Step right up and witness the unbelievable ubiquitous powers of the best game in a blue box with a serpent on it, Snake Oil!
Players: 3 – 8 Best with: 4 – 6
Age: 10+ GN Age: Pre-Teen
Game Type: Party Time: 30 minutes
Publisher/Year: Out of the Box / 2003
Game Play: Card management, Player Judged Score
Available from: Retail stores, Hobby stores, Amazon, online
Score: out of 12
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, gather round, gather round! What I have here in my hands is the salvation of all your worries and the cure for what ails you. This little box will cure loneliness, turn sadness into joy, accelerate your mental acumen, and improve your social grace. Yessiree, this amazing box can do it all! This box is guaranteed to end hunger, promote world peace, cure disease, and fight for truth, justice, and the American Way**
Okay, those might be slightly exaggerated claims. But what you do have is an incredibly fun game created by the same people who brought you Apples to Apples; a Family Game Night favorite. Snake Oil has a familiar format. One person draws a card from the deck and the other players play a card from their hands that best “matches” the first card. A winner is chosen and play resumes with a new “It” player.
But the proof is in the pudding and everything else about the game is different. And it all starts with the theme. For example, Apples to Apples has no theme while Snake Oil does.
Harken back to the days of the frontier west. Settlers from all walks of life are inspired by dreams of a new beginning and a prosperous future. They packed all their belongings into tiny, little wagons and staked a claim on a plot of land in the savage frontier. Life was hard in the wilderness and supplies were scarce.
This is where the peddlers come in; thousands of travelling salesmen in brightly colored wagons with food, tools, clothes, supplies, and medicine for sale. Many of these salesmen were honest, hard-working folk. But some were the very definition of the dishonest swindler. They were the Snake Oil Salesmen.
They went by many names: hucksters, flim-flams, con-men, scam artists, frauds, quacks; and they had but one purpose: to steal as much money as they could from an ignorant public with false cures and fake miracle tonics. You’ve all heard the spiel. “Do you suffer from Lumbago? Tuberculosis? Dizziness? Does your child’s colic keep you up at night? Does your wife experience “female” issues? Well, we have the solution. Doctor Clark Stanley’s Miracle-Cure-All Liniment will eliminate all your problems. Now with 50% more cocaine!”
Well now, the fine folks over at Out of the Box have turned that disgraceful, despicable, and deplorable occupation into a fast, fun, and family-friendly game. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just how is that possible? Well, I’ll tell you. They used a secret, special ingredient, imported direct from the shores of Gitchigummi, Humor. The game is silly, irreverent, and flat-out funny. You are 100% guaranteed to laugh during this game or your money back** And don’t forget Laughter is the Best Medicine.
The game is simple enough; there are two decks of cards. The Word Deck consists of hundreds of random (you guessed it) words. There are plenty of general nouns like shovel or box, and then there are more esoteric words like urge or anger. The other deck is a stack of Occupations, from actor to zombie (they get paid in brains but have horrible health benefits) and everything in between. At the start of the game, each player has six Word cards in their hand.
One player chooses an Occupation card and then decides which of the two jobs he wants to be. The other players pick two cards from their hand that, when they are combined, create the best product that could be indispensible to a person working in the chosen profession. For example, maybe the astronaut could use a “Rocket Cape” to fly around in outer space like Buck Rogers or Ironman.
Of course, like all games of this nature, you will never get that convergence of proper profession and perfect product. This is where your snake oil skills come in and the game deviates most from Apples to Apples.
Once everyone has their brilliant product idea, you give your best sales pitch to the Occupation player. This elevates the game beyond the simple blind guess for the best card and is our favorite part of the game. The pitches are often more fun than the cards. In most of these types of games, there are several rounds where you just have terrible cards. We call them “burners”. But now, you have the chance to turn your horrible cards into a ridiculously hilarious snake oil pitch.
And if you happen to get just the right cards, now you have a ridiculously plausible product. In a recent game, my Occupation was a beggar. The kids had some great ideas and some good pitches, but the clear winner was Diane and her “Dumpster Soup”. It was gross, clearly inappropriate, and probably demeaning to the plight of the homeless, but it was the funniest pitch of the night, and she won that round.
As with other games of this ilk, the Occupation player chooses the winner of the round for the best pitch/product. Play proceeds with each player getting to be the Occupation player once. We often play more than one round and like the curse of Apples to Apples, the kids would play this game until all the cards are exhausted and the parents just want to go to bed. Our only other issue is that since the Occupation player knows which player played each product, objectivity is compromised.
This game strikes a different chord with different players and leads people to love it for different reasons. One kid loves to put the most ridiculous answers together. Another one loves to give the pitch. My wife loves to hear what creative solutions the boys have. I love to pick deliberately horrible products and make them work. Another player loves to break down the pitches as if they were real products. It is very difficult to slide your snake oil past that player.
We love this game even more than its predecessor, but we realize that not everyone will. Because the game’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Sadly, a lot of people do not like any sort of role-play in their games. Which is tragic and sad but a reality. It’s too much work, I’m not creative, I don’t speak in public; there are plenty of excuses. My hope is that these people will give this game a try anyway and discover that all their fears are unfounded.
In fact, I guarantee that Snake Oil will be the most fun you’ve ever had, it will turn you into a creative genius like DaVinci, and it will elevate your public speaking skills until you are head of the debate team**
** As always, results are not guaranteed, and Game On!
I learned the secret of the snake oil from the Hopi Indians – Clark Stanley, “The Rattlesnake King”, a real person and con-man, who was fined $20 for violating the Pure Food and Drug Act, and Fraud.