In this Android equivalent to Zynga's immensely popular Farmville on Facebook, you begin with just a Black Swiss Cow and a few crops. You can harvest and sell crops for cash to plough the land and plant new crops, but you'll make greater profits by adding another process to the chain.
Harvest the alfalfa and feed it to the cow, for example, and you get milk. Milk sells for 25 coins, while alfalfa nets you just 20 coins. Given that alfalfa seeds cost 15 coins, the difference between five and 10 coins profit can be important when you're first starting out.
Later in the game you can buy a beehive, with bees adding five coins to your alfalfa profits with honey, and a cheese maker, which turns 25-coin milk into 32-coin cheese.
In the few weeks that we spent testing Tap Ranch, we amassed apple, orange and cherry trees, carrots, tomatoes, corn, wheat, grapes, alfalfa, pumpkins, tulips and sunflowers, chickens, bees, a rabbit, a cow and a sheep, plus cheese, wine, ketchup and popcorn makers. We were making a few thousand coins per day in profit, yet spending upwards of 1.5 hours managing our farm. Tap Ranch requires a level of commitment we simply couldn't maintain.
See also: Tap Fish for Android review
Tap Ranch: Money buys you time
Thankfully, Tap Ranch includes Helper Operations, which automate the process of feeding the animals and makers and collecting the produce. But they're hard to get hold of, and quickly exhausted. You have two options in your quest for Helper Operations: buy or earn them.
To earn them, you need to level-up. This nets you 20 Helper Operations, plus 150 coins and one Ranch buck; you may also unlock new animals, makers, crops or trees. Each time you complete an action, such as feeding an animal or sowing a crop, you're awarded an Experience (Xp) point. A certain number of Xps are required to move on to the next level; this is relatively low in the earlier levels, but later in the game you'll need in excess of 2,000.
The other way you can get Helper Operations is to buy them with Ranch bucks. We bought 150 for eight bucks, for example. Given that you earn only one Ranch buck each time you level-up, however, this isn't a long-term time-saving solution. And this leads us to our major gripe with Tap Ranch.
The game is free to use, with no ads. Developer Gameview Studios instead makes its profits by encouraging you to part with your physical cash in return for virtual Ranch bucks. To some, that's an insane idea. But having spent a large part of our free time managing our farm and excitedly collecting new animals and crops, it's not difficult to understand why some people might feel they've put in too much effort to simply walk away.
Ranch bucks are bought in-game, with the payment made through Google Checkout or Android Market. They're expensive: 22 Ranch bucks cost $1.99 (£1.29), while 1,500 demand a whopping $99.99 (£64.89). And you'll need a lot of them if you want to truly master Tap Ranch – all the premium animals and makers, the greenhouses, the fertilisers and some trees must be purchased using Ranch bucks. You can continue playing the game without them, but we quickly became bored as we began running out of options for improving our setup.
Ranch bucks can also be earned by installing various apps that the developer has partnerships with, by allowing automatic updates and by rating the game at the Android Market. But you won't make enough to meet your in-game requirements.
Step away from your farm without watering your crops for too long and they'll wither. You'll either lose the coins you spent planting them – and some crops, such as coffee, cost 200 coins each – or you can revive them with, you've guessed it, a Ranch buck. Alternatively, you can buy rain or greenhouses in which your crops won't wither, or speed up the growth time when you are available with fertilisers. All these things cost Ranch bucks. It's an irritating policy that might push some to part with their real-life cash.
Tap Ranch: Playing the game
There's nothing difficult or complex about Tap Ranch. You have a few decisions to make, such as which crops to plant. Sunflowers are ready in one hour; if you can check in often then you stand to earn a large number of Xps, but you make only one coin profit from each and they'll wither if you don't water them frequently. You might instead consider growing only the crops that net you the most profit. Chickens make you 42 coins profit on corn, but a single egg takes a minute to produce. Multiply that by 200, and you'll be playing the game far longer than you'd like. By comparison, ketchup can be produced in just 20 seconds, and nets you 35 coins profit. We found that planting a range of crops and spreading the workload between our animals and makers offered the best compromise.
Gameview Studios frequently updates Tap Ranch. In our time with the game we saw the addition of Quests and a few welcome interface changes. Quests let you earn extra coins and Xps by doing nothing more than what you're already doing. Some of the quests we completed included spending 40 Helper Operations, earning 500 coins, selling 20 bottles of wine and 10 blocks of cheese. Unfortunately, many require the use of premium animals and makers, which can be bought using only Ranch bucks.
The latest interface update lets you move the top information bar off screen for a larger viewing area, and takes the sell, plough, select and seed icons out of My Ranch and into their own menu. Both are good aids to usability.
You can also buy an assortment of solar homes, farm houses, log houses, fences, rivers, picnic benches, paths, walls and more to decorate your farm. Some require Ranch bucks, but many are available with coins – although they cost 10 times more than the price you get for selling them. It also costs you money to expand your farm – 25,000 coins for a 17x17 plot, and 50,000 for 19x19. We gave up before we reached 21x21, which costs 100,000 coins, and decided that our space was better reserved for the crops and animals that would make us money than buildings and decorations.
Your Android tablet or smartphone must be connected to the internet to play Tap Ranch, which caused us problems in the one place we had the time to manage our crops: during our commute to work. However, this brings a couple of benefits, including the ability to visit your friends' Tap Ranch farms, and water their crops and feed their animals. We didn't have any friends playing the game to test this with, but Tap Ranch can select random friends for you.