Sunday, 15 March 2020


Plays: 3Px1.5.

Photosynthesis was a farewell gift when I left my previous job in 2019, from Moon and team, so it has a special place in my heart. It is a beautiful game, and it did catch my attention when it was first released. I read a little about it, but did not go through the rules then.

The Game

3 Nov 2019. Chen Rui played half a game with Michelle and I. We had thought the game would be short, but it turned out to take much longer than we expected, so we didn't finish the game.

The game board is an empty plot of land. Players are different tree species, of different colours and shapes. You spread your seeds, grow them into trees, and eventually harvest the trees to earn victory points. As the game progresses, the game board transforms into a forest. At game setup, every player gets to place two small trees along the edges of the play area. You want to expand towards the centre, because trees harvested nearer to the centre are usually worth more points. The more leaf icons, the better.

This is a player board. You have the sunlight tracker at the top left. Sunlight is the currency of the game. You need to spend sunlight for all actions in the game. The top right section is your inventory of seeds and trees. When they are on your board, they cannot be used yet. You need to spend sunlight to take them into your hand, before you can place them onto the game board. The two rows at the bottom show the actions you get to perform. I'll start with the bottom row, which describes the sowing action. By spending one sunlight, you get one tree to produce one seed, and you place that seed on an empty space near the tree. If the tree is a small one, the seed may only be placed on an adjacent space. If the tree is a medium tree, the seed can be placed up to two steps away. If it is large, the seed can be placed up to three steps away. Sowing basically means fighting for space (or "chup" a spot, as Malaysians say), since every space allows only one seed or tree. The second row from the bottom shows the life cycle of a tree. By spending the indicated amount of sunlight, you get to grow the tree, from seed to small tree, to medium tree, to large tree, and eventually you harvest the large tree to claim a score tile. Each time you grow a tree, you need to have the next version of the tree already in hand. E.g. to grow a small tree to a medium one, you must already have a medium tree in hand, so that you can put it onto the board. The small tree is removed and goes back to your player board. To use it again in future, you need to spend sunlight to take it into your hand.

This is the blue player's board and trees, a very different flavour.

There are four stacks of score tiles, corresponding to the four grades of spaces on the board, from one leaf to four leaves. The score tiles have different values. Within each stack, they are sorted from highest to lowest. So the earlier you claim a tile, the better. In case a stack is exhausted, you claim your tile from the next lower valued stack.

One key concept in the game is photosynthesis (of course), which means collecting sunlight (the "money"). All trees exposed to the sun collect sunlight. In the photo above, that large yellow piece at the top left is the sun. The sun circles the game board in a clockwise manner, changing position every round. Each full cycle is one day, and the game is played over 3 days (4 for advanced players). The direction of sunshine determines whether a tree gets to collect sunlight. Trees directly facing the sun collects sunlight. Small trees collect 1, medium trees 2, and large trees 3. Trees may be blocked by other trees, including those of the same species. Trees block other trees of the same size or of smaller sizes. E.g. medium trees block both medium and small trees. The shadow, and thus blocking range, of trees differ by tree size. Small trees only cast a shadow of one space, and only blocks a small tree immediately next to it. Large trees cast a shadow of three spaces, blocking all trees within three spaces (in the opposite direction of the sun).

Every round starts with shifting the sun. Everyone then does sunlight collection simultaneously. After that each player takes a turn spending sunlight to perform actions.

The Play

11 Jan 2020. This time I played with Han and Allen.

Sunlight was coming from the lower right direction. The small blue tree would block the small green tree behind it. Next round the sun's position would shift clockwise, and the small green tree would still be blocked, this time by the other small green tree on the left. If the blocked tree grew into a medium tree, it would no longer be blocked by these small trees, but then these two small trees might grow too, and block it again.

These were our out-of-play components. At the start of the game, all player boards are full. Each player has two small trees on the board, and some seeds and trees on hand. Whenever you do a growth action on the board, the component (whether seed or tree) being replaced is to be returned to your player board. If your player board is full, that component is put out of play. Components are limited, and some components being out of play means you have less flexibility. If you want to avoid components being put out of play, you need to spend sunlight to take components from your player board into your hand, freeing up space. Having more components in play is beneficial, because the sunlight cost of taking components from the player board varies. The more components you have in play, the easier it is for you to use the cheaper spaces. However, sometimes it is hard to avoid wasting components when you need to spend sunlight urgently to fight for prime real estate.

I was green, Allen blue, and Han yellow. In our game, I hurriedly squatted at the central spot, because that was the most lucrative spot.

The six corner spots are the safest in terms of catching sunlight. For 3 out of 6 rounds per day, you are guaranteed to have sunlight. I was in no hurry to grow my trees at these corners, because at least half the time they wouldn't be blocked.

The nearer a tree is to the centre, the more likely it will get blocked. Look at those pitiful small trees surrounded by larger trees.

Locations nearer to the centre are more lucrative, so you do want to fight for more central spots. Also the earlier you harvest, the better. However I suspect ultimately quantity is more important than quality. If you manage to harvest more times than your opponents, I think you will likely win. Only when you are tied in the number of harvests made then quality determines the outcome. This was what happened in our game. Han managed to plan for and execute more harvests. Although some were done at less ideal locations, his total score was eventually comfortably ahead of us.

The number of rounds in a game is fixed. The game is an open information game. Towards late game, many steps can be calculated accurately. It takes at least five rounds for a tree to complete its lifecycle, from seed to small, then medium, then large tree, and finally being harvested. If you want to harvest at a particular spot, you know your sowing deadline is 5 rounds before the game ends. The game can slow down towards game end when everyone tries to maximise those final rounds.

There's a fox under this tree. In the game there are other animals too.

That large (green) tree at the centre was mine. I occupied this spot for a long time before finally harvesting my tree. Everyone has only two large trees. They are not easy to block, and they absorb much sunlight. It can be a painful decision to harvest it, because your sunlight income will drop. It's a tricky thing to manage. You still have to harvest because that's how you score points.

There are two optional advanced rules. Once you are familiar with the game, you should play four days instead of three. I suspect this will shift the balance of the score tiles. More will be claimed, and it is also more likely some stacks will be exhausted, and the next stack used.

The second advanced rule is seeds and trees may not grow if in shade. This should be interesting and much more challenging. Many trees in the photo above would be stunted. The board dynamics would change.

In the final few rounds, there is less incentive to sow or to grow trees, because there wouldn't be enough time to harvest. Players would be carefully calculating ROI (return on investment). Leftover sunlight is worth points (1VP per 3 sunlight) so you don't want to waste sunlight.

The Thoughts

Photosynthesis is beautiful and eye-catching, but it is not a light and breezy game, as the artwork and theme might suggest. It is anything but harmonious. It is cutthroat and competitive. You fight to grab land. You block sunlight to starve your opponents. It is a perfect information game with no randomness, so it feels chess-like. It taxes the brain, sometimes it is even intimidating. Sometimes players will take a long time to think, and this may be annoying to impatient opponents. I would say the ruthless competition is true to the theme. Trees in a forest do fight for sunlight. It's the law of nature.


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