Game Review: The Oregon Trail: Journey to Willamette Valley

oregon trail 1971 game main screenCompared to modern tech, the computers of the 1970’s were crude, with chunky graphics, slow performance and almost no storage capacity. Still, people love games and programmers wrote games, from text-based adventure games like Zork and Rogue to interactive graphic games like Breakout and Space Invaders.

Originally created as an educational program, one of the most famous games from that era is The Oregon Trail. Developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger in 1971, the game was designed to teach school children about the challenges of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. In the game, the player assumed the role of a wagon leader guiding their party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley over the Oregon Trail. Few survived, and the famous meme from the game was “you died of dysentery”. Grim, yeah, but there was something curiously compelling about the original game.

Zoom forward almost 50 years and you can enjoy the same challenge of the Oregon Trail in a variety of ways, ranging from smartphone apps to a card game. The latest addition is the best, though: The Oregon Trail Game: Journey to Willamette Valley. It’s a big, modern board game with lots of pieces and a reasonably coherent set of instructions. Publisher this time around is Pressman Toys and it’s definitely big and cheery once you set it up on your gaming table. Mid-way through a game, there’s lots going on and it’s definitely visually intriguing:

oregon trail - journey willamette valley - game in play

The main game board is a long rectangle comprised of 12 4-tile columns: You start in Independence, MO and journey to, well, Willamette Valley on the right side of the board. Each player has their own Conestoga wagon and their family that they are transporting to the great new wilderness area. There are plenty of hazards (no, really, there are a LOT of hazards!) on the way, but you can also purchase both small and large items to offset risks and dangers along the way.

the oregon trail game - journey to willamette valley - boxThe big cubes in the above photo are available large resources in towns (white are winter gear, grey are shotguns, brown are wagon repair supplies) and the smaller cubes are less expensive resources only available in forts (purple is medicine, yellow are compasses, red is meat, and grey are pistols). You can earn money by transporting goods from town to town or fort to town and you can also sell your excess goods or extra meat from a successful hunt.

Hunting is, of course, a significant part of the game as it was in the original game: Every turn you have to feed your family or risk them weakening or even dying on the journey. In fact, see the RIP tombstones with cash values along the lower portion of the board above? If you have a family member pass away en route (as I did in my first play!) you leave their body and at the end of the game incur a penalty based on the grave’s distance from Willamette Valley. So not only do you lose family members (very sad) but you have to pay for the experience a second time when whomever’s left make it to Oregon! Grim stuff, though thematic.

Still looking at the above photo, you can see that players collectively build out the terrain as part of their turns and that terrain tiles can be towns, forts, rivers, undeveloped areas or have roads on them. The white tiles are winter terrain and without winter clothes (remember, the big white cube you can buy in towns) every person in your family loses a health point every time you enter a winter tile. Max health is only 5 so you’re constantly fighting to keep everyone alive.

To represent all of that, you have your wagon and tokens that represent your family and your goods:

oregon trail conestoga wagon - board game

The above includes an expansion I purchased, a Wagon Extension that offers more storage capacity. You can see the genius of the two size cubes here too: A big cube takes up a single storage space that could also be used to carry four small cubes. So, four meat to eat or sell, or one shotgun?

In the above you can also see that I have sadly lost a family member since everyone starts with four family (cubes), each of whom has a ‘5’ representing their health. The replacement orange cube is a hitchhiker I am taking to Oregon for bonus points (if they survive!) and I improved my weapons with a shotgun in addition to my pistol (big grey cube and small grey cube). I am also toting four meat to feed everyone and one medicine (the purple cube).

If you’re thinking about the implications of the wagon board design, you’ll realize that you’re always storage constrained: If you have all four of your family members and a hitchhiker along for the ride, you only have one space for either a single big resource (like winter gear) or four small items (like a compass to improve your hunting prowess). It’s definitely a game of thoughtful resource management.

Speaking of which, one of the complaints I’ve read about the game is hunting, but we found hunting worked fine if you planned ahead. See that row along the bottom of the wagon card? To hunt (which you can only do on tiles with a tree icon) you pick a number 1-6 for each pistol or pairs of adjacent numbers (say, 3&4) for each shotgun. Then the other player pulls the top Hunting card and if your number matches, you’ve succeeded. Here’s a representative set of hunting cards:

oregon trail hunting animals board game

The Squirrel matches 4 and produces a paltry single cube of meat. The Bison, on the other hand, matches 6 and is a great kill, producing five cubes of meat. Five turns of feeding your family or you can even sell the excess meat at the next town you visit. More weapons = better odds of succeeding and the small orange “compass” means you can see the hunting card prior to placing your guess, which effectively means you are guaranteed to succeed. Calling it a “spotting scope” would be clearer in this context, but that wasn’t around in the mid-1800’s.

All good. But where is that dysentery? Well, those are one of the many bad things that can happen from the Calamity cards, an each player has to pick one and act upon it each turn. Here are a few examples:

oregon trail willamette valley - calamity cards

Notice the third card: “LOST”. If you can’t end your turn on a town and you don’t have a spare compass, a family member dies. No -1 health, they just die. That’s how I lost one of my own family members in our game…

So that’s basically the game. Each turn you place tiles to keep extending the trail to the Willamette Valley (first player to arrive triggers the end game tally of money), you get and hope to survive a calamity card, you move, hunt, buy, sell and try to survive another round, and then it’s the other player’s turn.

Our end game ended up like this:

oregon trail endgame board game willamette valley

I was way ahead on transit (the yellow wagon token at “Finish”) while my friend had stalled out on progress and was many rows behind (the purple wagon). Then again, his entire family was alive and I had lost a family member early in the game.

All in all, a fun game and one that’s easy enough for tweens and teens to fully grasp. There’s enough complexity that you can try out different strategies and play more – or less – conservatively against the elements and the whims of the Calamity deck. I enjoyed it and will definitely play it again with my friends and family. And hopefully, no dysentery!

The Oregon Trail Game: Journey to Willamette Valley board game is $39.99 from Pressman Games. You can buy a copy exclusively at Target.com: Buy The Oregon Trail Game.

Disclosure: Pressman Games sent me a copy of Journey to Willamette Valley for the purposes of this review.

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