Photosynthesis has perhaps one of the loveliest concepts seen in any game. Players act as a sort of stand-in for Mother Nature, sowing seeds that gradually grow into towering trees as the seasons pass, eventually ending their life cycle before new seeds spring up through the earth, continuing the loop.
Photosynthesis isn’t just a cute idea, either. Although the game looks absolutely gorgeous thanks to its 3D cardboard trees in hues of green, orange and blue, there’s also a core of pure strategy that runs through its trunk, leaving the gameplay as solid as an ancient oak.
No game about plants could truly flourish without the sun and, true to its name, Photosynthesis depends on the star to fuel its interesting choices. The sun rotates around the board each turn, allowing players to collect light points to spend on growing seeds and trees already on the board or adding more to their pool of potential florae. It’s an ingenious idea implemented with such beauty and simplicity it’s a wonder it’s never been done before – although it’s hard to imagine it being realised much better than this.
What’s even smarter is the way that the shifting rays begin to cast shadows as players’ saplings spring up through the ground, stopping plants caught in the shade of a taller tree from collecting light points or growing taller until they emerge back into the sun.
Because the spaces towards the centre of the board earn greater bounties of victory points when trees reach their highest point, this results in an intense and tight-knit battle for sunlight as players carefully position their plants to leave each other in the dark. Cashing in a tree for points means removing it from the board, leading to standoffs between players as those in an advantageous position balance gaining points (which steadily decrease with each tree that completes the cycle in each of the four regions) with maintaining their dominance over smaller shrubs.
The full rules about shadows restricting the growth of shaded trees are actually proposed as an advanced mode in the rulebook, but we found them to be so crucial to the game’s depth and enjoyment that we’d recommend using them from the off.
There’s no luck involved at all in the way that plants collect light points and the sun shifts around the edge of the forest, making the strategy as dependent on the constant sparring, blocks and reversals between players as something like chess – that just happens to involve seeds and trees. This also means that the game plays just as well in a head-to-head between two people, with extra opponents escalating the feeling of fighting for room in a crowded wood.
That said, Photosynthesis isn’t perfect. The straightforward loop of gaining light, planting seeds, growing trees and collecting points doesn’t change up much over the course of the game, which can lead to less than satisfying repetition if the more engaging interactions between players fails to take hold. On the other hand, those who don’t like the feeling of being blocked at every turn by other players may find that the claustrophobic competition relies a little too much on overly-aggressive play – and loses too much tension to stay interesting if playing with the trimmed-down rules.
These are very minor problems with a game that otherwise delivers on the promise of an intense abstract strategy experience wrapped up in a presentation that leaves other games in the shade. As it turns out, being all bark still leaves plenty to chew on.
Photosynthesis doesn’t just look gorgeous – it also delivers plenty of gameplay punch with its surprisingly intense battle for sunlight. The simple yet brilliant idea at its core is beautifully executed, although you may find it becomes a little repetitive on repeated visits or is a bit too hostile for less confrontational players.
Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Artist: Sabrina Miramo
Time: 30-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.