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As is the case with many kids who grew up in the 80's and 90's, I played many hours of Oregon Trail in the computer labs in elementary school. Some teachers even had to limit how many hours students could spend on that game, so as to make sure we were also playing the other math and language games available.

Now there is a tabletop card game adaptation of the original computer game. It's exclusively available at Target ... and apparently also on Amazon. It retails at $15, but I always seem to see it on sale for $10 or $12. So it's an inexpensive little game.

My seven-year-old proxy-daughter picked out this game for me as a birthday gift. She recognized it from the TV show Teen Titans Go!, which has an episode in which the characters act out the original computer game (and all die, of course). When I asked her what the Oregon Trail is, she responded "Everyone got dysentery.". So I asked if she knows what dysentery is, and she responded "It's where you poop to death." I guess the show has some educational value after all...

More an emergent narrative than an actual game

The game is simple to play. Each player is given a hand of trail cards and supply cards, and there's a stack of "Calamity Cards" that serve as the main challenge for the game. Players take turns playing a trail card from their hand or a supply card. The selected card's trail end must match up with the end point of the trail on the previous card in order for the card to be played. Most trail cards will require some kind of resolution. Some are river fording cards that require the player to roll a die in order to allow the party to proceed past the river or suffer penalties. Some are calamities that require drawing a card from the calamity deck and resolving its effects.

Most calamities can be countered with supply cards, but snake bites and dysentery are instant, unavoidable deaths.

Most calamities are unfortunate effects that require a die roll or a specific supply card to be played. If the effect is not resolved in time, a penalty occurs -- usually the death of the affected player. Some calamity cards (such as the snake bite or ubiquitous dysentery) will even kill a player outright, with no chance to avoid death.

The objective of the game is for the party to successfully pass 50 trail cards to travel from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. It's a purely cooperative game, so if any one surviving party member makes it to Oregon, then the entire group (including the dead players) wins the game.

Owing to its namesake, the game is, of course, very difficult. There's very little skill involved, and the game mostly comes down to luck. For such a light, casual game, this isn't that big of a problem though. Half the fun is supposed to be in seeing the variety of ways in which the party can die. The game even comes with dry-erase party roster sheet with a set of tombstones to write each party member's name, and an epitaph for them when they die.

Along the lines of a game like Tales of the Arabian Nights, Oregon Trail is most fun if everyone doesn't take it too seriously and allows the game to essentially tell an emergent story. Making clever names for each character and giving them a little backstory or role in the party, accepting that bad things will happen to them, and then seeing how they die or persevere can allow for a few laughs. Tales of the Arabian Nights is probably a better game in this sense because it more explicitly tells an organic, emergent narrative and has a bit more variety; whereas Oregon Trail requires the players to imbue a constructed narrative onto the game. Otherwise, the narrative basically comes down to: a bunch of people got on a wagon to Oregon, and some (or all) of them died in one of only a handful of ways.

Rules are ambiguous about failing
a river-fording check.

Fording the river of rules

The game and its rules are pretty simple, and we only had one glaring rules question. There are two common trail cards involving fording rivers. One says that you successfully ford the river on an even die roll, and you lose a supply on an odd die roll. Seems pretty self-explanatory on a first glance. The other, however, says you succeed on an even die roll, and you die on a roll of 1. OK, so what happens if you roll a 3 or a 5? 3 and 5 are not even, and they are not 1. The game rules don't explain what happens if you do not succeed at fording a river. Do we keep re-rolling until a pass is achieved? If so, does a roll of 1 (and player death) also mean that you ford the river, or does the next player have to roll for the river fording? Does a non-death failure cause a supply loss like the normal river-fording card?

A little bit of research on BoardGameGeek revealed that there's an update to the rules that clarifies that a river fording stops progress, and must be repeated until someone successfully resolves it. It seems like there may also be an updated retail version of the game that includes the revised rules, so if you're rulebook does explain this to you, then congratulations, you have a more recent version of the game, and you can disregard this complaint!

The box could also use a bit of work. The storage insert has a space for two stacks of cards (one stack being the trail cards, and the other stack being the supply and calamity cards). There is no divider however, so during storage (especially if stored on its side), the cards shift around and get mixed up.

I also wish that the destination card had a trail card backing. One of the very first things that I thought of when we started playing the game was that I would like to play a house rule in which the destination is shuffled into the bottom half of the trail deck so that it is drawn into hand by one of the players. This way, the party wouldn't know exactly how far the destination is until the very end. Sadly, the destination card is double-sided, so it can't simply be played like another trail card. I guess you could still shuffle it into the deck and just play it when it shows up at the top or drawn into a player's hand.

A moderately entertaining party game

If you really can't stand games with lots of randomness, then Oregon Trail probably isn't the game for you. It's a decent, low-budget, lightweight card game that can be a good game for parties (especially after a few drinks) and for family game nights due to its mostly simple rules, cooperative nature, and short play time. The box recommends it for ages 12 and older, but I've played the game with children as young as 7, and they handled it just fine as long as they had an adult in the game to guide them through it. If you host or attend a lot of social functions, and that social circle enjoys playing games, then I can recommend picking this one up, especially at a price point of $10-$15. Play a round or two with the kids, send them off to bed, then bust out a bottle of wine and Cards Against Humanity.

I've played the game with kids as young as seven with no trouble.

Oregon Trail: the Card Game mostly successfully translates the futility and struggle of the classic computer game, and probably appeals mostly to people who grew up playing that game. And apparently also to kids who watch Teen Titans Go!.

PROS

  • Captures the futility of the computer game
  • Inexpensive, short, and casual game
  • Playable by younger and older players

CONS

  • Mostly comes down to blind luck
  • Original rules for fording a river are unclear
  • Some nitpicks with component and box insert designs

FINAL GRADE: C

Manufacturer: Pressman Toys
Original release: 1 August 2016
MSRP: $14.95 USD
Player(s): 2-6 players
Game Length: 30 minutes
Official site: www.pressmantoy.com/product/oregontrail/

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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