Players: 2 – 4
Time: ~35 minutes
Times Played: 6
GenCon recently concluded and there was a lot of buzz around a laundry list of games that were revealed at the event. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Photosynthesis to play with my friends and family and was pleasantly surprised with everything that came from this box.
The components are amazing. The box art is beautiful and the four sets of trees are expertly designed to be unique and vibrant, with seasonal colors and forest critters adorning each one. The box comes with dividers to create four distinct areas for the trees to reside when the game is packed away and they have indents to fit the board and rulebook as well.
Two of the trees are similar in color however. It doesn’t look like it in the photo below, but on the board it can be hard to differentiate at first glance the two different players, especially when the other two trees are blue and orange. This is a minuscule grip but I wanted to make it known.
I do want to issue a warning however when initially punching the trees out. For the blue trees, I did have some film stick to the bases that caused some discoloration when pulled off. I’m unsure if that led to the next issue or not, but two blue trees also had issues staying snug together. No other tree had such an issue.
Photosynthesis sits in the abstract strategy wheelhouse of board games, akin to a Patchwork, Santorini or Blokus. A major flaw with these types of games is that the theme seems to be pasted on. For example, Patchwork is about creating a quilt. Could it not have been the same game with a farming background or a city landscaping plot or even pipes for a plumber refinishing a house. None of the mechanics would have changed.
Photosynthesis however, has a really strong use of theme. The use of the sun and shadows really convey the nature and nurture vibe. For being an abstract strategy game, it’s nice to have the mechanics make the theme stronger. The rotation of the sun, the growing of the trees, and the shade of the trees blocking other trees from the sun help with the predictable nature and ensure that the actions taken make sense and flow as most people have a basic idea how trees work.
Photosynthesis is played over the course of three sun revolutions (aka the sun circling the board three times). Each time the sun moves to a new location, a new round occurs. During a round, there are two phases, The Photosynthesis Phase and The Life Cycle Phase.
During The Photosynthesis Phase, players will gain light points (basically the currency of the game) depending on the the size of their tree and its relationship to the sun. There are three different tree sizes in the game: small, medium, and large.
The size of the tree dictates the shadow that is casts. A small tree is one space, a medium tree is two spaces, and a large tree is three spaces. The size also dictates the amount of light points a tree is awarded with one point for a small tree, two points for a medium tree, and three points for a large tree.
Light points are awarded to trees that are not in the shadow of another tree. However, if a taller tree is behind a smaller tree, it will receive points (as the sun still shines on it).
The player board is a well laid out resource for Photosynthesis as it acts as the central hub for these phases. For now, just take note that light points are tracked on the top left corner, as seen below.
The rulebook includes an excellent guide on how this phase is scored:
Once you have accounted for every players light points, The Life Cycle Phase will begin with each player using their light points to complete a number of actions. The phase begins with the starter player and proceeds clockwise until all players have gone. During this phase, players can perform four possible actions but they cannot carry out more than one action on the same space on the main board (i.e. plant a seed in a space and then grow the tree immediately after). The four possible actions are:
Buying: Using light points, players can purchase seeds or trees that are available on their player mat. The numbers next to the seed or tree indicate the cost of the item. Buying occurs from the bottom up, so least expensive to most expensive. Once a purchase has been made, two things happen: the cost is subtracted from the players light points accordingly and the item bought is moved to the available area, which is adjacent to the player board.
Players will start the game with available seeds and trees that can be planted immediately and do not need to be bought.
Planting a Seed: This occurs near an existing tree on the main board and the size of the tree will dictate where a seed can be planted. One space from a small tree, up to two spaces from a medium tree, and up to three spaces from a large tree (sensing a theme yet?). The player board includes a reference in case there is any confusion.
Growing a Tree: This occurs for an existing tree on the main board. You first need to have bought the size tree that you are going to upgrade from your individual board and have it in your ready area. When you have a tree available to grow, you replace it on the main board. A tree returning from the main board has to be returned to your individual player board in it’s appropriate spot. If there is not an available spot, you lose that tree for the rest of the game. This applies to seeds too.
Collecting: Once a tree reaches maturity (it’s largest size), you can remove the tree from the main board at the cost of four light points. This is how you gain victory points and win the game. Depending on what ring of the board that the tree is removed from will dictate how many points you receive. The first player to score in a region will receive more points than the next place.
Once the sun completes its third revolution, the game will end. For every three light points a player has, they will gain a victory point and they can add that to the total amount of points they collected during the game. Whoever has the most points, wins.
We really enjoyed Photosynthesis. It was the perfect amount of easy to learn and play but deep and strategic after a day of work. We played with different individuals and the game itself was taught in a few short minutes.
Luck is not a factor in Photosynthesis. Your trees will live and die dependent on the strategies you employ. Each decision you make might be straightforward but at the same time, they are important.
There is a surprising amount of thought that can go into a turn. There are only six areas that the sun shines from but you have to be aware of what angle you will receive light from, where your opponents will be placing themselves, and most importantly, how much longer the game has to last.
Photosynthesis is not a long game. Three rounds at six turns a round. The first round goes by incredibly fast. There are not a lot of points or trees to contest with. The second round is the meat of the game and takes roughly fifty percent of the game time. The third and final round goes fast as well as players focus on one or two trees due to time constraints.
The rotation of the sun is an interesting and unique gimmick. The only downfall with this mechanism is calculating the points for the sun. After our first two games it got a lot easier but it’s much easier for the player sitting where the sun is to calculate the points due to the angles involved. Not a deal breaker, but if people don’t like to count, this could be an issue.
Photosynthesis is very interesting at the different player counts.
At two-players, the turn order is a little wonky but adds a little wrinkle to the game. Player one goes, then player two and then the round changes where now player two goes before player one and so on and so forth. The only gameplay change is that the middle ring (the scoring tokens with four leaves) is removed and you can only score up to the three leaf token.
I am back-and-forth on whether three or four players is the ideal player count. Three players makes the board tighter with each action but there is still room to grow and lay claim to keeping your trees out of the shadow of your opponents.
At four players, being cutthroat is paramount to victory. You actively have to block other trees (and sometimes your own) if you want to survive. I think I prefer four due to this. I like a little aggressive player interaction in my games. This game rewards that type of play, regardless of the player count. If that is not for you, I would think twice about playing.
I am curious how the game will hold up after twenty or thirty plays. After a few playthroughs, strategy became more apparent and instead of only collecting two trees by the end of the game, we were collecting four.
Regardless, we loved this game. It seems like a great stepping-stone/introductory session to what board gaming could be (akin to a Ticket to Ride and/or Pandemic). The price is incredible for the art, components and gameplay that is included. I’m trying not to get caught up in loving the newest game to come out but I really think Photosynthesis will go one of two ways: be a flash-in-the-pan hit that fades by summer of 2018 or be a huge success that will find its way onto big box store shelves before the decade is over.