I loved playing the Oregon Trail computer game as a kid in elementary school. You were subjected to terrible tortures, rudimentary medicine, and horrendous culinary options. Oh, those things were also present in the Oregon Trail computer game. It was without a doubt one of the more entertaining, if frustratingly difficult, aspects of my elementary education. So it was with no small amount of nostalgic joy that I greeted the recently released The Oregon Trail Card Game by Pressman Toy Corporation. Would my hopes be achieved, as so seldom happened in my computer Oregon Trail endeavors, or would my hopes be crapped upon the ground, much like most of my hapless pioneers dying of dysentery on the digital Oregon Trail? Let’s find out.
Which is unfortunate, because there are a lot of good ideas in Oregano Trail. It’s a Target exclusive, which is like saying creepy clowns are a McDonald’s exclusive: sure they’re there, but they aren’t necessarily what the brand is known for. However, in spite of carrying the stigma of being “Target exclusive,” (a stigma I genuinely hope disappears) it gets a lot of things right. Pressman Toy could have phoned it in on this one and let the nostalgia factor carry this game to mercantile success. Instead they attempted to capture the spirit and feel of the original, infuriating computer game, complete with its unfair and unstoppable death, while also incorporating genuine, accepted gaming mechanics such as hand management, cooperative play, and the main source of tension coming from a deck of cards. That is at least the source of tension the developers wanted. The main source of tension turns out to be poorly implemented game mechanics.
The object of the game is to get one member (ONE MEMBER) of your party to Oregon by playing a total of 50 connecting Trail cards. If everyone else dies horribly, but one member survives, you still win. Target can do coop too! Eat your diseased heart out, Pandemic. You take it in turns to lay out Trail cards that continue the green pixilated trail from Missouri to Oregon. Some trails will let you get off scott free. Others have a river that will have you rolling a die with a 50/50 chance of crossing unscathed. Still others will tell you to “Press Spacebar to Continue.” Which, thematically, means you ran into one of those random events that occurred so often in the computer game. It could be your character falling ill, a thief coming to steal your stuff, or the dreaded dysentery. These calamities usually require you to discard some of your valuable Supply cards to negate their ill effects. Extreme Cold, for example, requires a player to discard a Clothing Card. If one round of play passes with nobody playing a Clothing Card, you die. Many calamity cards revolve around the chance of drawing another card of the same name. Cholera, for example, you can cure by playing two Medicine Cards. If any other player draws another Cholera Card, the player with the first Cholera Card dies. And then… the dreaded Dysentery Card… which states… well… take a look.
Yup. No saving you. No chance to avoid it other than dumb luck. So, if you draw that Calamity Card on your second turn (as happened on our second playthrough) your game is over. Oh wait, I’m sorry. The first player to die becomes the Shopkeeper, the one in charge of doling out and trading the extra Supply cards. So, the Monopoly banker. But utilized even less. Now in a game with a player count of 2 – 6, surely this instant, unavoidable Calamity is the only one of its kind? Unfortunately, it’s not even the only one of its NAME. There are two calamitous Dysentery cards, but not only those, but also two Snake Bite cards, which also result in unavoidable death. For those who can’t count, that’s four instant kill cards. So each game you play with less than five players has the potential to totally wipe your party with cards you can do nothing about except pray they don’t get drawn. So maybe they won’t get drawn, yeah? There are only thirty two Calamity cards. Math is hard, I know, but that means that one out of every eight Calamity cards will straight up kill you.
And this shines a particularly blinding light on the major problem with this game. Yes, there are good ideas in this game, but the underlying mechanics behind the idea are not fully understood by the developer. If you have a game where death means elimination from the game, having cards that will instantly kill you will do nothing but piss off the player who draws it. If you have a game where you discard item cards to negate ill effects on other cards, there need to be choices of when to use those cards. Food is a supply card, but it is only useful on two Starvation cards. That is the only use for the Food card. So it’s not like you say to yourself, I could use my food card to get rid of this Starvation or I could save it in case something else comes up that will require that same Food card. There is literally no reason to not play your Food card. So the only risk comes from whether or not you actually have one.
Another problem: those cards I mentioned that are like a ticking time bomb, waiting for the second card to be drawn in order to take effect? In every case like this, once that first card has been dealt with, the second card has no consequence. Take Cholera. The first time Cholera appears, you play two Medicine Cards to get rid of it. It is discarded. The very next turn, Cholera is picked up by a different player. Phew, good thing you cured that Cholera, or you would have died. Now you need to cure the second player right? Wrong. There is no third Cholera card. The only other Cholera card is in the discard pile. There is no danger that a second Cholera card will be drawn, so you can ironically safely continue to be infected with Cholera for the rest of the game with no fear of it killing you.
This is the main issue with this game. Though it has the bones of sound game mechanics, those mechanics are so poorly thought through, so poorly implemented into the game, that there is no real “play” in this game. The only “choices” that are presented to you are which trail card to play and whether you want to play a Supply Card to negate a Calamity Card. These are not actual choices however, they are the illusion of choice. You don’t really choose which trail card to play. You play all the trail cards in your hand that don’t have ill effects on them, then you play the ones that do. There is no actual choice here. Same for negating Calamity Cards. If you have the supplies, there is no choice about whether to play it or not. If it is a dangerous card, like the first Cholera card, you play your supplies. If it is not a dangerous card, like the second Cholera card, you don’t play your supplies. Again, there is no choice to be made; the choice is made for you by the circumstances. This is less a game and more an experience. You experience the game, you do not play it.
I could go on, such as how the game says its for 2 - 6 players, but doesn't scale between those differing player counts, but that would be like beating a dead ox. My only consolation in this is that it is a step in the right direction. This is a mass market game, not meant to only be sold in local game shoppes, but in the mass consumer locations that attract a much larger clientele and, in the hopes of the developers, a much higher financial success. Most of these games have traditionally been mechanicless, ignoring the tried-and-true mechanics that are already in existence and instead relying on outdated gaming tropes such as movement by die roll. However, seeing a mass market game even ATTEMPT to integrate the more nuanced gaming mechanics gives me hope that our hobby will someday gain enough traction to become more widely accepted, and we won’t have to spend the rest of our days either locked in our parents’ basements or speeding from shadow to shadow to stay out of the burning sunlight as we head to the local game store to purchase the latest cardboard creation.
2 To 4 Players gives The Oregon Trail Card Game 2 Dead Oxen out of 10.
Thanks for reading 2 To 4 Players review of The Oregon Trail Card Game. You can find The Oregon Trail Card Game at your local Target. If you like Dead Oxen, or Dysentery (because who doesn’t) or just want to chat, follow us on Twitter, drop us an email/comment and don't forget to check back to 2 To 4 Players for more gaming content. Remember: Don't Stop Playing.