a chance that we’d get to play games on them. (They did, however, have Microsoft Encarta–that old CD-ROM based encyclopedia with its semi-hidden trivia-based labyrinth game. Reader, I played that.) So the biggest appeal of Pressman’s Oregon Trail card game, the nostalgia, missed me completely. Oh sure, I understood the references–having played a little OT in the years since as an avid retrogamer, and having picked up a bit from the online conversation about it. I know it is a punishing game, dealing out death not so much out of difficulty as caprice. I know the only thing you should ever buy is bullets, and that catching dysentery isn’t a matter of if, but when. My wife had played OT when she was younger, though, so when we saw the Oregon Trail card game at Target, we picked it up.

Out of the Box

It’s a cute-looking game. The graphics on the cards hearken back to the old pixel graphics of the computer games. (It bothers me that the “Supply” cards have a much higher resolution than the “Trail” cards, as if we’re playing two simultaneous generations of OT, but that’s probably just my own pedantry.) The game comes with a dry-erase marker and a board on which you write your list of players and, inevitably, their epitaphs. Even the die is numbered with the clunky digits of its old-school roots. It’s a thrill to open the box up for the first time and find these things waiting for you. Enjoy it, because that’s the closest this game gets to being fun.

The contrasting art styles bothers me as much as the crooked scanning bothers many of you.

The Mechanics

Oregon Trail is a cooperative game, meaning you aren’t trying to screw over your fellow players (not until Steve Jackson Games inevitably comes out with Munchkin Oregon Trail). You’re all in this together, trying to get to your final destination (Willamette Valley, OR), and hoping none of you reaches your Final Destination along the way. The game has three decks of cards: Trail Cards (which are how you travel cross country), Calamity Cards (the problems you face along the way) and Supply Cards (resources you can use to mitigate or avoid calamities).

Players set down trail cards, taking care to connect the trail to the trail on the previously played card (Pressman is primarily a puzzle-making company after all). Set down enough of these, and you’ve reached the end, congratulations! But many of them have challenges, such as rivers to ford or calamities you have to resolve before you can proceed.

Challenges faced by one party member are faced by everybody, and anybody can contribute towards success. If Steve sets down a River card and has to ford the river. Play stops until that river gets forded (usually a matter of an appropriate die roll), but when any player succeeds, the entire party is able to move on. Similarly, for most of the Calamity cards, every player will have a chance at bringing the appropriate supply to bear to resolve that problem. Consequences from these calamities range from missing a couple of turns to a player-character dying to the entire party dying. The end.

This Game Has Dysentery

Now that thing I said earlier about the OT video game, that it hates you, is the same thing I say about all cooperative games. We have several in our library, and although they range in severity (Castle Panic is tense, but manageable; The Captain Is Dead is just a spring-loaded boxing glove that punches you in the face as soon as you open the box), all of these games are rough and demand some real teamwork and coordination amongst players in order to make it to the end. This is true with Oregon Trail as well, but the cooperation mechanics aren’t well implemented at all. First of all, you’re not allowed to know each other’s cards. Why? It’s a cooperative game? What is the point of keeping your hand a secret? Even thinking about this in-universe, there’s no reason for it. If there were some sort of side-bed going on in the game, like the point system in Castle Panic, that would make sense: get to Willamette with one of each resource card and you become the mayor. Or something like that. But there is no such mechanic, and there is no reason why players should have to keep their hands secret.

Second, the challenges are very lopsided. Most of the calamities you face lead to instant death in some form or another. Many of them give you a die roll to get out of the calamity instantly, but if you fail that die roll, you’ll need a specific supply card to solve your problem. If you don’t play that card within a certain number of rounds, you or even your entire party will die. Some of the calamities skip the die roll: “Play this specific card or die.” And some of them straight up kill you, with no chance for avoidance.

Now, I get it: it’s trying to be true-to-form to the punishing video game. But after a couple of games that end in “You Lose Because Reasons LOL,” the novelty wears off, and there’s not enough substance to keep you involved without it. I am no stranger to total-party-failures in cooperative board games. In fact, I believe you need them–if your party wins the game every time, the game gets cloying; you need to feel that loss is a real possibility in order for your decisions and victories to feel like they mean anything. And that’s the key concept here: decisions. A good cooperative game is going to force players to make an escalating series of terrible decisions: Are you going to defend this wall or that wall (Castle Panic)? Will you prioritize fixing your shields or repairing your teleporter (The Captain is Dead)? You never feel good about any of the decisions you make; you’re just trying to manage risk. So if you do end up in that total party failure, you’re upset, but you know it wasn’t just an unlucky roll of the dice or draw of the cards that did you in: you died because of some decision you made earlier in the game. This gets you thinking about alternate courses of action you could have taken, and this in turn brings you back to the board.

This doesn’t happen in the Oregon Trail card game. When your character dies because you drew a rattlesnake card (instant death, no avoidance), you shrug and say “oh well.” It doesn’t lead you to think about how differently you could have managed your resources or how aggressively/conservatively you’d been pursuing your goal. Like the video game, it’s more to do with caprice than difficulty. And this worked for the video game for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s a video game you’re playing in school! It doesn’t matter if you can’t win, you’re still paying a video game in school. What else would you be doing in that time?
  2. The video game wasn’t just edutainment, it was also busy-work. Just like every word search or coloring sheet you ever did in elementary school, its purpose is partially to keep you occupied and quiet.

A final problem with the Oregon Trail card game is the death mechanic: when a player’s character dies, they’re out of the game. That’s it. The first person to die becomes the shopkeep (which, given the dearth of opportunities to resupply in this game, still doesn’t give them much to do), but after that, there’s nothing to keep them at the table. Some of the other co-ops we have, if one of your party dies, it’s game over (Forbidden Island/Desert/Skies). Of course, with insta-death cards in the deck, that wouldn’t work at all with this game. But at the very least, there could be a mechanic like in Arkham Horror, wherein players get a limited number of “new characters” they can step in as once their first character dies. Sadly, there’s nothing like that here. (Not that “character” means anything except “the name you write down on the marker board at the beginning.” The video game of Oregon Trail allowed you to choose a profession that determined your starting resources. It would be a shoe-in to have, say, a Doctor, Blacksmith, Hostler… These characters could either start with a certain number of the appropriate card or could have some innate ability to resolve specific types of conflicts. This would be another decision you could make that you could later obsess over. But no. You’re just six randos on a terrible road trip.) And once people start dying, either your dead players are going to feel left out, or they’re going to find something else to do, in which case your live players will feel left out. And if you’re like me, and it’s a difficult task to get five of your adult friends in the room to play board games, the prospect of a game that guarantees some people are going to be wasting their time is not an enticing prospect.

Verdict: Play a Borrowed Copy

The game is inexpensive, so if you picked it up at Target, you’re not at any great loss. I do recommend you play it once or twice–the nostalgia factor is real. But I highly suggest you play it at some venue that lets you check out games, like board-game cafes or public libraries. Because while it is fun in its own way, it’s not worth taking up space on your shelf.

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