The very first Oregon Trail game was text-based computer game developed in 1971. I’m not quite that old, but I was at the right age to play the graphical version that was released in various iterations starting in 1985. And since my middle school had a computer lab that was open to students at lunch, I played it quite a bit (apparently, to Anna Garvey, I am part of the “Oregon Trail Generation” of folks who are too old to be Millennials, but are at the very youngest end of Gen X – defined by being young enough to play Oregon Trail at school, but old enough that we grew up without social media). I’m going to have to assume for the sake of this review that you too know what Oregon Trail is, because I already tried to explain the video game to my eight-year-old and failed miserably.
And in Oregon Trail, as with so much of the joys of youth, what’s old is new again. The Oregon Trail Game: Journey to Willamette Valley is actually not the first Oregon Trail tabletop game – that honor goes to The Oregon Trail Game, which was released in 2016 (tagline “You have died of dysentery” … automatic nostalgia for me, but seriously, how do you explain to an eight-year-old why that phrase resonates?). But there’s a big difference between that card game and Journey to Willamette Valley. The 2016 card game was a cooperative experience about dying of laying out the trail while desperately digging for the cards you needed to avoid dying of horrible things. And then dying of them. Journey to Willamette Valley, while also a Target exclusive, is completely different – rather than a $15 pick-me-up super-casual game, it is an actual hobby game.
In Journey to Willamette Valley, each player controls their own wagon trying to make it to Oregon. Players start with a wagon (mostly) full of healthy family members, a little bit of food and cash, and an empty board between them and prosperity. There are pretty handy player boards, so why don’t I use one as a visual aid to talk about a turn:
At the start of the turn, each player puts out 1-2 tiles to build the trail across the game board. This lets the player potentially build themself some nice road to travel on, drop a town or fort to buy goods from, put down a hunting tile … or maybe be a bit meaner and put some snow-covered winter tiles in front of another player’s wagon.
There is still the random draw of the calamity cards. A few of these will be positive effects – you find an extra ox, or some canned food. But mostly they are negative effects that you have the rest of the turn to avoid. A family member dies unless you have medicine. A family member dies unless you have a spare wagon part. Bandits attacks and a family member dies unless you can get to a fort. That sort of thing.
And you don’t want your family members to die because they’re your primary source of points at the end of the game. Healthy family members are worth more than sick ones. And dead ones are worth negative points, because you have to pay for their funeral expenses (and the earlier they died, the more expensive it is).
That pressure makes some of the other actions hum. Just like in the video game, when you get to a river, you can ford the river or play it safe (hire a guide, take a ferry, etc.). Some rivers are easy (a 2+ on a d6 means your safe). Others are pretty rough (5+). Missing the roll means your family members take damage equal to the difference (sorry, when I’m clicking health from 5 to 4 to 3 I can’t help but think of it as taking damage). If you play it safe, that’s it for your turn (so try to do it at the end of your third action). If you ford the river, you can keep on going. Taking damage is losing points, so the odds need to be played wisely.
There are a couple of circumstances that can make everyone in the wagon lose health (well, except for you – you/the wagon driver never loses health or dies). This happens if you don’t have food at the end of the turn, or if you enter a winter tile without winter clothes. This brings up the logistical side of the game. If you look back up at that player board, you’ll see six empty squares (the yellow square is “you” and the small grey square is a pistol). At the start of the game, your family members take up four of those, and the food takes up half a square (as you can see in the image below, there are small cubes and big cubes).
So, logistically, space is tight at the start of the game. Sure, you’d like to get winter clothes in case you need them, but that’s basically all of your extra space then. Perhaps the shotgun would be of more use? (ProTip: it definitely is of more use). There’s a wagon extension, but you can’t start with it.
The economic flow of the game is one place that the board game diverges from the computer game. In the computer game, you bought a ton of supplies at the start of the game (limited mostly by space in the wagon + cash), and then topped off as the game went on (hunting for food, or looking for replacements for things like medicine and wagon parts that had been used up), with everything getting more and more expensive. In Journey to Willamette Valley, you can actually profit buying and selling goods as you go across the country. Indeed, because money is the calculation for how you win (health is simply converted into cash), this is the second-biggest source of points. So if you can get a couple of extra goods relatively cheap early on (or have one magically appear from a calamity card), then sell those goods at a higher price, then buy even more, and so forth (goods are always cheaper to buy than sell).
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that you’re going to do this a bunch. The board isn’t that big, after all, and you use up food every turn. And this brings us to hunting. Hunting uses a deck of cards, with all the cards numbered 1-6. When hunting, you play any pistol you have on one number, and any shotgun on a pair of numbers. If the top card of the deck is a number you selected, then you get some food (and if you miss and have a second action, then you can hunt again with better odds). Hunting is very important not only because your family needs to eat, but also because hunting can be a very cheap way to fill up your wagon with goods to sell (there is no killing a bear but leaving it there to rot because you can’t get the meat back to your wagon – if there’s space in your wagon, you get the meat). Selling five cubes of meat for $150 a cube can be a big windfall right at the end of the game. The necessity and the potential profit of hunting make the shotgun a fantastic investment – surely the most valuable cube in the game (well, except for a healthy family member … maybe).
Speaking of the end of the game, that’s triggered when someone gets to Willamette Valley (or all of the trail tiles are used up). Getting there is a benefit, because everyone gets penalized based on how far they are from the end of the trail. But it isn’t that big a benefit – so if you know the game is going to end, selling excess resources is a much better use of an action than getting one square closer to Oregon.
Ultimately, The Oregon Trail Game: Journey to Willamette Valley provides an experience that is reminiscent of the Oregon Trail video game, but does not insist on hewing to every nook and cranny. It will probably be best enjoyed by players who are interested in helpings of both luck and strategy. Strategy is necessary, because poorly planning a route and running out of food will be disastrous, while being able to visit hunting grounds and coincidentally visit towns immediately after is a big deal. But there is no avoiding the element of luck provided by the calamity cards – they can be very swingy. If the trifecta works for you – nostalgia + some strategy + some luck – then Journey to Willamette Valley should be up your alley.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.