Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Published by Blue Orange and distributed in the UK by Coiledspring Games, this is a game that has attracted a lot of attention. It was previewed at UK Games Expo way back in June and was available to buy at Essen Spiel in October but it is only now appearing at general retail.
Much of the interest in the game has been generated by its striking appearance. The playing pieces represent trees at various stages of growth. Though the seeds are represented by conventional flat tokens, the trees are all stand-ups. For the four colours needed for the four players (Photosynthesis plays from 2 to 4), the publishers haven’t simply used generic trees in four different colours. Instead, the game gives us four distinct species of tree: oak, spruce, sycamore and linden – though, curiously, the rules don’t actually identify the varieties of the trees depicted.
Players each start with a single small tree collecting just one ‘light point’ of energy from the sun. During the course of the game, players will use the energy their trees collect each turn (or have accumulated from previous turns) to plant seeds, grow them into small trees, grow small trees into medium-sized trees and grow medium trees into large ones.
The neat ‘photosynthesis’ element is that the sun follows a circuit around the board and trees only collect energy from it if the sun's rays are not blocked by similar sized or taller trees. This means that what might appear to casual observers as a rather calm, bucolic game quickly turns out to be a quite aggressive ‘take that’ game, with players positioning and growing their trees so as to deliberately block the sunlight to others. In that, one supposes, Photosynthesis offers an appropriate analogue of nature.
Other elements of the game are a perhaps less convincing analogue and can be initially counterintuitive for players. Each player has a supply of trees of different sizes on their player boards so it can come as a surprise to new players to be told that these are not in fact directly available to them, merely the stock that is available to be ‘bought’. While using ‘light points’ for growth feels thematically appropriate, it jars somewhat that ‘light points’ can also be spent as a currency to buy trees so that they are available for planting or growth. Our local garden centre accepts payment by cash or credit card but they look askance if you offer to pay for their produce with ‘light’.
Like the Lion King, Photosynthesis celebrates the circle of life. Players are encouraged to chop down and mulch their large trees, sacrificing the four ‘light points’ they would collect each turn in exchange for a victory point token. The tokens vary in value according to the tree’s position on the board: they are worth more the closer they are to the centre of the board. This reflects the fact that trees planted nearer the centre are at greater risk of having their sunlight blocked while they are at an early stage of growth.
Though it has the look and initial feel of a strongly thematic game, Photosynthesis plays very much as an abstract strategy game, and one in which there are no elements of luck. There is an initially slow build up: players at first have few options available to them because, early in the game, they generate so few ‘light points’. However, as play progresses, you have some key choices to make about how best to generate the scoring points you need for victory and that inevitably includes decisions about how best to hobble your neighbours.
With its attractive components, Photosynthesis is bound to find its way to the table. It’s a game with instant appeal; not one you’ll have to wait to grow on you. :-)