The Oregon Trail Card Game

August 19th, 2019 12:21 PM
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I spend my workdays at Workbar, a co-working space that lets me host a monthly game session. This month, I volunteered my copy of Oregon Trail: The Card Game.

I'd picked up the game from Target when it was released in the summer of 2016, but I never got around to playing it or its expansion pack. Finally, five of us gathered into a covered wagon to collaboratively make our way through a round.

Before departing, I read the enclosed instructions but found them lacking clarity. This complementary video helped clarify a few things.

Then the five of us departed Missouri. We didn't choose our roles (farmer, banker, carpenter), nor did we elect how to spend our allowance — supply cards were randomly distributed to us.

Four adults playing a card game

An unlikely family of pioneers.

We each had a hand of trail cards that we played to span the distance between the starting card of Independence and the ending card of Willamette Valley. The trail cards fell broadly into three categories: no effect; ford a river; or calamity strikes. The latter two cards occasionally left room for interpretation, which confused our merry band. For example, "Roll an even number to cross the river; roll a 1 and die!" But what about 3 or 5? What I should've done before playing was read the Pressman Toys website for "Oregon Trail Rules Updates", whose three bullet points address some of these concerns.

Even with that added knowledge, the game relied mostly on luck of the draw. The rules imply there's some strategy, such as "Sometimes you may want to let one of your friends die", rather than expend a supply card. But we didn't encounter such a scenario, nor could I imagine one. Now I understand what Kate Szkotnicki meant when she reviewed this game for Juiced.GS:

Some people may also be put off by the amount of luck the game is based on—players looking for a game where they can finesse the rules, manage their cards and play well against their opponents may be disappointed.

A complete round, including occasional pauses to consult the instructions, took about a half-hour. Now that we better understand how to live and die on the Oregon Trail, I expect future games will be faster, and that the expansion pack might introduce additional options and choices. Still, it's not a game I recommend rushing to Chimney Rock to buy.

A card saying 'You have died of dysentery.`

A noble (and notorious) death.

Apple II-inspired photos from PAX East

July 22nd, 2019 12:14 PM
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Every year I attend PAX East, a Boston convention of video games and board games that attracts 70,000 people. I always snap plenty of fun cosplay photos and selfies, but except for whatever I tweet in the moment, I rarely take the time to sort the photos and get them published.

So last weekend I caught up on four years of pictures, sorting through 621 photos and publishing most of them to Gamebits.net. And as I sifted through nearly a half-decade of memories, I came across a few photos that were inspired by the Apple II.

Apple II Forever!

This 2016 photo depicts the Nintendo 3DS handheld of Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy. This game console has a feature called StreetPass, which allows 3DS systems in proximity to each other to exchange avatars. Here's what Andy's avatar says to greet other users.

These two photos are from the 2018 panel "You Have Died of Dysentery: Meaningful Gaming in Education" (which originated in 2016 at PAX West was reprised again in 2019 at PAX South). Its description:

Teachers and parents are continually looking for innovative ways to keep students and kids motivated and engaged. As gamers, we know first hand how elements of video games can keep a person riveted and motivated for hours. How do we take motivating elements of gaming and add them to various education environments? Join a teacher and seven-time PAX presenter as we investigate some simple yet effective ways to take tips from video games and turn them into best teaching practices, without gimmicks.

Though I attended this panel, a downside to waiting so long to share the photos is that I no longer have meaningful context or memories.

But what I remember most aren't the panels or even the photos, but the joy of attending this event with other people who know, love, the Apple II and the games it inspired. ❤️

Shirts & game crossovers

June 17th, 2019 9:43 AM
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Chris Torrence, host of the Assembly Lines video podcast and volunteer at the Media Archaeology Lab, recently added an e-commerce store to his online offerings.

T-shirts based on 8-bit franchises and artwork are nothing new; my closet is full of KansasFest, A2Central.com, and even InTrec shirts. But one item in Chris's catalog caught my eye.

This shirt doesn't just juxtapose Choplifter and Oregon Trail; it actually has them interacting in an unexpected fashion. I was tickled by this unique approach! After Chris confirmed that it is an original design, the Twitterverse requested other crossovers. Chris quickly responded by mocking up Lemonade Stand and Karateka:

Karateka guy kicking Lemonade Stand

Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop proposed a Lemonade Stand / Castle Wolfenstein mashup, which caught Kevin Savetz's attention:

I then responded to @rubygolem's proposal for The Bard's Tale and Carmen Sandiego, prompting them to rise to the occasion:

I proposed a boatload of other crossovers, too:

There are plenty of other crossovers I'd like to see, either in game or shirt form, some which may be more a stretch than others:

  •  Leisure Suit Larry / Space Quest: Meet exotic aliens. Have sex with them.
  •  One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird / Olympic Decathlon: Play basketball while simultaneously breaking your keyboard.
  •  Tass Times in Tone Town / Escape from Antcatraz: The colony's grandfather ant has gone missing! Trace his disappearance across several anthills.
  •  Jungle Hunt / Impossible Mission: Avoid drones and alligators while saving damsels and cracking safes.
  • Video game crossovers are becoming more common: just this past week, Nintendo joined forces with Sega for a Mario & Sonic game and with Square Enix for a Smash Bros. team-up. In those scenarios, companies collaborate to lend each other their well-known brands and icons. That wouldn't be possible with many Apple II games, whose copyright holders are defunct or just not good with sharing.

    But it doesn't mean a creative entrepreneur like Chris Torrence couldn't mock something up!

    (Full disclosure: As an Automattic employee, I recommended Chris use WordPress as his store's content management system (CMS) of choice and gave some minor advice upon its launch. I also support Chris' Patreon.)

    And Then You Die of Dysentery

    December 24th, 2018 10:00 AM
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    I'm a weekly patron of my local library, often taking advantage of its interlibrary loans to borrow books that I might not otherwise get my hands on. That's how I came to find myself recently reading …And Then You Die of Dysentery: Lessons in Adulting from the Oregon Trail, a book by Lauren Reeves published this October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (ISBN 9781328624390).

    Similar to the Juiced.GS article I co-authored with Sheppy back in 2005, "Everything I ever really needed to know I learned from the Apple II", this book is a collection of bullet points and pithy sentences connecting 8-bit technology to modern life. But what was a single page in Juiced.GS has been stretched out to 100 pages here. Each individual piece of sage insight has its own dedicated page on the right, complemented on the left with an original pixel art drawing by Jude Buffum, for 50 witticisms in total.

    Some of the images are plays on social media memes, such as "Distracted Boyfriend":

    Jealous girlfriend meme

    Or modern technology, like fitness trackers:

    Fitbit tracker

    Others are more of a stretch. This illustration of Angry Birds is meant to suggest that "It's important to play games along the trail to keep yourself entertainted." But I don't remember that happening when I played Oregon Trail. Other than hunting (which was essential for survival and not just a distraction), what mini-games abounded in Oregon Trail?

    Angry Birds

    The art is lovely and humorous, but most of the lessons are a stretch, being unrelated to Oregon Trail and thus failing to connect with the supposed target audience. There is also a political joke that could be funny, but it lacks context or intent — and as the only joke of that sort in the book, it seems out of place.

    Having written stories similar to And Then You Die of Dysentery myself, I wasn't disappointed in the overall format of the book. But I think it would've been better as a series of short essays. Reeves' humor shines best in her introduction, where she's afforded the space to string sentences into full paragraphs. I don't doubt she has more substance to share about MECC's classic survival game — just not when limited to a single sentence per page.

    For better or worse, the entire book can be read in 15 minutes. For a $15 book, that's an expensive investment, but a perfect fit for a library loan. I suggest giving …And Then You Die of Dysentery a flip and getting a few chuckles before reshelving.

    (Hat tip to Chris Torrence)

    Oregon Trail Blazers

    October 22nd, 2018 1:57 PM
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    I've never been one for competitive sports. I enjoy heading to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game every few years, but I've never been to a Patriots, Celtics, or Bruins game. Perhaps this stems from an ancient schoolyard rivalry, where my geeky hobbies were never deemed good enough for the jocks. They always tried forcing their pastimes on me without being similarly open to my passions.

    Decades later, maybe those barriers are finally starting to erode. The Portland Trail Blazers are an NBA team whose name shares a word with with classic Apple II edutainment title Oregon Trail. In the lead-up to the official start of basketball season last week, this Oregon team released a video portmanteau of their name and the game's: Oregon Trail Blazers.

    This reel consists primarily of traveling from one city to another; with the exception of a brief hunting scene, we don't see any of the riveting decisions that are the hallmark of Oregon Trail. Should the team ford the river? Trade with locals? What happens if someone breaks an arm? We may never know!!

    Though the video is simple, the pixel art and chiptune soundtrack showcase a sincere affinity for Oregon Trail. It's great to see these two pastimes playing well together.

    (Hat tip to Cat Morgan)

    Travel Oregon: The Game

    July 9th, 2018 11:06 AM
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    The Oregon Trail is the perennial Apple II game: everyone has played some version of it, with it being adapted to feature zombies, reapppropriated by travel brands, and more. Regardless of how the game has evolved, it has the constant goal of arriving safely in Oregon. But what does one do once the party has reached its destination?

    The state of Oregon itself offers its answer in Travel Oregon: The Game. This parody browser game offers a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into the experiences awaiting you in Oregon. As in the original game, you start by choosing your profession, except updated for the place and age: yoga teacher; apple farmer; ski pro; rancher; fly fisherman; winemaker; or surfer. Starting funds can be used to buy artisanal coffee, craft beer, kombucha, snow chains, newspapers, dry socks, spare tires, and gas cans. At stops along the way, you can buy cheese-flavored snack mix, sequined ice skates, crossword puzzles, phone chargers, beef jerky, a fisherman's hat, pinot gris, baby carrots, and more. Once equipped, there are plenty of fun minigames to play, from figure-skating to fishing. But it's not all fun and games, as poor party management can still lead to unfortunate consequences. As the state describes it:

    While playing it, you can hunt (but make sure to buy a hunting license or you’ll be fined), build snowmen, and buy gas station sushi. You can choose to travel to the high desert or go down south to fish for steelhead among the rapids. There are quirky moments that distinctly remind you of how strange Oregon (and by extension, Portland) can be, like choosing the class, stats, and backstory for your freshly built snowman, or dueling a ghost to the… undeath?

    Here are some photos I snapped in my travels throughout Oregon.

    Want to make your virtual adventures a reality? The game offers a menu item to book your trip today! Come experience everything to offer in Oregon — only slightly exaggerated:

    (Hat tip to Alec Blouin)