Wednesday 29 April 2015

Review - Snake Oil

Snake Oil

Snake Oil
Published by Out of the Box
Designed by Jeff Ochs
For 3-10 players, aged 10 to adult

Snake Oil Box
It cures what ails ya. Apparently.

So, I'm going to tell you a little story. Stop me if it sounds familiar...

A little while ago, I went to a friend's house for an evening of board games and drinking. Usually, at these sorts of things, I supply the games; but on this particular occasion, one of the other guests had brought along a "fun party game."

The game in question was Cards Against Humanity.

I knew about Cards Against Humanity. I had watched it played by the folks on Beer and Board Games, a web show that is far funnier than it has any right to be, and I had read the reviews. I knew what to expect, and I admit, I was keen to try it out for myself.

And yes, I admit, to start with I actually had fun.

To start with...

For those of you who don't know what Cards Against Humanity is, let me explain: Basically, everyone has a hand of cards with (usually offensive) words and phrases on them. In each round, a card is placed on the table which has a sentence with several blanks in it. Each player simply selects cards from his or her hand to fill those blanks.

It's an incredibly simple concept, and has the potential to be very funny. Of course, the offensive nature of the cards ensures that almost always the phrases that players create are off colour*.

So, we played the first few hands, and it was sort of okay. There is a certain anarchic fun in stepping outside of social acceptability - stepping outside of your own character and the way you normally act - to put together the vilest most insulting phrases you can come up with.

However, after three or four rounds, I felt like I had seen everything the game had to offer. Worse still, I had started to realise what the game didn't offer.

It didn't offer a way to be genuinely funny.

The design of the cards are specifically intended to be offensive, which constrains the creativity of the players. You are railroaded into a certain style of play, hamstrung by cards that try too hard to shock.

When you have a hand of cards about cancer-riddled corpses and paedophiles, you can't make jokes, so instead you just aim for the most vile sentence you can create.

But that's not what comedy is to me. Comedy is one of the most amazing crafts in the world, and when a stand-up comedian is slaying the crowd with witty, imaginative, creative jokes it is a kind of distilled magic.

Cards Against Humanity is not distilled magic.

This is not the witty wordplay of Fry and Laurie, or the emotional, tangential stories of Billy Connolly. This is the hate-filled spew of a sub-par Eminem wannabe.

When I was playing, I wanted to be someone who can go on stage and be hilarious, like Richard Pryor, Tim Minchin, or Justin Bieber, but all I got to do was be Jim Davidson.

So, I don't recommend Cards Against Humanity. I think it does what it intends to do, and it does it well. I even think that it is an okay way to pass 15 or 20 minutes with good friends who understand you well enough to know that you aren't really an evil, hate-filled bastard.

But it's not really for me.

However, I love the idea of having a hand of cards with different words, and trying to be funny with those words.

That's why I ended up with a copy of Snake Oil in my gaming collection.

Snake Oil Contents
Okay, the contents aren't particularly exciting...

And I will make this very clear from the start: Snake Oil is an exceptionally good game. It is clever, and funny, and allows the players to be funny.

It takes Cards Against Humanity back to school, despite being quite a different game.

Snake Oil Rules
Have to love games with rules on a single sheet of paper.

In fact, it is the game Cards Against Humanity could have been if Cards Against Humanity had paid more attention in class rather than sitting at the back, sniggering, and drawing boobies on the text books.

Here's why...

In Snake Oil, players get a hand of cards with words on them. One player draws a card depicting a certain type of customer (ranging from the mundane, such as a teacher, to the more outlandish, such as a caveman). The other players then take turns combining two of their word cards to create a product, which they then have 30 seconds to pitch to the customer. After all the pitches, the customer chooses one product to buy, and a new player becomes the customer.

Snake Oil Customers
What could a rapper possibly need?

It's so simple, but so much fun.

And it's fun because it gives the players the tools to play the game the way they want to play it.

Players can try to come up with genuinely useful products, they can try to be funny by coming up with jokey or unusual products, and yes, they can even be offensive. But it's their choice. It's their creativity and their sense of humour, allowing them to express their own personality and tailor the game to make it suitable for any group of players.

Snake Oil Product Cards
Could you sell a Virus Horn or Nest Wax?

Sometimes you get to be silly, like the time I sold Santa Claus "Night Odour," a special spray that he could use to convince sleeping children that someone had passed wind if he ever accidentally stood on a squeaky floorboard.

Sometimes you get to be darkly funny, like the time my friend sold an executioner a "Rock Sack," the cheaper slightly messier alternative to an axe.

Sometimes you get to be witty, like selling a soldier a "Movie Dog," a faithful companion that dies towards the end of the war.

And sometimes you get to make jokes about cancer-riddled corpses.

But only if you really want to.

* A phrase used here to mean generally despicable.


  1. Well put. Cards Against Humanity is really a game that brings out the worst in a person... it quickly devolves to everyone coming up with the worst possible perspective for the given situation... an usually includes a lot of vulgarity and very sexually implicit talk. The game leads players in that direction by having the vulgarity and slang printed on the answer cards. We thought we would try to remove the offensive cards and play a "cleaner" version of the game... but you can't play the game with less than 10% of the original cards!

    1. Thanks for reading.

      It is a major problem for me that the game gives you one defined way to play. It quickly became apparent that you aren't trying to make a joke, you are trying to make an insult. I think the game has its place, but that place certainly isn't on my games shelf.


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