Review: Photosynthesis

Orange2 36377

Length 60 min

Release Date Gen Con 2017 (August)
Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Sabrina Miramon
Absract Strategy
Price: $49.99
Blue Orange games began a “Big Box” series of family games at Gen Con 2015, with New York 1901, followed by last year’s Vikings on Board. While these games have titles that give you a vague idea of the game and invite some more explanation—and beautiful box covers—this year’s game gets a strong reaction from its title alone: Photosynthesis. How’d you feel about science class? And does that affect how you feel about this game? Let’s find out!  

Content Guide

All players do is grow seeds into trees. You could argue that the way you score points is “killing trees,” but thematically, I think it is simply supposed to be that the magnificent trees are aging out. 


Before we get too far, I have to explain how this game works, as its title doesn’t give much away. Photosynthesis is really an “abstract strategy” game in the vein of Chess or the GIPF series, although ironically this game has a pretty strong theme. Players take turns generating light (action points) from their trees, and then use those points to grow trees on the board. To score points, you have to grow all the way from a seed to a large tree and then cycle that large tree out of the game. The action point system is actually very strongly reminiscent of two back-to-back Spiel des Jahres winners from almost 20 years ago: Torres and Tikal, two games by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling that are well-known for popularization action points as a system of play. 
Despite the gameplay fitting with games generally considered “abstracts,” Photosynthesis uses its theme really well. The way players generate light is by the position of the sun, which changes each turn and makes three revolutions around the board. So, what was once a very strong position in one turn can be terrible the next. Furthermore, trees cast shadows that “block” trees of the same size or smaller (even your own!), meaning there is a constant fight for board space—particularly since the center spaces generate more victory points.
In particular, the way you want to “spread out” in this game is very strange because you can’t just take up a bunch of space—you’ll end up blocking your own trees! Larger trees allow you to spread seeds farther, so there’s a constant balance between wanting to grow and not wanting to mess up your own position (while also wanting to mess up everyone else). The game is a perfect mesh of strategy and theme. Nearly all of the rules make sense thematically as trees grow and plant seeds and cast shadows; and the tree pieces are gorgeous, particularly impressive for being made from simple cardboard!
It’s a brilliant, clean design, but the pre-production rulebook I was given (which is still in flux) had some important clarifications needed. However, I’m confident those will be cleaned up by the time the game is out. There’s also zero adjustment for player count, but that’s not necessarily a problem. It might be nice, in later editions, to have suggested setups for different player counts (you could simply use unused player pieces to block spaces and shrink the board). One other small complaint is that it’s a bit hard to keep track of which way the sun will shine in the next turn; we kept moving the sun piece to plan our moves and then had to move it back. Some marks on the board would help. 
A bigger issue, for me, is the complete lack of luck. The game is completely luckless, and even the starting setup is done by the players in turn. It doesn’t ruin the game or anything, but I think long-term it will hamper re-playability. I love when games like this have just a touch of variance, like a randomized setup or some action cards. In particular, this game has a long of list of restrictive rules where you can only do one thing a turn with a particular board space, tree, or seed. Rules are made to be broken, and I would love to see an expansion with an action card deck that you can draw from by spending light points, which would allow you to break those restrictions and build up to “big combo turns,” which the game currently forbids for the most part. 
My complaints are really quite minor, and few. If anything, they aren’t so much complaints as suggestions for expansion because this is a game I’m quite excited to play again. It is rare for an abstract, pure strategy game to even have a theme, let alone one that works this well. The gameplay is unique and interesting, the pieces are gorgeous, and the rules make sense both thematically and strategically. This is a heck of a lot more fun than science class.
Thank you to Blue Orange Games for providing a review copy of Photosynthesis.


The Bottom Line

Photosynthesis is way more exciting than its name lets on and a great example of an "abstract strategy" game with a solid, well-integrated theme.