The UK Games expo was a strange place to be in 2019 if you suffered with déjà vu. You could walk around the free play area and it felt like every other table was playing Photosynthesis. It was a phenomenal hit, and with very good reason. It’s a fantastic sort of area control game with a novel theme and great table presence. As is so often the case with popular games an expansion soon followed. But is it a cash in or does it add to the experience?
No (Leaf) Litter Here
Well, opening the box starts off very positively. There are no extra bits for adding extra players. To me, this always feels like a bit of a cop-out and it really effects the balance of the game. So, for something as satisfying to play as Photosynthesis I’m glad they didn’t go and add an extra player to pad out the box.
What the expansion does include is three different modules that can apparently be played on their own or individually. I say apparently as I can’t see a way to use the moonstones module on its own in any meaningful way. I’ll explain why in a bit.
Alongside the moonstones, you have The Great Elder Tree module which adds a large tree as an obstacle that needs to be worked around. Lastly, there is the main event: The Moon and the Forest Animals.
In the base game of Photosynthesis, the sun moves around the board and you collect sun points. With the Moon and the Forest Animals module in play you also have the moon moving around the board in the opposite direction to the sun. You’ll also have an animal meeple on the board under your control that can use its unique powers to help you grow your trees or slow your opponent down.
The moon works by illuminating two columns on the board. If you manage to move your animal into one of these columns, you’ll get some moon points that can be spent to activate your animal’s special powers.
Howling At The Moon
There are eight animals included in the box and they each have their own speciality skills. Most of these skills have multiple power levels, meaning you can spend more moon points to do a beefier action. It’s a little bit of risk reward that adds a bit of spice.
On the whole, these actions are quite fun. There are some that I definitely don’t enjoy as they are a little too ‘take that’ for my liking. You may not have an issue with that though, but I’m just mentioning it. The rest of these powers all give you little ways to bend the rules a bit. Some will let you grow trees a little easier or earn some more light points. The turtle’s powers are mad as it essentially has six different powers that it can be drawn randomly. It makes playing with the turtle a bit chaotic.
My main complaint about these powers is it doesn’t feel like you get to use them much. The moon only gives you one or two points if you manage to be in its path each round. Your animals can only move one space each turn meaning you can spend a few turns getting into position to get a point or two, only having to spend the next few turns trying to catch it again.
With most powers costing four or five moon points to use at the most basic level, you may only get to use your powers twice during the game. That’s a lot of effort for not enough reward in my book.
Now, you can throw in the moonstones to make things a bit easier in this regard. Whenever a moonbeam hits a moonstone, it illuminates each of the spaces around it. This means you can get large areas of the board that will be illuminated all at once for a few turns in a row which is good for collecting their moon points.
Blocking The Way To Progress
The issue with this is that these moonstones are obstacles, and to have enough of them in play to make a difference they start getting in the way of planting the trees. Which is what the game is really about. Speaking of getting in the way, let’s get to the low point of this expansion, The Great Elder Tree.
It’s sitting front and centre on the box and I hate it. It gets in the way and makes takes up a space on the board, but more importantly, it blocks all sun and moonlight. In a game where space was already at a premium and resources were already hard to come by, this big old tree just makes everything worse.
Now, I’m sure there are some high-level Photosynthesis players who are looking for something like this to make the game more challenging. But for a casual scrub like me, I just find it frustrating to the point that I doubt I’ll be taking it out of the box again. I’ve not got the drive to ‘git good’ as the Dark Souls crew say.
I’m really torn about this expansion. While I do think the elder tree is trash, the rest of it has me muddled. I do like asymmetry in games. It’s something I’m really drawn to. But the fact you don’t get to use these powers very often is a bit frustrating. And the main way to make using these powers more often viable, the moonstones, makes the core experience less satisfying.
But there is something fun here. My preferred way to play is with the moonstones and the animals with powers that boost you rather than hurt your opponents. Avoid the fox and the squirrel if you don’t like ‘take that’ powers is basically what I’m saying.
Pandas In The Moonlight
Weirdly, the one game I’m sort of left thinking of after playing with these animals is Takenoko. Maybe it’s the whole moving character pieces around a garden thing. Not sure. It definitely brings more of that vibe into Photosynthesis though.
I would be stretched to call this an essential expansion. I think it adds too many little rules for the animals to consider throwing it in every time with newer players. I’m also very satisfied with the base game experience. I’ve never left a game of Photosynthesis thinking to myself that this game needs a little bit more oomph.
But that’s just me. I’ve spoken to other people who adore this expansion and consider it a must have if you love the base game. It’s not bad by any means and with it also being fairly cheap. It’s probably worth a try if you enjoy the base Photosynthesis experience.