In Photosynthesis you are sowing the seeds to grow a beautiful woodland. As the sun moves around the board each day, you will harvest more sunlight with larger trees, which might overshadow others in the forest.
Just by seeing the first images of Photosynthesis we knew it was a game we had to try. When it arrived, I relished the opportunity to punch out and assemble the cardboard trees that make this game look just as good, if not better, than most plastic miniatures games I’ve seen.
Photosynthesis has been winning awards for its presentation, but everything about that presentation is core to the gameplay - which is a fantastic feat for an abstract game.
At the start of the game each player will take turns planting a tree until everyone has two small trees along the outside of the board. Every round of the game, each tree that isn’t obscured by shadow will generate sunlight, which acts as a currency to grow and spread your trees.
Each player will then take turns spending their sunlight (or saving it for the future) before the round ends with the sun moving to its next position on the board. Once the sun makes a full rotation of the game board, a day has passed. The game typically ends at the end of the third day, though there is a long game option at four days long.
Sunlight can be spent in a variety of ways, each player has a hand and a player board, trees and seeds in your hand can be used, but in order to get them into your hand you have to spend some sunlight. The amount of sunlight increases both by the size of the tree and by the number of that tree type you have already removed from the board.
The second thing you can spend sunlight on is to plant seeds, so long as you have a seed in your hand you can plant it, the larger the tree you are planting it from the further the range of spaces you can plant in. Finally you can spend sunlight to upgrade trees, you can turn a seed into a small tree, a small into a medium, medium into a large or cut down a large tree to score points. For all but the last action you need to have a tree in your hand, the previous tree/seed gets returned to your player board.
Points are gained exclusively from having trees finish their life cycle, with more points being gained the closer you are to the centre of the forest. But you don’t necessarily want to rush in chopping down your trees, trees generate sunlight and bigger trees generate the most, not only that but they also case longer shadows, and if you manage to encompass an enemy’s tree in your shadow then they won’t produce any sunlight. Timing when to cut down your trees and when to let them endure for more currency is a key decision.
The first thing that strikes you about Photosynthesis is the look of it, while cardboard 3-D trees aren’t the most sophisticated pieces, they give the game a distinctive appealing look. The size differences between the different trees is always clear, and while blue trees may look a little odd, combined with distinct tree shape the game remains clear at a glance.
The gameplay is actually surprisingly simple, if you think of the tree sizes as 1/2/3 then most of the costs line up, the small (1) trees generate one sunlight, and it costs one sunlight to plant one from a seed. Upgrading to a medium (2) tree costs you two sunlight, but now you’ll gain two sunlight from it, it also casts a shadow two hexes long that shadows any trees the same size or smaller. Being this intuitive is always extremely helpful in abstract strategy games as you want the game to be easy to play, but hard to know what best to do.
The best part of the game is the way the sun moves around the board, this opens up so many tactical options that more static games might lack. Suddenly timing becomes important, if I make my tree bigger this round then it will catch my opponent in shadow, giving me extra sunlight and them less. If I cut down my big tree in the centre now it won’t matter because it’s in shadow for the next three turns so I may as well. You find yourself looking for those openings, how to cut them off for your opponent, or keep them for yourself.
Photosynthesis is a great abstract game that really nails the “simple to learn, difficult to master” gameplay. It doesn’t hurt that it looks great too!
I love how the components of Photosynthesis are completely aligned with the game mechanics. The taller your tree, the longer shadow it casts and the more sunlight it absorbs. As the sun moves around the board it’s very easy to visualise the beams of sunlight across the board. It’s probably the most thematic abstract strategy game we own. Of course, the components also look fantastic which helps to attract players in an environment like a game group or board game café.
Like many abstract games, it’s easy to use the phrase “easy to learn, difficult to master” to describe Photosynthesis, but it is undoubtedly true. The actions you can take are very simple, but there’s so many factors in deciding both your strategy for each game and your tactics and timing throughout. Should you grow fast and cut trees down, or leave your tall trees standing to generate more sunlight? Should you plant on the edge to guarantee some sunshine but get lower points if you cut the tree down?
I typically approach the game with very little strategy, whilst I see Amy planning ahead in terms of the spots she tries to take and the way she tries to take advantage of geometry to create ever increasing tree heights all in a row. I’m more of an opportunist, looking for pathways with no trees. This is easier to do in the two-player game when the board is less crowded overall, but much more difficult with three or four players. I much prefer the game with two just because it’s a bigger money game where you get more sunlight and get to achieve more throughout.
Photosynthesis is an abstract game that I can be competitive in. It looks great, has loads of interesting decisions and is a game I’d recommend to almost anyone.