For a lot of people my age, the video game Oregon Trail is a piece of nostalgia. It brings back memories of sitting around a computer screen, bathed in its monochrome green light (or maybe a few more colors if you were lucky), watching your family members die off one by one as they attempt to cross the thousands of miles of American wilderness with a covered wagon and some oxen. It was a magical experience. Nowadays, there are a lot of video games and board games that draw on some of the same thematic elements of pioneering in the American west. There have been attempts made at recreating the experience of Oregon Trail, but few have been very successful. Clearly, the interest in the theme is there, but nobody seems to be able to capture the feeling just right. I think the reason is that the people had no idea how to play.
If you played Oregon Trail, think back and try to remember how it played. You could start out as a banker, carpenter, or farmer, which started with different amounts of money, which obviously changes the difficulty. You could set your pace, occasionally go hunting or stop at a fort, and attempt to ford rivers. But how much food did you need? Or clothing? Or bullets? How long would it take you to play? How do you decide how to cross a river? Though it’s not a large number of variables to track, the computer hid them all. From a thematic point of view, this is great. Players set out with very little knowledge of what was ahead, and have to face unknown challenges with unknown outcomes with very little guidance. And at any time random misfortune can strike. This is a similar position to what the pioneers had to deal with, and the game experience of struggling across the country leaves a powerful impression.
But these very same things also make it hard to convert to a boardgame. All of the possible events can be examined beforehand. There are no great surprises, because all the variables are visible. So you can’t capture the feeling of the Oregon Trail in a game that simply makes you balance food, health, and morale, when you know what all of the trade-offs are. Random events help the feeling of unknown, but you still know you will have to encounter forts and rivers on the way, and players will know exactly how far they need to travel. The old computer game had that element, too, but it hid the workings, so you never quite knew where you were or how far away the next fort is. On top of that, players expect to be able to plan for or react to events, but the computer game was absolute and unforgiving. A game that gives players no choice won’t be successful.
The game could be approached from a role-playing angle. This has more potential, especially if given a Game Master who hides the controls like the computer does. Role-playing can capture the aspect of story-telling that made it fun to write the tombstone epitaph after a family member’s death. Yet this is also in opposition to the strict nature of the computer game. You are limited by the stories you can tell because you are on a fixed path of hardship. And a role-playing aspect also takes the game farther away from a pure boardgame.
Oregon Trail was so successful because you couldn’t figure it out. It was still rare to have the opportunity to play a computer game, and it took a lot of plays and some luck to learn how the game really worked. It’s hard to capture that in a board game, and especially so in today’s environment, when games are expected to have tons of replayability, avoid player elimination, and include a lot of control for the player. The Oregon Trail just isn’t made for that. It’s a one-time journey into the unknown, which is directly at-odds with a board game. But it’s still an interesting idea, and maybe it will be possible some day for someone to cross that river without losing all their oxen.