Updated: Feb 18, 2019
Photosynthesis is a puzzle. At the same time an abstract strategy game that could be recreated devoid of theme and be basically the same game, while also being a thematic game that evokes the feel of the forest and makes it come alive. You could come at the game from either angle and be content, it really is a mixture of completely thematic, and entirely non-thematic, at the same time. It plays 2-4 players, and has a game time of around 45-60 minutes according to the box. It was published by multiple publishers, including Blue Orange in the EU and also Coiledspring Games though there don't appear to be any material differences between them. The game was designed by Hjalmar Hach and the art is by Sabrina Miramon, and it is there we are going to start.
The first thing that anyone notices about Photosynthesis is the artwork, it is a visually striking game and the hand painted artwork really makes it stand out. The player boards all look individual and well done, and each tree type and colour is distinct so no confusing your trees with another player. They also include little surprise details so not every tree is the same, such as squirrels and birds hidden on branches. The main game board itself is a little sparse but shows the spaces clearly for gameplay. The real visual appeal of the game though is the trees, and the fact they are 3D makes them really pop off the boardard. Eacb player has their own colour and their own themed trees, which means after a few turns the board starts to look like an eclectic little forest come to life, it really does capture the imagination. I've seen this played at conventions and no matter where it is, passers by will stop and look to see what is going on as the theme and art really makes Photosynthesis stand out among most other games.
The most apparent thing when unboxing the game though is the sheer number of cardboard sheets you will have to pop before your first game, there are 4 players worth of trees, with each player colour having small, medium, and large trees, seeds, tokens, and a player board. I would highly recommend doing this before bringing the game to a game night, as it took us about 45 minutes to pop and build everything. So far as component quality, everything is mostly good though there are some hiccups, at least with the version I had. Some of the trees were tricky to remove from the cardboard sprues, resulting in a couple of torn pieces (only 2, from all the trees done), and while most of the trees slot together and stand nicely, we've found some of the blue player's trees simply fall apart when picked up, which is a shame as they are the coolest looking in my personal opinion. Oh and to alleviate any fears here, the game box stores all the trees in it completely made up, so you don't have to put them together and take them apart with every game, which would have been a HUGE deal breaker if true, so glad to see they remedied this.
The tokens are good quality but the font chosen on them and the player boards sticks out a bit, it was probably a conscious decision to make it look like they were drawn on by hand but it does look a bit odd compared to the nice artwork and did lead someone at the table the first time we played to question if this was a Kickstarter game from a new publisher. None of these elements really work to ruin the game experience though, and the tree quality and art really is refreshing. There are so many fantasy and sci-fi games out there it's nice to see a designer take on something as off beat as trees growing in a forest.
The game plays very simply, which is the cornerstone of any good abstract, with layers of strategy building up from this point. The rulebook is only a few pages long, is concise, easy to follow, and contains good diagrams and examples, so it's easy to get going once around the table. Players start by placing a couple of small trees each around the outer edge and then the game begins, with 2 main phases. In the Photosynthesis Phase any tree that is touched by the sunshine beating through the forest canopy will receive light points, and then in the Life Cycle Phase, the players spend these light points to plant seeds, and to grow trees from seeds to small trees, small up to medium, and from medium up to large. Trees will cast shadows behind them, as they would in a real forest, so any tree of the same size or smaller behind a tree being blocked by the sun will not gather light points, however the sun rotates around the board with each turn so you will not always be blocked.
This light point gathering is the main crux of the strategy of the game, planning where to plant seeds to grow the best trees and gather the most light, and when to grow a tree higher than your neighbouring opponents so best to avoid being blocked, and do some blocking of your own. So far so thematic, but the way you get points in the game is slightly less so. Once you have the largest type of tree on your turn you can spend light points to cash it in, removing it from the board and claiming a victory point token from the pile based on how close that tree was from the centre of the board. Just as nature intended. The closer you are to the middle of the board, the higher the points available will be on those tokens, as trees grown there are more likely to be blocked by outer trees. This process of cashing in is simply referred to in the rule book as 'ending the life cycle' of your tree to gather points, and as the main way you gather points in the game, a very important, but thematically devoid way of getting those points.
On first play, the rules are easily explained and the phases move along at quite some pace, but as you're not entirely sure what to place and where or why it can be a bit random to start out while everyone get's their feet wet. You play for 3 full sun rotations of the board and then count up victory points, and it was about halfway through the third rotation that the game really clicked for us. Luckily the gameplay time is quite low, so we jumped straight back in and with better strategy, placement, and some sense of what is going on we had a great time from that game onwards. Photosynthesis really rewards smart tree placement, and the timing of when to grow your trees to block, or get more light, and when to cash in a large tree that is gathering you light points for the all important victory points is a crucial and ultimately game deciding decision. Games we have had tend to be quite close, as it takes some doing to really steam ahead, which keeps gameplay tense. Victory points areare gained tfrom tokens and aren't revealed until the end, so it keeps players engaged even if they may be behind.
Overall we enjoyed our time playing Photosynthesis, the strategy is simple enough that I feel like I could teach anyone to play it in a relatively short space of time, but also complex enough that after a couple of games we could still play it again and again and attempt slightly different strategies each time. And of course, the main highlight of the game is simply how great it looks, after a few rounds it really is an attention grabbing display, and will definitely be a convention mainstay going forward as it will draw players to the table. The art and presentation is fantastic, and I am glad to have such a thematically different game in my collection, even if at heart, it really is an abstract strategy game with a lovely lick of paint.