Brendan: Hey, Paul. Would you like to buy some of this?
Paul: What is it?
Brendan: It’s Snake Oil. It is made from snakes and it is an incredibly potent remedy for all sorts of ailments, from headaches to baldness.
Paul: I’ll take ten!
Brendan: But wait because all is not as it seems. You see –
Brendan: No Paul, because Snake Oil is not actually –
Paul: Just take my wallet, my PIN is 1234! Now give me that!
Brendan: No, Paul, stop! Just listen to me for one second! Come back. I need that box. It’s a board game I’m supposed to review. Paul! Paul? Nope, he’s gone.
Snake Oil is not an immediately pretty game. It comes in this garish box with lots of goofy artwork and some terrible fonts that look like they’ve been put together in Photoshop by an actual snake. But inside there lies a game that, while being nothing revolutionary, still manages to understand not only laughter but also the simple fact that almost anyone can enjoy being silly for half an hour.
The rules (which are bafflingly scored into the side of the box instead of being printed on a separate sheet) are simple. Each of the 3-10 players takes a hand of six word cards. These cards have a single word printed on them – words like ‘socks’, ‘mouth’, ‘cage’, ‘shell’, ‘lace’, ‘giggles’, ‘desire’ and so on. Just random junk. One player then draws a customer card, which gives them a role to play. They might be a lifeguard, a sorority girl, a priest, a diva, a spy. There are about 70 different customers you might be and they are not all common marketing demographics. There is one that simply says ‘Last Person On Earth’. From here, each player has to put two of their word cards together to form a product that they could sell to that customer. You then have thirty seconds to deliver your pitch. Go!
“Well Mr Smith, I see you are a Spy. Boy have I got the thing for you. It is a DESIRE MOUTH. slaps down cards with the words ‘desire’ and ‘mouth’ with a flourish With this perfectly fitted oral device you will be irresistible to any rival intelligence agent. And not only that! But armed guards will swoon at the perfection of your teeth, dangerous ambassadors with quiver at the knees at your luscious pout and with a single lick of your lips you will be able to bring whole armies to a tremendous clima-”
YOUR THIRTY SECONDS ARE UP.
And then all the other players take their turns trying to sell something of their own to this spy (or whoever). Of course, none of them will outdo the incredible ‘desire mouth’. Not even the ‘shame cream’ or the ‘murder pyjamas’. Once all the pitches are in, the person playing the customer decides the winner and gives the triumphant salesperson their customer card as payment. Once every player has been the customer once, the game ends. The winner is the person who sold the most – the person who has won the most customer cards.
More grizzled board gamers may be scraping their chair legs against the floor at this description. And I can understand some of the trepidation towards this kind of Apples to Apples simplicity. It’s one of those party games that depends almost entirely on the inventiveness or the clownishness of the players. And there is only the most minor sense of competition throughout the game. As such, you might put Snake Oil down in front of a set of hardened Twilight Imperium tacticians and find that everyone is instantly perplexed or bored.
Or, if you play it with folks whose true love is a peaceable wooden eurogame, you might discover that your friends will instantly clam up at Snake Oil. I had the benefit of playing the game with actors, singers and lunatics who could improvise the most dreamlike contraptions imaginable. It was a blast. So there is that. What stands for every board game stands doubly for Snake Oil: know your friends.
Despite that critique, this kind of competition-lite play is what party games thrive on. One of my favourite games to play in a beer garden with the right people is The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen because it is so open to creativity. Any game that can harness the daftness of a bunch of friends and turn it into ludicrous stories and comedy adventures must be doing something right. Snake Oil works in a similar way. It does not so much offer a complex game as erect a kind of scaffold around which the players can create their own fun. It’s easy to look at the rules of Snake Oil or Baron Munchausen and say:
‘Well, it’s all very weightless, isn’t it? There’s not much meat to it.’ But that would miss the point. It’s actually more impressive that such meagre guidelines can support so much laughter, like Chinese bamboo holding up a ten-storey skyscraper.
A small problem it is that some of the cards simply work better than others. You have to redraw two new word cards after using a pair in a sales pitch. But since you often leave the rubbish cards unused you can easily end up accruing a whole handful of unpalatable cards.
For instance, how can you fashion something useful or appealing to, say, a cheerleader out of the cards: ‘slime’, ‘booger’, ‘mistake’, ‘debt’, ‘poop’ and ‘shame’. Thankfully, some of the funniest moments can come from products that are obviously destined to fail. It will surprise nobody to learn, after a frenzied and panicked sales pitch from one of our group, that the ‘urge candy’ being hawked was basically Viagra. Trying to sell ‘the spring rain’ to a caveman ended in equal defeat when the Neanderthal discovered that rain was something that produced itself. How the ‘sky costume’ – a psychedelic dress that propelled the wearer through a twilit world of magic and joy – came to sell so quickly, we have not yet established.
All in all, I can easily recommend it. With the obvious proviso that groups who are wary of improvisation stay far away. Depending on the numbers of players, you do have a decent amount of time to think up something good. But there still is that sense of being put on the spot. If that doesn’t bother you, Snake Oil may be just what you need to start a night off. It is – Oh no. Oh no. Paul is coming back.
Brendan: Paul! Great to see you again. How are the kids?
Paul: You sold me a box of vipers.
Brendan: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Paul: This box. It is full of vipers.
Brendan: Those must have been introduced after I sold you the box. Here, as a gesture of good will, please accept this tin of custard creams.
Paul: Brendan, these are scorpions.
Brendan: I’m sorry Paul, I’ve got to go. I have to go and see a man about a Desire Mouth. What was that PIN again? 1234?
Paul: No. No listen, I –
Brendan: Okay! Bye now!