Board Game Gumbo: Spice it up! with Photosynthesis
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight…
So begins the first lines of Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tale of love gained and lost in the ancient home of the Acadians. Longfellow weaved a 19th century ballad of longing and loss with star crossed lovers scattered like “dust and leaves” that still resonates today.
For ten days in September, I ignored the disconsolate wails of the forest, and enjoyed immensely my recent plays of one of the hottest games at GEN CON 50. Do you like your abstract games to have a little thematic connection? Do you like to throw down a board game in front of your friends that has a stage presence that pops on the surface?
Well, then, spice up your game nights with Photosynthesis by Blue Orange Games!
Photosynthesis is a 2017 release designed by Hjalmar Hach with art by Sabrina Miramon. Blue Orange Games was kind enough to provide us with a demo copy to share with other members of Punchboard Media, but it appeared to be a full retail copy with everything you would get from your friendly local game store.
The first thing I noticed one early morning at Dice Tower Con 2017 was Tom Vasel teaching this crazy looking game about planting trees.
I stood there fascinated as the game play started. 3D cardboard standee trees began sprouting from little seeds to giants dwarfing their wooden sisters and brothers. I just had to try this game.
Yes, I like the components.
Blue Orange hit it out of the park on this one. The sun is an ingenious corner that slowly moves around the board. It is very easy to tell from that piece which way the sunlight is going. And the trees themselves are in four different colors for each player, each with unique artwork. You might spy a tranquil scene of forest animals below the branches, or butterflies, or flora. It is obvoius that a lot of care went into the components.
The board itself is serviceable, and the player boards are relatively bland, but these are minor quibbles. The copy I had from Blue Orange had been played a lot, but there was no loss or degradation in the components.
This is essentially an abstract game with a better than average theme. Unlike one of my favorite abstracts, Ingenious, which has ZERO theme, Photosynthesis really carries the theme of planting your little seedlings and watching them grow to behemoths.
Players will take turns spending sunlight (the currency in the game) that is curried by planting trees that have a direct line of sight to the rotating sun piece. They can use the currency to buy trees for their nursery, or upgrade trees, or even plant seeds to start a new grove.
Of course, there are delicious decisions along the way, and at the end, too. How many seeds do you want out at one time? How fast should you grow trees (the bigger they are, the more they can earn in sunlight)? When should you retire that elder statesman (the only real way to score points during the game, although leftover sunlight at the end is worth 3/1 points)?
The end game can be anti-climactic for new players, because they need to learn to manage their sunlight and planting for those last few turns. But that is probably a player problem, not a game problem. And there might be one last problem with the game play -- for the style and weight of the game, it seems to take about 20% longer than it should. Again, I am not sure if this is a player problem or a game problem, however.
Be careful -- there apparently is a translation error in the American rules. One of the examples in the book suggests that you can spend sunlight to uproot your tree (like in the coveted center space), and still throw a seed on that same space that round. My reading of the developer’s note on BGG is that this was an error. Players can “affect” a particular space only once per turn, and uprooting a space is one “effect” while throwing a seed down in that space is logically a second “effect” and prohibited. This means that when throwing a seed down, the spot where the tree that threw the seed is affected as well as the spot where the seed is planted (the only time two spots are affected in one move).
I am always looking for games that look great on the table, play in under two hours, are relatively easy to teach but have deep strategy that a veteran gamer can enjoy, and have buckets of fun. Photosynthesis fits the bill.
The game scales well at all player counts. It plays differently at two, but no less cutthroat. I am impressed by how easy it is to teach, how quickly it plays, and how much tension there is throughout the game.
It is hard for me to find faults here, but I mentioned a few above, the biggest being the end game lack of fireworks, the bland board / player mats, and the apparent rules error in the English language edition. These are just nit picks, as I can wholeheartedly recommend this one to families and hard core gamers alike.
This one is on my list for a great Christmas present for the family. If you like abstract games, but love them when they have at least a modicum of a theme attached, or if you are looking for a good family weight game that has some deeper strategy, you should check this one out, too.
Until next time,
Laissez les bon temps rouler!