Game Review: THE OREGON TRAIL CARD GAME

oregon boxDesigner:  (none credited)
Artist: (none credited)
Publisher: Pressman
Players: 2 – 6
Playing Time: 5 – 30 minutes

Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: high
Components: B
Aesthetics: B
Overall: B

(For general information on my ratings systems, CLICK HERE.)

Short Version:
It’s a card game adaptation of the infamous 1974 educational computer game of the same name.

Some Background Info You Probably Don’t Care About:
Like many people my age, I was raised on a healthy diet of early, educational computer games, as they were all the rave during my elementary school years. Our nascent computer labs were packed with rows of Apple II models, and it was probably our favorite part of the school week to migrate to the labs for some education disguised as video gaming. Certainly no game was more popular and led to more peer competition than the Oregon Trail. If for some reason you don’t know about this franchise, it was a game where you took on the role of a party of pioneers trying to make their way across the now famous Oregon Trail in search of a new life. The game obviously had an educational intention, trying to expose us kids to the hardships of pioneer life and the unlikely success of this journey. But what we all took away from it—and what has now made it cultishly famous—was the sheer brutality and suddenness of death that could befall your party members, the most famous of all being death by dysentery. This is, undoubtedly, the only reason our generation knows what dysentery is. I mean, what wouldn’t be more interesting than to feature this in a children’s education game? oregon epitaphsIt’s literally a disease involving poop. The only thing that made this funnier was that you could name your party members after your friends and family (or whatever), and when they died, you could compose hilarious epitaph on their gravestone, which was saved to the database and visible by other players who happened to travel by that spot.

At any rate, the game (and all its many iterations through the decades) has not only achieved cult status, but has been inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame as the “longest-published, most successful educational game of all time.” So when my sister messaged me on Facebook, letting me know they were about to release a card-game version of it, you know I was all over that. In fact, I even harassed the employees at my local Target store for the first three days after its scheduled release, because their inventory was all jumbled, and they didn’t get the game shelved and displayed right away. I was right to do so, however, from a collector’s point of view: out of 13 initial copies shelved on that very first day of sales, there were only 5 left by the time I called them that afternoon. I bought two copies for myself: one to keep sealed (and possibly later sell at a ridiculously inflated rate), and one to break open and play.

Play Summary
So as a card game, it’s very simple. Players can have two types of cards in their hands: Trail cards and Supply cards. A third deck, Calamity cards, sits ready to inflict all manner of random misery on your party.

You play trail cards face up in a simple line, extending the trail towards Oregon. All players are part of the same expedition, hoping that at least one of them will survive long enough to play the 50th and final card in the sequence. Most Trail cards require you to either roll a die to continue on (fording a river) or to draw a Calamity card to see what random event befalls you. Some Calamity cards are problems, even threats to your life, which can be remedied by corresponding Supply cards. Other Calamity cards simply kill you outright. Like dysentery. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. You don’t even get a “saving throw” or anything. You’re just dead and eliminated from the game, Russian Roulette style.

That’s it. If you don’t have a legal play, you draw one Trail card. Otherwise, you play one card, and play passes to the left. If you die, you’re out of the round. It could literally be the first turn, and it often is. If even one player can lay the 50th card and connect the trail from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon, you all win. But as it states, quite plainly, in the rules:

More likely, the game ends when the last player dies.

What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:
It’s important to point out here that this product is only secondarily a proper card game. It’s not even really meant to “educate” anyone, as its namesake was intended to do. The card game’s primary function is to be a collector’s item and a piece of nostalgia for those of us with fondness in our hearts for the legacy. Because of that, it’s apparent that not a whole lot of depth went into “game design” for the Oregon Trail Card Game, and it really doesn’t compete with other contemporary co-op card games. Nevertheless, I will offer some specific remarks on its viability as such, then proceed with what it truly has to offer.

  • It’s cheap. The components are flimsy and really not up to industry standards. In fact, I was surprised when I discovered that the boxes weren’t even factory shrink-wrapped; they just had four small pieces of tape holding the lid on. The cards are thin, and after only two FullSizeRenderplays, mine are already starting to warp. On the bright side, the retail price is really low (I got mine for under ten bucks each); which is a good thing, since you’ll probably need to replace the set rather quickly if you play it often.
  • Artwork. The artwork is thematically appropriate: it’s made to look like an 8-bit computer game. Which is funny, but from a tabletop gaming perspective, it’s pretty ugly. Especially the Trail cards: simple green on black. Certainly not appealing to the eye. Again, it’s faithful to what we remember from those old Apple II monitors, but in terms of this being a strong tabletop card game, it just isn’t pleasant to look at once the joke wears off.
  • Ambiguous rules. The best evidence that this game was either rushed to production or simply not intended to fully function as a game is the ambiguity in the rules. The Calamity cards present a number of situations who proper consequences and resolutions are not quite clear by their text, and there is nothing in the rules “poster” to provide clarification. Essentially the rules default to saying “follow the instructions on the card,” but those instructions often don’t make sense and possibly create new, further unexplained problems.
  • Randomness. By far, Oregon Trail’s worst gaming “crime” is the utter randomness of most occurrences, and the almost total inability of the players to do anything about it. One simply cannot invest any strategic thought or planning into their decision making, nor can you even be preventative against certain outcomes. Dysentery and snake bite are instant death cards. There is nothing to protect you against them and no way of knowing when they might occur. You are simply eliminated from the game through no fault of your own. Now, it can be argued that this is part of the thrill of the game, and certainly there are other games with such a mechanic, such as Exploding Kittens, but in general, this is not considered a desirable or sophisticated mechanic. Games like this are just larks. Of course, sometimes that’s the only experience we’re asking of our games, and this coincides with what I believe to be the true intent of the Oregon Trail Card Game.
  • No Hunting. This is the one deficiency of the game that is directly related to translating the source material. One of the best features of the old video game was when you decided to stop and hunt for food. There was actually a cut-away game where you would move your pioneer around the screen and shoot at moving animals, reminiscent of Asteroids or Robotron: 2084. It was one of the most exciting parts of the game, and you really got to trash-talk your friends if they couldn’t hunt as well as you. In this new card game, the act of hunting is replaced by a single “food” card in the Calamity deck, which simply awards you food if you happen to have bullets among your Supplies. This was a perfect and missed opportunity for a game-within-a-game and to make this whole project more interesting as a tabletop experience.

What’s Really Going on Here:
So it’s honestly not much of a game, but that’s not what’s really going on here. Like I said, the game’s primary function is to be a nostalgic collector’s item. And to that end, I’d like to address the very same topics that were my gripes above:

  • It’s cheap, and the art is ugly. Heck yeah, it’s cheap and ugly! It’s Oregon Trail for goodness’ sake. Our memories of this game are associated with the Apple II computer and the 1970s and 80s. We were kids. Toys were chincy. That’s what made them great. I remember when the 1998 Godzilla movie was coming out, even before we all knew the real reasons it was awful, my buddy’s dad called it. He said, “Nope. It’s gonna suck. They made it look too good.” And that’s just it. That’s part of what we love about these things: they were crappy. If the Oregon Trail Card Game was printed on 300 GSI core with heavy plastic lamination on both sides, it just wouldn’t have been Oregon Trail at all.
  • Ambiguous rules. I don’t know how many other people had this problem playing the original, but I didn’t understand what was happening half the time. Sometimes I was presented with problems like needing to ford the river (whatever “fording” is) or fixing the tongue on the wagon (what’s a wagon “tongue”?), and I really didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it. I just pressed the space bar when it told me to and ended up confused when supplies disappeared or when people got sick and died. To their credit, Pressman has posted some rules clarifications on the main page for the game, which definitely helps, but that kind of thing didn’t matter to us back then. You just sort of accepted these things and moved on, trusting that the computer knew what it was doing. We were kids. We didn’t care about “game balance” or “proper mechanics” at that time. We just wanted to play. Which leads me to…
  • Randomness. Honestly, if players didn’t just up and die with no warning, then it wouldn’t be Oregon Trail. And clearly the designers at Pressman understood this and capitalized on it. Their tongues were in their cheeks when they put this thing together, judging both from the tone of the rules and the opening remarks made by Pressman president Jeff Pinsker in the play-through video. This is the kind of game that you play not despite its unfairness, but because of it.

oregon listFinal Remarks:
In terms of being an interesting co-op card game, the Oregon Trail Card Game doesn’t have much to offer. It’s certainly not a “gamer’s game.” In terms of being nostalgic and hilarious, the game knocks it out of the park. This is something you play as a tribute to those days gone by. Personally, now that we’re all “grown up” (so to speak), I think there’s a great drinking game in there. You get killed on the trail? You take a shot. Dysentery? Double shot. Now that we geeks have inherited the world and run the industries, this is perfectly natural in the evolution of our childhood toys into their adult forms. Debauchery aside, the game is hilarious. I mentioned above that one of the funniest parts of the original was the epitaphs you could write on your dead friends’ graves for others to read or to re-visit later. This card game needlessly comes fully equipped with a dry-erase board for writing the party members’ names on one side… and their epitaphs on the other. And here in the 21st century, even better than saving it to the local database for your classmates to read, social media makes it possible to photograph those headstones and share them with everyone, immediately. And then to comment and to share in everyone’s misery. And that’s the best part.

It’s really pretty awesome when you think of it: it’s been 40 years, and now we’re all having this big giant reunion and laughing at the same jokes all over again.


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3 thoughts on “Game Review: THE OREGON TRAIL CARD GAME

  1. Dirk Johannes Dreessen says:

    I never played the original game and after reading your review I won’t even try the card game. I guess, I’ll wait for somebody to create a board game version of Paradroid…

    Liked by 1 person

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