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Date: 01/01/2014
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Riddle of the Commons Game

(also known as the Nuts Game)

from chapter 8 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Time: 20-30 min


The “Tragedy of the Commons,” first named by Garrett Hardin, occurs when a community consumes a common resource too fast for regeneration to occur. In such situations, people must choose between restricting their own consumption for the good of the community, or continuing to consume at a rate that satisfies their immediate “self-interest” with dire consequences later.

This game embodies the “Tragedy of the Commons” problem. By the rules it lays out, it helps people explore the challenge of maintaining a dynamic balance between personal self-interest and collective self-interest. Each is necessary for the common good.



A group of three or more players sit around a shallow unbreakable bowl (diameter about 12 inches) that initially contains 10 hardware nuts (half-inch diameter is a good size). An extra person, the “replenisher,” sits with each group, with a separate container of nuts nearby.


The guide explains the following:

  • Each player’s goal is to get as many of the nuts as possible.
  • Players can take nuts from the bowl at any time and in any quantities after the start of the game.
  • After each 10-second interval (signaled by a bell or the like), the replenisher doubles the number of nuts remaining in the bowl. The number of nuts allowed in the bowl throughout the game is limited to 10.
  • This game ends if the bowl is empty, or continues until a predetermined time limit, say five minutes.
  • Players are not to communicate during the game itself.


The bowl symbolizes a resource pool (such as an ocean of whales); the nuts, the resources themselves; and the replenishment cycles, natural resource regeneration rates. 

After the first round of the game, allow the groups five minutes to invent their own rules in order to increase their harvests on a second game. Groups typically come up with two main types of solution: 

  1. those involving numbers (such as an agreement to take only one or two nuts per person per 10-second interval; this type of solution is quite effective in preserving the pool) 
  2. non-numerical solutions. In one example of this, a group decided to use a rather complicated system of harvesting. Each player had to hook each nut out of the bowl with a pencil, place it on his nose, walk over to a nearby chalkboard, and deposit the nut in the tray before returning for another nut. Harvesting was thus slowed down enough to prevent pool depletion, increasing individual scores, and incidentally making the game more entertaining to players. 


Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown