Photosynthesis (2017)

Game Details
NamePhotosynthesis (2017)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.26]
BGG Rank668 [6.98]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Hjalmar Hach
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: Full of clever ideas but rapidly becomes predictable

There are few games I own that make me think ‘I wish I were a better photographer’. Mrs Meeple is the photographer in our household and she’s too busy to take the thousands and thousands of photographs I need for Meeple Like Us content. She has a proper camera and everything. She swaps lenses around. She fiddles with ISO settings. She uses words like ‘aperture’ and ‘focal length’ and for all I know she’s using them accurately. I just use my phone. My approach is to just wildly take dozens of photographs at weird and wild angles in the hope at least one is in focus. It doesn’t feel at all like that’s appropriate for a game as striking as Photosynthesis, as the images in this post will undoubtedly attest.

Photosynthesis box

When I was younger, I had a fancy glass chess set. In truth it wasn’t all that fancy – I think it cost maybe about £20 from some long-forgotten high-street trinket chain. I left it set up on a table because some things just deserve to be appreciated like art. Chess sets are wonderful for this because they are so iconic and yet so varied. A beautiful chess set isn’t just a tool for playing a game – it’s a moving sculpture. You can see some examples of that from the Colectia de Sahuri – an exhibit of chess sets Mrs Meeple and I saw when we were in Romania. People can spend hundreds, or more, on exquisite Go boards or Crokinole sets. They’re paying for the thing as a thing because sometimes things are beautiful.

Some trees from Photosynthesis

We don’t really see a lot of that with board-games. There are games with remarkable production values, but few that really stand out as something you could unironically leave set up in your living room. You might get away with a display cabinet of carefully painted miniatures but in most cases what you’re doing there is showcasing your own artistry. Many games have beautiful art that I’d happily buy as a print and hang on my walls, but their transient presence in game doesn’t translate into an argument for physical permanence. Really beautiful games embody that principle in the holistic interplay of elements. They make every instance of game state into a painting – you can configure them in any valid way and they look wonderful. That’s what you get with Photosynthesis and that’s actually quite rare. Potion Explosion is perhaps the only other game we’ve covered on the blog for which a similar argument could be made.

Some more trees from photosynthesis

Don’t think from this that Photosynthesis is all style and no substance though – there’s a solid and inventive game in here too, although it’s one that can’t possibly live up to the promise of the aesthetics. To be fair, few games could. It would need to be genuinely remarkable to meet the bar of expectation placed by your first impressions, and unfortunately it isn’t quite there.

Within Photosythesis we each take control of a breed of tree. We place trees to capture ‘light points’ from the sun. We use those points to place seeds from which new trees can grow, and to grow existing trees so they can capture more sunlight. The larger the tree, the more light it generates for you and as such the faster you can grow your forest. The largest possible trees can be harvested for a token – that kills it off and gives you points commensurate with the fertility of the soil in which you planted it. Plant trees, grow trees, kill trees – it’s the circle of life.

Photosynthesis token

Growing trees is only one small part of the puzzle. It’s really an afterthought for the inventiveness at the heart of the game – the rotating sun that offers its beneficence only to the most cut-throat of players. Every round of the game the sun moves on in its predictable, inexorable passage. Trees that are blocked by other trees will receive no light. No tree that is planted may grow, and no seed may be sown, while its target destination is in shade. The position of the sun determines parallel lines of nutrition, but the trees that everyone plants can intercept those lines on the way to their eventual destination. Big trees can scatter seeds more widely, but they also cast more shadow on the forest. You want to grow trees that will block your competitors in a grim arena of natural selection. More often than not though you’ll find yourself staring gloomily at your mighty oak tree that is now blocking a different selection of your own trees every new turn. Competition in Photosynthesis becomes intense as players expand their terrain with an eye to cutting off everyone else’s growth.

An evolving board in Photosynthesis

It’s not like you can all just expand in different directions either – the centre of the board is where the most lucrative terrain is to be found and it’s also the place where the largest trees will have the most significant impact on the battleground. It’s like GLOW if the wrestling matches were being performed by passive-aggressive Ents. Size is dominance and profitability and one well positioned tree will reap rewards for the long term.

However, it’s not quite that simple because your individual player board is another logistical mess you need to manage. You buy trees and seeds from your board, and when you use them on up the shared soil you return them to the next open space you have. If you have no open space, you lose them forever. You’re constantly battling with this pernickety puzzle to make sure that you’re in a position to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. When you run out of trees of a particular kind, you need to return one to your board before you recycle it back into the game. You can’t grow a small tree to a medium tree if you’ve already used up your supply. On the other hand, larger trees are costly and the price to buy anything gets more prohibitive the more you have in play. Your job here is to find the point of maximum leverage – where your expenditure of light meets your income in a way that lets you evolve your forest in the way you need. That’s what in the end dictates when you’ll cash in the biggest trees that have been powering your economy – when you feel as if you can profitably replace them without meaningful interference from anyone else.

Growing Photosynthesis board

So, that’s what it means to be a spirit of arboreal animus. You claim territory and conquer it. You position that territory where it will gain the advantages of the sun while depriving your opponents of the same. And you do this while you manage an expanding and contracting economy of light that is challenging to predict even when you know exactly where the sun will be at all times. It’s difficult. It’s cut-throat and competitive. It’s interesting but it’s also attainable. It’s something that you could do well if you understood all the moving parts. And if those were the only things you needed to worry about.

The problem for you is that it’s not something you can do well unless you also internalise the rhythm of the seasons. It’s not about having a big tree, it’s about having a big tree at the right time when you also have the light available to take advantage. The rotating sun is the drum beat of an economy that has regular periods of boom and bust. One turn you might rake in a dozen points. The next you might only get two or three. You always have fewer light points than you’d like and so you want them to be out and working for you as soon as possible. You don’t want to lock up a hefty chunk in a tree you can’t sensibly place for another three turns. You don’t want to be growing seeds that you can’t reclaim. You don’t want to be placing trees that can never grow. The engine of your own growth is more about the clockwork of meshing mechanisms. A lot of that is understanding how your trees are symbiotically linked with everyone else around the table. The rest is locked up in understanding when everyone else is going to act. When someone finally clears the richest hex at the centre of the board you want to be the one in a position to act on its vacancy. There’s no randomness or uncertainty in Photosynthesis, and yet the game state can appear intensely chaotic from the outside. It’s not though – it’s just the complexity that arises from deeply emergent game systems.

For all of this, Photosynthesis is more frustrating as a game than it should be. It’s dripping with clever ideas. They accumulate on its lush components like morning dew in a forest. the rotating sun is genius. It creates such profoundly asymmetrical valuation of tiles and ensures that value is only ever situational. The ability of trees to block other trees is inspired – it lets players layer their own mesh of influences on the value of hexes. The increasingly lucrative points values as you move towards the centre of the board ensures that everyone is constantly in each another’s way. I nod approvingly at every part of this ecosystem of play.

Photosynthesis player board

In practice though none of it coheres in quite the way I would like. The shifting sun fulfills its role as an accelerant and sedative but that’s less fun in practice than you might imagine. It’s a crack into which accumulating disadvantage can be levered. It essentially encodes a ‘first mover’ advantage where the player that can grow a big tree first will find it increasingly easy to dominate the game by squeezing out those players with a deferred payday. The weaponization of shade and shadow is beautifully implemented but it also makes the game less interesting by radically restricting the options you have – not just on your current turn, but on the turns leading up to and beyond. That’s also where we find the game’s biggest problem – once you learn the contours of the decision space you can’t unsee the landscape it creates. The only thing that stops this being completely gameable by a dispassionate algorithm is the inherent fallibility of human cognition. Photosynthesis essentially requires people to make mistakes in order to seed genuinely entertaining game states. If everyone plays well, most of your problems have a self-evident solution and the lack of any kind of variability means the game sometimes plays with the dull thunk of overbearing determinism. The clockwork mechanisms we discussed before can run too smoothly, or at least can run without ever doing anything surprising.

All of this then gets intensified by the fact competition clumps around the centre of the board and then supremacy there doesn’t get proportionally rewarded. The lowest value points token is worth twelve points. The highest is worth twenty-two. Someone that only fells high value trees will beat someone that fells only low value trees. However, in a more matched competition it means that the person that fells the largest number of trees will win regardless of how quickly they snapped up the choicest, most contentious terrain. The difference between the best and second-best tokens is only three points. It’s not enough to really be worth the effort of doing the necessary tree speed-runs. If you keep the second-best tree long enough to generate a single extra turn of light production you’ll earn as many points as if you’d gone for break-neck industrial logging. Sure, holding the central ground has advantages of its own in terms of how it lets you control the board but again it’s not enough to make the fight worth it. On the plus side this gives rise to a greater number of strategies. On the other, all of those strategies feel very samey. That reaches its eventual conclusion in the last few turns. Photosynthesis doesn’t end with an exciting crescendo. It ends with a slide whistle and a sad ‘womp womp’ as people basically do the game equivalent of tidying away the chairs and turning off the light.

Photosynthesis box insert

That all then comes together in a game that requires essentially the wonder of a first impression every time you bring it out. It’s genuinely magical to see someone encounter it for the first time. Their eyes widen. Their head cocks to the side. They pick up their trees with a child-like curiosity just as they realise that the game is to build a 3D forest. At the end of your first play of Photosynthesis you feel amply rewarded. If the trees were actually animated it would be indistinguishable from something you might see Harry Potter playing. Your second game feels much like the second, and the third feels like the two you played before. It needs new people because new people, simply as a result of unfamiliarity, haven’t yet grokked the puzzle. A new player can competently compete in Photosynthesis because ultimately the concept is very intuitive. However, their occasional lack of optimal play will make everything more interesting for everyone else. This is a game that gets shallower with familiarity. Every new player you bring to the table is resource you use up in the process. Unfortunately for a game about forests, temporary wonder is not a renewable energy source.

I know, that’s a downer. But still – that board. Those ideas. It’s at worst a perfectly solid and enjoyable game but one where you can see a much better game hiding in the foliage. The small differential between perfect play and merely skilful play means there’s not a lot of room for it grow. The predictability of the systems means you soon sacrifice the electricity of tactical consideration for a rote observance of ritual that wouldn’t look out of place in a Druidic ceremony. I want to like Photosynthesis more than I do because this level of mechanical creativity and investment in the aesthetics should be rewarded. It’s a good game that you wouldn’t regret playing. I think though it wouldn’t be too long before you might regret buying.