The Oregon Trail: A Live-Action Educational Game

This post is an explanation of an outdoor game I created for a Cub Scout event. It could just as easily be adapted for any age or educational situation, or even just for fun. I’ll explain the game in some detail, and then attach some PDFs with all the game cards and signs.

Every year, my wife organizes and leads the annual Cub-o-ree for the Burlington County Council of the Boy Scouts of America. It takes place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and is a full day of activities followed by a campfire and an overnight. This is often a Cub Scout’s first time camping, and many young Scouts get their first real taste of scouting from the experience.

It’s also a ton of work to pull off. Each year, it’s planned on a single theme, and run over two weekends so many scouts have an opportunity to attend. This weekend we had about 150 scouts, plus their parents. All of them had to be organized, fed, and directed throughout ten activity periods, plus campfires, skits, and all the other accouterments of scouting. It’s a great time, and as I watch my wife pull it off year after year, I’m simply amazed. I couldn’t do it for love or money.

I usually get recruited to run one of the “stations” (a 30 minute activity), and sometimes to create them. The stations are based around a single theme. Last year, it was “CSI” (Cub Scout Investigators), and my vegetable DNA extraction was a big hit.

The theme this year was “Pine Tree Pioneers,” on a pioneering theme. In addition to making a PVC wagon-building activity, I created a live-action game based on The Oregon Trail. The activities are supposed to mix a bit of education with fun, hands-on interactions, and some physical exercise in order to keep the cubs moving and make them tired. (That last part doesn’t work. They never get tired. Ever. By afternoon, their energy level remains positively horrifying.)

Hiking the Oregon Trail
Our scout camp has a trail leading from an outdoor chapel area, down to a lake. The whole trip is about half a mile, and it makes for a nice, shady, semi-scenic hike with a good finish.

I decided to make this trail a full-size game board by creating 6 stops spaced at one-minute intervals. The first stop (in our case, a gathering space with benches) has a sign identifying it as “Independence, Missouri” and “The Oregon Trail.” I begin with some facts about pioneer life in general and the Oregon Trail in particular, and then explain that we are going to split into wagon trains and pretend to travel the distance from Independence to Oregon City (the final stop).

In between the start and finish are 4 stops, each marked by a sign identifying it as a real location on the trail: Topeka, Kanasas (the Papan Ferry area); Ft. Laramie, Wyoming; Soda Springs, Idaho; and Ft. Boisie, Idaho. In order to give them an idea of the distances traveled, each sign told the cubs how “far” they have walked the Oregon Trail since their last stop (say, 400 miles), how long it took (about 2 months), and how long it would take today (maybe 7 hours).

The Game
Before setting out, each player gets a bag filled with plastic food to represent their food supply on the westward journey. The goal is for a wagon train to get to the final stop with at least 1 piece of food remaining. The idea is to emphasize the crucial role of provisioning for the journey, and how certain events could affect their trip positively or negatively.

Finding the right amount of starting food was difficult. I began with 5 piece of plastic food per person, but it was too easy. I wound up slashing it back to 2 pieces per person for large wagon trains, and 3 for smaller wagon trains. I wanted them to feel a sense of danger, but not fail altogether. I also wanted them to rely on trading and sharing with other members of their wagon train in order to emphasize the way people depended upon each other.

In addition to their food supply, each player could also choose 1 other thing to bring along, represented by little wooden shapes. I explained these as functioning like “power-ups” in video games, and the kids understood that immediately. The 3 things were a guide, a spare wagon wheel, or a gun. A guide could help you if you were sick or a lost, a wheel could help with wagon and trail problems, and a gun could help with food. Smart groups quickly realized that they shouldn’t all take the same power-up, and had to discuss which items to choose that would work best for the group.

At each of the four stops, each player had to choose a card from a bag. The cards represented random events, such as getting lost, food spoilage, attacks, sickness, trading posts, hunting trips, foraging, and so on. (See the document below for all the cards.) Each card directed them to pay some food or a power-up, or to collect some food. Thus, food became a measure of their relative success at the game. Depending on the cards pulled, some lost food, others gained.

Some of the actions were based on the classic computer game Oregon Trail, so there were things like “You got dysentery, pay 2 food or 1 guide!” or “A member of your party was kidnapped by an eagle!”

As they got further along, some people ran out of food, and needed to talk to other members of their party in order to trade for, or simply request, food in order to continue. I ran the activity for 8 hours with 10 groups and a total of 150 kids, and only twice did every member of a party simply refuse to help someone in need. I let it go, but explained at the end how much people relied upon one another, and how part of the Boy Scout Code is “to help other people at all times.” I didn’t make a big point of it, but I think I made it clear that the “losers” (if there were any) weren’t the people who ran out of food, but those who failed to help them.

The game is easy to scale. The tricky part is starting off with the right amount of food. You don’t want them to have too much at the end, but you also don’t want them to die on the way. (Parents inevitably made Donner Party jokes when people ran out of food, which went right over the heads of the Cub scouts.)

The activity ran well, except for one group which had too many people (We had split this group up into smaller groups, but they ignored us. Did I tell you that the parents, not the kids, can be the hardest part of Cub scouting events?) The activity worked well with 12 people (3 wagon trains of 4 people each), fine with 15 (5 people in each train), and completely broke down with more than that.

I could probably find a way to scale it for more people in a group if I had more food and more helpers. In this case, however, I only had 100 pieces of food and my son to help. If you have 150 pieces and 3 or 4 helpers, you can scale this for larger individual groups. Naturally, this also varies depending upon age. First and second graders took a little while to get the concepts, while older kids grasped it right away.

Remember when distributing the cards among the 4 stations to create an even split among positive and negative events. You can add as many stations as you like.

Here are 3 PDFs with everything I created for the game. Feel free to use it or modify it as you see fit. I imagine it could work quite well in a grammar school environment, for girl scouts, or even for large picnics or family gatherings. It’s best outside on a trail, but in large building it could probably be done in hallways.

The Oregon Trail Files
Action Cards