In Photosynthesis, you are a species of tree engaged in an ages-long struggle for precious sunlight. Sap has not been shed in generations and you hope to see your wind-blown progeny emerge innocent from seed and grow to haggard adulthood. Until, that is, they are harvested for points on the whim of an uncaring and vengeful Smiling God. It’s a dendrological battle for supremacy over this forested realm…prepare yourselves!
To start, each player takes their personal board and all the associated seeds/trees. They fill in the empty spots on their board where they are stored and then set the light point tracker to zero. Some seeds and small trees will be left over. These will constitute items immediately available for the player to use. The main board in Photosynthesis consists of circles radiating out from a central circle where seeds and trees will be placed. This is contained within a large hex which contours serve as the path the sun takes as each round progresses. Moving from the outer rim to the inner, the soil gets progressively richer, the colors darker, the points potential higher, and the competition more menacing.
The sun is placed on the sun icon to start. Each concentric row’s circles has 1-4 leaves: A single leaf on the outer row, two leaves on the next inner row, three in the next, and the center circle has four. Each player places two of their small trees on the outermost row denoted by a single leaf. Scoring tokens corresponding to the number of leaves and color of the circles are stacked next to the board with the highest value on top.
The game rounds tokens are also stacked: Either three or four rounds depending on the difficulty preferred. Each round includes six stops for the sun as it revolves around the board.
There are two phases at each stop of the sun – 1) Photosynthesis, where light points are earned and 2) Life Cycle, where players use their accumulated light points to place seeds, grow and/or harvest trees, and purchase new trees/seeds from their player board.
During the Photosynthesis phase, the sun is moved clockwise and light points are collected from it’s new position and tracked on player’s boards. Small trees gain one light point, medium trees gain two, and large trees gain three. However, where you have light, you also have shadows. If a tree is in the shadow of another tree of equal or larger size, then it can’t gain light points. Small trees cast a shadow of one circle, medium trees cast a shadow of two circles, and the large trees cast a shadow of three circles.
During the Life Cycle phase, players, in turn order, use light points to perform actions. Players can buy trees/seeds from their player board starting with the bottom most (least expensive) and working up. Purchased trees/seeds get moved to the side of the player’s board until willing to pay the cost for placement on the main board.
Players can also spend light points to plant seeds and grow trees. After initial setup, all trees on the board have to start from seeds. Seeds cost one light point to plant and must be distributed from an established tree. Similar to the collecting light and casting a shadow formula of 1/2/3; small trees can distribute a seed one space away, medium trees distribute seeds two spaces away, and large trees distribute seeds three spaces away. Each tree can only plant one seed a round.
Growing trees also stays true to the 1/2/3 formula; costing 1 light point to grow from seed to small tree, 2 light points to go from a small to medium tree, and 3 to go from a medium to large tree. When you replace a tree, the smaller size goes back onto the upper-most (most expensive) area on the player’s board. If no room exists, that item gets lost and goes back into the box. With the exception of trees placed at set-up, all items placed on the board are purchased first from the player board.
A central concept of Photosynthesis is that each space (and the seed/tree on it) can only be used once per round. If you grew a tree from small to medium, that same tree could not spread a seed. Just remember that if somethings happens on a space, that space is now inactive until the next round. Chill out friend, you’ll get there.
You can harvest large trees for 4 light points. The tree is removed from the main board, placed back on the player board, and the top scoring token matching the number of leaves (1-4) is taken.
Once everyone has spent the light points they wish, the start player token is passed to the left, the sun is moved clockwise to the next position on the hex and the next round’s Photosynthesis phase begins. For every complete revolution of the sun, one round token is removed. Once all the round tokens are removed, the game ends and points are tallied. Tears are shed. The circle of life continues.
Blue Orange is a goddamned modern miracle. First New York: 1901, then Kingdomino, and now this. Photosynthesis is a gorgeous abstract game of spatial reasoning, impotent rage, and careful planning with a surprisingly entrenched theme. Especially for an abstract game! This leads me into a philosophical quandary — Can this be an abstract game when the theme feels so entwined with the mechanisms? Trees grow, spread their seeds, working towards the richer soils of the middle board. All the while nudging other trees out of the way to gain the most sunlight.
On top of that, the visual elements of the game are beautiful. The colors and shapes of the trees are distinctive creating a game that a joy to play and look at. Hell, I don’t even care about winning when the board ends up looking so amazing. The rules and mechanisms are surprisingly simple. They achieve this by sticking to a strict 1/2/3 formula. Small trees will cost 1 light point to grow, gain 1 light point during the photosynthesis stage, and casts 1 space of shadow. The medium trees do the same but with a cost of 2, and the large trees with a cost of 3.
Despite the seemingly innocuous and calming theme (see above picture of me chill af), the feel of the game is extremely tense. Just mindbogglingly tense. Like Wasabi tense. Placement of your trees and working towards that lucrative center spot while maintaining access to the sun as it moves requires a tight combination of tactical, strategic planning, and pure ruthlessness. Additionally, with 3-4 players, the board gets crowded and becomes the proverbial knife fight in a phone-booth. Seemingly minor placement errors early on can lead to large potential losses later in the game as your strategy adapts, leaving you to ponder what to do with these worthless saplings. The initial setup is important and being blocked early in the game when sunlight is precious can lead to major difficulty later on. It feels like optimum opening moves will potential reveal themselves after repeated play.
The movement of the sun and varied ability to gain access as it moves is pivotal. It means that 1) players need to place in a manner that will provide the most sunlight as the sun moves and 2) stay psychically aware of the potential movements of other players. This is simple enough in a two player game (where it is a smooth, evenly paced experience) but with 3-4 players the potential movements adds a healthy amount of variety and randomness. Do you grow a few trees as tall as possible? Or do you spread your seed far and wide, basically blocking players from expanding. All while ensuring you have a decent light gathering engine to keep your plan moving.
It may be my lack of experience in abstract and spatial reasoning games, but I usually have a couple of rounds where I am unable to gain any light. Just a complete dry spell followed by a complete windfall. So it seems profitable to have at least a couple of trees out of the fray and growing on the periphery to gain sunlight from multiple positions while sneaking a tendril into the center of the board. Others tear into the center as quickly as possible.
Another interesting element of the game is that players have more seeds and trees than they have room for on their player board. If you ever have to remove one of those items from the main board and have no place for them on your board, they get removed completely from the game. With careful planning and allocation of resources you can keep more trees in play than your opponents allowing for a less expensive items, more placement opportunities, and more sun. Since that sunlight can turn on you in some rounds this allows for a better chance at controlling the richer areas of the board. But growing an adult tree and then harvesting for points basically frees up that rich spot for another tree. So there is an interesting ebb and flow as you struggle to grab onto the rich center spot but you are never able to hold onto it for long.
The most difficult decision for me comes with the largest trees. These things can be a veritable goldmine of light points so it behooves you to keep them around but, at the same time, harvesting them is the only way to earn points. So you need to be sure your engine is firing fast enough that you can harvest for points and then be able to grab up that spot again in a future round.
While the trees are beautiful and increases the table presence of Photosynthesis. They are too clunky, in my opinion, to circulate without being damaged or lost. However, it is the perfect bait game — the rules are simple and the gameplay can be picked up quickly by watching it being played. My suggestions is to purchase other abstract games to circulate but keep Photosynthesis for any in-house gaming events your library hosts.