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Snake Oil

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Out of the Box Games, 3 to 10 players, ages 10 and up, 20-30 minutes; $19.99)

In the Old West, travelling salesmen often attempted to convince the local populace of the benefits of whatever elixir they had with them. The elixir, of dubious quality at best, was commonly and contemptuously called “snake oil”. But whether that concoction had any value was beside the point. The point was to make the sale. And that is the goal of all the players in the latest party game from Out of the Box: Snake Oil.

snakeoilSnake Oil comes packaged with two different sets of cards: 36 double-sided Customer Cards and 324 Word Cards. (This is actually the second edition of the game with Out of the Box adding more word cards for added value.)

Each player is dealt a hand of six Word Cards. One of the players starts the action by drawing a Customer Card.

A Customer Card gives that player a role to play for the round. That player may be a “Zombie” or “Dumpster Diver” or “The Last Person on Earth”. As such, the player with the Customer Card is looking to buy something. It is up to the other players to convince the customer that the product they are selling is the best for that customer’s particular needs.

Now, the other players select two cards from their hands. These cards are combined to form an often wacky and bizarre product. You might have a “Bracelet Bomb” or a “Nose Pad”. Maybe a “Meat Chain” or “Hand Armor” is the product you are offering. In turn, each player gives a 30 second pitch to convince the customer that their product is THE product for their particular needs. Whichever player does the best job of convincing the customer (as judged by the customer by whatever criteria the customer wishes to use) receives the Customer Card. Play then shifts clockwise with the next player drawing a new Customer Card, players refilling their hands back to six and the pattern repeated. After each player has had a chance to be the customer, the game ends. Whoever has captured the most Customer Cards at that point is the winner!

This game doesn’t exactly blaze new trails. There are definite similarities to Apples to Apples, originally published by Out of the Box (and featured way back in our Spring 1999 issue) in one player acting as judge and choosing a winner each round, a game mechanism that has been warmly embraced by the game buying public as evidenced by the legion of clones it has spawned. There is also a resemblance to The Big Idea (designed by James Ernest and published by Cheapass Games back in 2000) in that both games are all about trying to promote a strange product. But the difference between The Big Idea and Snake Oil is the latter’s addition of a “customer” which provides a specific, targeted, audience for the sales pitches.

To call Snake Oil a game is a bit of a misnomer. It is too easy to control who will win. Since everyone knows who is making each sales pitch, it is easy to “game” the game by refusing to give Customer Cards to the player in the lead even if the salesperson in question deserves it. After all, there are no hard rules to follow in awarding the Customer Cards. But that’s missing the point. Consider Snake Oil as an experience. The pleasure of play has little to do with winning or losing but with the laughter and craziness that flows like a river as people try to market the most outlandish items and make it all sound convincing or, at least, semi-reasonable. Or not, if weird serves you better. As you might expect, Snake Oil is strongly dependent on the right mix of players. But if you’re in the market for a fun party game, with the right group, Snake Oil is an easy sell.


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