Just like Sauron who forgot the awesome power of the forest, so too have board gamers neglected an astounding force of nature… trees.
“I thought all the trees were whispering to each other, passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language; and the branches swayed and groped without any wind. They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them.” ―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The Photosynthesis board game is all about growing trees. No, not like the ones at r/trees, or the ents that tore down Isengard. Your average run-of-the-mill pine coney variety that grows straight, tall, and strong, as long as they have light.
The game is based on the chemical process that all plants use to gain food. If you need a refresher, sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water are transformed into glucose (sugar) for the plants’ cells and oxygen which we need to breathe.
It’s an integral part of our everyday lives that we rarely think about, but does it need to be a part of our board gaming shelf?
Let’s find out.
A Brief Overview of Photosynthesis
In Photosynthesis, players become trees, and not in a weird druid or metaphysical sense. Players plant trees around the board to grow and capture those sweet, sweet rays of sunshine needed to grow and become big strong happy trees. Bob Ross would be proud.
The game is played over three rounds, tracked by the sun rotating around the board. Photosynthesis uses a unique game mechanic in which the sun tracker casts shadows depending upon its position, making the game a constant struggle for the best position for optimum sunlight.
For a very well-made and cute game about trees, it turns out that there is a lot of struggle and conflict on the board.
First of all, there are a lot of trees in this box. That really shouldn’t surprise anyone, though. The tree cutouts for Photosynthesis are really cute and very well-made. It’s just a simple matter of punching out some trees and sliding them together.
I haven’t had too many issues with keeping them together during actual gameplay. Once together, they never have to be taken apart, and if you’re really nutty like I am, you may even consider throwing on a dab of glue. The box comes with 4 square holders that work the same way the little plastic table does in a pizza box. It keeps the box from pressing down and smashing all of your pretty trees, which I thought was really handy.
For a game about photosynthesis, you’ll notice that a lot of components are made of cardboard. Actually, there’s really not a whole lot of plastic to be found anywhere. The green-conscious designers over at Blue Orange Games use recycled cardboard or natural fibers for their games. Plastic trees would definitely be easier to mass-produce (and cheaper), but it’s rather refreshing seeing a company practice what they preach.
Blue Orange Games is actually pretty green
In fact, Blue Orange Games has been working since 2006 on a program to plant trees in China. For every tree used in one of their cardboard board games, they plant two in China. To date, they have planted over 125,000 trees! As residents of environmentally conscious San Francisco, Blue Orange has partnered with several other eco-organizations, like Save the Bay and PUR Projet. Save the Bay works towards cleaning up and restoring the San Francisco Bay, while PUR Projet is a company in France that works with companies to help offset their carbon footprint by reforesting the Amazon.
It’s refreshing to see a company working hard to protect the environment, while at the same time producing games that spread awareness of its mission. If you’d like to learn more about Blue Orange Games and their green efforts, check out their article on Playing to Preserve our Planet here.
How to Play Photosynthesis
The entire rulebook is about 4 pages. You’re not going to have any difficulties learning how to play Photosynthesis. The rules are extremely lightweight but there is a bit of strategy involved, so it’s not going to get stale after only a game or two.
Each player gets a player board that has all of the costs of actions on it. This makes everything super easy and doesn’t require any heavy memorization to play. Fill up all of the tree slots on the board with the corresponding size of trees.
There should be 4 seed tokens, 4 small trees, and 1 medium tree that are left over after you fill-up the player board. These are your starting supply of trees.
Light and Shadow
Next, find the crescent-shaped sun piece and place it on the edge of the board. After each player takes a turn, they’ll score sun points depending on their tree placement. Each tree casts a “shadow” depending upon the position of the sun.
A small tree casts a shadow 1 space away, a medium tree casts a shadow 2 spaces away, and a large tree casts a shadow 3 spaces away. If a tree that is equal to or smaller than the tree casting the shadow, it will not gain any sun points. If the tree is larger than the tree casting the shadow, it will still gain sun points.
There are 4 markers in the box that represent the movement of the sun (even though we all know that the Earth rotates, causing night and day, not the sun). They simply provide an easy way to keep track of the round being played.
After each full revolution of the sun, you can change the marker to indicate what round you are playing. Normally, there are only 3 rounds to the game, but if you are playing the advanced variation of the game, there are 4 rounds.
Sun points are used to grow and plant new trees. Each action will have a cost valued in sun points. All of the information is printed on the board for quick reference. To move closer to the center of the board, players need to plant new trees from seeds. The larger the initial tree, the farther the seed can be placed.
The starting trees and seeds (1 medium tree, 4 small trees, and 4 seeds) are the plants you have available. To plant a large tree or anything else that’s sitting on your player board, you’ll need to purchase the tree with sun points. You can’t plant a tree directly from the player board. They need to be purchased from the board first.
Another limitation is that any one particular plant can only be grown or activated once. For example, if you plant a brand new seed onto a new space, you can’t immediately grow it into a small tree on that turn. The same rule applies to all trees. This prevents players from stocking up points and hogging the center square.
Scoring and Ending the Game
When a tree is fully grown, players can choose to score it. Scoring the tree means removing it from the board and gaining points based on the tile on which it was planted. The center of the board is much more difficult to get trees planted and into maturity, but it has the most victory points.
When scoring, look at the color of the tile that the tree is on. You’ll notice there are three different colored tiles. The outer rings are browner in color and as players get closer to the center, you’ll see the tiles become a darker green.
As I mentioned earlier, the center (greener) tiles are going to be worth more points. Once a tree is scored, players will pick up a scoring tile that matches the color where the tree was planted. Each scoring tile will have a number of points on it. The darker green tiles in the center of the board will have a higher number of points on them, but players can still win the game if they strategically block from the outer board.
If you decide to score a fully grown tree, remove it from the board and place it back on your player board. If you ever have to place a tree or seed back on the player board and there are no open spots on the board, the tree or seed is removed from the game instead.
Once the sun has gone around the board 3 times, the game ends.
Your First Game of Photosynthesis
For your first game, start by setting up the player boards and supply of trees. Once that’s done, players will choose a spot for their happy little saplings around the edge of the board.
Most strategies in the game revolve around rushing to the center and keeping hold of the middle spot for points. You could also try blocking out the center by growing taller trees on the edge and using them as sun blockers, instead of scoring them.
Getting to the center of the board doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory. If you can’t make it to the center, try swarming around the edges with strategic blocking. If you can keep up the blocks by controlling the edges while simultaneously scoring trees, the center square won’t matter if you overwhelm them with smaller points and if you don’t allow your opponent to grow anything.
It’s a very simple game and you won’t have any issues learning it. The tricky part comes when players begin to grow trees willy nilly all over the place and start blocking out the sun. It’s very common for this happy tree game to swiftly devolve into death threats (at least at my table anyway) over tree placement.
After your first game of Photosynthesis, there are additional rules in the book that Blue Orange Games calls the advanced rules. Instead of 3 rounds, you get to play for 4 rounds (4 complete revolutions of the sun). In addition to this, you can’t activate trees that are in the shade.
This means if a tree is blocked, players can’t simply spend sun points to grow out of the shadow. They’ll have to wait until the sun rotates to a free spot, or on the low chance the poor tree is blocked on all 4 sides, it gets to sit there doing nothing for the whole game.
Personally, I like the additional rules. I’m a glutton for games and always want to play another round. This sometimes gets me into trouble, but the advanced rules, in my opinion, make more sense and feel like the proper way to play the game.
The Pros & Cons of Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is probably one of the prettiest and aesthetically pleasing games I’ve seen in a long while. During a full game full of trees and all 4 players, the board does look very pretty. Most players appreciate solid components that work together, and Photosynthesis did an excellent job with them.
The recycled products used to make a board game about photosynthesis does make me really respect Blue Orange Games. I’ve been to a lot of places in Southeast Asia where plastic covers the ground as far as you can see, so it always makes me happy seeing a company try to reduce plastic.
The game is very easy to learn. If you like playing with your kids, it brings a fun teachable moment to the table. You could impress your younger family members with your vast knowledge of chlorophyll and cell walls if they’re really interested. I still remember when I was younger, I got interested in the weirdest topics because of board games, so I think it’s an excellent game for the younger crowd.
For a happy tree game, it’s kinda brutal. The majority of the game is about positioning trees in order to gain optimal sunlight and victory points, but that also includes blocking other players and denying them that sweet, sweet sunlight.
There has to be a philosophical lesson in there somewhere about how something so pretty can cause so much anguish and despair. The game is designed with blocking and denying other players in mind. If you aren’t into confrontational games, then this is not going to be for you.
There are no variable-sized boards for 2 players and it makes the game seem a lot less refined. There’s a lot more space and it’s much easier to stay out of everyone’s way with only 2 players, and it just seems unbalanced.
With 3 players, it seems to be the perfect balance between players and available space. There’s enough room for everyone to block and be blocked without causing a rage-induced fistfight and with 4 players, chances are good of someone walking away from the table with a bloody nose.
Photosynthesis Review (TL;DR)
- Lightweight & easy to learn
- Very pretty when it’s all set up
- Zero Violence – Photosynthesis is a pretty tame theme, but there is still plenty of conflict in the game.
- Has a good amount of strategy to keep each game interesting
- All the components are sturdy cardboard and made from recycled materials
I really enjoyed Photosynthesis. It’s a cute little game with a completely unique theme. I thought the use of a rotating sun was a nice touch as well. As far as gameplay is concerned it’s very lightweight and great for kids to learn. That being said it is a conflict-heavy game. It all depends on knowing your audience as well. If you do play with younger kids and they don’t do well with conflict, this either becomes a very teachable moment in their lives or the point in which they learn to hate board games.
Super easy rules
The rules themselves are so simple and easy to learn. I always enjoy it when I can have fun with a game without spending hours in a rulebook beforehand. Most of the upgrades follow a 1-2-3 progression.
- Seedling to small tree = 1 sun point.
- Small tree to medium tree = 2 sun points.
- Medium tree to large tree = 3 sun points.
- To score a large tree = 4 sun points.
Everything is in a nice neat progressive order that also extends to a lot of other rules like how much shadow each tree covers or how many light points each tree gets in a round. They again follow that simple 1-2-3 pattern making the rules very easy to learn.
It is a fun game. There’s strategy involved, it looks great on the table, and it has a completely unique theme. I, however, can only see myself playing this a couple more times before I’m really done with it, though. The worst part is I can’t really pin down why. I enjoy abstract strategy games, and I play chess quite a bit with Kendra, so it’s not that. The theme is neat and unique and as a teacher, it’s always cool to see games that can be brought into a classroom.
There are a lot of good reviews and a lot of great feedback for the game. I had a lot of fun the first few times I played it, but I just can’t see myself playing it a whole lot. I really wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t get into it. The theme which most likely attracted you to the game in the first place is interesting, but there just wasn’t enough there for me to want to keep it around on my shelf.
It’s won a handful of awards since it was released, so it has been well received by critics, which always makes me question myself when I don’t like a game, but I just can’t find enough gameplay that I like in the box. I’d be interested to see if they make an expansion for the game. I think it could fix a lot of the problems that Photosynthesis faces, especially scaling issues with the game.
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What did you think of Photosynthesis?
We hope you enjoyed our Photosynthesis review! If you have any comments, find anything we missed, or just want to talk about some board games leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.