Play this! Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail is a card game based on the 1971 computer game with the same name. The original game was designed to teach school children about the realities of 19th century pioneer life and what settlers experienced on their journey from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon traveling via covered wagons.

Apparently, the story of Oregon Trail was a part of the reading program in my nine-year old’s third grade class. He immediately took interest when he saw the card game box.

We got our first chance to play when my family took a vacation with Anouck’s family. At a sunny Hawaiian resort, a toddler had an unfortunate bathroom incident in the pool, forcing us into a two-hour break while the pool’s filters were set to “hyper-drive warp speed cleanup” mode. So, we brought out The Oregon Trail to pass the time.

The Oregon Trail is a cooperative card game. All the players are settlers embarking on the long journey between Missouri to Oregon, and you hope that at least one of you gets to cross into Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It supports up to six players, and trust us, you will need six to stand a chance at reaching Oregon!

Here is the basic flow of the game. First, find a seat at a long table, at least three feet long.

1. Here are the start and end cards. We begin from Independence, MO.

2. Write down the names of players. On the flip side are six tombstones to remember those who perish along the road.

3. These are the three card types: Trail, Supply, and Calamity. Distribute five Trail cards and the appropriate number of Supply cards to each player. (The number of Supply cards depends on the number of players). Keep the Trail cards face down, turn the Supply cards face up.

4. Organize the rest of the Supply cards as shown. This is your “shop.”

5. Player born closest to the Willamette Valley, OR goes first by connecting any one Trail card to the Start card. Player sitting to the left goes next. Play a card that connects the Trail with the previous card. If you have a Trail card that connects to a Trail, you must play the card. If you don’t have a card that connects, take a card from the Trail card pile.

6. Some Trail cards come with instructions. Sometimes you roll a dice to get across a river. Sometimes you take a card from the Calamity card pile. Follow the instructions. A Calamity can stick around for several turns until conditions are met to remedy it.


7. Five cards equal one season. Stack the cards, and repeat the process by connecting four more cards. Once you have ten sets of five cards (2 1/2 years), you have reached Willamette Valley, Oregon!


This game is not for the faint of heart. You have to be gifted with a certain appreciation of dark humor and see the upside of “playing” this experience instead of having had to actually experience this in real life. Anouck’s husband was the first of the crew to die. He perished playing his first turn, from a fatal snake bite. Soon, more and more of the male members of our crew succumbed to dysentary, attacks from thieves, and starvation. It was up to the women to keep going, but it wasn’t long before we too started dropping like flies– like when our wagon kept breaking down and our oxen died. Anouck died, choosing to give her last medicine card to her daughter, only to see her efforts save her through only one more round. In the end, I limped along solo and crossed the threshold into Oregon, making us winners of the game. So- YAY!

One downside of the game is that if you die early on in the game, you could be sitting around for a while. If playing with younger kids, you could play house rules and truncate the set of cards you have to clear before reaching Willamette Valley. You could even give second chances on dice rolls. Have fun and good luck reaching Oregon!

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