Tuesday, August 02, 2016


Unplugged Dilintia -- The Oregon Trail Card Game

There's something about The Oregon Trail, right?  It's this completely unfair little simulation game from the 80s that never taught you much besides how to shoot deer and die of dysentery.  Revisiting it as an adult, it doesn't feel like much of a game.  You have very few important decisions to make, and it's hard to feel what their impact is.  You have to learn by trial and error, and even then, it seems like your party members die for completely arbitrary and unavoidable reasons.

But that's kind of the point, isn't it?  The game was designed to teach players about the Oregon Trail, and it supposedly based its probabilities and consequences on real-world data.  Maybe it didn't teach any rote facts to impressionable young minds, but it sure as hell gave you a hands-on taste of just how difficult it was to try and cross North America in the 19th century.  I've always been sort of a pansy, tree-hugging, Bambi-loving wuss, but when you sat me in front of a keyboard and gave me a visceral demonstration of how hunting your own food meant life or death on the trail, I started gunning down deer with the best of them.  It might be one of the earliest examples of "video game as documentary".

And now, some forty-five years after the original college-exclusive HP 2100 minicomputer version, Pressman Toys has decided to pick up the license to create a card game, because why not?  Nostalgia runs deep.

Don't expect a lot of deep simulation or book-keeping.  This game is very fast-moving and lightweight, perfect for a casual family game or chilling with your tabletop friends.  I can't account for the authenticity of its probability data -- I expect it's close to nothing -- but it certainly manages to recreate the feeling of playing the computer game.  Instead of trying to correct the original game's difficulty, the card game unapologetically embraces it, even littering its promotional materials with gallows humor about the likelihood of death.

The game is played cooperatively.  Every player is dealt Trail and Supply cards.  On your turn, you can play a Trail card to advance down the trail.  A few cards are Towns and Forts where you can resupply, a few more are simple clear trail, but the majority of the cards challenge you to ford a river by rolling a die or to draw a Calamity card.  Calamities are all of the nasty events you remember from the game -- sickness, cold, dead oxen, and so on.  When a Calamity is put into play, you either deal with its consequences immediately, or you get a limited amount of turns to play a Supply card to remedy it before it results in the death of a player or worse.  If the team plays enough Trail cards before everyone dies, then everyone -- dead players included -- wins.

As a charming little touch, the game comes with a dry erase pen and a whiteboard designed to resemble the character name entry screen from the computer game.  When a player dies, you can erase their name from the list and turn the card over to reveal six tombstones designed to resemble the ones in the computer game's death screen.  You can write the player's name and a little epitaph before moving on.  This isn't a strictly functional gameplay element, but it's a nice little touch to remind players of the original source material.

It can take a few tries at the game to get a feel for how to play well.  Certain supplies are more valuable than others, and sometimes it's better to let a Calamity run its course than to waste the limited resources to try and fix it.  Even then, the game is kind of a screwjob, especially for smaller parties.  A two-player team gets only 10 supplies to split at the beginning of the game, and the party can only suffer two deaths before they're defeated, and yet the rules say they have to try and cover the same distance as a five-player team with 20 supplies and a much greater buffer for untimely deaths.  With the number of Calamities that result in instant, unavoidable death, it's possible for a small team to be dealt an unwinnable hand.

But that can be fun if it's the kind of experience you're looking for.  And while it, being a card game, can be modified to meet your particular tastes with regard to difficulty, it can be satisfying to play the game on its own terms and eventually, one day, hit that one magical run where everything finally comes off and ends with your wagon rolling into Willamette Valley.

Solitaire Rules

Being a cooperative game, it's relatively easy to come up with a solitaire variation.  Here's my take on it.

All in all, I'd have to say I'm pleasantly surprised with this game.  Licensed tabletop games are sort of hit or miss, but this game does a good job of bringing the Oregon Trail experience to your tabletop without bogging it down with a lot of rules and moving parts.  It feels a good deal more random than some of the really good, deep European tabletop games that have become so popular these days, but if you have any kind of nostalgic connection to the computer game, you'll probably find this is a good bit of fun.


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