When I first heard about Photosynthesis, I had a hard time getting a clear view of exactly what sort of game it was. Any time I asked someone about it or read a post someone had made, the only solid information I could get was, “That game is gorgeous!” Very little on the gameplay or the genre—it was almost all about the aesthetics. You could almost say that people couldn’t see the forest for the…
… Y’know what? Never mind.
Anyway, even though I wasn’t really sure what sort of a game I was getting into, all the reviews had been positive, so I grabbed a copy and tried it out.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at Photosynthesis, a game that poses a perplexing question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it… who scores the points?
On its surface, Photosynthesis seems deceptively simple. Characters take turns using stored “light points” to purchase, plant, and grow the seeds of their individual species of tree. Then, the sun rotates around the board, shedding light in a new direction, and players score light points for each of their trees that isn’t in the shadow of another tree. Taller trees cast longer shadows and gather more light, and trees must be fully grown before they can be harvested for victory points. (Yes, oddly, a game that feels so green and eco-friendly on the surface requires you to remove your trees to actually score points. We found it amusing, because it just felt natural to refer to the removal of the tree to “harvesting it” or “chopping it down.”)
Once the sun has made three full revolutions (or four, in the extended variant), the game ends, and the player with the highest number of victory points wins.
While Photosynthesis seems simple, where and when you place your trees is very important. The spaces on the edges of the board will have fewer trees blocking them, but they are also less “fertile,” meaning when you harvest them, they award fewer victory points. Meanwhile, every action you take requires light points, so you have to learn to budget the scarce resources you have.
Players also have to decide when to “buy” seeds and trees from their player mats and place them into their available stockpile. Each time a player grows a tree, they replace their token on the main board with a token that’s one sized bigger and move the smaller token to the player mat. However, there are a limited number of spots on each player mat, and if there is no room for a token, that token is removed from play and is no longer available to buy or use for the remainder of the game.
The game is definitely fun, but it doesn’t really strike any of my personal gaming “pressure points” for me to score the gameplay higher than a 7. It’s not a game that I would say no to playing again, but there are other games I would prefer given the option. Of course, your tastes may differ.
Photosynthesis has a very pro-nature, eco-friendly theme to it, and the artwork gives it a very pastoral feel. The ability to block other players from receiving light points is definitely the stand-out mechanic, especially because it makes perfect sense within the context of the theme. In nature, taller trees block the light from reaching smaller trees, and the sun’s movement does a good job of mimicking plots that get better light at different times of the day.
(I still think it’s funny that chopping down trees is the way you score points, though!)
Visual/Physical Appeal (9.5/10)
The visual design of Photosynthesis is easily its greatest strength, in my opinion. Sabrina Miramon’s art is stunning, evoking the feeling of a virgin forest, untouched by man. Her use of light in the artwork ties strongly back to the game’s theme, where light is the player’s most valuable resource.
The little cardboard trees feel good in your hands, and it’s satisfying to swap out a mid-sized tree for one of the large ones. One thing that really stood out, though, is that the trees aren’t just carbon copies of each other, even within each player’s set. Some trees have birds nesting in them, some have squirrels exploring them, and others even have tiny foxes drawn at the base of the tree. These tiny touches have absolutely no impact on the gameplay, but they make the forest that the players are building seem more alive.
The decision to assign each player a different species of tree is a clever stroke, because it makes the game feel more authentic. Instead of building a forest with different colors of pine, one player is placing oaks whose seed stage is represented by an acorn, while another may be planting evergreens with cones. It’s a very nice touch.
I feel like the insert on this game, while simple, is very clever. With so many cardboard pieces, it’s no surprise that the game was essentially a large stack of cardboard punch sheets. The problem the team faced, however, is that the trees, once punched out and assembled, were three-dimensional and took up a lot more room. In order to make certain that the pieces fit inside the box when they shipped, before the pieces were punched, and after the pieces had been assembled, they included a simple “insert” that players could assemble themselves. This insert simply consists of four folded cardboard squares, each with a raised section on one corner. They come folded flat, but they can be unfolded and arranged to divide the box into four quadrants—one for each variety of tree—with a slightly lowered area in the middle that the board and player mats fit into, allowing the box lid to lay flat. So far, I haven’t had any problems storing the box either horizontally or vertically.
Setup Time (<5 minutes)/Play Time (45–60 minutes)
To set up the game, players choose their species of tree, fill up all the marked spaces on their player mats with trees and seeds, and set the remaining trees and seeds to the side for their available stockpile, which they can play immediately. It takes a few moments to organize the victory point tokens in the proper stacks, but beyond that, players just need to position the sun in its proper starting position on the corner of the board and they’re ready to go.
The box says the game takes between 30 and 60 minutes to play, but the 30 minute mark is almost exclusively going to apply to 2-player games unless no players suffer from analysis paralysis. If you’re playing with 3 or 4 people, I’d expect to spend about 45 minutes to an hour on this game.
Complexity (Rank 6)/Teach Time (~5 minutes)
The game is easy to teach and easy to learn, but it still requires some critical thought to actually do well. It took us a little while to wrap our heads around the fact that you spend light points to move the trees from your player mat into your stockpile, then spend light points to grow the trees on the board using the tokens that you’ve purchased. The mechanic makes sense, but we kept instinctively wanting to use the trees on our player mats directly to grow the trees on the main board. I felt that the “purchasing” mechanic needlessly complicated things just a little bit, but the others in my group didn’t seem to mind.
There is nothing about this game that prevents players from coming back to it over and over again, so if you enjoy it, you could play it repeatedly and enjoy yourself each time. I can see it getting stale if everyone keeps trying the same strategies every time, however.
As a whole, Photosynthesis is a fine game to sit down and play with your friends. The art does a lot to enhance the theme of the game, though gameplay doesn’t necessarily rely on that theme. It’s definitely a fun one that I’ll hopefully pull out from time to time, and I’m glad to have it in my collection. (Plus, it looks great on my shelf.) Even though it’s not likely a game I’ll plan a game night around, I still look forward to playing it again times in the future.
… Knock on wood.