Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Artist: Sabrina Miramon
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
The theme for Photosynthesis is unique and not found in many Euros or abstracts. That is partially what drew me to the game in the first place. This deserves a mention since theme is not usually a main draw for me in gaming. Photosynthesis also has an outstanding production quality typical of Blue Orange games and that helped immensely in the visual appeal. In the game, you get trees of different color and height. Once on the main board, these trees look gorgeous as is the forest made out of these different trees. Of course, the aesthetic appeal alone is not enough to win me over. Reviews have been relatively positive for the game as well. So, when a local Math Trade came along, I picked up Photosynthesis.
From reading the rules, Photosynthesis feels very abstract and indeed, plays like an abstract. The game starts with a blank board with a hexagonal grid in the middle representing a patch of land that will eventually grow to become a fertile forest. Each turn, players will perform actions nurturing their trees in the forest by planting seeds and then growing their young sapling into a majestic tree. To grow from seeds to trees of different heights, these items must be “purchased” from individual player boards and made available so that they can be placed in the forest. Purchases are made using a form of currency in the game called light points. As the game progresses, players will first plant seeds they purchase and then “upgrade” their seeds into a level-1 trees. From there, trees can grow 2 more levels up to a height of 3. Once trees reach full maturity, they are then culled from the forest when they reach the end of their life cycle. This culling action is important since it is the only way to earn large chunk of victory points. Variety in scoring comes from where the tree is located during culling. Trees located in the outer-most ring in the hexagonal grid score the fewest points while trees in the middle score more points. Of course, trees planted in the middle are also highly competitive as these locations are limited and highly sought after.
What’s unique about the game, and also what I am impressed with, is how intuitive the mechanisms intertwine with the theme. It really deserves mention. For example, light points are required to grow the forest and cull the mature trees. Light points are harvested at the start of every round when the sun rotates around the board, bathing trees with sunlight, but also casting shadows on the forest. Depending on the position of the sun, trees exposed to the full sunlight will get light points according to how tall the trees grow. The length of the shadow from a tree depends on its height, and any tree that falls into the shade of a taller tree will not receive any light points unless they are taller than the tree casting the shadow. Thankfully, this blocking mechanism is temporary because as the sun moves to the next edge of the board, the shadow it casts will now switch directions and trees previously blocked will now get sunlight while other trees will now be under the shade. Since the array on the board are hexagonal, the sun will move around the board in six different positions for one complete revolution. This is really cool, very thematic and makes complete sense.
Because of the strong competition for favorable spots in the forest, there is plenty of player interaction mainly in the form of choice denial. If I choose a spot that yields a higher value victory point chit, I am also denying my opponents a chance to grab that spot. Overall, the turnover for trees is a little slow though. Trees must progress from seeds to full maturity and that takes at least 6 rounds of sustained nurturing and growth to reach that stage before final culling. So once a spot is occupied, don’t expect that slot to be vacant for a while. Moreover, there is a tendency for players to not cull mature trees immediately. There is a constant tension between culling trees to score victory points versus keeping them around to harvest maximum amount of light points. That is part of what makes the game pretty interesting and challenging.
Yet, for all the qualities that makes Photosynthesis great, it also makes the game dry. It is almost unfair to describe the game in this particular way, but during the game, I did not feel engaged. The actions while intuitive, feel rote and mechanical. The actions selection choices are pedestrian and a bit lackluster. You usually have enough light points to buy a tree and maybe upgrade another one. Once a number of seeds and trees are planted, the majority of the decisions will depend on how you want to structure your growth in a sustainable way to yield victory points, and a constant stream of light points for your actions. You cannot advance your growth in a uniform manner. There are only two level-3 trees available and while you can cull those for points, you need a pipeline of small and mid-level sized trees to give you light points. However, once the pipeline is set up, the game feels rather automatic. You choose the trees you want to grow, then work toward getting up to level-3 before taking victory points. Once in a while, you will lament that your tree is being blocked by others, but that’s likely only a temporary annoyance.
The game is also structured such that by the time you hit round 3, there is really not enough time to plant new seeds and grow more trees. As noted, it takes a while to get the tree to level-3. Mid-level trees don’t really score points and if you have a ton of those end of game, it feels like sub-optimal planning. You do however get victory points for remaining light points, but at an unfavorable rate (3:1). So, once the game hits the third round, instead of climaxing and roaring toward the finish line, everyone is limping toward the end, cutting down their tallest trees while ignoring the smallest ones. The once magnificent forest is a pale shadow of itself. It feels like something needs to be done with the scoring matrix, but I am not quite sure what that is.
Photosynthesis is a decent game, but just one that did not excite us much. Frankly, I am a little surprised the game wasn’t more engaging and we felt it was missing something. There was no excitement or spark from playing the game. I am not quite sure how best to describe it other than we didn’t have much of a desire to pull it back down from the shelf for further replays.