Dale Yu: First Impressions of Photosynthesis Under The Moonlight Expansion

Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight Expansion

  • Designer: Hjalmar Hach
  • Publisher: Blue Orange
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 60 minutes per game
  • Played with review copy provided by Blue Orange USA

Photosynthesis was one of the games that really captured my attention in 2017 – the combination of the strategy of placing the trees combined with the beauty of the 3D cardboard trees on the board made it a very captivating experience.  I reviewed a final prototype of the game way back when – you can read it here.

Three years later, an expansion has been added to the game.  Now, players have to watch both the Sun’s and the Moon’s effect on the forest.  There are three different modules included in this expansion – the Moon and the Forest Animals is the main expansion, and the other two modules can be added independently and can also be combined.  You will need the base game of Photosynthesis to play this expansion.  In case you don’t remember how to play the base game, I’ll quickly revisit the rules of the base game (in black), and I will add in the rules for the three expansion modules, The Moon and Forest Animals, The Great Elder Tree, and Moonstones.  Each expansion’s information will be color coded as above:

In the Photosynthesis, 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 moon starts on the point opposite the center of the sun marker, Half-moon side up.  Each player gets 2 animal boards, chooses one to keep, and then takes the matching animal meeple and places it on any central 3-leaf space that does not already have an animal on it.  The last player in turn order placed the Great Elder Tree on any empty space.  If you are playing with the Moonstones, each player gets a supply based on player count, and they are placed on any empty spaces one at a time going in reverse order until all are placed.

 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. In this phase, the Moon also moves at the same time, but it moves counterclockwise (the sun moves clockwise) – always at a distance of  5 spaces.  When the Sun and the Moon pass each other, the Moon is flipped over (alternating between the Half Moon and the Full Moon side).

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.   The Moon also shines its light on the board but only down the two specific paths as noted by arrows on the moon.  Any animal in the moonlight’s path gains 1 lunar point for a Half-Moon and 2 lunar points for a Full Moon.  Trees do not block the moonlight (unlike sunlight), with the exception that the Great Elder Tree DOES block the moonlight.  Keep track of your Lunar points on your animal board, and you will note that you can never have more than 14 Lunar points.  The Great Elder Tree is an obstacle which simply blocks both sunlight and moonlight.  It blocks both types of light and animals may not be moved into this space.  Moonstones also block sunlight, but only for small trees directly behind them.  They, however, amplify moonlight.  If a moonstone is in the path of moonlight, any animals which are on an adjacent space receive the 1 or 2 Lunar points.  Furthermore, if Moonstones are adjacent, the ability will chain and multiple Moonstones can be activated at once.


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).

Using your Forest Animal – Each animal can move to an adjacent space during this phase.  You can move into a space containing a Tree or a Seed, but you cannot move into a space with another animal, a Moonstone or the Great Elder Tree.  If you want, you can use your animal’s ability once in this phase as well.  Each animal has a unique ability, and there are multiple levels of action strength – each with their own cost in Lunar points.  The general description of the animal abilities:

  • Badger – Grow a seen into a Small tree
  • Beaver – Grow Trees by building a Dam on a space touching the river
  • Boar – collect trees on the space where it is and possibly planting a seed
  • Fox – Move another player’s animal or a seed, possibly stealing light points
  • Hedgehog – Move again and plant a seed
  • Owl – Convert lunar points into light points
  • Squirrel – Move forward and eat an opponent’s seed
  • Turtle – Use special Baby Turtle tokens which are placed on the 6 beach spaces

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.   You also score 1 point for each Lunar point left over.  The Turtle player, if he has exposed the 3VP baby turtle token, would score those points now as well.  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

I was a pretty big fan of the base game in my initial review, and as what happens with most games, it has been resigned to only an occasional play after the initial flurry.  This is certainly not a reflection on the quality of the game but rather a reflection on the number of new games that we get to play and review here.  While we do try to make a point to go back and play older games from time to time, my regular group is mostly dominated by more recent releases.

When a game gets an expansion, it’s a good chance to break out one of those older games and give it another whirl.  The fact that I still owned a copy of the base game with which to play the expansion on is saying something by itself – I often have to turn down expansion reviews because I don’t have the base game anymore!

I commented on the elegance of the original game – and as you would expect, the addition of more rules does take away somewhat from that sense.  While the game is no longer as simple, it does gain a level of complexity which many will find more interesting.  I have played the game with Moon and Forest Animals expansion on its own as well as with all 3 modules combined, and for my tastes, I prefer all three modules in play.    In my few plays with only the Moon and Animals, some players had a hard time getting enough Lunar points to really use their Animal Abilities.  The Moonstones help players gain Lunar points easier, and I think that improves the experience.  Sure, the Great Elder Tree does block all light, but it adds an interesting layer of strategy as you have to work around its effects.

As far as the animals go, I generally like the idea of the Animal actions, though I personally would choose to leave out the Squirrel and the Fox.  I’m not a big fan of targeted attacks, especially when not all players have access to those same effects.  Sure, all the animals have their own ability which is unique from the others, but I’d personally prefer to not use those which allow specific targeted negative actions.  Of course YMMV, and you are free to use whichever you like.

Adding the Moon and the Animals to the game certainly makes it a bit more complex, and it gives each player their own personal strategy to follow.  As they are dealt out randomly, you can’t necessarily plan on getting a particular animal, so you will have to explore the different strategies afforded by your animals.  The addition of the animals does seem to accelerate the game somewhat, but not to an uncontrollable amount – maybe 10 percent at most?  Again, it is important to read what your animal’s special ability is so that you can maximize its unique action.

The expansions add maybe ten or fifteen minutes total to the game, so we can still usually finish in under an hour, and for me, that is still in my sweet spot.  The game remains easy to teach, though you may need to spend a minute going over the special actions of the animals…  The expansion makes the game a bit more chewy for a more serious gaming session while the base game remains accessible as an entry game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it – Dale Y
  • Neutral
  • Not for me…

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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