Many of us over the age of twenty-five began learning about the concept of Manifest Destiny playing the classic computer game “Oregon Trail” which went through numerous versions over the decades and innumerable operating systems that allowed players to travel west from Independence Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
With people developing an interest in the social aspect of board gaming and other table games, it was only a matter of time before someone purchased the license for Oregon Trail and brought it to the physical world. Target, which is based out of Minnesota (as is the original publisher) has the exclusive rights to distribute the game and from what I’m told it has been sold out in parts of the country, but I was able to find a copy at my local Target here in Houston.
I’ve had the opportunity to play the game through twice, once with a group of children I work with and once with adults who are in the original games target market. Both groups were able to finish the game (which is considered a success if only one player lives all the way to Oregon) but while the adults lost two players to character death the children were able to get the entire six-member party across the continent.
Game play itself is somewhat troublesome. For one thing, the rules can be unclear, do you draw a new trail card at the end of your turn? For another it is VERY random. Before I played the first game with the children I played a couple of simulated games in one of them one of the two hands I was running died nearly immediately. Equally random is your supply situation. It is entirely possible to set off from Independence with a player having only clean water for example. As you likely remember, in the computer game you have the ability to purchase various supplies, while in the card game it is completely randomized, which when combined with the randomness of the calamity cards means that you may be losing party members left and right. Another missing element is the risk of running out of food. There are a limited number of cards that effect your food supply, but there is nowhere near the level of food stress that exists in the computer game. Also missing is the opportunity to pilot a raft down the last portion of the trail that existed in some editions of the computer game, although that would be difficult to reproduce in this setting.
Playing this game with children caused me to have a lot of thoughts on gaming, how companies “rate” games, and America as a whole. First of all, the children were all engaged throughout the game, which honestly feels it can potentially run a bit long. They actively tried to keep all the other players alive throughout the journey. Secondly, while they quickly agreed to allow the 10 and 11-year old’s to play, the 12-year old’s initially pointed out that the box clearly stated 12+. I explained to them that part of the game was the concept of player death, and that the publishers had put the age there to protect children who might not deal with that well, and they then understood. We also discussed cholera, which they found suitably disturbing as a way to die.
Games like Oregon Trail have in many ways been passed by in the 21st century. For one thing computers of one sort and another have become so ingrained in our lives that the idea of children playing games on them at school (where most of us first played Oregon Trail) is kind of passé. Another matter is the fact that many of today’s youth don’t have ties to western expansion. Of the six people who played the game with the children, I was the only Anglo. Educational games that reflect modern America are needed, from games that look at what was like to be an exoduster, what it is like, to being a refugee, or fairly reflecting a world where the world is often intentionally stacked against you. Some would call these niche games, but so are many if not most games made for Android and iOS. Hopefully the next generation of games will address these issues.