Hit The Road Jack – Oss review

Oss Box

Emma steps up to throw, flip and flick stuff in Oss, an update of a playground classic that is decades old. Will it make the grade or fail to impress? Discover for yourself…

I like dexterity games, I like quirky components, and I like terrible bilingual puns, so Oss, the new release from Spiel-ou-Face (seriously, I love that name) seemed like a sure-fire hit. It’s simple enough to get your head around – on opening the box, you’re faced with a deck of cards and a bag containing six moulded plastic sheep knuckles of varying colours. As you do. The game plays in three rounds, and each one sees you bidding on your ability to do various tricks using the bones, as listed on the cards. Most of these consist of you throwing one of them in the air and performing some action before catching it again, and range from the simple (picking another bone up off the table) to the tricky (putting a bone down without dropping any of the others in your hand) to the rage-inducing (like the first one, but with your hand in a bag). Depending on how the bidding goes, some players might face off in an extra duel, which is basically like doing one of the tricks but with the added obstacle of your friend doing it at the same time, and then everybody does a simultaneous challenge to determine the new first player, which could be anything from counting how many of the bones are a certain way up to knucklebone Jenga. After that, whoever has the most points (gained by winning tricks and challenges) wins.

If you think that sounds pretty simple, you’re right. If you also think that sounds pretty much exactly like the game of jacks you might have played in the 1890s, then you’re also right, as well as kind of impressively old. Oss is, at its core, a modern reinvention of the classic game of jacks, with a little tabletop veneer added to market it to boardgamers. In its defence, however, it never really pretends to be anything else – even the tagline on the box is “The Jacks are back!” Now, I’m all up for classic games, and as you might have guessed by now, I’m something of a fan of modern board games, so Oss should be my new Reese’s Pieces game, no? (Dear Michael – you’re not the only one who can drop advertising references in their reviews) Well, no – if we continue the peanut butter/chocolate allergy, Oss is more along the lines of chocolate butter: weird, not quite what it wants to be in either direction, and likely to thoroughly confuse your friends if you bring it out at parties.

What's in the box? Well, lots of cards and some ceramic sheep knuckles. Thanks for asking!

What’s in the box? Well, lots of cards and some ceramic sheep knuckles. Thanks for asking!

See, if you like jacks, you probably already have a set lying around and won’t want to shell out the retail price for what is basically the same game with a few new elements, and if you’re a tabletop gaming fan, you’ll probably be put off by the crazy skill threshold. Now, I can hear people moaning at me through my amazing Internet precognition, saying that that’s true of any dexterity game. While I guess so, to a certain extent, most modern dexterity games revolve around the mechanics of “balance thing on other thing” or “hit thing with other thing”, as opposed to “throw thing in the air and keep an eye on its trajectory while doing something else on the table in the same half-second before catching thing A again”. And there’s no room for error, either – you’ll only be doing three tricks in the whole game, and if you mess it up once, your try is immediately over.

Not only is this really hard to get into, it’s also strangely at odds with the slower, more mathsy bidding section of the game – you spend ages working out which trick you want to bid for, and for how much, and then fail within seconds of attempting it. Also, that planning section is usually at least half taken up by trying to work out exactly what the cards ask you to do – the rulebook was originally written in French, and it shows, with most of the poorly-translated descriptions doing nothing to elucidate the imprecise diagrams on the trick cards. The developers have tried to sidestep this issue by including QR codes on the backs of all the cards that link to an ‘instructional’ video on how to do the trick, but in reality these just consist of the developers performing the trick once, with no real explanation about what’s going on.

Also, it took me a while to get round to the other reason why I didn’t really enjoy playing Oss, which is that it’s…kind of racist? The tricks all have completely arbitrary foreign-sounding names like ‘Aslik’ or ‘Cumi-Cumi’, and the art is a weird mishmash of Native American/African/Mesoamerican/Australian tribal designs. All of this combined with the fact that the rulebook proclaims the winner as “Big Chief” lends the whole thing an air of generically-foreignness, as though it was designed by a Victorian imperialist, and (for me at least) makes the whole experience kind of uncomfortable as well as crazy hard.

Overall, then, I think Oss has a lot of good ideas, and I think there is a game to be made using jacks mechanics. But this isn’t it. It’s taken the worst aspects of all the things it imitates, and it has no clue who it’s for. If you want to enjoy this one, I’d recommend finding an old jacks set in your attic, then playing with them for a couple of decades – then, if you still want to, you’ll be able to get over the ridiculous skill threshold and maybe enjoy Oss for the game it wants to be deep down. But I’m still not sure you would.

Oss was published in 2013 by Spiel-ou-Face and was designed by Vincent Lemaire, Jean-Michel Maman and Charles Amir Perret. Between two and six players can get involved, but this is obviously one of those ‘more people is better’ scenarios. Games should take you around half an hour, unless you lose one of the jacks under the sofa. Oh, and follow Emma on Twitter! She’s @Waruce!

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