Off the Shelf #13: Photosynthesis

Lucky #13 in this series, and today we’re looking at

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Photosynthesis is a 2-4 player game designed by Hjalmar Hach, and published by Blue Orange Games. It first came out in 2017, and has pretty much stayed in print since then, with an expansion (Under the Moonlight) being released in 2020. The game is all about planting trees in such a way that they’ll get the most sunlight and score you lots of points in the process.

This game was on my radar since it came out because it’s so pretty. I got my copy in a math trade in 2021, among a few others. I’ve only gotten to play it once since then, a two-player game with my wife. Other than that, it hasn’t made an appearance on my table until now.

At the start of the game, each person gets a player board where they will track their sun and store their trees. You have seeds, small trees, medium trees, and large trees. Most of these will start the game on your player board, but two seeds, four small trees, and one medium tree start to the side in your “available area.” From the available area, players will take turns placing two trees (one at a time) on the board. You’ll also set the sun segment in its starting spot.

Player board – image by BGG user skalexBoard

In each round (of which there will be 18), the first thing you’ll do is collect light points. Any tree that isn’t blocked from the sunlight gets one light point. A tree is blocked if it has a tree of greater or equal height within range in front of you. Small trees block one space right behind it, while medium trees block two spaces and large trees block three spaces. If there’s a tree in that range that is not taller than the tree in front of it, it won’t score. Small trees score one light point, medium trees score two, and large score three. Seeds don’t score, even if they’re unblocked.

After this, each player will (in turn order) take actions based on what they can afford. You can spend your light points on buying trees from your board to add to your available area. You can spend light points to grow trees or seeds that are already out on the board to their next level. You can spend one light point to plant a seed on the board that you’ll hopefully grow into a new tree – these go within range (1-3 spaces) of a tree you already have on the board. You can also spend four light points to remove a large tree from the board and score based on the soil type it was planted in.

Once all players have taken their turn, the sun rotates to the next spot, and the whole thing happens again. After six turns, the sun will have returned to its original position, meaning one day has passed. After three days, the game is over and players add up their scoring tokens, plus one point per three light they have remaining (rounded down). The player with the most points wins.

Game in play – image by BGG user Orange Wizard

Photosynthesis is a game that falls into the category “abstract strategy games with a theme.” Many abstract games have no theme at all (such as Blokus, the GIPF series, Otleuchtend leuchtendo, Checkers, Go, etc). Abstracts with a theme have been around for a long time (i.e. Chess), but seem to be getting more popular lately, especially with games like Santorini, Patchwork, Azul, Hive, and so on. Usually, the theme serves as more of a framing device for the mechanics.

Photosynthesis is one of those abstracts whose theme seems speisential for the experience. I can’t imagine the mechanisms of trying to catch the sunlight, or growing taller to get more and block with any other theme. Still, it has other hallmarks of abstract games – no luck, a focus on strategy, and perfect information among them. In the case of this game, theme is more of a look and feel of the game, rather than any kind of story. The trees help you visualize what can and can’t get light, and rather than doing something like reforesting an area, you’re just trying to score points.

The components are the highlight of this game, for sure. It looks very attractive sitting on the table, with all the three dimensional trees popping up all over the table in their different colors. It’s a lovely game. The theme does shine through in the components.

The main focus of this game is this act of getting light. Light is your currency, and you have to place your trees in order to get as much as you can. But first you need to acquire trees, and that costs light. Then you need to plant them, and that costs light. Then you need to grow them, and that costs light. Once they get up to the tallest level, you need to collect them, and THAT costs light. So, the more light you can get, the more you’ll have to do your acquiring and planting and growing and collecting. It’s a little bit of a process to get that schmaline going, but this is a feature of a lot of economic games – you start with a little, which you then have to invest in order to get more.

There are a couple of different mechanisms used here in service of that process of getting light. One is the rotating sun mechanism. The sun lights from different directions each round, meaning trees will be getting light in a perpetual day cycle – maybe we’re in Northern Alaska in summertime? But just putting a tree in a spot isn’t enough to get light, you also need to have it out of the shadow of other trees. I can’t think of too many games that use this size blocking mechanism (Topiary is one), but it’s one I like.

Unfortunately for me, though I like the individual pieces in play here, Photosynthesis is kind of a bust for me. To me, I think it comes down to a couple of factors. One is that it can get pretty cutthroat. That in itself isn’t awful, but it can be frustrating. Another, and probably the biggest problem I have, is that it feels like there’s one too many steps involved. It comes down to the economic nature of the game, and that you have to buy trees, then plant trees, then grow trees, spending light the whole time. It just feels kind of tedious to me after a while, and the paying of light to make trees available doesn’t really make sense with the theme.

Because you’re deciding how to spend your light each turn, the game becomes similar to an action points game. These games are notorious for slowing down a lot when people have to decide what to do, and that’s definitely the case in Photosynthesis. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting for someone else to make a decision. The Analysis Paralysis can get bad here. That’s more of a people problem than a game problem, I suppose, but it is an issue to bring up.

So, overall, even though the game is pretty and I like individual parts of it, the whole is not a game I particularly want to play more. But I probably should try it again before making a final determination about whether or not to keep it around.

image by BGG DarkmanG6

Updating my rankings for this Off the Shelf series, and I’ll be putting this currently at #12, right behind Lost Cities and in front of Apples to Apples. Remember, you can check the current rankings on the tab at the top of the page.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading!


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