Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

16 Jun 2014, 11:15 a.m.

Inventions, and "Snake Oil" vs "Once Upon A Time"

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Yesterday some pals and I played "Snake Oil", the game where you make up fake things to sell each other. I failed to sell a senior citizen a "Truth Photo" which shows you your loved ones AND hisses if someone in the room is lying (basically stole that feature from Lying Cat in Saga), and I successfully sold a cowboy some "Story Fluid" which makes others' repetitive campfire tales more interesting.

Leonard: Isn't that just alcohol?
Sumana: It's not just alcohol.

If you've played "The Big Idea", "Snake Oil" is similar, but improves the game by giving you customers to target and removing the venture capital logistics. (You might also recall The Colbert Report's recurring segment parodying health news and pharma shilling: "Cheating Death". In each "Cheating Death", Colbert explains why a news story has caused his sponsors to introduce a horrible new medical product.) And, similarly, as you play, you learn your friends' approaches and persuasive styles. I have learned, for instance, that both Leonard and I use the template: "As a [member of class foo], you have two problems! [problem 1] [problem 2] To solve both of them at once, we introduce: [terrible idea]" And some players, while playing the role of the customer, say nearly nothing, while some fully inhabit the role. Acquaintance David did an especially creditable job of improvising as pro wrestler Nut Crusher ("please, call me Nut").

At the party yesterday, we later broke out "Once Upon A Time" and I quickly saw its disadvantages in comparison to "Snake Oil". It takes a little longer to teach new folks, and it gets harder to play in groups larger than four, and it takes longer to play an individual round, and it doesn't reliably let every participant show off and have fun. In contrast, "Snake Oil" scales better to 5-8 people, each round is shorter and more reliably funny, it's easier to learn, and it generally has fewer pitfalls around boredom and path dependency. So although I will still love to play "Once Upon a Time" with small groups of friends, I think "Snake Oil" is a better go-to party game.

(Subtext of this post: look at me, I can talk about game experiences and game mechanics just as though I didn't still have trust and anxiety and insecurity issues around board/tabletop games, failure, learning, "being a good sport", and valuing play and leisure! Hold on, I'm not sure whether I'm using the proper microformat to place this subtext in the metadata rather than the body of the post.....)