Photosynthesis by BlueOrange Games

Photosynthesis by BlueOrange Games, designed by Hjalmar Hach, Art by Sabrina Miramon

Theme and What is It?

Light, the energy that powers everything. Without it, we do not exist. Shadows slow the growing process, and can even stop it (on advanced rules).

This is a game that at it’s heart, is meant to be an exercise in understanding how plants grow, and how forests affect the trees growing within. Have you ever noticed you rarely see small trees in a forest, unless they are all small trees, or a fire has happened? This game is much the same. As the trees grow, the smaller trees lack the benefit of the sun. 

Many may argue that this is not worker placement, because the trees aren’t people. This is of course, phooey. The trees are the people in this game, they are unique, and have a character all their own. Moreover, meeples in most games, maybe all games, are not miniaturized people, they are pieces of wood. They are meant to evoke the idea that someone is doing work. This is exactly what the trees are doing, and the work is soaking up the sun. Our trees in this game, are beach bunnies, looking for a tan.

Beyond that, when you take over a space with at least a seed, the space is yours. You own the territory. It is not unlike placing a building in Scythe, except, no one can displace your ownership, even for a second. It is permanent until you take the tree off for victory points. The space is then, open to the table.

The last concept in this game is this beautiful idea of blocking the sun. Ever fell asleep at the beach and woke up because someone is blocking the sun, and you got cold? This happens every turn in this game, someone is cold. That is the beauty of Photosynthesis, everyone gets left out in the cold. 

Gameplay Mechanics

The simplest way to describe Photosythesis mechanics is to play a round. Do not let someone force you to explain the rules, just play a round and start over. It is a simple structure that allows immense decisions to be made. The first turn, all players place two small trees anywhere on the outside ring of the board. After this, the sun “feeds” your trees. You get one energy for every tree that is not in the shade (small trees), for larger trees you would get two, or three depending on size respectively. 

Once you have your energy, you then use the energy to buy seeds, upgrades to trees, or to place seeds or upgrades. The player board tells you almost everything you can do in the game, and for what cost. It is then your neighbors turn, they do the same, and so on and so forth. Until the last person is done, these actions on the player board will take place. The sun then moves, as does the first person marker. 

When the sun moves, you must determine which of your trees are getting light, and which are being blocked by another tree, and the shading is cascading, so if a tree is blocked, it is likely the trees behind it are as well. Therefore placement of your initial trees is a huge consideration in this game. Which setup will give you the most light during each of the sun’s 3 cycles, and 6 placements? The game has a total of 18 turns per player, or 24 for an advanced table. 

Initial Impressions

At a glance, I thought the game seemed simplistic. Buy stone, save stone, build tower, rinse, repeat.

This oversimplifies the game because although that is the mechanic, it takes a whole lot more planning than building towers willy nilly. Stone is also a finite resource that is replenished through a card mechanic are varying amounts throughout the game, making each building session quite different. I was drawn to the art, and the building pieces just seemed to fit perfectly for the game.

Quality of Components and Insert

The game pieces are trees. They are simple pieces of cardboard put together in an x, that makes a beautiful board. The box is made to keep the trees separate by player, and to store the player board and pieces. If an expansion comes out, it is hard to imagine it fitting in the same box, as the box is tight once the trees are put together.

Artistic Direction

Sabrina Miramon did a beautiful job with the art of the game. When playing it felt immersive based on the art, and the ideas behind the art. The art felt very material design-ish. You may see remnants of an android phone, if you look at the leaves on the board. This is an icon that just looks like it belongs in the mobile environment, but is not at all out of place on a board game.  

The box art tells you that you will be playing a “tree” game, and does so aptly. I applaud BlueOrange games for the beauty and simplicity of the art of Photosynthesis.

Fun Factor

The first person I discussed this game with, told me the game was “bleh…” After having seen it, I was perplexed. We finally were able to play through it twice this past weekend. This is my caution to anyone reading this review, don’t trust just one person’s thoughts on a game. 

His “bleh…” translates to me, as WOW. I love the idea of the Sun powering up my trees. I like the idea that I must upgrade the trees for more horsepower. I also like that the only way you score points is to destroy your best powered up trees. For me, the fun factor in this game is large. 

My friend, who was not wow’ed, did not say what he disliked about the game, but I have yet to find any issue that makes me dislike it. It would have been more useful to you, the reader, if he could have explained more. 

If you like board games, and let’s be honest, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t, I’d highly suggest Photosynthesis. Take it out for a test run. It has went from a game that just sounded interesting, to going to my top shelf, and will be a go-to game for the foreseeable future. 

Difficulty and Age Range Suggestion

The game is officially, rated as 8+. I would say this is accurate, not because a child that is younger would not understand it, but more because a younger child may lack the patience to play during the other person’s turn. The game does require a fair bit of patience, but is simple enough that my 5 year old understands the concepts, and enjoys the idea of the game. She has even made a Lego mockup of the same, but has since destroyed it, so no photo!

Conclusions

I know. I’m gushing. It’s rare that a new game gets a spot on the top shelf. 

The main issue I have with the game are the trees. They are beautiful to look at, but I can see if they get much use, they may not hold up well. We had two playthroughs, and the trees (a few) were already getting bendy. I don’t know if that was a particularly hard user, or if that is just the nature of the pieces. I hope it is the former, rather than the latter, though my friend may need a stern talking to!

This was on the MG GenCon Top Ten, and was the only game, that at the time of the article, we had no hands on time with. I was just SO intrigued with the idea of the sun powering the game, and the fact that it was one of the games that sold out at the Con on day two. 

The game, has, after some playtime, only reinforced that thought. 

This game deserved to be on our Top Ten from GenCon, and should also be on yours.

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