Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Playtime: 30 – 60 Minutes
Player Count: 2 – 4
Have you ever wanted to sit outside and just watch trees grow? Of course you haven’t. Because watching trees grow would be an incredibly boring activity and you would become completely exhausted by it before you ever saw any progress. Trees are slow like that. But in the new game Photosynthesis, growing trees becomes a fun filled game of passive aggression towards your friends who are also trying to grow trees. Plant lovers look no further, this is the game for you. But how does it fare for the rest of us? Is the hype real on this Gen Con launch, or is it all simply PLANTED in fiction. You see what I did there? I used the word plant while we’re talking about…trees. Yes, well, I’ve ruined that joke. Let’s jump in a take a look at the game.
How Does it Play?
In Photosynthesis you’ll progress through two phases every round. In the first phase, players will gain light points for every one of their trees that receives sunlight. The cool thing about photosynthesis is that there is a sun which moves around the board, casting its lovely rays down on your trees. The less cool thing, at least sometimes, is that taller trees cast shadows on smaller trees. This means that perhaps on turn one your tree is in an optimal place for catching rays. But by turn three you’re lost in the shadows.
You’ll use these light points to purchase tree upgrades, plant new trees and progress your forest. All of this is in hopes of your trees reaching maturity and dying so that you can receive points for them. As you work to upgrade your trees, the light point cost will increase. Planting a seed might cost a single light point, while growing a medium tree to a tall tree will cost 3. This is all managed through an easy to use and, more importantly, easy to understand player board which reminds you of costs of things as well as how many light points you have yet to spend. Once the sun has circled the board three whole times, the game ends and the person with the most points from trees who have completed a life cycle, wins.
What’s So Great about Photosynthesis?
There is A LOT I love about this game. For starters, it looks great on the table. I’ve talked here before about how I love a game that gets players excited just by looking at it. Photosynthesis is that kind of game. It’s eye-catching and makes you want to start planting. But beyond the initial setup, this is a game with a very distinct beginning, middle and end. As trees come out in bigger and bigger sizes, the forest becomes more and more populated and the need to fight for the biggest tree on the map becomes more and more important. Even more interesting is the ebb and flow of light points. On one turn, one or two players will get tons of light points, while others will get very few. A few turns later, this will be completely flipped. In this way, it feels like seasons of a year are passing. It also makes the game feel incredibly balanced.
I also love that while this is a game that looks big on the table, it is actually very simple to learn, teach and play. Yet despite the ease of entry, there is a lot of strategy to be had about where you place your trees and how you grow them. It’s a game that made me want to play again the moment we finished just to try and refine my own strategy. Every move early in the game counts. So much so that by the last turn, there was no need for anyone to go into analysis paralysis as by that point there was usually only one or two moves even left to be able to do.
It’s also a game that allows you to play a little cutthroat without ever trying to. Much like nature, your need to grow your own species of plant often hinders that of another species. You rarely do these things on purpose, but often times your choices greatly affect others. Yet somehow it never feels aggressive in nature, which makes it great to play with a family or even people who tend to feel ganged up on in games.
What Could Make Photosynthesis Even Better?
I have very few gripes about this game, but one in particular comes to mind. It’s so little and minute but still noticeable. Two of the trees are very close in color. One is green, the other is light yellow, yet on the board they look so similar, especially when compared to the dark blue and vibrant orange of the other player colors. I say this because late in the game it became increasingly difficult to tell these two trees apart and counting light points became somewhat of a hassle because of it. It’s a small complaint, but one that I hope they fix in future editions by making the colors contrast more.
Photosynthesis is a superb game that manages to be full of strategy and very competitive while never feeling mean or petty. It’s a game that’s exciting to look at and thought provoking to play. Watch the sun orbit the board and be incredibly generous one turn while devastating the next creates an evenness in gameplay and also assures that turns move at a steady pace, never halting for too long. If you enjoy competitive strategy but hate the idea of ‘take that’ mechanics, I strongly recommend giving this one a go. It’s easy enough to teach and learn that the whole family can get involved and with very little luck involved, it’s a game where victory feels 100% earned.