I love sandbox gameplay. I’m pretty sure a lot of you readers do too, which is probably why a good deal of us have at least paid attention to, if not played, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. But I also know people drop out of the game because they aren’t quite sure what to do with their islands or the community. It can get sort of involved, and especially with the game having been out for several months, a lot of the early excitement has died down (though the recent swimming announcement is sure to get people fired up).
I also know that online play on the Nintendo Switch is sort of a weird thing for anyone, and even more so for MMO sandbox fans. Players can’t just be out and exploring to find us or for us to find them. Seeing stuff on YouTube and Twitter isn’t quite the same as actually exploring someone’s island. So today, let’s talk about not just getting involved with ACNH communities but some building and gameplay ideas for online play.
Old school prep work
There are a few things I want to recommend before you consider inviting people to your town, though series veterans can probably skip this section.
Even before designing, if you haven’t been going online a lot, I suggest starting with fortifying your island. While people can’t steal your rare flowers, dig up your fossils, or kill your trees (until you give them Best Friend status) as they could in past games, they can take the flower tops, pick up any items on the ground, and shake your trees, among other things. If you mess up and realize someone is taking something of yours, quickly hit the “sleep” button and everyone’s game will revert to everyone’s last save point (though Nintendo may or may not have changed this at the time of this writing).
As for the actual fortification, there are a few things you can do. First, items and clothes placed on the ground as furniture are safe, but if it’s a leaf, clothing, fruit, toolbox, turnips, or DIY icon, people can take it. Maybe put those items in your house, unless you want people to take them, which isn’t uncommon. In fact, people tend to label where they have their free stuff or put prizes in hard-to-reach areas so explorers feel rewarded.
If you can’t put something away, such as a bell tree or turnips, use fences to block the area. If you place stuff near a mountain, remember that you still need to fence it off against people who have ladders. Fences can’t be taken down by anyone but you. When the airport gates are open and you have visitors, you can’t build fences, but you can put them away once visitors are in a building for a little bit. Even cooler, you can even fence off your entrance and make people wait in your airport for you to unlock it (maybe after they pay if you’re doing a trade or sale).
And don’t forget terraforming! You can create plateaus surrounded by waterfalls and fences to prevent people from climbing and store stuff on top of those. It looks good and serves a practical use.
Once you think you’re done, try to raid your own town as a test. Imagine that people will take everything and anything you leave out. Not everyone makes towns this way, especially veterans who know various communities, but I highly recommend people newer to taking the series online to be more careful.
Next, I’d recommend at least getting the Nintendo Switch app. While it does allow for voice chat, I find few people want to use it. Instead, use its keyboard option, as it’s much more convenient than trying to type things out on the in-game keyboard. You can also use Discord, Twitter, Facebook messenger, and so on, but the Switch app keyboard does make in-game chatting more convenient.
Finally, this may be obvious, but find a group. This goes for basically any Nintendo Online title, but Animal Crossing in particular. I’ve talked about this before, but really, without any kind of in-game way to visit random islands, you can be fairly isolated if you choose to do so or opt not to branch out. If you want to play with others, you have to be much more proactive.
Obviously, the easiest way would be to check in with the usual social media channels you’re already part of. You might be surprised by the reponse: I’ve gotten a few people from the Asheron’s Call Reddit, various Pokemon groups, and even Twitter followers I’ve never heard from.
However, I know that may not be enough, especially if you just want to go out visit towns. Old school people who like forums may enjoy the Animal Crossing Community and The Bell Tree Forums, but for more instant gratification, I’d suggest Sow Joan’s and Nookazon Discord servers. Sow Joan’s certainly feels more friendly and open in my opinion, but it’s smaller and feels like it’s more popular for finding turnip prices. Nookazon’s quite popular, but people are usually looking to make a profit more than socialize, so it’s more of a mixed bag. Since Twitter is connected to the Switch, it’s certainly easier to show off your Dodo code to visitors through that, but it’s even riskier-feeling than Nookazon.
That being said, all of those options can be used both for finding towns to visit and for opening your town to others. But if you’re going to have people over, what exactly should you be doing?
Basic ideas for online play
There are many basic gameplay options that encourage island visitation, but series veterans, especially at this point, may be more familiar with them, so they can maybe skip this section as well.
The easiest thing to do when visiting new towns is to shop. Even with my experience and various groups, I still make it a point to check out a new town’s tailor for clothes, the Nook shop for items and turnip prices (this is a big one!), and all the neighbors to find DIY crafting recipes. If the hosts don’t mind (and they rarely do except if they’re busy or have gated off large parts of their town), I’ll explore their islands and homes, using the Switch app to compliment sections I like or ask questions about decor, patterns, town tunes, etc. It’s really simple and people usually enjoy it.
Next is opening towns or visiting for various NPCs. Redd, the art seller, gets people pretty excited, even for the fake stuff. Make sure to buy what you want before opening your island because each item can be purchased by only one person at that location, and people can only make one Redd purchase per day, even in other towns. The same rule applies for getting DIY recipes from Celeste the Owl, meaning once you’ve bought art or gotten a DIY from Celeste, you can’t get another until the next in-game day, no matter how many islands you visit.
Sahara, the rug sales-camel, sells the same items the whole day in her specific locations. I’ll often write down what she’s selling before announcing it so people can decide what they want to purchase, rather than buying everything and hoping it’s an item they want. The rewards from her raffle tickets, however, are random, so no need to post those.
Kicks the skunk sells special items (not just shoes) that you won’t often see anywhere else. No limits here, luckily.
Visiting islands for different hemispheres or seasons (if they time travel) can be fun too, as you can get different fish or items than you might get on your home island.
At night, check the sky. If you see a shiny object falling, that’s a shooting star. Put away your tool, push “up” on the right analog stick, and press A to make a wish. Then invite people over (if it’s your town) for a wishing party. The stars you can collect the next day in your town, based on the amounts of wishes you make, are used to craft certain recipes, many of which are rare.
Of course, there’s trading on various websites we’ve discussed. Villagers in particular can be fun to trade with non-strangers, though, because they’ll actually remember you and ask about their former home.
Finally, you may notice an item in the upgraded Nook’s: the timer. When you’ve started it, the game will keep track of everyone’s caught fish and bugs. When the timer ends, everyone automatically announces what they had. That means you can hold a fishing or bug catching contest wherever and whenever you want.
But that’s just the beginning.
Advanced ideas for online play
There’s so much you can do online with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, especially for creative types. You don’t necessarily need the terraforming option unlocked, but it greatly helps. There’s a 3-D and 2-D island planner. Neither is perfect, but both help give you an idea of how you can organize your island before doing it. I’ve actually terraformed probably 90% of my entire starting island, but I love the results.
One common idea is themed islands, often based on pop culture. I have friends who’ve been inspired by Final Fantasy XIV, The Legend of Zelda, Harry Potter… heck, my own island is a bit of a tribute to Asheron’s Call 1, even containing a small Easter egg on breaking into Fort Teth when no one could open the front door for you. AC fans I’ve had over seemed to love that bit.
It doesn’t just have to be based on pop culture, though. You can do something historical, time travel to do a forever-summer theme, constant time-travel to a day Redd comes to make an art-themed or smuggler-themed island… whatever you can imagine. And you’re not limited to redoing your whole island. Exploration and games can be a great way to entice people to check out your island and get rid of extra items.
For example, you can build a maze or an obstacle course, either with or without terraforming, and put prizes throughout the area.
Some people start businesses. You can offer to make patterns, gather a team of people to water flowers, offer decorating advice, whatever you see a need for.
If you’ve got multiple color wheels, you can have people spin the two wheels and dig up their prize based on a grid you’ve made.
The timer I previously mentioned can be used in multiple ways. You can play hide and seek, musical chairs, a quiz show, hot potato, whatever. It’s important to note that only one timer at a time can be used, and anyone using a second one will stop the clock, but that can be used to your advantage. For example, you can play “time bomb,” an old Animal Crossing community game where people have to find the hidden timer/”detonator” and stop it before it “blows up.” For extra fun, hit “sleep” on your Switch in a lose scenario as a kind of “game over” with some big laughs.
You can also *gasp* roleplay. Since the characters have specific personalities and interact with each other, not just you, you can talk to and about what’s going on in your virtual world without breaking character. Heck, I’ve had non-gamer friends laugh about how casual discussion of the game makes it seem like the characters are real anyway, so it’s not like it’d be difficult to get non-RPers in on it. You could also set up something more advanced, like scenarios, and get people in on it before inviting them over. Murder mystery party, anyone?
For collectors, you can do something called a catalog party. As you’re allowed to order most items you’ve previously owned (unless it’s art, craftable, or a “Not For Sale” item), one simple thing you can do is just hold an item you want before returning it to its owner. Doing this with several items with many people is called a catalog party because you can then order those items through the in-game catalog.
One method is to have everyone bring a set number of items. You can just have people bring their favorites, items over a certain cost, fitting a certain theme, whatever. For example, tell people to pick six items each, write down the items and specific color they are in the catalog to avoid repeats, garden-themed items, and then have the host make a party area with each attendee’s name. Attendees can place their items down, then give people, say, 30 seconds at each spot before rotating. Do this in case someone disconnects. That way, you know who has which person’s items. (Obviously it’s best to do this with people you trust!)
Similarly, the hosts can pick a theme and put out, well, whatever they want to have people catalog. Make sure to only invite people you trust, be clear that it’s a catalog party rather than gift-giving, and keep things small in case the game crashes. Three to four visitors at a time should be good, as I’ve been to larger ones that bumped into issues like connections, accidentally taking the item, misplacing items, etc.
You can also mix and match ideas. It can be simple, like making a fishing resort-themed town set in prime-fishing season (April for Southern Hemisphere, August for Norther), charge people an entrance fee for a few hours, and offer to sell bait or give tours of prime location. You can also do something more complex.
In the above video, you can see a game scenario I did. I started out with an obstacle course, then simplified it and filled it with wrapped goods, including two timers to play Time Bomb. I invited people over, including randoms, but had gated off the airport so no one could start until I had enough people ready. While waiting, I roleplayed a kind of gamified bomb-squad, telling “the team” the scene was hot and describing how various villagers were in peril. Once we had enough people, I’d claim we’d caught the villain but that he’d hidden a bomb in wrapped gifts. The squad would have to go into the obstacle course and find the bomb.
This took a lot of time to prepare, and I was giving out some good items, so I did two things. First, if the timer ran out, I hit “sleep” so that (usually) everyone would go home with nothing, simulating a game over. It also made it easier for me to invite another group to play, though I’d still move a few things around just in case I felt generous and wanted to reinvite a trustworthy player, since obviously the whole thing can be ruined if someone brings a timer.
Second, about a minute after the game started, I warned of a secondary end-scenario: If “Tom Nook” told me to, I’d end the game early and send everyone home before anyone got hurt. The idea was that, if people just wanted to draw out the game to get as much free stuff as possible, they might not use the timer when they found it. If, however, the game could end at any moment before the timer was up, they’d want to use it ASAP. In the background, I’d picked events/times where I’d roll dice, and certain numbers would lead me to hitting the minus key and choosing to send everyone home. I got a lot of positive feedback on both the gameplay and atmosphere from this, and I’m sure MOP readers could come up with other ideas, so feel free to share them in the comments below.
Finally, don’t be afraid to offer party favors or bring a thank-you gift. Even if someone already has the item, the thought does count. We had a guy in my group who was stinking rich in-game and never even wanted a tip from us, so we jokingly sent him Father’s Day mugs en masse to thank him during one of his breaks from the game. He seemed to enjoy it when he came back!
Hopefully one or several of these ideas inspires people to play around a bit more in Animal Crossing New Horizons. It’s more difficult these days to find active/open players and islands, but far from impossible. The various updates we’ve gotten have certainly helped the game’s shelf life, but like any sandbox game, the longevity is stretched best by imaginative players.