Every once in a while, we happen across a board game that defies the conventional idea of board game night and delves into something beyond your typical tropes of moving pieces and scoring points. I know we’ve already discussed some of the different types of games with resource management, worker placement, and cooperation games, but some games add several elements together to create a new kind of experience. On a whim, we decided to try out a game called Photosynthesis, and while we still haven’t played it enough to truly understand its strategies of finesse, we’ve definitely stumbled upon a gem that will require many more playthroughs to thoroughly master.
Photosynthesis is a beautifully artistic game about managing a grove of trees as they grow from budding saplings into gorgeous creations of nature. The question arises as to whether each person is capable of truly caring for their saplings, making sure they receive enough light to grow into beautiful trees, thus enriching the soil even further with the hopes of growing a larger and more bountiful grove.
Photosynthesis is for 2-4 players, takes approximately 45-60 minutes to play, and is for ages eight and older.
Photosynthesis follows the same formula as most games in that the player with the most points wins the game. However, the way in which each player acquires those points differs from other games in that everything is a slow build up that culminates in gathering points in short stints rather than throughout the duration of play.
For set up, each player chooses a tree color (orange, green, yellow, or blue) and puts their trees together. There are a lot of pieces, but once the trees are put together, it really makes the overall board look very pretty. The sun, a separate foldable piece, is set on top of the sun marker on the board. The scoring tokens, four different stacks with leaves on them that represent the locations on the game board, are set off to the side. Everybody takes a player card and fills the card up with trees and seeds and sets the remaining pieces that wouldn’t fit on the player card off to the side. Your light token is set on 0 to track your light points. Each player will then take turns placing a level 1 tree (there are 3 levels of trees) on a spot on the outside edge of the circular area on the board until each player has placed two trees. Then the game begins!
The point of the game is to gain light points based on how much sunlight your saplings/trees get each turn and use those light points to grow your trees. It’s a complicated process, but I’ll try my best to discuss it here.
On the sun piece, there are arrows that point toward the board. The arrows indicate a row of circles on the game board where the trees grow. Think of it as a beam of sunlight that hits your trees in a straight line. Before the turn begins, each player counts how many light points they receive based on what trees receive light from the sun piece and are not in the shadow of another tree.
The trees can be shadowed in the following ways:
A level 1 tree gives off a shadow of one space and gives 1 light point.
A level 2 tree gives off a shadow of two spaces and gives 2 light points.
A level 3 tree gives off a shadow of three spaces and gives 3 light points.
Start at the sun and go in a straight line. If you have a level 1 tree in the spot right next to the sun, you receive 1 light point. However, if you have a second level 1 tree in the next spot next to that tree, it is being shadowed by the first tree, so it does not receive points. In another example, if you have a level 2 tree in the first spot, you receive 2 light points because it is getting sunlight. However, any trees that are level 1 or level 2 in the first spot or second spot after that level 2 tree (remember, level 2 trees give off 2 spaces of shadow), then those trees do not receive light points. Any tree that is taller than the tree in front of it automatically receives light points.
Now that we have the most confusing part of the game under wraps, it’s time to move on to how to actually play the game. Going in order of whomever is going first, the first player uses their light points to purchase a variety of things. Here is what you can buy:
Planting a New Seed
Growing a Tree
Collecting a Fully Grown Tree
Planting a New Seed
If you have any seeds in your “set aside” pile from the beginning of the game (remember, the players put two trees out on the game board, and any of the ones that didn’t get played or fit on your player board got put to the side). These “put to the side” trees and seeds are your active and usable inventory. If you have a seed, you can pay 1 light point to plant that seed anywhere on the board. The only rules about planting are that you must plant your seed at least 1 space away from a level 1 tree, two spaces away from a level 2 tree, or three spaces away from a level 3 tree. Once you use a tree as a point of origin, you can’t use that space again until the next turn.
Growing a Tree
If you had a seed on the board for at least one turn, you can now pay 1 light point to grow that seed into a level 1 tree! You take a level 1 tree from your active inventory and replace the seed. You now have to put the seed in the upper most empty space on your player board where the seeds belong. If you don’t have an open space, that seed is now officially removed from the game and can no longer be used.
If you had a level 1 tree on the board for at least one turn, you can now pay 2 lights points to turn it into a level 2 tree. Replace just like with the seed, and if you don’t have an open space on your board, that tree goes away as well.
It will take 3 light points to turn that level 2 tree into a level 3 tree if it’s been on the board for at least one turn. Same rules apply to changing out trees.
Collecting a Fully Grown Tree
Once you have a level 3 tree on the board for at least one turn, you can now pay 4 light points to “harvest” that tree. Depending on where the tree is on the board will decide how many points you get. The outer edge of the board has 1 leaf, the next inner circle has 2 leaves, the next inner circle has 3 leaves, and the middle spot on the board has 4 leaves. Depending on where your tree is, take a scoring token from the side of the game board from the appropriate leaf pile and set it aside. These tokens have higher point totals on them the more leaves it has. These piles are stacked in descending order, though, so taking a scoring token earlier nets you more points. Take your level 3 tree and put it back on your player board.
In order to replenish your active inventory and avoid losing seeds/trees when you replace them on the board, you have to empty up spots on your player board by purchasing new seeds/trees. You must purchase from the bottom to the top, and prices becoming increasingly higher. For example, four seeds will fit on your player board. The first two cost 1 light point each, whereas the second two cost 2 each. Your level 1 trees will cost more than seeds, and your level 3 trees will be the most expensive at 4 light points for the first and 5 light points for the second. You have to buy these in order to replenish your active pile but also to make room for when you grow seeds/trees on the board. When you put out a level 2 tree and bring back a level 1 tree, you better have an open space from buying them or it’s gone for the rest of the game!
After each player spends their light points (you are not required to spend all of them if you don’t want), you then rotate the sun to the next spot on the board. Each player counts their light points again (points will be different, because as the sun rotates, the trees are in different positions in relation to the sun from the previous turn), and then the person that went second the turn before now goes first.
The normal game rules say you do this for three full sun rotations around the board. We play with four rotations instead of three as it helps us flesh out strategy for longer gameplay.
Once the sun reaches its final spot, everybody counts their light points and the game ends! Each person adds up the total points from all of their scoring tokens received due to collecting fully grown trees. Based on how many light points you have left at the end of the game, you might also score a few bonus points.
The person with the highest total of points wins the game!
Photosynthesis has proven to be a very complex and difficult game to master. We only have a few playthroughs under out belts, but we’ve already discovered how difficult it can be to manage the placement of your trees in locations that will maximize light points, thus ensuring the highest point grab possible. We have a lot of arguments over the total number of light points we’re supposed to get because of the complexity of how the shadows can cause trees to not receive points, so we’re constantly referring to the rulebook to make sure we’re on par.
If you’re into overly complex games that require tons of practice to master, but also want something with beautiful artwork and varied strategies, then Photosynthesis is a game for you. It’s a different kind of board game. We definitely don’t have too many games like this in our collection, but we’re thoroughly enjoying the experience every time we play it.