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Top Of The Table – Photosynthesis

by Matt Miller on Jan 26, 2018 at 03:00 PM

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In the crowded field of board-game design, sometimes the best way to capture attention is with a concept that stands apart from everything else on the market. I suspect that might be part of the formula that has led to the success of Photosynthesis. Though simple to learn and play, Photosynthesis is an incredibly sophisticated strategic affair. It demands lateral thinking and careful planning, all while balancing numerous variables, including the likely moves of your competitors and a board that is constantly shifting beneath your carefully laid plans. Add in a potent ecological theme and beautiful components and layout, and Photosynthesis emerges as a standout release. The game was one of our Best Tabletop Games of 2017, but this week I wanted to take a closer look at what makes Photosynthesis so special. It has rocketed high on my list of games I like to share with friends at my table, and I suspect it will do the same in your gaming circles. 

Publisher Blue Orange has an explicit ecological bent to its business, including the practice of tree planting to balance the creation of its wood-dependent games. Photosynthesis follows through on the company’s green agenda with a game that explores the way forests grow, the nature of competition between species, and the way time and movement affect that constant conflict. Two to four players each take up a single color/species of tree. Whether you choose oak or blue spruce, your goal is to take control of as much of the forest as possible, ensuring that your color has the best opportunities to spread. Trees grow from seeds and into towering behemoths, until eventually those trees reach the end of their life cycles, clearing a space in the forest for new plants to grow. 

This is all accomplished on the board through differently sized trees represented by vibrant cardboard standees. Seeds are replaced by small trees, which grow to medium size, and eventually towering large trees, which loom over everything else on the board. Your first trees begin play on the edge of the board/forest, but the especially lush land is near the center, so each player is constantly throwing seeds further toward those fertile spaces, in the hopes of claiming the best plots. As the game progresses, nearly every space is filled with colorful tree pieces, making for an attractive tableau. 

The real magic of the game comes through the presence of an ever-shifting sun. A cardboard segment represents the current angle and light of sunlight as it enters the forest, and to represent passing days and seasons, that sun segment constantly rotates around the board. Light becomes a currency used to grow your trees. And the only way to capture that light is to have your tree in the path of the sun. Every tree casts a shadow relative to its size, and trees beneath that shadow don’t capture any light. 

Consider the strategic implications. There are six directions the sun can be shining down onto the hexagonal layout of the board. Your trees don’t move, but the sun does. When placing a new seed of a tree, you must consider the light you might get on each upcoming turn. Moreover, the size of that tree at any given time also determines its value. It’s like if the Boardwalk space in Monopoly presented six variations for how much money it could earn each round, all affected by the placement and size of the properties nearby. It makes for a fascinating and evolving board layout, and one that strategic thinkers really puzzle over as each turn passes. 

Photosynthesis is smartly balanced to keep one player from immediately running away with the game. Earned light points must be spent for almost any action, including buying different seeds and tree sizes before they can be placed on the board. Your limited supply of any given tree size prevents any given player from dominating; at some point, you must complete the life cycle of your biggest and most productive trees, as that’s the primary way to earn victory points to win the game. Moreover, you need to reclaim those pieces to use in other spaces on the board, so you can continue to gather points. There’s a satisfying symmetry and cyclical nature to the game flow as the forest shifts with the passing of seasons. 

I’m also fascinated by the board layout. Those coveted center spots on the board are more fertile and yield higher victory point totals when you finally harvest the trees you’ve planted there. And yet, as the forest continues to grow, the outer spaces suddenly take on special value, as they can more easily capture light from certain directions, without the worry that another species of tree will block that light. The effect is one of a battlefield where the deciding conflict appears to be unfolding in the center of the scrum, until suddenly it’s not, and the flanks of the battle decide the course of the war. 

Photosynthesis gets better the more you play and understand it. Smart visual representations on the player boards don’t require any reading, and only very basic arithmetic, so the game is playable by kids. And while it’s a great family game, I’ve found that its strategic implications are just as likely to capture the attention of veteran board gamers. I’ve played several sessions of the game with dedicated hobbyists, all of whom have found the strategic depth and potential for variation to be surprising and engaging. The abstract play and great-looking components give Photosynthesis a high replay value, and the unusual concept captures the eye as soon as it goes out on the table. It really is one of those releases that is hard to go wrong with; broad appeal and a deceptively deep gameplay add up to a big win. 

If you’d like some additional ideas of board, card, and role-playing games to share with family and friends, I’d encourage you to explore the backlog of Top of the Table, where I try to offer recommendations for a broad range of different types of gaming groups. If you’d like more personalized suggestions, the door is also always open to drop me a line via email or Twitter, where I’ll do my best to respond and help you find the right game for your situation. Good gaming!