A few words about “Journey to Willamette Valley”

It’s The Oregon Trail Game Journey to Willamette Valley. 
It’s a game of adventure, strategy, and survival.  Re-live the life of pioneers struggling with”starvation, drowning, and rattlesnakes”, as you try to make it from Independence, MO to Willamette Valley.  You’ll have to manage your food supply versus the weather and unexpected diseases.

Allegedly only found in Target stores, I purchased the game in January, 2019 as a family, non-electronic diversion and entertainment.  What caught my attention was the many mechanics.  There’s an objective; reach Oregon in a wagon.  There are choices to make; do you travel, rest, or hunt?  There are economics; money and food.  There are power ups; upgrade your gun, get winter clothing.  And there are challenges; death, disease, and starvation.  It’s a battle of endurance as you race across the map in hopes to reach your destination before your competitors.  The more family who survive the higher your score!

The quality of the board game is pretty high with wooden pieces, many varieties of cards, and cardboard map squares that you randomize that mixes up each game.  The map is fairly simple with my only minor gripe is the map progresses left to your right where the theme is moving westward.  Or what I like to call, leftward.  The rules and the mechanics are pretty easy to pick up.  However, you’ll probably read more close when it comes to crossing rivers, noting the differences between and fort and a town, and understanding the rules of hunting game.

Your experience comes with many elements.  Money, food, people, clothing, and guns.  Do you play for time or for survival?   Do you want to delay your journey to stock up supplies while your opponents race ahead and traversing rivers?  There’s risks to take.  Hunting game doesn’t guarantee you’ll find any.   You can choose to travel through the snow without winter fur to keep you warm but you will sacrifice health of your family.  Do you take up an extra passenger?  Do you want to make additional money?  At anytime, you can come down with dysentery or a variety of other bad luck that makes your journey miserable.

What makes the game alluring is the illusion of options.  You feel like you’re managing an expedition and spinning your managerial style.  There’s consequences in risk.  Family members die.  You have to “bury” them, mark their gravestones and will be deducted points in the end.  To mitigate risk, you’ll need supplies, money, and luck!  You can make up losing family members by taking on an additional passenger, who takes up precious space for cargo that you need to stock food and save your family from starvation.  See how this looks fun!

“Journey to Willamette Valley” wants you to have fun suffering.  Through your journey, your family are going to be broke, cold, and hungry.  Calamities will strike and you will lose passengers.  The game attempts to experience the epic trek through untamed wilderness and have you feel fatigue and despair until you finally reach your goal, scream into the skies, before kissing the dirt beneath you.  However, the objective of the game is to finish.  Because no one who plays really wants to suffer, the quickest way to win the game is to finish as soon as possible, regardless of the consequences.

Remember when I wrote, illusion of options? Because the mechanics comes down really two options.  Stay or go.  Staying delays victory to do other things and gives the game more opportunities of hurting you with calamities.  Going puts you nearer to the finish line at the risk of suffering that you’re going to endure anyhow.  Though the game has rules built to prevent moving across the map and ending the game too quickly, it incentives movement over strength.  My daughter, 12 at the time, got frustrated with the game and changed her strategy. She didn’t care about starvation or injury.  Wanting the game over, she simply moved her wagon across the map at any opportunity.  Losing all of her passengers, she won the game simply by having the wagon finish first while her more healthy opponents were penalized for their conservative game play.

How did this happen?  Many of the fun characteristics of the game are ineffective.  Take for example, money.  While the game has fluctuating prices for goods (a fun attribute), everything is too expensive.  You are given some cash in the beginning.  Given the price of goods at the time, you have enough to make one purchase.  It may be food to keep a family member alive one more round or getting fur for winter travel that may help get through a shortcut unscathed.  To get more money, you have sell items you need or go hunting and sell your meat.

The hunting mechanism is interesting.  It’s a combination of card-counting and roulette.  You have to guess the number (game) of a card your opponent draws from the Hunting deck.  You have to have an exact guess or use a shotgun to cover more numbers.  But there are different number of cards, representing each number.  There’s many small number cards representing small game like the poor squirrel and few high number cards for larger animals.  The higher the number the more food you’ll score.  The mechanism can be quite cruel.   If you go for high probability and shoot small game, you’ll end up with enough to get through the round you just spent hunting.   Food is the ticking time clock before you run out of passengers.  (And running out of passengers doesn’t stop the wagon from moving westward.)  Getting or buying food gives you more time to reach the finish line with survivors. But food is too difficult to hunt and too expensive to purchase.  What does one do?  You move Westward Ho!

Comes with tombstones.

While the game does penalize for lost family members, its less severe the further west they make it.  You could decide playing conservative and stay behind and try to hunt and feed your family.  But the calamities will still come.  And there’s no certainty hunting will be successful.  The only way to minimize a scoring deficit from the leader is to not be too far back.  With end game scoring and “ambulance racing”, getting to the end before people die, the game incentives speed for a journey filled with misery and suffering.

I found the key to winning the game is buying a shotgun, hunting only when advancing through the map isn’t possible, and hope you’ll get lucky with calamity cards than bless fortune instead of woe.  Then, move, move, move!  Avoid the snow caps without fur and try not to cross rivers unless necessary.  That leaves much of the game’s “fun” mechanics, as promoted on the box, discarded and avoided; economics and inventory management.

“Journey To Willamette Valley” has all the pieces and mechanics of a game that mixes worker and inventory management with economics and gambling.  But like the real trail blazers making their struggle through the new territory of the West, the experience is brutal with little mercy.  Players experience more failure than success.  That describes the game perfectly.

Download the rule book here.
(Links 404 over time)





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