Review: Snake Oil

To compare a game to a similar game that came before it - especially if that predecessor is hugely successful and influential - might make the newcomer suffer by comparison.  But if the newer game significantly improves on the original formula, it has real value - after all, a better game is a better game, regardless of relative fame or fortune.

Snake Oil is the latest in a long line of comparison/judging games that have come down the chute since Apples to Apples set the party game world on fire in 1999.  Based on an extremely simple, easy to grasp concept (lifted from a more complex, earlier prototype "Apples to Oranges"), Apples to Apples is a game anyone could play, and everyone did.  But although the idea is elegant and the judging mechanic is brilliant (and much-copied), actually playing the game has never appealed to me.  There's just not much interest in simply picking a generic word card from my hand to match a word card played by the judge.  Successor games such as Dixit (2008) and Cards Against Humanity (2009) have juiced up the concept with mysterious storytelling/surreal artwork, and rude/politically incorrect cards, respectively.  But enough about other games, let's see what Snake Oil is offering up for sale.

The first thing you'll notice about the game is the unique packaging.  The box forms a near-perfect cube, a little over four inches on a side.  There is no instruction sheet to lose, as the rules are printed right on the side of the box.  Since the game packs so small, and the only components are cards, it's a great game to take to a coffee shop, car ride, picnic, beach trip or what have you.  Finally, the artwork is appealing and family-friendly.  One of my players was extremely enthusiastic about the various cartoon snakes and pronounced them all "Adorable".

The core game - no pun intended - is essentially Apples to Apples, but with two excellent twists.  First, instead of a simple green apple card consisting of a mere adjective, a turn now starts out with a player drawing a "customer" card, representing a personality the other players will be selling to.  For example, Party Host, Clown, Runaway, Cave Man, etc.  Once the identity of the customer has been revealed, the second twist comes into play.  Instead of simply pulling a card from your hand, you now select TWO word cards from the six in your hand, to combine in the order you choose, to create your "product".  In our game, one female player puckishly tempted the Party Host with "Nipple Soap," explaining it's "good for certain people... and certain parties."  But the Party Host went with the "Excuse Horse," an item intended to "transport reluctant, busy or lazy guests to your soiree - whether they want to attend or not!"  For a Clown customer, one player offered up a "Fish Corpse" - "Is a dead fish funny?  Of corpse!  Wakka wakka!!"

Snake Oil shines more brightly than its ancestor game because it combines a customer persona, creative combinations, and play-acting.  My team is made up of players who aren't afraid to be silly and funny - and Snake Oil rewards this kind of behavior.  The game provides the opportunity to play a sort of charlatan or carnival barker, wheedling and dealing. (In Apples to Apples, you could lobby for your answer, but players often wouldn't - here, it becomes the point of the game, and feels more natural.) Sometimes you'll think you don't have anything good in your hand - and will slap two cards together at the last second - and end up winning that turn (see Excuse Horse, above).  As with any game of this type, sometimes you'll feel your hand is weighed down with cards that don't interest you, and you'll wish for a means to dump them and refresh.  This is where a house rule for recycling your hand of cards can be useful.  But if you're patient, you might find that the next customer is the perfect fit for those cards you thought you'd never use.

We also tried two of the game variants.  In the first, you combine two cards from your hand for the player to your right to try and sell to the customer.  In the other, each player chooses two cards from his or her hand to be mixed up randomly and everyone gets two from the random pile.  We liked these, especially the one where you create a combo for the person to your right.

We enjoyed Snake Oil, and laughed a lot.  You might say it's a humor elixir!