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PHOTOSYNTHESIS

[In this issue, we are pleased to welcome Christopher Wray to the pages of Gamers Alliance Report. As Chris says:

“Chris Wray is a frequent reviewer of board and card games, writing dozens of reviews each year.  He writes for The Opinionated Gamers, Counter Magazine, and Punchboard Media, and he posts reviews on BoardGameGeek.

Chris’s favorite topic is the history of games.  He previously wrote the history of the Spiel des Jahres winners dating back to 1979.  He is currently writing a series for Counter on the history of the International Gamers Awards.

Board and card games were a big deal in his family, and he grew up on the classics.  His first experience with Eurogames was with Settlers of Catan back in 2004, and since then he’s gone down the rabbit hole.  His favorite board games are Agricola, El Grande, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride, and TZAAR.  His favorite card games are 7 Wonders, Hanabi, Seven, Sticheln, and Tichu.  He loves (and collects) both trick taking games and social deduction games (especially Werewolf).

You can find Chris at various conventions, including BGG.CON, Geekway to the West, Gen Con, or Spiel (Essen), and he often blogs while at the conventions.

Chris lives in Jefferson City, MO and works in government.” In his first contribution to our pages, Chris has decided to “go green”!

Reviewed by Christopher Wray

PHOTOSYNTHESIS (Blue Orange Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 60 minutes; $39.99)

 

When the doors opened on Gen Con 2017, a sold-out crowd rushed into the Indiana Convention Center to buy the game industry’s latest creations. Photosynthesis was the surprise winner.  Within half an hour, hundreds of gamers were carrying copies of Hjalmar Hach’s latest title, and it felt like the game’s distinctive-looking box was everywhere.  Despite publisher Blue Orange Games having hundreds of copies on hand, the game sold out early on the first day, and Photosynthesis topped most “hotness” lists covering the convention.

At first glance, Photosynthesis’s success at Gen Con was unexpected.  The family-friendly game is nominally about the life cycle of trees, and it has a decidedly abstract feel.  Gen Con famously embraces both geek culture and thematic games, so a perfect-information game about seedlings and soil is an unlikely darling.  The gameplay, though, is clever, and the hype surrounding Photosynthesis is well-deserved.  

Each player receives a player board, six seeds, eight small trees, four medium trees, and two tall trees.  The goal is to spread the seedlings across the board, then age trees through their life cycle, so that seedlings become small trees, then medium trees, then tall trees.  When a tree completes its life cycle, the player earns points for the type of soil on which it was growing.  Soils on the edge of the board aren’t worth as many points as the richer soils towards the board’s center, so players naturally gravitate towards the middle in their arboreal pursuits.  

To buy their seeds/trees from their player board, plant them, and grow them, players need “light points.”  The sun moves around the hexagonal game board, and any trees in the path of its light earn light points.  Small trees earn only one light point, but medium trees earn two, and tall trees earn three.  Shade, however, is the enemy of photosynthesis, and trees can block the sunlight from each other.  Tall trees cast the longest shadow, shadowing the three spaces behind them on the board, while small trees cast a shadow over only one space.  

This game is all about studying the path of the sun and growing your trees to maximize your light points.  Because the sun rotates, through, the tree blocked by shade in one round will likely be the one casting a shadow in the future.  

On a player’s turn, players may spend as many light points as they have, but they can also carry light points to future rounds.  Light points may be spent (1) buying seeds or trees, (2) planting seeds, or (3) growing trees.  Trees and seeds on the player board need to be brought into a player’s “available” supply before they can be placed on the game board.  The cost ranges by the item purchased: seeds cost only one or two light points, but the tall trees cost four or five.  When seeds are planted, they can be placed one to three spaces away, depending on the height of the originating tree.  When growing trees, they must advance through the various life stages, from seedling, to small tree, to medium tree, to tall tree, costing progressively more light points for each stage.  

As previously mentioned, when a tree completes its life cycle, the player earns points by taking a “scoring token” based on the tree’s soil type. Scoring tokens are worth less and less as their stack depletes, giving an incentive for players to cycle their trees quickly.  

The standard game ends when the sun has completed three revolutions around the board. At that point, players add up their scoring tokens, plus earn one point for every three unused light points.  In the advanced variant, the sun goes around the board four times

The gameplay is clever and family-friendly, and the production value is stunning. Photosynthesis’s components are gorgeous, featuring the sort of eye-popping allure that gets a game noticed at a convention.  

The game is easy to learn, and a rules explanation would take only a few minutes.  The rulebook is a mere four pages, and the player boards serve as well-designed player aids. The publisher lists the game as suitable for ages eight and above, and that seems accurate; this is a game that just about anybody can play.  

Despite that simplicity, Photosynthesis is a deep game.  Every player has perfect information, and there are no random elements here: the player that best makes use of the sun’s energy will certainly win.  The game is about clever placement — you obviously want to be in the sun’s path — but also managing the lifecycle of your trees, weighing when to take a scoring token versus when to keep earning light points.  

My scores have improved with each game, as have those of my opponents, which I take as a sign of the game’s depth.  Photosynthesis may be easy to play but feels challenging to master.  The scores have often not been close in my games: new players tend to either (1) turn off their “light point” engine to soon, or (2) turn it off too late.  In either case, that can cost a player victory.  In my experience, you need four or five scoring tokens to have a shot at winning, so missing out on one or two is ruinous.   

I’ve heard many gamers describe Photosynthesis as “abstract.”  I don’t entirely agree with that characterization; the game has a nominal theme, and many of the mechanics match that theme.  But I’ll admit that Photosynthesis does have an abstract feel, largely because of the perfect information, but also because if you did take away the theme, the game would still make sense.

Photosynthesis has a lot of charm, and I’ve enjoyed my half dozen plays.  That said, unlike many in my game group, I haven’t fallen in love with it. The game functions as an action point allowance game, in the tradition of games like Tikal and Torres. The action point allowance system famously leads to downtime between turns, and that happens in Photosynthesis, especially at the maximum player count of four.  

Additionally, in my experience, Photosynthesis can fizzle towards the end of the game for players that don’t adequately plan.  In the last couple of rounds, if you can’t get a scoring token, you’re encouraged to just collect light points, sometimes leading to an anti-climactic ending.  This problem persists in both the standard game and the advanced variant, though it arises more from poor play than a flaw in the game design.  

Despite my nitpicks, Photosynthesis deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it.  This game will work with a wide variety of different audiences, most notably family gamers. It has enough depth and interesting choices to intrigue serious gamers, yet it is easy enough for anybody to play.  I expect Photosynthesis be a big hit in the coming months.  If it gets a wide release in Germany, I could see it being a contender during awards season next year.  – – – – – – – – Christopher Wray


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