Game Review – Photosynthesis


In a small forest, several varieties of trees compete to grow and spread their seeds. As trees grow, leaves that are exposed to the sun and cast shadows on smaller trees around it. Over time, the larger trees will reach the end of their life cycle, falling to create room for new trees to grow in the small forest.

Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Artist: Sabrina Miramon
Blue Orange Games
Genre: Area Control, Abstract
Players: 2-4
Play Time: 30-60 minutes
Number of Logged Plays: 4

Buy it on Amazon via He said, She Said Games

Skip ahead to find out:
Game Overview
Game Play
What He Said
What She Said
Our Pros and Cons
The Verdict

Game Overview

IMG_4711In Photosynthesis, players will be controlling a species of tree growing in a small forest. Players will try to position their trees in the forest to gather the most sunlight, even if that means blocking opponents’ trees from gathering precious sunlight. Sunlight will be turned into light points that can be used to get more trees, seeds, spread seeds, and grow trees. Light points will vary quite a bit as the sun rotates around the board, so players will have to decide when is the best time to do certain actions. The goal of the game is to get the most amount of victory points, which can be gained by putting a tree through its full life cycle. After three full rotations of the sun around the board, the game will end and the player with the most points is the winner.

Game Play

IMG_4584Photosynthesis starts with sun segment being placed on the sun symbol on the board and players taking turns placing a small tree on any open space on the outer ring of the board. The remaining two seeds, two small trees, and one medium tree are placed in the player’s available for use area in front of them. The game is now ready to begin. Each round in Photosynthesis takes place over two phases:

  1. Photosynthesis Phase
    • The player with the first player token will move the sun to the next position in a clockwise direction. (This step is skipped in the first round)
    • Each player then gains light points for any trees that aren’t in the shadow of another tree (Only a maximum of 20 Light Points can be stored).
      • Small Trees = 1 Light Point
      • Medium Trees = 2 Light Points
      • Large Trees = 3 Light Points
  2. IMG_4715Life Cycle Phase
    • During this phase, players will spend their light points to perform actions starting with the first player. The number of light points required by each action is listed on the player board. The possible actions a player can take are below:
      • Buying – Buy trees and plants off of their player board and put them into their available for use area in front of them.
      • Planting a Seed – Plant a seed from their available area onto the board from an existing tree. The distance a seed can be placed away from a tree is based on what size it is:
        • Small Tree – 1 space away
        • Medium Tree – 2 spaces away
        • Large Tree – 3 spaces away
      • Growing A Tree – Grow a seed into a tree or grow a tree to the next size up. Only trees from a player’s available area can be used to grow seeds and trees. When a tree is grown to the next level, the smaller version of that tree is returned back to the player board to the topmost spot of the corresponding column. If there are no available spaces for it, then it is removed from the game (this will be the case for the starting seeds and trees players begin the game with).
      • Collecting – Once a tree is at it’s largest size, it can be collected for points. The large tree will be removed from the board and placed back on the player’s board (topmost open spot of the corresponding column) and the player will take a scoring token with the same symbol that the Large Tree was growing on.

IMG_4618Players can perform any of those actions as many times as they want as long as they have the light points to pay for it. The only thing players need to keep in mind is that a space on the board can only be activated once per turn. So if you plant a seed, the tree the seed came from and the space the seed is planted on would both be activated for the round. The tree wouldn’t be able to be grown this turn to the next level because that would require activating the space again. This also prevents growing the same tree twice in one round as well.

Once the sun has gone around the board three times (18 rounds), the game is over. Players will add the points up they receive from the score tokens and will also get points for every three unused light points. The player with the most points is the winner!

Advanced Variant
The advanced variant adds one more sun rotation to the game which extends the game out to 24 rounds. The reason for this is because in this variant players cannot plant or grow in spaces that are shadowed by another tree. Players can choose to play with both of these changes or only choose to play with one of them.

He Said

IMG_4704At first glance, Photosynthesis is a beautiful looking game from the cover art of a lone tree growing in the forest to the 3D trees players use to build their very own forest. On top of that, the game is also fairly intuitive as you gain light points and use them to gain more trees/seeds to place on the board. Those things alone are a winning combination and Photosynthesis does have a lot of fun moments, but I felt like it fell a little short in some areas.

IMG_4588To Grow or Not to Grow, That is the Question
Players will find out pretty quickly that Photosynthesis can be very punishing if you don’t plan out the placement of your trees. It’s very easy to get starved for light points, which will result in a turn where you can’t do much. The reason you can get starved of light points is because other players will be trying to position their trees in the best spot for them to gather sunlight, usually resulting in their tree casting a shadow on yours. Even though the game looks beautiful and you wouldn’t think growing trees would be very cutthroat, but it really is. You’ll want to keep this in mind when you pull this game out because if there’s a person that doesn’t enjoy conflict in games, they might not enjoy Photosynthesis.

With that said, the games does feel very tactical as you purposely position and grow your trees to give you a boost in light points while reducing opponent’s light gains. Photosynthesis will reward you for planning out your tree placement and knowing when the best time to grow a tree is. If you “collect” your trees too early then you’ll be hurting for light points, but if you wait too long you’ll get lower scoring tiles. Not being able to activate the same tile twice in a turn can also come back to haunt you as you try to scramble to get points for large trees in the last round of the game.

In our second game, I went in with the mentality of getting out as many trees as I could, but once Mandee started getting a couple higher tier trees, she was able to block out a lot of my smaller trees. So after getting dominated that game I came into the next game trying to put out as many medium trees as I could. This gave me more options for optimal growing spots that would block some of Mandee’s light point generation. I didn’t end up winning that one either because I waited too long to “collect” my trees, but I got a lot closer.

IMG_4578Rinse and Repeat
The ease of teaching the game is a big pro in my book. A large reason why Photosynthesis is easy to teach is because you’ll be performing a handful of actions throughout the 18 rounds (24 in the advanced variant). It’s kind of a double-edged sword because it’s quick to learn, but only performing up to four different actions every round can start to feel repetitive. You’ll also only be able to do so much per turn because of the one activation per tile rule. I’m not sure if I’m a huge fan of this rule. I feel like any chain of combos you can setup just aren’t there because you need to wait a round before growing the same tree twice. It kind of results in more of a slow burn instead of that instant gratification of seeing a combo pay off.

I think if the game was reduced down to 12 rounds where players can activate a space twice might keep it more interesting and engaging throughout the whole game. I felt like the most interesting decisions to be made were with the placement of where your trees are going to go. Once they’re placed, the amount of decisions to make were a bit more straight forward because you can either grow your tree or collect it if it was at its largest level. So the game starts off pretty strong with the initial vying for spaces in the forest then it kind of stalls out for me. With the number of scoring tiles, it’s pretty easy to keep track of what score each person has even though the scoring tiles are hidden after being taken. If a person gets a pretty good flow going it can be pretty difficult to catch up to them.

I’d definitely recommend playing with both advanced variants because it helps keep the game a bit more engaging as positioning becomes even more important. Casting a shadow on opponents trees has more impact as it can stall their strategy by a couple turns.

IMG_4705Full Blossom
The artwork and components in Photosynthesis are fantastic. The board has a ton of table presence as the forest starts to grow and all the different colored trees meld together. There were some trees that didn’t quite stick together as well when assembled, but other than that the quality of the components were great with each score token, player board, and sun marker being made of thick cardboard. You can easily get someone who’s never seen the game before interested in at least trying it out because it has a wow factor to it that other board games don’t have. The one thing that was kind of strange though is that you probably won’t see too many large trees left a the end of the game because they have to be removed to score points. So at the end of the game you’ll end up with a pretty short forest of small and medium trees.

IMG_4581Final Thoughts
When I first got into the hobby, I wouldn’t have ever guessed that we’d have a game about being a species of tree in our collection. Overall, I had some fun games with Photosynthesis but it did start to lose some of its luster after a handful of plays for me. It feels like it overstays its welcome just a little bit because there are only a handful of actions you can perform over the course of the game. Then, on top of that, it can be a fairly punishing game if you make a couple bad tree placements it can take a little while to recover.

The game looks really great, but I felt like the gameplay just needed a little extra oomph to give it more staying power for me. I will note that most of our games were two-player games, and the game would probably be a bit different with four players vying for space on the board. I don’t think I’d recommend the game as a two-player game, but if you were planning on playing with a full group and are looking for an easy to learn game with a lot of player interaction I’d give Photosynthesis a try.

She Said

IMG_4717One of the hottest board games from Gen Con 2017 is Blue Orange Games’ Photosynthesis. With its beautiful design, artwork, and simple gameplay, it’s easy to see why it was in such high demand. Although we were unable to pick up a copy at Gen Con, we managed to randomly find a copy at a Games by James back in Minnesota. After a few plays, we’ve realized it may not have lived up to the hype.

It’s Gonna be a Sunshiny Day
For me, one thing I really appreciate in a game is a strong theme. I can appreciate games that don’t have a strong theme, but have a greater appreciation when a board game designer takes the time to make sure the theme and gameplay tie together nicely. When the actions you take actually make sense with the theme, this adds to the overall game experience. I would say Photosynthesis is hit or miss on this point.

IMG_4702Players act as a species of a tree working to grow trees from seeds and slowly upgrading as many as possible to become big trees. Initially, I had thought that players were farmers setting out to grow a specific species of tree, which to me is a little bit easier to get behind theme-wise. For example, why would a tree need to purchase more of it’s own type of tree? I understand why that action is done to progress the game, but it doesn’t make sense thematically. In addition, why would a tree cut down itself? This is where the theme loses me.

But there are elements of the game that do tie well to the theme. For example, the process of photosynthesis takes time, so in the game, you are not able to take more than one action with a space in one turn. Meaning you can’t upgrade a tree in one turn from a seed all the way to a big tree. In addition, the concept of light points ties nicely into the theme, with how the sun rotates around the board. The game integrates elements of the actual process of photosynthesis into a simple and easy-to-play board game.

IMG_4517More the Merrier
We’ve played Photosynthesis at the two-player count and three-player count, and I prefer this game at higher player counts. Although it does take longer with more players, it’s not as interesting with only two players. I also found that the turn order in two-player game can be a bit cumbersome because it switches constantly, especially when turns are fast.

Also in a two player game, it’s easier to avoid interacting with the other player. Other than the occasional block from light points, players can occupy opposite sides of the board and rarely interact. With a three-player game (and I imagine a four-player game), the player interaction is almost unavoidable because there’s very little space to plant trees. In our three-player games, we found that you also have to be way more strategic about where you are placing your trees because it’s far more likely that you will be blocked by other players’ trees.

As I’ve mentioned a few times in other reviews, I’m not a fan of mean games. For some reason, I don’t find Photosynthesis to fall into this category. Despite the fact that you may intentionally block players from receiving light points for the next round, I don’t find it mean. I think it may have something to do with there typically being a way to work around these issues with your own placement of trees and how the sun rotates around. If you’re screwed one round, you may be fine the next due to the sun moving.

IMG_4512Final Thoughts
Overall, I found Photosynthesis to be a nice light game to add to a game night.  However, it’s not a very memorable game for me and the gameplay gets very repetitive. At times, there are interesting decisions to make about when to begin expanding and when to “retire” your big trees, but I can see replayability being an issue with this game. The artwork and components are fantastic and it makes for a nice light game, but I didn’t enjoy this game as much as I wanted to.

Pros and Cons

– Great artwork and components
– Easy to learn and teach
– Elements of the game tie nicely into the theme
– Plays best with more players

– Theme is hit or miss at times
– Gameplay gets a bit repetitive
– Not great as a two-player game due to limited player interaction
– Potential runaway leader issues

The Verdict

He gives this game out of 5 Deciduous Trees out of 10.

She gives this game 5.5 Coniferous Trees out of 10.

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