If you’ve been watching Yellowstone and have an urge to take up ‘the ranch life’, then My Fantastic Ranch isn’t the solution you might think it is. The key-word in the title is ‘Fantastic’, as My Fantastic Ranch is less about steers and stallions, and more about unicorns and dragons. We can’t imagine Kevin Costner swinging a leg over those.
My Fantastic Ranch is instead a ‘My First Management’ game. It’s Theme Park for pre-teens, a gateway to games like Let’s Build a Zoo, Zoo Tycoon and – hell, why not – Cities: Skylines. If you are working backwards, arriving at My Fantastic Ranch with experience of these management games and carrying expectations of the same degree of strategy, then back off. This is Sim City stripped back to become linear, finite, easy and little more than a series of spinning plates. But, for the audience it’s aiming for, it hits many of the right notes.
My Fantastic Ranch imagines a fantasy ranch as a kind of tourist destination, rather than a large-scale farming operation. You are the owner of a patch of land with a portal plonked on top, and there’s the promise of visitors through it. Confusingly, we’re going to invoke Kevin Costner for a second time, as, Field of Dreams-style, it really is “if you build it, they will come”. Drop down some buildings and arenas onto the grass, and squat, chibi people will come through portals to ride on your creatures.
There’s a linear approach to My Fantastic Ranch, as the opening couple of hours are on railway tracks. You’re completing tutorial quests to understand each building, setting you up for the second half of the game, where objectives are looser.
That means starting with a Snack Room to offer enough provisions to keep everyone fed. With that done, then you’re moving onto the livestock. A Tack Room sets the number of animals that you can house in your ranch, and Stables physically contain them. From here, you can tap your cursor onto the stable and select from three different unicorns and dragons to settle there.
Next you need stablehands, and this means barrack-like Cosy Dorms, and the same system of clicking on the building and choosing from three different people. You’re always looking to match the number of animals with the number of hands, as they literally go hand-in-hand. Hur hur. Hur.
Finally, you’ll need to build the arenas which the tourists beeline towards, and these are your money-makers when it comes to financing the operation. There’s dressage – because if you’re paying to ride a dragon, you want to be prancing around like a tit – target practice, aerial obstacle courses and circus events. As things progress, there are Tournament Clubs and Festivals, hosted by the King and Queen of the Realm, where the rewards are larger, but the likelihood of success is lower. Plus they take yonks, so you’re committing your troops, as it were, to a much longer time period.
The strategy comes from who to place where. The dragons and unicorns have elemental affinities, as well as favourite events. The ranch-hands have dragon and unicorn preferences, as well as favourite events too. Step one is choosing the right combination of animal and human to attend the event, with synergies being rewarded with more cash and greater favour with the King and Queen. Step two is planning for the future. Because with each event, the animal and human develop a connection with the event you tied them to, and there’s every chance that they will gain an affinity that they didn’t have before.
From there, it’s the spinning plates we mentioned. The events end on a regular cycle, so you have to be there, topping them back up again, attaching (likely) the same beasts and beings that you attached before. Why there isn’t a ‘Repeat Event’ button, we don’t know. My Fantastic Ranch has an annoying habit of shuffling the lists of attendees, and you have to search out for the most desirable pairing every time. The best ones don’t rise to the top, as you might hope.
Do well enough, and you rise through the ranks, unlocking more buildings, events and landmasses, plus an increased cap on the facilities you can plop down. The tutorial quests start getting swapped out for random objectives, just to keep you fed with things to do, and the achievements roll in merrily.
And then it all stops. Because, unlike most management games you might have played, there is very much a point (or sequence of cliffs) where the interest drops off. My Fantastic Ranch is theoretically infinite, but in reality it’s anything but: you can hit a pre-ordained cap on animals and people; you can unlock everything there is to unlock; and you are left grinding to arbitrary objectives, like Rank 20, a complete stable of shiny rares, or other far-flung achievements. And this will happen after a few hours if you’re like us, and probably five or six hours for a younger player. There is a sell-by-date on My Fantastic Ranch, unless you have interest in playing it again.
Considered as a finite little management sim, a welcome pack for pre-teens who want to try out new game genres, it’s quietly competent. We never once stopped to complain about the controls, which is a minor miracle considering the management sim genre has a checkered history on Xbox. We’d bargain that it’s just as good on console as it is on PC, which is a surprise.
The core gameplay of matching elements and affinities between unicorns and humans is lightweight, but oddly engaging. It’s satisfying to feel your stable of unicorns and dragons becoming increasingly useful, as perfect pairings become more likely. Choosing an objective – getting a great score on the medieval games, or chasing an achievement – and then chasing it is the best approach, and constructs some engaging scaffolding around what you’re doing.
There’s a question mark over how long you’ll fancy doing it, though. There’s about two-hours’ worth of rotating round the arenas, adding the same unicorns and dragons to them, as a routine. It has the potential to be a monotonous process, even if it does all come to an abrupt end. The more you optimise, bizarrely enough, the more rote and boring it becomes, so our best advice is to not over-think it. Just play casually, and My Fantastic Ranch will be less of a chore.
£34.99 is too much for My Fantastic Ranch. We have no intention of returning to it, having hoovered up the majority of achievements and reached a reasonably clear end. It only took us four hours, and it doesn’t have enough about it to warrant that lofty price tag.
But perhaps wait for a sale, or give in to an overly enthusiastic pre-teen, and you won’t rue the purchase. My Fantastic Ranch is a sturdy, basic management sim that acts as a gateway to the genre. It also manages to satisfy a fantasy that a lot of younger players might have: to own and ride twenty-odd dragons and unicorns.
You can buy My Fantastic Ranch from the Xbox Store