PLAYlist 24: Photosynthesis

Apr 27, 2018 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share

When a week is bookended by Earth Day and International Tabletop Day, there’s nary a better game we could spotlight than Blue Orange Games' gorgeous, award-winning Photosynthesis – especially when you look at the calendar and realize that it’s Arbor Day, as well. Join us, won’t you, as we celebrate trees, mother nature, and board games with the most tree-licious, mother natur-al board game out there: Photosynthesis, from designer Hjalmar Hach and artist Sabrina Miramon.

Now, I hate to be shallow. I usually reserve my thoughts on a game’s surface aesthetics until near the end of a review, but Photosynthesis is a game with serious curbside appeal. It’s a game that people will spot from across a room and feel compelled to come in for a closer inspection. I mean, just look at it!

Photosynthesis is beautiful. Once the game gets going, the board becomes a constantly-changing woodland area, with trees of four different colors popping up, growing tall, and being felled each and every turn. Photos don’t do justice to how good this game looks on the table.   

In Photosynthesis, you and your opponents will be growing a forest. You’ll earn points by growing the tallest trees and harvesting them. Where you place your trees – and how tall you grow them – will determine how many “light” tokens your opponents will have to spend growing their own trees and planting new ones. (Trees cast shadows, meaning that if there’s a taller tree between yours and the sun, it won’t get any sunlight. Makes sense, right?) Beneath Photosynthesis’ pretty, sylvan exterior lies a deceptively deep and strategic game. Don’t let the game’s good looks fool you into thinking it’s fluff; in a competitive group, it can be downright cutthroat.

At the start of the game, players will place their initial saplings around the border of the play field. Rounds run in two phases. In the first – the “photosynthesis” phase – the sun, represented by a large, crescent-shaped piece that slides right onto the edge your hexagonal board, will move into its next position and cast its solar rays across the board. Any trees with direct exposure – not blocked by another tree – will collect “light” points for its owner, in accordance with its size. Larger trees will collect more light points and cast larger shadows behind them, blocking more trees from sunlight. (Small trees block one space, medium two, and the largest three.)

In the second phase of a round – the “life cycle” phase – players can spend those light points to buy new seeds, plant them around their existing trees, or grow those trees to larger sizes. If they have a fully-grown tree, they can harvest it to draw a token worth more points the closer that tree was to the center of the board. (“Harvest” isn’t exactly the right word, as you’re not chopping the tree down or anything so eco-unfriendly, so much as it’s just falling down after having lived a long, happy life. That’s a much more zen thought, isn’t it?) When that’s all done, you’ll repeat the whole cycle over again until the sun has passed around the board three times. Or, four times, if you’re playing the rulebook’s advanced variant.

And with that, I’ve explained most of the game in only two paragraphs. It’s simple enough to learn and grasp, but in practice it’s almost chess-like. Photosynthesis rewards players who can think several turns ahead, working out mentally where the sun will be in future rounds and where their trees will be casting the most strategic shadows.

Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Photosynthesis is how impeccably its theme ties into the gameplay. This game could have been released with a much more abstract theme – something generic like, say, trying to build taller Egyptian obelisks than your opponents. (Ewwwww.) Instead, the designer found a theme that fits the mechanics as well as any game we’ve ever encountered. Everything you do in Photosynthesis makes sense if you’ve got a gradeschool understanding of how plants work. Sun = growth. Shadows = no sun. Seeds become trees which become bigger trees. Even the way the sun circles the board echoes the seasons. This is super sleek, and incredibly cool – plus, it makes the game very easy to teach, as the rules make so much sense.

Blue Orange Games’ Photosynthesis has a more-than-reasonable MSRP of $44.99. It’s for two-to-four players and takes under an hour, even amongst players who tend to overthink their moves. The box recommends it for ages eight and up, which feels about right – though, we wouldn’t rule out playing it as a family with slightly younger children. (My two-year-old loves lining up the trees according to size; we’ll give her the extra set to sit at the table and play with as the adults are going about a two- or three-player game.)

There's one more noteworthy element worth commending, and it’s that Photosynthesis is manufactured from recycled materials. If you’re like me, you probably wonder how many acres of rainforest went into your board game collection each time you’re punching out a sheet of cardboard chips. (I cringe to think that my Carcassonne meeples were likely at one time a stately, 100-year-old oak tree.) Given the game’s earth-friendly theme, it’s a nice touch and one that we’d love to see more publishers adopting. 

For this column’s playlist, we’ve stuck close to today’s arboraceous theme and collected an hour’s worth of songs about trees. (Cherry trees, sycamore trees, fake plastic trees – all kinds of trees!) May these tracks serve you well when you plant your next tree right in your opponent’s path of sunlight.

Happy Arbor Day, one and all!


Previous PLAYlist columns: Ice CoolFood Truck ChampionArs Alchimia & LemuriaA Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.


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