Publisher: Blue Orange Games
Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Illustrator: Sabrina Miramon
“The sun shines brightly on the canopy of the forest, and the trees use this wonderful energy to grow and develop their beautiful foliage. Sow your crops wisely and the shadows of your growing trees could slow your opponents down, but don’t forget that the sun revolves around the forest. Welcome to the world of Photosynthesis, the green strategy board game!”
– description from Blue Orange Games
Game Overview: Photosynthesis is a board game which, at its most basic level, is about growing trees in a forest. It uses a unique board setup and nature mechanics to simulate the life cycle of the trees, with players determining when to plant seeds, grow their trees or cut them down. With a maximum of four players and a finite number of turns per game, Photosynthesis‘ rules limit the actions one can make in a round and relies on careful planning to ensure success.
Design: Above all else, Photosynthesis is simply a beautiful game. It leans heavily into the environmental theme through the game’s design. Tokens represent seeds and sunlight, tree figurines of various sizes simulate growth, and the sun piece represents the rotation of the earth.
Mechanics: Photosynthesis is a heavily ludic game – that is to say, it relies more on its mechanics than its narrative elements. The mechanics in the game are both unique and vital to gameplay. Each player is given a Player Board, which contains trees and seeds that must be ‘bought’ to progress in the game. The gameboard is hexagonal-shaped, creating a honeycomb pattern of spaces for players to plant their seeds. The board is ringed by a sun piece, which rotates around the board on each of the hexagon’s points to simulate the sun moving around the earth. The base game lasts for three full rotations of the sun, which means that each game has only 18 turns.
Rules: Each turn has two stages:
- At the start of each turn, players collect “light points” from the trees they have on the gameboard. The number of points they collect is determined by a few factors – the size of the tree (1lp for small, 2lp for medium, 3lp for large), and whether their trees are in shadow. Shadows are created by trees that block the sunlight for trees growing behind them, dependent on tree size. However, the rotating sun mechanic means that no tree can block another completely.
- Once points are collected, each player can choose actions to spend their light points on. These include:
- Buying trees/seeds from the Player Boards. In order to grow trees, players must have purchased a larger tree.
- Planting a seed on the gameboard. Seeds cost one light point to plant and can be placed in the spaces adjacent from the player’s trees on the board, dependent on tree size.
- Growing a tree. Replacing a tree from the gameboard and replacing it with a tree that is the next size up, with increasing light point costs.
- Collecting a tree. Large trees can be “cut down” and collected from the gameboard. This opens up board spaces and gives the player a “score token”. Spaces closer to the centre of the board gather higher scoring tokens.
Once all three sun rotations are complete, players add their score tokens. The player with the highest number is the winner.
Personal experience: Of the four people I played Photosynthesis with (myself included), I believe I enjoyed the game the most. The mechanics are technical and were difficult for some players to grasp, but I thoroughly enjoyed the unusual play style and rotating sunlight. The sunlight, in particular, made it difficult to strategise and work against your opponents, so the game becomes an activity in working on your own growth and simply working around the other players, rather than competing with them.
The game places a heavy emphasis on the rules and function of play, which is my only criticism. The lack of storytelling elements led to some players feeling frustrated at the repetitive nature of play. As Egenfeldt-Nielson notes, games exist on a spectrum of ludology, and Photosynthesis definitely skews towards the ludic (rule-based) end of the spectrum.
“If we understand games to be a system of rules (ludology), we risk obscuring the way games tell stories (narratology). We have to be attentive to the way that games are both systems and stories.”
– Simon Egenfeldt-Nielson
The tree pieces and player boards are wonderfully designed, and the game is filled with colour and light, which is partially why it is so engaging – there is a peaceful beauty in planting a seed and watching it grow throughout the game. In fact, this game seems designed to incite peace rather than competition. It is a wholly different game experience than what I am used to, and it is partially why it remained with me so vividly after its conclusion.
(all images used are taken from BoardGameQuest unless otherwise specified.)