Thursday, May 11, 2017

Product Review: Oregon Trail Card Game

A few months ago, I bought my wife the Oregon Trail card game from Pressman, available through Target. She's a huge history buff and absolutely adored the computer game when she was a kid so I figured "what the heck?". I held off on reviewing it for several months because I really wanted to see how it played after multiple sittings, especially family game nights. And, after several months of playing it, I think I can reasonably conclude....

This is a game for masochists.

So, if you aren't of a certain age (born in the late 70s or early 80s), you probably won't know about the background of Oregon Trail. Way back in the day, before the current golden age of computer and console games, developers were still trying to find markets for the fledgling video game industry and one of those markets was education. The 1980s saw several now-classic educational games marketed towards children, among which was a game called The Oregon Trail. In the Oregon Trail, the child took on the role of early American pioneers journeying down the Oregon Trail to present-day Oregon.

The player would choose how to outfit and equip their party, what routes to take, when to hunt, and (most memorably) whether to ford or float across rivers. It was a game that had a learning curve and required a certain amount of skill and strategy to survive the wilds of the 1800s American West. As children, my wife and I fondly recall spending hours trying to win by reaching the fabled ending in Oregon. I can't be sure whether I ever actually beat the game (I was much more fond of Nintendo at the time), but I do recall it being difficult but fair.

And, I'd have to say this is where the card game goes awry. It's not fair. There is little to no strategy. I get the feeling that Pressman was banking on the nostalgia factor to make the game successful, rather than taking an existing franchise and building a good game from that foundation.

Play proceeds as such - each player has a certain number of Supply and Trail cards. Trail cards are laid out one at a time to build up "decks" of 5 trail cards each. A total of 10 decks of trail cards are required to reach the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Yes, you read that right, it takes 50 Trail cards to finish the game. Supply cards provide supplies to survive as reactions to Calamity cards - clothing, extra oxen, clean water, etc.

There's a couple of issues here right off the bat, before play even begins. First, depending on the number of players, there's a maximum of ~15 Supply cards TOTAL, meaning the group can only "survive" about 15 Calamity cards....if they aren't forced to discard their Supply cards. This leads to the second issue - the overwhelming majority of Trail cards force the player to either roll to cross a river (and if you fail you lose a Supply card) or automatically force the player to draw a Calamity card. Cards that do not have any effect are few and far between.

To be fair, there is a way to replenish lost Supply cards via Towns and Forts. However, there are a total of 4 of these cards, allowing players to take a total of 6 Supply cards (if they happen to lay down all 4 of these cards before dying). I'm not great at math, but I know that means you're either going to run out of Supplies long before you win or you have to have some damn good luck. Now, all these factors alone could still make for a challenging, but achievable, game. The problem comes in the fact that there are some Calamity cards that, once drawn, mean certain death for the player. No saves, no rolls, no using Supplies to avoid them. Death. You're out. This means that there's no good strategy - you can still plan and work your hardest, put one wrong draw and you die.

So after several months and several plays, none of us has won. And I would question the honesty of anyone who plays this card game and claims they did win. It's just not possible...and that makes for an unenjoyable game (unless you're a masochist). Don't get me wrong - I like challenging and difficult games. I don't mind wading through insane hardships to finally achieve victory. But I, the player, need to have some mechanism or strategy to be able to achieve victory and the problem with Pressman's Oregon Trail game is there isn't one. That makes replay value low. It's fun to play once or twice for the nostalgia factor...but it's clear Pressman didn't care if the customer actually was able to win.

While I would like to recommend this, I have to say if you want to play The Oregon Trail, find an emulator and play it on the computer.

-Relatively inexpensive
-Easy to learn
-Some nice "old school" 8-bit graphic art

-Insanely hard to win
-Auto-death Calamity cards feel cheap
-Difficulty and lack of strategy prevent replayability


mafiacheese said...

I concur. Our best play with 4 people got us about 95% of the way there before the last person died.

I felt cheated, especially since the rules aren't written well and contain no timing clarifiers.

Lasgunpacker said...

What a disappointment. I saw this and came to see if this would be a good game to get for my wife's birthday, as we are of the certain age that played this game.

Although to be fair, the computer game is rather hard and arbitrary, with games routinely ending in a TPK. Losing a few of your party members before you reach Oregon should be expected.