The Oregon Trail Card Game, launched as a Target exclusive in 2016, is a multi-player cooperative card game based on the classic computer game of the same name. In order to win, the wagon party must work together to keep at least one player alive on the treacherous trail from Independence, Missouri all the way to the Willamette Valley, Oregon. In this game, the players cooperate to build the trail and face its many tribulations – from fording rivers to overcoming broken wagon bits to saying farewell to companions who succumb to disease. Players will need to find supplies and collaborate to stay alive, reenacting many of the best (and all of the worst) aspects of one of the most well renowned computer games to ever grace a grade school computer screen. Does this little game pack the same punch of the classic video game, or does it feel like dying of dysentery? Join the wagon party and read on to find out!
What’s in the Box?
The Oregon Trail has a small shelf presence, and is a relatively slight game – but at less than $15, it feels like a bargain in terms of the right amount of game components for the price. In the box, you’ll find:
- 1 Instructions Sheet
- 1 Trail Start card (Independence, MO)
- 1 Trail Finish card (Willamette Valley, OR)
- 58 Green Trail cards
- 32 Red Calamity cards
- 26 Blue Supply cards
- 1 Laminated, Two-sided Wagon Party Roster
- 1 Dry-Erase Marker
- 1 Six-sided Die
The components included are of a fair quality. The card stock is better than you would expect, reasonably heavy with a glossy finish with a nice feel in the hand. The die has pixelated number printed on it – though I have heard unconfirmed reports of some copies of the game coming with a blank die and a sticker sheet for the numbers. Which sounds absolutely awful, if true. The dry-erase pen and board are fine – not a whole lot to say here. It works, so there’s that. The art, inspired by the video game, consists of pixelated images and is honestly rather dull (particularly the Trail cards). The supply cards are colorful, and the look is true to the source material – so the overall art design is fine. Ultimately, the components in the box are pretty solid, and I was impressed by the amount of thought that seems to have gone into the design and material elements of the game. Could everything have been better? Sure. Could all of the materials been a whole lot worse? Oh, god yes.
How to Play
While the game box might be slight, the game itself is something of a table hog considering it’s a simple card game. To set up, you should have all the players write their names on the Wagon Party Roster with the dry-erase marker (wacky or period-appropriate names are encouraged). Then, place the Start (Independence, MO) and Finish (Willamette Valley, OR) cards on the table about three feet apart – this forms the area where the Trail will develop and should be enough to fit ten cards stacked end-to-end. Players then separate and shuffle the three deck of Trail, Supply, and Calamity cards into three distinct decks. Each player should be dealt five Trail cards from the top of the Trail deck. The remaining cards are set aside and form the Trail draw pile. Supply cards are then dealt to each player, depending on the number of people in the Wagon Party (5 cards for two to four players, 4 cards for five players, and 3 cards for six players). The Trail and Supply cards that have been dealt to the players form their hand and players may look at their own hand at any time.
After dealing Supply cards, the remaining cards in the Supply deck are separated to form the Supply Shop, and all cards are sorted by type into up to seven separate piles that are placed face up on the table (“Oxen,” “Medicine,” “Clothes,” etc.). The game suggests that the youngest player be named the Shop Keeper and be in charge of this. Frankly, it doesn’t matter – there is no in game effect for being the Shop Keeper. Finally, the Calamity cards are placed in a shuffled pile on the table – no Calamity cards are dealt to the players.
After setting up the game, the first player (determined by who was born closest to the Willamette Valley, OR) will choose a Trail card from their hand a place it on the table leading outward from the Start card with the green road running toward the Finish card (see above). Then, in turn each party member may either play a Trail card or a Supply card. To play a Trail card, a player simply chooses a Trail card from their hand a lay it on the trail in such a way that the green road on the new card and the one on the table align; however, the edges of the card must also align properly. Players may rotate their cards so that they can use either end of the road as long as it aligns. Forts and Towns are special Trail cards. Any road may enter or exit a Fort or Town – there is no alignment necessary beyond the edges of the card. After playing any Trail card, players must follow the instructions on that card, if there are any. Plain Ol’ Trail cards have no additional text. Press Space Bar cards force the active player to draw a Calamity card. River cards force the active player to try to ford the river though a roll of the die. Fort and Town cards allow players to draw cards from the Supply Shop. The distribution of the cards in the Trail deck is:
- 2 Forts
- 2 Towns
- 8 Plain Ol’ Trail cards
- 24 Press Space Bar cards
- 3 River cards (with die by drowning outcome)
- 17 River cards (with lose a supply card outcome)
This distribution is important, as the majority of the cards (44/56) lead to potential negative outcomes for the wagon party. So most of the time, Really Bad Things will be happening. When the trail reached five cards long, the five cards are collected and stacked in order. This relatively awkward process requires someone to take the first card on the trail (closest to the Start card), pick it up, and slide the cards that are farther along the trail underneath the first card into a stack. The top card on each stack should align to form a continuous road of stacks. This is less complicated than it sounds, but is still awkward.
And that’s essentially the entirety of the play with one small exception. Party members play a Trail card and do what it says, then play passes to the right. Instead of playing a Trail card, you may choose to play a Supply card in order to help remedy a Calamity card. Some Calamities affect individual players (“Extreme Cold” for instance) and others affect the entire party (“Dead Oxen”) and each Calamity has a potential remedy printed on it and a consequence. In the case of “Extreme Cold,” someone must play 1 “Clothing” card before the next round, or the player affected by “Extreme Cold” dies and is out of the game. So if I were to play a Trail card that forces me to draw a Calamity, and I draw “Extreme Cold” my turn would end. The next player could spend their entire turn playing a “Clothing” card to ensure I don’t die, or they could advance the trail. So every turn can essentially be summarized as, “Play a Trail card and do what it says -OR- Play a Supply card.”
There are some minor additional rules that are important to note. When a player dies (because they definitely will), they can “will” up to two of their Supply cards to other players, and any remaining cards are returned to the Supply Shop. After dying, members of the party have the opportunity to write on their tombstone on the reverse side of the Wagon Party Roster – an opportunity to be creative and funny in a very limited space. So, there’s that. Another important rule is that players may also trade in two cards to the Supply Shop for any one card. These cards do not need to come from the same player, so multiple players may contribute to this exchange process – yet it is unclear when this action may occur and if it takes up a player’s turn during a round.
“You Have Died of Dysentery”
Speaking of a lack of clarity – let’s get something out of the way up front. The Oregon Trail has a terrible rule book. And not just terrible in the “mass market games have bad rule books” sense. It is appallingly bad. Basic, necessary information is completely absent and the ambiguous card text isn’t clarified in the rules anywhere. For instance, on one of the Trail cards featuring a river you are instructed to roll a die. It says, “Roll an EVEN number to ford the river, Roll a 1 and die by drowning.” Cool. I have a 1/6 chance of instant death and a 1/2 chance of success. But what happens if I roll an odd number? Does my turn end? Does the next player continue to roll? Do I lose a supply card? Does the universe implode? The answer, as you might expect based upon my ranting, is unclear. On Board Game Geek, the forums are filled with people sharing responses from Pressman about this lack of clarity, and shockingly you will find conflicting answers about what happens with this river card (in addition to other clear problems). Needless to say, you will have to create house rules to even play the game at its most fundamental level.
Moving on from the opacity of the rules, the trail itself is long and treacherous. If you can get to the point where you’re actually playing the game, you’ll quickly find that most of the trail cards that can be played result in Very Bad Things. Forts and Towns will give you supplies, and a small minority of the Trail cards are conflict free roads – but most of the time you’ll find yourself forced to place Trail cards that require you to potentially hurt your team. What’s a game with some sort of conflict, eh? Anyway, you’ll draw a Calamity card or roll a die to ford the various rivers in order to continue (hopefully not drowning along the way). But most of your game will be spent drawing one of the sixteen types of calamities that will befall your party as you trek westward. These appropriately named cards range from annoying to frustrating to outright game breaking. Thirteen of these card types have the potential to remove someone from the game. Other options include forcing a player to miss multiple turns, losing a random supply card, and (thankfully) giving you the opportunity to get some food – but only if you can play just the right supply card at that moment. That this game gives you a 1/16 shot of something good happening on a random draw should tell you all you need to know about the game. At its heart, The Oregon Trail is designed to beat the players down. Most of the time when you play a Trail card, you will experience something truly awful.
But, for the most important question: is the game fun? You’d be forgiven for thinking that my answer is a simple no, especially given all the criticisms I’ve made to this point. But to be a little more nuanced, the answer is probably more along the lines of a solid maybe? Honestly, the answer is mostly no. As a game, it is fundamentally flawed. But this is a product that is less about producing fun through playing the game than it is about creating an experience – having a few drinks and reveling in nostalgia. In and of itself, the game is boring, random, and frankly, bad in almost every way.
However, like most games, this can change depending on the dynamics of the group. If you’re playing it as a light filler where the group is willing to stop anytime, while also having a few drinks and waiting for the main event to start, and you’re also cracking wise about dying of dysentery – The Oregon Trail can almost be a passable time-suck. I’ve mentioned drinking twice now. That’s important. To clarify, I mean alcohol. In not insignificant quantities. This game approaches fun the closer you are to being drunk. Unless you’re a belligerent drunk. Then maybe don’t play this game at all. But more seriously, The Oregon Trail really requires creating a set of house rules to play in any way that resembles fun. Player elimination is rarely a great element in any game, and it is something that The Oregon Trail thrives on it. There are two instant death cards in the Calamity deck (“Snake Bite” and “Dysentery”), and these can’t be negated in any way. So 12.5% of the randomly drawn deck just removes a player from the game. That’s means you’re about three times more likely to be randomly killed in this game than you would have been to die on the actual Oregon Trail. Unfortunately, there is no real way that “good play” can win over “bad luck.”
To be entirely honest, this random and brutal aspect is true to both the theme and the computer game. Real people died on the real Oregon Trail. It was a difficult and dangerous trip to make. In the computer game, this is represented through your party members occasionally getting dysentery and dying. When you’re eight years old playing in a computer lab, this is mildly amusing. One of your characters would die, you would create a funny tombstone that said “BUTTS” and laugh and it would be great. But what is missing from this equation is that in the computer game one player was responsible for all of the characters. If someone died, you didn’t have to immediately stop playing. You could keep going with the rest of your wagon party and make it a little farther until everyone died. You didn’t have to sit and watch the computer continue to play without you.
In the card game, when a member of your wagon party randomly dies from an arbitrary and uncontrollable card draw, they’re done. Gone. Out of the game. Which is usually a pretty bad thing in a board game. However, this game flips the script because for the removed player death might be a bit o’ mercy. That’s because The Oregon Trail commits the cardinal sin of board gaming – It. Is. Boring. There isn’t a single meaningful decision to be made throughout the course of the game. Oh, sure you get to choose which Trail card to play. But since the card has to fit the preexisting trail on the table, you are often limited to a choice of one or two cards (and occasionally you won’t have anything to play!). After that, your choices end and the game’s Random Draw Engine kicks into hyper-drive. This is perhaps most obvious in the Candy Land style determinism of the card decks. Once the Trail and Calamity decks are shuffled and set out at the beginning of the game, the fate of your group has been decided. The deck won’t really change, and if it’s set in such a way that the first Calamity cards are auto-kills, there’s nothing that can be done. I’ve seen three player games where the party is forced to draw Calamity cards beginning turn 1, leading to a TPK by turn 3 – with absolutely no way to mitigate the vagaries of the deck. And that is disappointing not because it makes the game hard, but because it doesn’t engage anyone in a way that allows for meaningful decisions and, ultimately, fun.
Further, this doesn’t really change depending on player count. The Awe Inspiring Badness scales to any player count! With two players you are less likely to draw the worst of the Calamity cards, but also less likely to have the Supply cards you need to survive. With six players, you essentially have more fodder for the Inevitable Death Machine to destroy and you might make it a litter farther down the line. I suppose its works best with the maximum player count for that reason, but that often means three or four players are quickly killed and left watching their friends try not to die for 20 or so minutes until they get up from the table and walk off into the deep, dark night, never to be seen again.
In March of 2017, it was pointed out that The Oregon Trail Card Game has received an update to its rules, clarifying several of the issues that needed to be house-ruled in the original review.
While we acknowledge that some of these issues have been resolved since the initial printing, we will not be revisiting the review in its entirety. This review may not represent the most recent printing of the game, but we stand by our initial review for the version of the game we had at the time. Special thanks to Kisa Klein’s review of the game for bringing this update to our attention.
- It captures the look and feel of the classic computer game.
- Member Oregon Trail? Oh, I member. It’s nostalgia in a box!
- The Oregon Trail is what it claims to be – nothing more, nothing less.
- Perhaps one of the worst rule books ever written.
- The game is random and clunky with little evidence that there are ever any actual choices to be made – it almost plays itself.
- It’s hard but not in a challenging or intriguing or fun way. It’s difficulty is in its complete randomness that cannot be mitigated by good play.
- Player elimination is functionally a game of Russian roulette. If drawing random cards with a 1 in 8 chance of no longer playing sounds like fun, this is the game for you. If not, this won’t be much fun.