I’m super excited about all the new science games hitting the market lately. Cytosis, Terraforming Mars, CO2, Dinosaur Island (yeah, okay, but you are working with DNA), Bios: Genesis, and Evolution/Evolution: Climate are just a few examples. Science is just such an underutilized theme in my mind and there is so much that can be done with it game-wise. Plus, if a little education/learning about the world around you sneaks into game time, it’s got to be good for you, right?
Into the science game melee enters Photosynthesis, a game about growing trees and making use of the sunlight to help them reach their full potential (while also stunting your opponents’ trees). Is it a game of happy little trees (oops, now I’m stealing from Bob Ross’ Art of Chill game), or does something dark lurk in this pretty forest?
How It Plays
If you remember your high school biology, you’ll recall that photosynthesis is the process through which plants convert light energy from the sun into chemical energy that can be used to fuel growth and other cellular operations. Remember? Great, because that’s the basis of this game. If not, don’t worry. Just remember that sun is your friend, shade is your enemy.
You are in charge of a species of tree (or you are the trees, however you want to look at it) and it’s your job to get as much energy from the sun as you can so that your trees can grow, thrive, produce seedlings for the next generation, and ultimately end their life cycle as strong, healthy trees. Succeeding at this means, inevitably, weakening the other trees in the forest, but such is the circle of life. The strong survive, the weak become mulch.
Anyway, a game of Photosynthesis is played over twelve rounds. A “round” occurs every time the sun moves to a new position. It moves four times around the board before coming back to its start position. After it returns to the start position, having revolved completely around the board, you take the top revolution counter from the pile and drop it back in the box. The game ends after three full revolutions, or twelve rounds.
[Author’s Note: I realized after publication (and only after having it pointed out to me by someone smarter than myself) that we played this incorrectly. There are actually 18 rounds in the game, not 12. The sun moves around the hex six times per round. We were playing only moving the sun around the four corners. I know what we were thinking: Four seasons. The trees show the four seasons, the player boards show four seasons, so four times around “seemed” right. We somehow glossed over the part in the rule book where it says, “Around the hex.” Apologies! Playing it correctly would not have changed my overall verdict on the game, however. I already note below that our abbreviated games felt a bit long, and playing correctly would only have added to that feeling. The rest of my opinion remains unchanged!]
Each round has two phases: The Photosynthesis phase and the Life Cycle Phase.
During the Photosynthesis phase, the sun is moved to its next position on the board (unless it’s the first round, then it’s already in position) and players collect light points. Light points are awarded when your tree is not in the shadow of another tree. Taller trees cast a shadow which means that trees behind them may not benefit from the sun’s rays. Those shaded trees don’t score points. If they’re not shaded, a small tree earns one point, a medium tree earns two, and a large tree earns three points.
The position of the sun changes the vantage point of the sun’s rays each round, so what’s in the shade this round may not be in the shade next round. It works exactly like the sun in your yard. In the morning it’s coming out of the east so the shadows point one way, but in the afternoon the western sun turns the shadows in the opposite direction.
After everyone has taken their light points, the Life Cycle phase begins. This is where you spend your light points. You can use them to buy any number of actions. You can use them all, or hoard some for future rounds. While you can do as many actions as you want or can afford, you cannot do more than one action that affects the same space on the main board per round. So if you place a small tree on a board space, for example, you cannot upgrade that tree to a medium tree this round.
The actions you can perform are:
Buying: Your player board is where your inventory resides and you will buy trees or seeds from your player board. Once something is purchased, you place it next to your player board, indicating that it is ready to be planted. You begin the game with a small selection of seeds and trees that are immediately available, but everything else must be bought.
Planting a Seed: Seeds cost one light point and can be planted around existing trees. Seeds from smaller trees must be planted in spaces closer to the tree, while larger trees allow you to plant seeds further away. You can plant seeds in any direction, as long as the spaces connect.
Growing a Tree: You can replace a seed or tree with a tree the next size up. The larger you grow, the more light points it costs to make the transition. Trees/seeds that are removed from the main board to make way for the new plant are placed back onto your player board and are available for later purchase. (Unless there are no appropriate spaces for the item, in which case it is discarded from the game.)
Collecting: You can end the life cycle of your large trees. Doing so costs four points per tree, but enables you to take the top scoring token from the pile that matches the type of soil your tree was rooted in.
After everyone has taken a turn, the sun moves one space around the board and a new round begins. This continues until the sun has made three full revolutions around the board. Players then count the points from their scoring tokens and add one point for every three unused light points. The player with the most points wins the game.
Is This a Giant Redwood of a Game, or Gaming Mulch?
Photosynthesis is one of several “line of sight” abstract games to release lately including Seikatsu and Topiary. These games all share the same basic idea that things must line up in certain ways in order to score. In Topiary, you want to make it so that your visitors have the best view of the garden, so taller topiaries need to go toward the back. (Which will likely be the front for your opponent, so you can see the challenge in the game.) In Seikatsu, you want to create the best view of the flower garden based on viewing it from “your” pagoda. In Photosynthesis it’s not your view that matters, it’s the sun’s view. And unlike the other two games I just named, the perspective is ever-changing as the sun revolves around the board. This is the hook that differentiates it from others.
You have to look at the big picture when placing your trees, considering not only how they will score in the next round (since light points are tallied before new placements are made, the placements you make in the preceding round determine how many points you’ll get in the next round), but also how they might score when the sun is in a different position. It does you little good to set yourself up for a great next round if the following three rounds are going to be terrible.
Of course, your opponents are trying to do the same thing so it’s difficult to keep ahead. You place a tree, they place a taller one. But when the sun comes around to the other side, your shorter tree will be in the better position. And this triggers the need to constantly upgrade your trees and jockey for position. It becomes a balancing act where you’re trying to look ahead and juggle the trees you have now with the trees you might/will have in the future.
When you first look at the game, it’s tempting to think, “Okay, I’ll just put all my all trees on the outer ring of the board and I’m golden. No one will be able to score points, then, because I’m hogging all the sun.” There are two problems with that, however. The first is that you can’t afford to do that quickly enough for it to matter. Trees are expensive and you have to earn light points to keep upgrading. Well, guess what? While you’re earning, so are your opponents so it’s likely that none of you will dominate that outer ring.
Second, the soil on the outer ring is not worth as much. So while you may rack up light points by chasing those outer spaces, those trees will be worth less at the end of their lifespan. You have to achieve a balance of trees in “easy” sun positions against having tall trees in spaces where the sun is harder to reach, but the soil is worth more.
This level of thinking gives me what I want from an abstract game. (And make no mistake, despite the gorgeous components, Photosynthesis is an abstract game. More on theme in a second.) You have to play smart if you want to win. You can’t just go slapping trees anywhere. While it doesn’t have the depth of chess, it does have that same feeling of having to look ahead a number of moves to see how this placement will affect things several rounds from now.
Despite the level of thinking required, this isn’t something that is too difficult for non-gamers to figure out. The rules are very simple to learn, if hard to master. Photosynthesis has all the hallmarks of a great gateway game. Aside from being easy to learn, the theme is approachable for all and it’s so good looking on the table that people want to play. It’s also not very time consuming, clocking in at +/- an hour. And if the gamers want a little extra oomph, there are a couple of optional advanced rules to make things a little harder.
Now, about that theme. From the description in the rules, I think you’re supposed to put yourself in the position of a tree (or several trees) and think, “How do I get the sun?” And that works, to a point. But it’s a little wonky to keep tree hopping and thinking of yourself as this tree, and that tree over there. I found it easier to just forget the trees and think of it like an abstract game. Until…
I hit on a better idea. The theme works best (for me) if, instead of thinking of yourself as a tree or a species of tree, you think of yourself as someone managing and growing this forest. You want your trees to grow the most and the fastest. You want them planted in the best soil so they’re strong and healthy. When it comes time to harvest them at the end of their life, you want strong healthy trees to sell to the timber guy so they can be made into houses or something awesome. To me, at least, thinking of it that way makes it more thematic than trying to think myself into becoming a tree, one with the sun. Of course YMMV, but if you need theme, try thinking of it this way.
Regardless of how you look at it, Photosynthesis looks all peaceful and zen, but it can be mean. Don’t let the lush greenery fool you. An early mistake can cripple you. There’s no catch up mechanism and if you let your opponents get away from you, you’re in big trouble. It’s also fairly cutthroat. When you see someone placing a tree into position, you’re going to want to get your bigger tree in front of theirs. And they’re going to want to do the same. There’s really no way to play this without sticking it to your opponent(s), so while it’s not mean in the sense of knocking someone out of the game or stealing their resources, it is confrontational. Again, it’s kind of like chess. Moves and countermoves have consequences and while nobody’s taking your pieces, they will be trying to put you in the shade. (Note that the two player game is a bit less mean, owing simply to having more room on the board.) If you play with people who are sensitive to that sort of thing, you may want to offer something else.
Aside from the meanness, is there anything else that I don’t like? The only other thing that sort of bothers me is the length. It can start to feel a bit repetitive. There’s no real sense of things building to a conclusion. While your trees are growing and changing, there’s no engine that gets going, or a sense that time is running out. Every round is pretty much the same and it sometimes feels like one less sun revolution would make for a better length. Even so, you are mentally engaged the whole time so it’s not really boring, just a bit repetitive.
It’s also a lightweight game. Again, not really a problem, but if you’re a heavy gamer looking for a challenging abstract, this might not do it for you. It is a thinky game and the advanced variant makes it more so, but the mechanisms are simple and the rules are light. It’s a great gateway game, but maybe not something heavy gamers will appreciate.
On the whole, I enjoy Photosynthesis, but I think you need to have the right audience for it. That would be families or gamers looking for a light, easy to learn, gorgeous game. Also, anyone looking to introduce abstract games, or heavy gamers looking for an easier abstract with which to kill time or “relax.” It’s definitely for people who can tolerate a little meanness/confrontation in their games, but anyone who can tolerate checkers or chess can take on Photosynthesis. All in all, another solid gateway game from Blue Orange with the great components I’ve come to expect from them.
iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Blue Orange Games for giving us a copy of Photosynthesis to review.
Storage for assembled trees is excellent; makes for easy setup.
For an abstract game, there is some theme if you think in a certain way.
A true gateway game, in the best sense of the term.
You have to play smart to win, which is something at which an abstract game should excel.
Advanced variant to make heavier gamers a little happier.
For all its looks, it is still an abstract game and if that's not your jam, this isn't a game for you.
Can be more cutthroat than the prettiness suggests; mistakes are punished.
Can feel a bit long and repetitive.
Base game is awfully light. Thinky, but light on mechanisms.
Nice review! But isn’t it 18 rounds?
(Could be wrong, I only played once, but 6 sides of the hex, 6 rounds per full revolution).
Also, there is an advanced version with 4 rounds but harsher rules for growing seeds etc. You mention it in the Pros section but not much in the actual review. Did you try that? Any comments?
Well, bless my stupid soul! It is 18 rounds. Unbelievably, we played it wrong. Every. Single. Time. I’m going to have to eat that. Somehow, we ignored the fact that the whole thing was a hex and played the sun only in the corners. I know we were thinking “four seasons.” The trees show four seasons, the boards show four seasons… Four times around the board seemed to fit and we never noticed otherwise Gah! Still, though, I’m kind of glad we did because I thought it felt long at 12 rounds. Unintentional way of improving the game? Yikes. A thousand apologies. I’ll show myself out.
As for the advanced variants, we did try them. (Wrongly. Ugh.) I didn’t care for them, but that’s really only because I really felt like this was better as a lighter game. If I want to get into something with more intense thought, I’d probably play something else. The basic game already felt a bit mean and soul-crushing as it was at times. I didn’t enjoy making it more so. But, if that’s what you look for in a game, then it would probably be fun.
Yeah, after reading your review, I read a little on BGG and several people were saying it is a light game if you want it to be, but if you like games like Java or Reef Encounter, the advanced variant is great. But not light and pretty brutal.
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