Photosynthesis

2-4 players, Competitive, Tree Growing Strategy Paradise

Designer: Hjalmar Hach

Artwork: Sabrina Miramon

Publisher: Blue Orange Games

Release Year: 2017

Origin Story

I first heard of Photosynthesis a little over a year ago whilst suckling down a piping hot cup of coffee. At the time I was a little more interested in NOT burning the flesh off the inside of my mouth but I do remember thinking, “hmmmmmm, a game where you grow trees……I haven’t tried that one yet”. I FINALLY got the opportunity to play through a few games, did Photosynthesis…GROW on me? Read on my friends, read on.

Overview of Gameplay

So as alluded to above, you can grow some serious trees in this game. Actually, that’s your primary objective if you hope to achieve victory! This game plays up to four players, each with a different style of tree (this is just for differentiating the players, no different abilities) and you are each working on building up your forest of trees in the most efficient way possible. You see each turn players will receive a certain amount of sunlight points based on if the sun hits their trees or not. Small trees gain 1 point each, medium trees are 2 points and large trees are 3 points each. The catch to all this is that the sun MOVES each round and if any of your trees fall in the “shadow” of another tree of the same size or bigger then you receive zero points for those trees.

After you collect whatever points you gain, you can then spend them, in turn order, on “upgrades”. You can purchase more trees from your player board, plants some seeds on the main board, “grow” your trees on the main board using your purchased trees or even cash in one of your big trees for big points. After each player does this, the sun around the outer edge of the board will rotate a few degrees clockwise casting new shadows over the forest. Then you rinse and repeat! After 4 revolutions of the sun (aka: Rounds) the game ends and you calculate points based on the tree tokens you have collected and your placement on sun points. As per usual, the highest score wins!

Now this all sounds really simple, and it really is to be honest. However, yes there is a however, the game is incredibly strategic and with that clever strategy comes a very clever deepness. So, when you “grow” a tree you will always replace the smaller version with the next version up. Seed < Sapling < Tree < Behemoth Birch, something like that. However, when you remove the smaller piece you are to place it on your player board space at the highest EMPTY spot designated for it. Here’s the thing, your player board starts FULLY stocked so there are no free spaces and players all start with two trees on the board with a few more available on the side. This instantly creates a situation where if you don’t plan ahead a bit, you won’t have any spaces on your player board to return trees! So, what happens to those rogue trees? They are returned to the box, never to be seen again! This is just a touch of the strategy you will find here, the tip of the proverbial pine so to speak. I’ll discuss more of that sly strategy coming up.

Components/ Game Board

This is one of those games that doesn’t REALLY need grandiose components to be great.  The trees are cardboard pieces that you put together and the score tokens are just round cardboard pieces. The “sun” that you move around the board is also just a larger cardboard component that you have to prop on the edge of the board to move. Nothing fancy at all here, but, the game still looks amazing! The trees are different sizes and even different styles and shapes and colors depending on player. Once players start getting their trees on the game board and replacing them with the bigger version you literally create a cascading forest of gorgeousness, without the need for lots of fancy components.

The game board itself is on the smaller size and it can easily be fit on a standard kitchen table. Even with the large player boards you should have no trouble popping this baby up to play with room to spare. On my 4×6 foot table we had to play at one end of the table for a four player game just so everyone could reach across. The board is easy to understand and works nicely with the trees and scoring with the leaf symbols printed on the spaces. The only thing that I wish was actually upgraded is the Sun mover. I love this idea but I hated having to move and situate the sun every round, as lazy as that sounds. It just came off as fiddly for me. I would go wild for a “deluxe” version of this board with the sun actually built into the board with some kind of mechanism to move it.

Box/Storage

I do wish a little more was done with the storage solution. The game comes packed with four cardboard separators to, you guessed it, separate the four batches of player components. Unfortunately it doesn’t come with any baggies to store the various tokens such as the sun light counter or score tokens. As it stands you end up just tossing all the assembled trees into their respective section together and the tokens will need to be bagged up or you will have to dig for those. THAT SAID, I honestly cannot think of a better way to store bookoos of cardboard trees without damaging them or disassembling them over and over.

The board and sun mover sit atop the separators, but not very snugly so you may have some movement of those. But honestly after packing this game up multiple times and giving it a hearty shake and tipping it this way and that, I did not have any of the trees jump into a different section of the box. Thinking back on it, the storage solution here is kinda like the components in general, not the most elegant but perhaps the best choice based around the game.  

Visual Appeal /Theme

Now this is where the game hits on all, uhhhh, 4 cylinders? 6? I’m not sure what good is anymore to be honest. BUT, the game hits ALL those cylinders let me tell ya. Those trees look marvelous and if you have a full four players all partaking in a game then you can really create a beautiful arrangement. The theme isn’t all that interesting for me personally but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work with the mechanics, just the opposite in fact! The way you spend the sun light points to plant seeds and eventually grow those seeds into small saplings and even further growing into large trees is very well done. The mechanics work perfectly and they even make sense intertwined with this theme.

Rulebook

The rulebook is little more than about 3 pages of information on how to play. The game is very simple to learn so you really don’t need an overwrought gaggle of info here. What is there however is easy to understand and does a good job of getting you into the game. At first I was dismayed that there weren’t any player round reference cards until I realized that all the actions were printed right on the player boards. The player board actions are not spelled out for you but they use pictures to describe the actions and it’s all rather intuitive. For example, growing a tree from a seed to the largest size has a row of the different tree sizes with the cost. Once you understand the actions it’s as simple as glancing to your player board to figure out what you want to do.

Player Interaction/Fun Factor

Now this is an intriguing take on player interaction. Because trees can effectively block point generation from other trees in their “shadow” it becomes almost a battle of placement. An AP prone person could sit for a lengthy amount of time debating on the perfect placement based on where the sun is going to be and the abundance of current trees or seeds in the area. Luckily the game board isn’t overly huge so there aren’t a million options to drag the game down with decision. Not only that but since the sun ends up revolving around the entire board it comes down to more of a timing strategy than a placement strategy in my experience.

So, players will be fighting over locations to place and those inner rings of placements are juicier in the points department but also more limited than the outside areas. Players could plant seeds and grow trees to block other trees to limit the amount of points that they receive during a specific round. That said, there isn’t any “take that” in the game and it doesn’t feel mean. It’s hard to feel any meanness from a game where you are growing a forest honestly. BUT, it is very strategic! I actually felt clever when I planted a seed in a specific spot only to later in the game finally grow it to a full tree and start really cashing in on the sun light points. And then the choice of whether to cash the large tree in for that juicy high point token at the cost of the tree being removed from the board, which effectively kills the sun point generation of it. There are a bunch of options on strategy here BUT I found myself wanting a bit of asymmetry between the trees. Each tree is a little different looking, there are pines and uhhhh yellow trees and orange trees and green trees…..which I think are weeping willows perhaps…. Anyway, it would be awesome if each different batch of trees had at least one specific trait pertaining to that species of tree. Like some kind of ability that set them each apart from the next and offered a bit of a deeper play experience.  

Optimal Player Count/Replay Value

I think the game plays well at all player counts from 2-4 however I really love the look and feel of a 4 player game. When you get all four colors of trees on the board it really fills out and looks spectacular. You will also run into much more competition for space at the 4 player count and the point tokens will be gobbled up much quicker. At two players you each have more space to place on and it feels more of a laid back experience. You can still get in the other players way easily enough since the board is smaller but you don’t have to.

The replay value is so-so. There is a bunch of strategy to uncover as far as methods to go about planting seeds and where but since all four of the trees in the game are identical you don’t really get a new experience playing as a different color. This is where I think the game would benefit the most with the slightly different tree traits by adding something that would bring players back to continue trying out new trees and strategies.

Positive Final Thoughts

Photosynthesis is a beautiful game and the mechanics are perfectly wrapped around the theme to create a very engaging game. It offers quite a bit of strategy coming from a pretty simple rule-set of actions. Because of this just about anyone can jump in and start playing the game very quickly. I taught my 9 year old in about 10 minutes and we were up and playing!

Negative Final Thoughts

The replay value is pretty low and I wish the four different tree styles had something to set them apart from one another beyond their looks. I think that would go a long way to create more replayability and overall deepness. Also, I wish the sun mover piece was somehow integrated into the board itself although this isn’t a deal breaker by any means.

The Bottom Line

Overall I like the game! It does fill a small niche in my collection and offers an interesting play on strategy that is also very beautiful to behold. However, I will always be yearning for some kind of variance to each individual tree player to shake things up a bit. That said, if you are wanting to break out a simple-ish, easy to learn game that is also just a pleasure to look at, this is it!

The Fuzzy Llama Bronze Seal of Prevalence

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