The Oregon Trail Card Game Proves That God is Either Cruel or Dead.

Posted by Kisa Klein on

Everyone who was around for the 90s eventually played The Oregon Trail: a computer game where you named each traveler after your friends and had great fun finding out who died of dysentery. We all played, and some of us even won - by which I mean you lived sometimes. It was a game of planning your trip carefully and hoping the worst didn’t happen to you. It was difficult, and showed off the horrors that a traveling caravan could expect to find. And we were all pretty sure that its purpose was to show kids how good they have it compared to the days of pioneers.

The Oregon Trail Card Game, however, has a far more nefarious purpose.

There are no lessons to be learned here. The Oregon Trail is far more cruel and random as a card game than it is as a video game, and seeks only to prove that there is no God and we all die alone and in agony.

Let’s review. In the video game, you mourn the loss of your party members - you lose points for each death and you later have to explain to your friends why you let their digitized self die. In the Card Game, party members are assets, not people. Yes - even though your friend is sitting directly across from you, it is just plain more advantageous to let a supplies-less party member die rather than use supplies to keep them afloat. This is because, so long as just one party member survives, everyone will win.

To reiterate - you actually care about the virtual 10110001 named after your best friend comparatively more than your actual husband sitting across from you. Good luck explaining this logic to anyone who isn’t naturally gaming-inclined.

An interracial couple where the white guy is obviously named Rob.

“Honey, if you don’t use the Medicine card on me, I’m taking Gram Gram’s ring back.”
“Rob, for the last time, you will ALSO WIN.”

Let’s talk about supplies and sudden death and why your friends will probably look the other way while you die of typhoid, even though there are more than enough medicine cards for all of us, Lyle. In the video game, death usually comes with a warning - if you get sick, you can stop and rest, and if your wagon breaks, you’re usually able to fix it, so long as you’ve prepared. In the Card Game, however, supplies are often your only reprieve from sudden painful death - and they’re assigned randomly at the beginning of the game and tend to run low quickly. What’s more, the only reason to keep the others alive is because when they die, their supply cards can suddenly disappear into the Game Aether without much explanation.

This is a black hole. The kids call him Ol' Mister McKinley and he plays the harmonica beautifully.

Black holes are an exciting new feature in The Oregon Trail Card Game. This one follows you around on the ol’ pioneer trail and teaches the kids tough lessons about growing up.

When your cards run out, you’re essentially counting down the rounds until you draw a card that gives you typhoid, at which point the mindset becomes “Fly, you fools!!” even though everyone else has at least one medicine card they could use on you.

After you die, though, you get to entertain yourself by designing a cute little tombstone. That’s right, this game comes with tombstones.

So what do we learn from The Oregon Trail Card Game? Surely not that we have it better - we already learned that from the computer game, and even if we didn’t, we’re not going to learn it from a game that doesn’t have any of the horrifying side narrations that the NPCs gave us in the previous game (I’m so sorry your husband died but also why are you still traveling when you need help with your own luggage??) and which also encourages us to commit ourselves to the great cosmos once we cannot further serve the commune.

These people were ATR aces of the Soviet 6th Guards army, and killed 7 tanks each during WWII. Names unknown.

“A common cold? Time to die, comrade.”

No, what we learn here is that we all must band together in the face of a too-terrible adversary against which we will almost certainly fail, and take a bit of comfort in the hope that one of us might make it and maybe - just maybe - that one will be you, happy in Oregon with only the horrible memory of all your friends and family dying of disease, starvation, and blizzarding cold while their prayers and wailing fell upon deaf ears.

So much for family game night.


The Oregon Trail Card Game Score: 75%

Would play again until I’ve won or died for real.


The Oregon Trail Card Game is a simple yet tense game, where you don’t know if you’ll live or die on most turns. For those who enjoy a certain level of constant stress without a lot of intricate strategy or decision-making, this is the game for you.

Players: 2-6 

Space Needed: at least 4ft x 4ft

Play Time: 5-30 min

Time to Learn: 5-10 min

The Good:

  • Because the game is cooperative and can go from bad to worse at any time, players are naturally inclined to be engaged during all turns.

  • The setup and learning curve are quick and easy.


The Meh:

  • There’s a certain feeling of helplessness when you think everything is going well and then suddenly everyone dies.

  • There is a clear advantage to having more players even though the game says “2-6 players.”

  • The nostalgia is dampened by key differences between the card game and computer game - and these differences don’t necessarily add to the overall game experience.

Advice for Players:

  • Get six players unless you enjoy trying to prove you’re a badass.

  • Set Independence and Willamette as far away from each other on your chosen gaming table as you can. You’ll need the space in between.

  • Be prepared to play more than a few times before you actually win once.

  • Play with your supply cards face-up. The rules say to play with them hidden, but there’s no reason why, and playing open-faced makes it easier to make decisions that benefit the whole team.

Score card: 75%

Disclaimer: The Score Card is currently evolving. We’re looking for the best scientific approach to scoring boardgames, so the first few we review will be on vastly different difficulty scales. (As evidenced by the “3 out of 5 stars” versus percentage scores between Tokaido and The Oregon Trail Card Game reviews.) We also realize that the value of a boardgame is difficult to quantify - different people find different boardgames fun, boring, frustrating, or exciting for different reasons. What follows is our best estimation of the common factors that make a game fun. But hey - if you know the kind of game you like, you’ll know better than us if you’ll like this one.

Poor - Meh - Neutral - Decent - Good

Time: 5/5 (10% of Score)

  • Setup/Cleanup Time: Setup and cleanup combined take maybe five minutes if you haven’t played before. Neutral

  • Play Time: 5-30 min Neutral

  • ROI of Setup Versus Content: Good, if you commit to playing a few times as recommended above. If not, you’re going to be spending about the same amount of time setting up as you are actually playing. Good

The Rulebook: 4/5 (20% of Score)

  • Time to Learn: 5-10 min Good

  • Logical Flow of Rules: Gameplay follows a logical pattern. Good

  • Ease of Rule Recall: There aren’t many rules, so it’s easy to remember them all. Good

  • Organization: The rulebook is organized logically - with an objective followed by setup, an overview of game pieces, gameplay rules, and end game rules. Good

  • Succinctness: The rulebook is a four-paneled brochure and easy to get through within a few minutes. Good

  • Explicitness: the simplicity of the rules and gameplay allows for an easy explicitness. However, there is a bit of confusion from the wording on certain Calamity cards. Many cards say “XYZ has happened. If X rounds pass without an X card, you die.” Do we then assume that the card stays in play until a Fort card can force the Calamity card to be discarded? Or does the X card force the Calamity card to be discarded? If a player reads the Sample Play section of the rulebook, the answer is the latter, but it provides a brief moment of confusion and could be remedied with a slight rewording on the card. Neutral

Concept: 3/5 (15% of Score)

  • Originality: What little deviation there is from the original game actually makes the game unnecessarily more frustrating and doesn’t add to the game experience. Randomized starting supplies and a faster rate of death to various obstacles makes the game harder without adding much interest. You could argue that if players picked supply cards at the beginning, there would always be a set ideal amount of each supply card - but even then, presetting the supply cards would seem more in keeping with Oregon Trail than the current randomization method. Poor

  • Wow Factor: It’s Oregon Trail, come on, it’s a pretty good Wow Factor. Good

  • Cohesiveness: The concept is familiar and consistent throughout. Good

Aesthetic: 5/5 (5% of Score)

  • Printing/Material Quality: Printing is good - the materials are sturdy and the colors are rich. Good

  • Visual Flow: The old-bit style is consistent throughout. Good

  • Visually Stimulating (Adds to the game experience): Most of what people remember about The Oregon Trail are the graphics. In that sense, the Card Game delivers nostalgia beautifully and the visuals are integral to the gaming experience. Good

Engagement: 5/5 (25% of Score)

  • Involvement: All players are affected by all decisions, and since this is a cooperative game, that means players become heavily involved. Good

  • Ease of Attention: It’s easy to pay attention do to the sudden downturns that usually happen. Good

  • Player Interactivity: Since supply cards mean life or death, all players are interacting at most times to ensure survival. Good

Variability: 2/5 (25% of Score)

  • Variability of the Outcome: Players can die of a fixed number of events at any point in the game. The game could be over in just a few minutes, or last close to a half hour in the event of a win. However, it’s almost certain that all players will lose, which is fun for a few rounds if you’re into that, but quickly gets old. Meh

  • Difficulty of game: Very, to a fault. Meh

  • Fast vs Slow play pace: Steady play pace, although the turns are short. Neutral

  • Luck or Skill? The majority of this game depends on luck - players are generally helpless to the whims of the Calamity cards. Meh

  • Predictability of Outcome: You will most likely die if you’re not playing with at least 5 players, which can get old after the 10th game. Poor

Update: March 04, 2017

We've learned that a previous version of the Oregon Trail Card Game Rulebook exists with significantly less detail. A review of that version can be found here

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