death and victory on the oregon trail


Game Design / Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

Unlike most of my friends my age, I never played The Oregon Trail when I was a kid. My first exposure to it was a few weeks ago, in card game format, and I was excited to see what all the fuss was about this so-called classic. Six of us played, and only two of us made it to Willamette Valley, but because it was a co-op game, this meant that we won as a team. The anticipation was at a peak as it came down to the last card, where we hadn’t any resources left and rolled an odd number while fording a river (which meant that we would have had to lose a resource card if we had had one).

The suspenseful last roll of the game, with one card remaining.

Despite all the enjoyment I had playing the card game, I didn’t really understand its play on the nostalgia of the original computer game. So a few nights later, I convinced someone to boot it up on a web emulator, and co-played my first Oregon Trail game. The resulting forty-five minutes in-game included picking names for characters, strategising on what to buy, then choosing a path along the route (with the accompanying hardships and delays) and taking looks around where we stopped. To my surprise, we made it fine, with some mishaps and diseases but no deaths, until the very end, when one of our characters, Kat Mandoo, tragically drowned in the final mini game river when we crashed the raft into the shore. But we did make it to Willamette Valley and win the game.

We almost made it with everyone! Poor Kat Mandoo, who drowned in the river.

I still didn’t really get it. Maybe it’s a generational mark I missed, a “you have to had been there and experienced it as a child for the real feeling” – the same way I feel about Harry Potter, or my friend Omeed feels about Power Rangers. There must be something familiar and recognisable that made The Oregon Trail entertaining years later, but I really could not see what the big deal was. I could not see myself playing it more than once, or messing around with the amount of supplies I bought, or spending hours shooting pixel animals in the mini hunting game, which my companion claimed to have done as a kid.

Hunting and the final mini game (rafting through the Columbia River Gorge or taking the Barlow Road) are two rare instances when skill matters in the original Oregon Trail video game.

By all design standards, the Oregon Trail is not a great computer game. Sure, for its time it was something novel, and marginally educational. It taught kids about landmarks across the US, and followed these up with diseases, ailments and mishaps that befell your crew, all randomly, and with no reasonable way to a cure or solution. Resting, slowing the pace, or increasing food rations could help, but this didn’t always restore your party to full health. That events seem to have no rhyme or reason is often the trademark of bad game design, and yet, the fact that you or your whole party could suddenly die from dysentery was somehow the whole charm of The Oregon Trail.

And this is where it struck me: what made The Oregon Trail special was its unique approach to handling death in a game.

  1. Deaths are random, but expected
    • The first thing I was warned before playing the computer game was, “we’re probably not going to make it, everyone’s going to die.”  This feeling seems to perpetuate everyone’s attitude towards the game, so making it is always a surprise.  There’s also this added stress while you’re playing, whenever you’re delayed or crossing a river, or out of supplies, that makes you feel like someone can croak at any instant.  In this respect, The Oregon Trail is not like other games.  Traditionally, the player has to do something “bad” in the game that will lead to their death – walk into an enemy, perhaps, or lose a boss battle.  By making the deaths random, The Oregon Trail paved the way for games as educational storytelling of the hardships of the reality it was simulating.
  2. Gravestones add a layer of humour and personalisation to each death
    • A friend at work told me that his favourite part of playing The Oregon Trail as a kid was using the names of his classmates as the party members, then laughing about how Billy died from typhoid fever or how Sandra got diphtheria.  Writing up gravestones for your friends as a kid seems morbid, but also hilarious, and it gave kids that sense of ownership over their characters’ fates, even though they really had no control over who lived and who died.  While most games kill off non-player characters with little to no attention to what happens to the rest of the characters when their friend has died, The Oregon Trail trailblazed an attitude that these deaths mattered in the game world.  It’s no surprise that the gravestones are iconic of The Oregon Trail.
  3. You can continue playing after death
    • The Oregon Trail treats the five lives a player has to complete the game as actual lives, and by giving players the power to name these characters, makes players invested in those lives.  Not often in other games when you have three lives and lose one, do you have a name of another character attached to it.  There is also a sense of continuation in the journey after someone has died that makes The Oregon Trail’s approach towards death effective, because it gives readers an added weight to their progress rather than just knowing they have a certain number of lives left.
    • Naming our characters, which took a lot of thought.

That said, The Oregon Trail video game played for me much more like a simulation than an actual game, because of the amount of randomness.  Though there are some constraints (number of supplies, choices of speed, which way to go, decisions on whether to trade, and so on) that the player can control throughout the game, it is largely up to the game what troubles are encountered by your crew.  The card game managed to improve on many of these aspects by providing a clearer structure for when things could or would happen to your group, thus allowing players to have valid input and meaningful choices that would affect their progress in a predictable way.

The Oregon Trail card game was much more fun because it added visible rules to the randomness of the computer game.

Take fording a river, for example. In the computer game you get several options, plow through with the oxen, float the wagon across, or hire a guide. Even after analysing the situation (depth of the river, etc.) and choosing the most reasonable option, it’s nerve-wracking to watch the animation of your wagon going across the river, because it feels like your whole party could drown, regardless of what you chose. Having no control over the outcome was a hallmark of the video game, but in the card game, it was necessary to add a level of randomness that wasn’t frustrating. Thus, fording a river is determined by a roll of a die, simplifying the outcome to evens (forded successfully) and odds (lose a supply card). This design choice made it much more manageable for players, and what’s more, allowed us to strategise for future turns, for example deciding what card we could afford to lose as a team. Furthermore, the act of a die roll put the randomness psychologically back into the player’s hands.

The card game allows for much deeper interactions. Calamities that occurred had timeouts or conditions, like if you contracted measles, you had to hold on to the card for a whole round, but if someone picked up another of the same card during the round you would all die. Sometimes you needed medicine or water to cure a teammate, and that informed what supplies we would buy in the next store or what supplies we could afford to lose in a botched river crossing. Additionally, the strategy of placing the next trail card was important because we wanted to avoid calamities as much as possible, so we would discuss which card to play to optimise the next player’s turn by looking at all the trail cards we each had.

Additionally, the card game strips away the unnecessary points system of the computer game.  Having points assigned to a game that was mostly random felt strange, because you had very little control about what happened, and so the points lost their meaning.  I played both versions of the game withe sole goal of getting to the end, and winning by simply arriving at Willamette Valley with at least one person alive meant more to me than any amount of points I could have achieved.

All these design choices made the card game extremely good at forcing cooperation and teamwork. By flipping the player model from the computer game’s single player “one person controls many people’s fate” to multiplayer “many people control one wagon’s fate”, it made the goal of the card game crystal clear, and my friends and I were constantly thinking about the good of the group as a whole rather than each individual person.

Best of all, the card game played to the strengths of the original by adopting its cavalier attitude towards death.

  1. Individual deaths are random, but expected, and party deaths are less common and can usually be avoided by using teamwork and strategy
    • In the card game, there are some moments when a Calamity card is drawn, and those cards, we found, could be a trouble you needed to circumvent with supply cards like oxen or spare parts, or it could be the typical “you have died of a snakebite”, that you can’t do anything about.  Group deaths are handled as larger events, and can occur if you fail to resolve a calamity within a round, or if a second card of a serious calamity is drawn when the first is still face up.  This way, the card game maintains the randomness and surprise of individual deaths, but gives players ways to strategise and work together to solve bigger problems and advance the wagon, providing some great balance to the game.
  2. Gravestones add a layer of humour, personalisation and nostalgia to each death
    • There’s a whiteboard sheet with the card game that has six blank gravestones on it, allowing you to write your own gravestone if you die in the game.  This adds so much to the game because typically in board games you play as yourself (unless you’re into role playing), and you’re writing your own gravestone and not one of a character you made up like in the computer game.  The graphics also provide a good bout of nostalgia for anyone who has played the video game.
  3. You can continue playing after death
    • While you’re invested in the characters you created in the video game, you’re invested in the wagon’s journey in the card game.  One of my favourite ways the card game adapts the principles of the video game is how it makes it so that you can – and you want to – continue playing even after you die.  I played with friends, and even after I died of dysentery, I found myself and my other dead friends continuing to discuss and strategise with the group on the actions they should take, though we didn’t get to take our own turns.  This excellent design for cooperative play where we all win as one kept us invested in the outcome until the very end.

Computer game or card game?

The card game of The Oregon Trail is a solid adaptation of the video game, in fact improving on many of the design flaws that were present in the original.  It’s easier to feel like your decisions and actions have impact in the card game, and more fun because of the interactions with your friends.  While old players may be drawn to the game for its nostalgia factor, I think new players like me will appreciate the game for its balance and great cooperative play, which is something board and card games struggle to have.  There were smart decisions made in keeping the spirit of the computer game, with its randomness and attitude to death in the game, but also in providing more opportunities for meaningful interactions that could affect the outcome.  The card game is a redesign more than a replica, and it’s all the better for it.  It shows some of us still have our design thinking caps on, and are finding ways to improve on existing franchises to open them up to a new generation of players.