Dale Yu: Review of Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis

  • Designer: Hjalmar Hach
  • Publisher: Blue Orange
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 8+
  • Time: 45-60 minutes
  • Times played: 4, with review copy provided by Blue Orange USA

Photosynthesis is a beautiful game which caught my eye from all of the press releases starting all the way back with Eric Martin’s preview from Nuremberg.  But, as I’ve learned many times in the past – games cannot be judged just because they are pretty. I was happy to get a preview copy to see if the gameplay matches up to the beautiful pictures.

In the game, players vie to grow their trees higher than their opponents.  The board represents the forest where all the trees will grow.  Each player starts with a small sized tree on the sandy soil on the outside of the board.  Each player has a player board where his spare trees and seeds are stored.  (Each player starts the game with a few supplies). Additionally, there is a Light Point tracker on this board, each player starts at zero.   There are a number of scoring tokens in four shades of green – these match the colors of the spaces on the board.  Each pile is sorted with the most valuable tile at the top.

The sun is placed on the board in one of the corners of the hex shaped growing area.   The game will be played over the time it takes for the sun to circle the board three times (six stops per circle).   A game round is played at each stop of the sun – with two phases in each round: 1) Photosynthesis, 2) Life Cycle.

In the Photosynthesis phase, the sun is moved to the next location clockwise on the board and then Light points are counted.  Each tree which can see the sun will score Light Points – 1 point per small, 2 points per medium, 3 points per large.  Of course, the trees have to be able to see the Sun; they cannot be in the shadows of another tree.  Trees can cast a shadow of 1/2/3 spaces depending on its size.  However, a taller tree in a shadow will still see the sun as the shadow will not be big enough to obstruct the sunlight from hitting the taller tree.

In the Life Cycle phase, player now spend their light points on possible actions.

Buying Trees or Seeds – you can buy trees or seeds from your player board.  You must always buy the least expensive (bottom-most) of any size.  Place the purchased tree/seed to the side of your board to show that they are available for you to use them.

Planting a Seed – For a Light point, you can plant a seed 1/2/3 spaces away from a S/M/L tree.  You can only use each space on the board once during this phase, so you can only plant a seed once from a tree in a particular round.

Growing a Tree – you can make your trees bigger.  1 point for seed to Small. 2 points for small to medium.  3 points for medium to large.  You have to have the next size tree in your available area to make the change.  The old tree/seed in placed back on your player board in the most expensive available space for that type.

Collecting Score Tokens – You can choose to score your Large trees for 4 Light Points.  You remove the Large Tree from the board and place it back on your Player Board.   You then take the top scoring token of the pile that matches the color of the space your tree was on.  If the matching pile is empty, you take the top tile from the next lighter color (less valuable).

When all players have taken their actions, the start player is passed to the next player, and the next round starts with the Sun moving clockwise one position.  If the Sun has made a complete revolution, remove one of the revolution counters so that everyone knows where you are in the game.

At the end of the third revolution, the game is over.  Players count up the points on their Scoring Tokens.  You also get 1 point per every 3 unused Light Points at the end of the game.  The player with the most points wins.  Ties go to the player with the most seeds/trees on the board at the end of the game.

My thoughts on the game

After my first few plays of Photosynthesis, I have been struck by the elegance of the game; both for the visual presentation as well as the simplicity of the rules.  The game is gorgeous to look at, and it’s fascinating to watch the forest grow and morph during the course of the game.  As you can see from the rules description above, it doesn’t take a lot to explain the whole game rules-wise, but I can tell you after my first few plays with the game, there is a lot going on!

Each of the eighteen rounds in the game follow the same pattern which becomes second nature before the end of your first game.  The rotation of the sun around the board gives you a nice ebb-and-flow of activity from the sun.  You can plan for the movement of the sun and how that will affect the way that the light will reach your trees.  However, you cannot plan for the placement or growth of your opponent’s trees, so you always have to keep an eye out for potential blocking moves.

At the start of the game, you only have 2 little trees, and the challenge is to figure out how to get your Light point engine going.  There seem to be two obvious paths at the start of the game – either focus all your energy into growing a single tree as tall as possible – hopefully it will be tall enough to capture light at every sun position – or try to spread your tree seeds far and wide and hope to capture light from multiple sources on each turn.  In my first few plays, the former strategy seems to work well to get Light points as quick as possible, but there is less room for expansion; the latter takes longer to get going, but you definitely have an easier time later in the game growing trees in the locations where you want them to be.  As there is no way to forcibly remove an opponent’s tree or seed from a space; there is race to get to the desirable spaces on the board.

Location can be very important.  You’d like to be in a good location on the board in order to get sunlight in as many different sun phases as possible.  Later in the game, the more central spaces are quite valuable; though they will certainly be blocked for sun more often earlier in the game.  With the highest central spot being worth 22 points and the lowest outer space being worth only 12 – this is a very valuable change in VPs based on location!

You are limited to the pieces available on your player mat at the start of the game, and there is a quirky rule with the extra small trees and seeds that you start the game with – if you ever need to return a piece to your player mat (after an upgrade) and you cannot place it there because the mat is full, those starting pieces are simply discarded from the game.  Thus, a shrewd player can gain a small but measurable material advantage by carefully cycling his seeds and trees so as not to have to discard anything.  That player will not only have slightly more pieces to work with, he will also have a slightly lower cost for the pieces that he buys during the game.

Your pieces get more expensive as you empty your board, so you’ll have to also take this into account as you buy things from your supply…

Once you get your engine going, then the strategic focus shifts to figuring out how to score points.  For the most part, the only way to score meaningful points is to sacrifice a fully grown tree to get a scoring marker.  But, when you do this, you’re going to give up a space on the board… so, you’d like to maybe be able to plant a seed in that spot as you’re leaving it.  Additionally, you’re limited to only two fully grown trees, and if possible, you’d like to get that big tree repurchased and replaced on the board as soon as possible – you’ll be able to get more light points from the larger tree… and it gives you more opportunity to score more points.

Of course, you won’t be able to do all of these things on the turn where you sacrifice a tree, so you’ll have to make some difficult choices to continue to grow your own little portion of the forest. Sometimes it will take one or two turns to set up a nice big turn with plenty of Light points to use – because timing is everything.  You might not want to harvest a large tree on a particular turn because it is going to get you three valuable Light points at the start of the next turn; but then again, if you wait, you lose one eighteenth of the game’s opportunities to cycle through your trees.

As I mentioned at the top of the review, the pieces in the game are absolutely gorgeous, and it’s the kind of game that immediately draws interest just from being looked at.  I like the way that each of the players has a distinct tree species and color; it makes it easy to identify the pieces of each player but it also makes for a beautiful forest picture as the game is being played.  Like a real forest, the composition of the board wonderfully ebbs and flows as trees grow up and then come down.  

I’m glad to say the gameplay definitely matches the beauty of the game, and I can see this becoming a local favorite.  The rules are easy enough to explain in just a few minutes, and after my first games, I know that there is still a lot to be explored in the strategy of when and where to place and grow my trees.  Sure, I know it’s early to be talking about it- but I could easily see this on the short list for SdJ 2018.  It meets all of the criteria that I usually associate with recently nominated games.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

James Nathan (1 play): I found Photosynthesis quite interesting right from the initial draft placement and the first few turns: Should I play for income this round, next round, or the round after that? Should I mix throwing shade into that? Would it be better to maximize income for one turn, or try to spread it more evenly?  Venture seed into the middle for more points later, or hang towards the outside where there’s less risk of opponent shadows?

Later, I think it falls a little too much on the tactical side for me, as opponents’ tree placement and growth can be unpredictable. That said, I enjoyed the complexity of the system the game creates – to make two non-sequitur analogies: the part of me that loves checking for required road placements in Fresh Fish enjoyed looking over the light income each turn; the part of me that enjoys being along for the ride in Eklund games didn’t mind the chaos of the forest’s growth.

Mark Jackson (1 play): A classy design – but as I’ve thought about it, it’s essentially an abstract game with a compelling theme. While that works well with 4 players, I’m not sure how that would translate with two players. (Well, honestly, I’m not sure I would enjoy it with two players – your mileage would obviously vary.)

Dale is right, though – it’s a compelling game visually which develops in some lovely ways.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Craig V
  • I like it. James Nathan, Mark Jackson
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

 

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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7 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Photosynthesis

  1. I managed to play this last night as my FLGS managed to borrow a pre production copy. Have any of the OGs played the advanced variant? We played with this straight off the bat. It adds in a couple of new rules – firstly you play 4 rotations rather than 3. I am trying to remember the extra rule, but the rules aren’t online yet so I may get this wrong. When planting seeds and growing you can’t be in the shade, you have to be able to get light. Also you can’t do anything with a space twice on your go. So if you plant a seed from a tree, you then can’t grow that tree, or if you cull a big tree you can’t them immediately put a seed in the slot your big tree was before. These extra rules made for quite a mean game, with screwage abound. I dont like too much screwage, and can cope with some and it was fine for me. I think presuming I was always playing with gamers, I would always want to play the advanced variant.

    I’m wondering if we misunderstood the rules, or if it was another part of the advanced game, but we played that when returning something to your board, regardless of what it was, if there was no space it got discarded.

    • Louisa, the rule about not being able to do anything with a tree or a space twice on the same turn is in place for both the basic and the advanced games.

    • Also, the rule about discarding something if you don’t have space for it on your player board is in the basic game.

    • Dale Yu says:

      Louisa, we’ve actually only played the basic game thus far. We’re really enjoying it; it’s a great balance between complexity and elegance. Also, I’ve had at least one new player in every game so far, and I felt like I shouldn’t be introducing the non-basic game to them for a first game.

      In general, I am a believer in playing the basic game first before jumping into a more advanced version. For me, best to learn the basics and then move into the more complicated stuff.

      Of course, YMMV

      • My FLGS managed to borrow an pre-production copy and it was decided we would play the advanced game as we were all experienced gamers and there wouldnt be time to play the basic and then the advanced. I wasn’t the one who had read the rules etc. so I was happy to go along with whatever. Thanks for correcting me on the rules Eric, as I never actually saw them, but was taught it and couldnt remember exactly what was what.

  2. Mike Chipman says:

    Great review. Preordered.

  3. Pingback: Chris Wray: My Gen Con Most Anticipated List | The Opinionated Gamers

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