Photosynthesis An Enlightening Review
Designed by Hjalmar Hach
Art by Sabrina Miramon
Published by Blue Orange Games
the process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water. Photosynthesis in plants generally involves the green pigment chlorophyll and generates oxygen as a byproduct.
The forest is a ruthless place, everyone and everything fighting to grow and to spread. The trees are no different, and their battle is over the very sunlight that creates their food supply. In Photosynthesis, you are a species of trees, and you are competing against 1-3 other tree species to collect the sun’s light that is shining over the forest. By collecting the light, you can grow and further your species’ dominance over the forest, but the other species are fighting to do the same thing in the very small area of this forest.
The object of Photosynthesis is to use light points that you collect to take your trees through their life cycle, from seedlings to fully grown trees. Then, you will retire the fully grown trees to gain point tokens based on where they were grown in the forest. The tree species with the most points at the end of 3 or 4 Revolutions(players choose at the beginning of the game) is the greatest species in the forest.
In Photosynthesis, a round is each player taking a turn, and each round consists of two phases, the Photosynthesis Phase and the Life Cycle Phase. In the Photosynthesis phase the first player will move the sun to it’s next spot clockwise, creating the direction of light for the round. Players will then collect light points based on the trees they have on the board and the direction that the sun is shining. The playing area on the board for Photosynthesis is basically an octagon and within that octagon, there are circles, those circles will have leaves on them and the number of leaves on them represent how rich the soil is. The outside is the least rich, leading to the middle circle which is the richest. To start the game, players will place two small trees on the board from their available supply on the outermost ring.
An important thing in Photosynthesis to remember is that nearly everything is done 1-2-3. Small trees are 1, Medium trees are 2, Full size trees are 3. This goes for numerous thing, such as collecting of light. Small trees will collect 1 light point, Medium trees collect 2 and so on. This also counts for the shadows that your trees will cast. The direction of the sun matters in this game, and it changes 6 times per Revolution. So the sun shines on a small tree, it casts a shadow 1 space away from it in the direction of the sunlight, and if a small tree is in that spot, it will collect no light points. Medium trees cast shadows 2 spots away and so on. If a small tree were casting a shadow onto a Medium tree or Large tree, they both would collect their light points due to the larger tree standing above the smaller tree. I hope you can kind of see how this works as the game progresses, space gets tight and knowing and planning for the light becomes more and more important so you can collect your light points in order to do the second part of a round, which is The Life Cycle Phase.
The Life Cycle Phase is, well there is no other way to put it, is the meat of the game, this is where the players will take all of their actions to better their positions in the forest. You take those Light Points that you earned, and you put them to use. One thing you can use your Light Points for is to buy from your Player Board. You see, in Photosynthesis, not everything is available to you at all times, you have to use those Light Points to ready things to be put on the board. When you start the game, you have at your disposal 4 small trees(2 of which will be on the board when you start), 1 medium tree and two seeds. If you want more, you have to buy them off your player board according to the costs listed next to the item you want to purchase. Another thing you can do with Light Points is to plant one of those seeds that you have available to you. Remember that 1-2-3 rule? Well, you can plant a seed 1 spot away from one of your small trees already in the forest, or 2 spots away from a medium tree and so on. You can also grow a tree. If you have a seed in the forest, and you have a small tree available to you, you can spend 1 Light Point to grow that seed into a small tree. You can also grow a small tree to a medium tree for 2 Light Points, or a Medium Tree to the Large Tree for 3 Light Points. But remember, in order to do these growth actions, you have to have them available to you in your pool, not on your player board. This brings us to another interesting point, when you replace a seed or tree in the forest, the seed or tree that you replace does not go back into your supply, it goes back onto the lowest spot available for it on the player board. If there are no spots available, that seed or tree is removed from the game permanently. There is one last thing you can do on your turn in the Life Cycle Phase, and that is to retire a fully grown tree. When you retire a fully grown tree, which costs 4 Light Points, you receive a token with the matching amount of leaves on it as the spot that the tree vacates, these tokens are pre-ordered at the beginning of the game from highest value to lowest. If you retire a tree from a spot that no longer has scoring tokens, take one from the token pile lower than it. After you have spent all of the Light Points that you want to spend, or can spend, play passes to the next player. When everyone has finished their LIfe Cycle Phase, the first player passes to the next player clockwise and you start over again at the Photosynthesis Phase. If the Sun rotates back to it’s starting position for third or fourth time, remember, players choose at the start of the game, the game ends and the player with the most points wins.
Photosynthesis was a surprise hit, taking Gen Con by storm. It had some really nice press and solid reviews from those who had early access to it. More importantly, Blue Orange Games seemingly had enough to satiate most of the folks at the convention with reports of sales over 1k being batted around. It definitely has the look of a big convention seller, it has a fantastic table presence and can really be taught quickly to both non gamers and gamers alike, so demos are going to be a breeze with this one.
Theme wise, it’s a beautiful game and the theme really integrates wonderfully with the game play mechanisms of Action Point Allowance and Area Control. Every round is like a game of chess where you are trying to maneuver your species of trees to best take advantage of the light. But as I am playing this, I do forget the theme and it becomes a really well done abstract. In a lot of ways, the success of Photosynthesis, reminds me of Roxley Games’ Santorini, which has a super fun, unique theme, but really, it’s an abstract at heart. The way that the forest grows, the ebb and flow of the game, it really runs smoothly.
Photosynthesis really does start out quite slowly, with you only collecting a couple Light Points, as you really don’t have all that many options. As the game progresses though, you begin to see that ramp up. There are turns where you have 15-16 Light Points to spend, and it can even get a bit overwhelming because of that, but it works.
But, with that big ramp up, comes a big, sometimes dramatic ramp down, and sometimes the game just drops off a cliff. As you get towards the end of the game, you can see it coming, and while you plan the best you can, there is a rule in the game that says you can only perform an action on a circle in the forest, once per round, which is great, it limits a bunch of plant a seed, grow a tree, grow said tree again moves which could be pretty advantageous for those with the points, but that rule can also slow you down at the end and lead to some pretty unsatisfying final turns where you are basically just going to be blocking and growing instead of retiring trees because you just don’t have the ability to do so and it may benefit you more to prevent others from doing so. Now, this has not happened in every game to every player, some players planned it out and had things to do on their final turns, but I’d say half the players basically took the last couple rounds off and just gathered as many Light Points as possible in order to gain the 1 point per 3 Light Points at the end of the game, and in a game with a ramp up that works as fantastic as Photosynthesis has, that can be kind of a let down.
Components are top notch, and I was a bit skeptical when I saw that the trees were going to be cardboard standees, but you know what, no reason for that skepticism. The cardboard is sturdy and it holds up well and looks beautiful on the table while playing. The art and design on this were knocked out of the park. Yet another thing it has in common with Santorini you want to take this and play it where people can see it and where you may draw more people in.
I could really see Photosynthesis being one of those games where someone digs in, and learns the ins and outs of it and becomes really, really good, much like most other abstracts. There is strategy, sure the game play can be very tactical based on what your opponents do, and even more so at 3 and 4 players, but the strategy is there.
Your first plays of Photosynthesis will go long, 4 players count on an easy hour if not a bit longer at 3 Revolutions, I don’t recommend playing with 4 Revolutions until everyone is really solid with the game. The 4 Revolution game will even be a bit more denial oriented towards the end with the soil point tokens possibly running out, so the race to get those becomes even more urgent. So stick to 3 Revolutions until you are comfortable, then expand if you feel the need, I don’t know that we ever will again.
All in all, Photosythesis is a really well done bigger box game from a company that is known more for their lighter, smaller titles and I’m really hoping that this is a trend for them. They’ve got the Spiel des Jahres winning Kingdomino in their catalog, and now this. I’d say that things are really looking up for Blue Orange Games and I am really anxious to play more Photosynthesis and see what designer Hjalmar Hach has in store for us next.
The What Did You Play This Week Podcast was provided with a copy of Photosynthesis for this review from the publisher.