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How to Play – Photosynthesis

How to Play Photosynthesis

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of Photosynthesis by Hjalmar Hach, published by Blue Orange. You know the one. It’s the funky-looking game with 3D trees of varying sizes, shapes and colours.

Photosynthesis plays on the theme of trees converting light into a chemical energy for themselves, which can then be released for them to grow. Light, therefore – coming directly from the sun – is the currency in this game. The aim is to first absorb light as the sun moves across the sky. Then players need to efficiently use it in an action-selection manner, to grow their trees or scatter seeds for fresh saplings to emerge within the clustered forest landscape.

There is certainly an abstract element present here, with timing being key to success. The sun will rotate around the board three times, and whoever has earned the most points by the end is the winner. So, without further ado, let’s pull back the curtains and shed some light on how to play Photosynthesis…


Photosynthesis can accommodate between two to four players. Place the main board in the centre of the table and give each participant a player board, their trees and seeds (that match their board colour).

Trees come in three sizes – small, medium and tall. Each player should place their two tall trees on the right-hand side of their player board, three medium trees next to them, then four small trees, and finally four seeds on the left.

Each player will, as a result, now have one medium tree, four small trees and two seeds left over. These sit adjacent to their player board in their ‘Available Area’; these are the active pieces they have to start the game. Then give each player a Light Point Tracker disc. This sits on the zero on their Light Points Track.

Separate the four types of scoring tokens, according to their leaf numbers/shade of green. These range from high-value dark green down to lower-value sandy beige. Then, sort each of these four types of tokens into descending order, with the highest value being at the top of each stack. Keep these within arm’s reach of the board. [NOTE: In a two-player game, scale down by not using the dark green/four-leaves scoring tokens.]

Place the Sun Segment over the sun symbol corner of the main board to start. You can also place the yellow Revolution Counters (numbered one, two and three) by this corner of the board, to remind all players which round of the three you’re currently playing.

Pick a start player and give them the First Player Marker. Youngest? Oldest? The person that most recently planted a tree? Alternatively, you could just do what I do and use Chwazi, a smartphone touchscreen app that randomly picks someone.

The hexagonal forest consists of a series of circles, being spaces where trees can be planted. In turn order, players get to place one of their small trees from their Available Area in one of the circles on the outer edge of the forest (meaning the sandy/one-leaf zone). No two trees may share a space. Then all players get to place a second small tree in this outer region. Now you’re ready to get going with the sowing!

Rules Breakdown - The Photosynthesis Phase

Rounds are split into two phases – the Photosynthesis Phase (where players count how many Light Points they’ve earned from their planted trees), and the Life Cycle Phase (where players then get to spend said Light Points in an action-selection manner).

The key to the Photosynthesis Phase is the location of the sun, and importantly, which direction its rays are beaming. The forest takes the form of a hexagon, with six outer angles. To start the game, you will have placed the Sun Segment so it’s sitting next to two of the hexagon’s six faces. There are arrows on the Sun Segment, and they’re pointing towards the forest. This is where the light is shining.

Since the Sun Segment spans the width of two hexagonal faces, it will shine across the entire width of the board. Therefore, in the Photosynthesis Phase, you need to check each of the seven rows to see which trees catch any sunlight.

Players get Light Points – let’s call them LPs – depending on the size of the tree that can see the sun. Small trees get one LP each, medium trees get  two LPs and tall trees get three LPs. Seeds score nothing. However, you need to take into consideration any shadows that might be cast…

Every tree creates a shadow in the following circles behind it, when the sun shines upon them (just like in real life)! Small trees cast a shadow of one space, medium trees cast a shadow of two spaces, and tall trees cast a shadow of three spaces long.

As a result, if any trees of the same or lesser height are in another tree’s shadow (including their own species of tree), that shadowed tree will not earn any LPs during this phase, because the Sun Segment does not ‘shine’ onto it.

The one exception is if a taller tree stands behind a shorter tree, still within its shadow. Why? Because the top of that tree still catches the sun’s rays, so it earns its corresponding LPs.

All players work out the LPs that they’ve gained this turn and move their LP Tracker to the correct number on their player board. Now it’s time to move into the Life Cycle Phase…

The Life Cycle Phase

The person with the First Player marker goes first. They get to spend their LPs in an action selection manner that they feel best suits them. Then, in clockwise order, the next player gets to spend their LPs, and so on and so forth. There are five possible actions that players can do, all with varying costs…


Players can spend LPs on ‘buying’ more trees or seeds from their player board. Costs are shown in a yellow circle next to the spot where the trees and seeds sit. Players always buy from the bottom up – meaning they’ll be buying the cheaper options first. As an example, the bottom-most seed costs one LP, while the bottom-most medium tree costs three LPs.

Once players have bought trees or seeds, these then sit in the player’s Available Area. Remember, each player starts the game with a range of trees and two seeds already in their Available Area.

Plant a Seed

If you have a seed in your Available Area, you can pay one LP to plant it on the board. This seed will ‘fall’ from one of your trees on the board, planted in a previous turn. Depending on the height of the tree you wish it to fall from, this results in the radius in which you can place this seed. If it falls from a small tree, that’s one space away. A medium tree allows up to two spaces away, and a tall tree allows the seed to fall up to three spaces away.

All of this is shown, handily, on your player board in case you forget during the game.

Grow a Tree

You can spend LPs to ‘grow’ your current trees on the board. Seeds grow into small trees, small trees into medium-sized ones, and mediums into tall trees. It’s like watching Mother Nature doing her thing (if Mother Nature was a giant hand, swooping into a wooded area to swap the trees about).

In order to grow trees, however, you must have the required next tree-size up sitting ready in your Available Area. To grow a seed into a small tree, it costs one LP. Growing a small tree into a medium one costs two LPs, and then a medium into a tall tree costs three LPs. Again, all of these costs are printed on your player mat.

The tree (or seed) that has been replaced by the bigger variety goes back onto the most expensive vacant spot on your player board (for that particular tree or seed type). If your player board is full of that size of tree or seed, then it’s removed from the game.

It’s worth noting at this point that players cannot activate more than one action within the same circle on the board in one turn. For example, even if a player had all the appropriate tree sizes in their Available Area (and LPs to spend), they cannot grow a seed into a small tree and then that small tree into a medium tree on the same turn. They’d have to do that over the course of two turns… Even Miracle-Gro doesn’t work that fast.

Neither could they, say, grow a small tree into a medium one, and then pick the medium tree to then drop a seed in that same turn. They could opt to grow the small tree into a medium, and then drop a seed from a different tree, of course.


The main way to score points in Photosynthesis is by ‘collecting’ points, which is when you decide to end the life cycle of a tall tree. This costs four LPs. While it might seem sad to chop it down, you should embrace your inner lumberjack and not your inner tree-hugger, because this is key to winning the game.

The forest consists of four rings of circles – the outer sandy, one-leaf one, all the way to the solitary dark-green, four-leaf spot. Once the tall tree has been removed (and returned to your player board in the same fashion as growing a tree), look at which ring in the forest it sat.

Remember those four types of scoring tokens from set-up? You get to take the top-most scoring token from the zone in which your tree resided. These gradually decrease in value, making this an efficiency race.

If there are no scoring tokens of that ring type left, you take the token from the next pile down.

Pass Early

Sometimes you might have a poor round, in which you earn a pitiful number of LPs. Or maybe you scored a decent number of LPs, but you’re just one short of being able to do everything you wanted… Happily, you don’t have to spend them all this turn. They can be stockpiled over into the next turn, and added to the LPs you earn later on.

It goes without saying, that for all of the other four actions, once you have spent LPs, players should move their LP Tracker disc down that number of spaces on their track.

End of the Round, End of the Game

Once all players have finished spending their LPs for the turn, the Sun Segment moves clockwise around the board to the next point of the hexagon. Now it shines across the forest in this direction. The First Player marker is also passed to the next player clockwise, and the Photosynthesis Phase begins again, followed by another Light Cycle Phase.

This will continue until the Sun Segment has gone around the board three times. By our maths, that’s a total of 18 rounds. There are Sun Revolution Counters numbered one, two and three, so each time the Segment passes the starting point you can reveal the next counter to alert all players which round it is.

At the end of the Sun Segment’s third loop around the board, players add up the points they have earned by Collecting. Also, in the final round, if players have leftover LPs, they can opt not to spend them. For every three unused LPs, they’ll earn a point. Whoever has the most points wins the game!

Further Hints & Tips

  • Remember that the sun is constantly rotating around the board. Sometimes a bad turn – where your trees are sitting in shadows right now – will be a great turn later when the shoe is on the other foot and the shadows are cast the other way!
  • Similarly, sometimes sacrificing a turn (saving your LPs and passing early) to then have a mega-turn during the next Life Cycle Phase can make a massive difference.
  • Don't be too precious over losing some of your small trees or seeds due to not being able to place them back onto your player board after the Growing action. Your extra medium tee is useful, though, so try not to throw that one away.
  • While it’s tempting to Collect from your tall trees as soon as possible to snaffle up the points, remember that they offer a fantastic opportunity to gain LPs. If you ‘chop’ it down now, that’s a potential three LPs you won’t earn in the next Photosynthesis Phase. Timing is key.
  • Also remember that it takes a certain number of turns to grow trees into tall ones that can then collect points. You don’t want to leave it too late to do this, because you can only activate the same circle on the board with one action, per turn.