Photosynthesis is one of those games you’ve probably seen everywhere. Not only is it available in major retails spaces across the country, but its beautiful box art has a way of standing out and catching your eye as you peruse a wall of games. Pick it up and look at the back, you’ll see a board occupied with nothing but trees, two-piece cardboard construction of varying color and size. It’s different, intriguing and inviting.
It’s also somewhat limited, but that’s okay. This isn’t a game you’re going to get all that into, and it’s not really supposed to be. Photosynthesis is what gamer people call an Abstract Game. There are no dice, no cards; it’s all about strategic board placement. I don’t know if that’s exactly how you define an abstract game, but that’s how I’ve come to know them. Chess and Checkers are abstract games, as are more modern entries like Santorini or Hive. These games are all about sitting down with friends and exercising the strategic part of your brain, planning ahead, setting things up for yourself while also making things difficult for your opponent. It’s not a type of thinking I am particularly good at, and without much else to go on, I find them a bit more to difficult to enjoy.
Fortunately, Photosynthesis has novelty, theme and aesthetics all on its side. The game is simply beautiful, and the trees are fun to mess with. Furthermore, the gameplay is easy to get into with curious new players who find themselves caught by the box art’s spell.
Your board is an empty forest, which you will populate with trees that grow from a mere seed to a hulking behemoth before being harvested for end-game points that eventually decide the game’s winner. Seeds, trees, and your tree upgrades are all purchased with the genius in-game currency: sunshine! As you set up your trees, the sun travels around the board. If the sun hits your tree, you get sunshine points, but other trees (especially taller trees) can block your sunshine. What ends up happening is some sun angles really make it rain, while its next location may be a dud. It’s a funny thing about Photosynthesis: you can be a master at it or a new player, and I don’t think you can achieve perfect tree placement for every sun location around the board.
This is part of why I frequently checkout during the game. You have to think so hard when placing your trees, but it almost seems like you’d get near equal results for not thinking about it at all. This is particularly true of two-player games when the board is not nearly as filled and chaotic. It’s not like Chess where one person would simply dominate an idiot. Most likely, wherever you put your trees will get you some sunshine throughout the year. Maybe not a ton, but enough to make thinking way too hard about it seem like a misuse of effort.
So the sun travels around the board three times. Each stop, you do your business and collect your currency and grow your trees and harvest others. There is a charm to the whole thing, and you feel good getting those big-ass trees that block everyone else’s sun. And when it ends, it ends. You count your points and sit there wondering if you want to do the whole thing over again.
I typically do not. While I do like Photosynthesis, it simply does not call to me. I have so many quick and light games I would rather play instead. If you do decide to get into it, I highly recommend playing with the maximum four players, as that generates the busiest board and most chaos to discuss and have fun with.