It’s a Tree eat Tree World: A Photosynthesis Review

by Corey Whelen
28 May 2021

2-4 Players, ~40 Minutes, Medium Complexity, High Strategy, Ages 8+

In any given meadow in any given forest, an intense battle plays out, hidden from human eyes. It’s a common sight on Discovery Channel: a limited number of resources means animals and insects are locked into constant battle for survival. Nature can be savage, but we often overlook the most heated and desperate struggles for survival because we simply cannot perceive them.  There’s only so much dirt and sunlight to go around, which means that every plant we see is jockeying for position, determined to spread the seeds that will become the next generation of canopy, sucking up all the sun and leaving only scraps for the plants on the forest floor below. Photosynthesis takes one of these centuries-long struggles, condenses it down to a half-hour, and makes it a whole lot of fun.

Photosynthesis Layout - Critics Corner - Outset Media
Praise the light!

Players will begin the game with a whole bunch of beautiful cardboard trees and a player board that explains their available moves and the associated costs. They’ll set-up the main board by placing two small trees around the outside edge of the meadow board. Before every turn in Photosynthesis, there’s a big cardboard sun piece that you move around the board to determine which trees get light, and light is the resource that fuels everything in Photosynthesis. For varying amounts of “light points” you can throw seeds from your trees, increase the size of your trees, and purchase new trees and seeds to place from your player board. Trees, by their very nature, block other trees from getting sunlight, and since the sun is travelling around the board, certain trees will block each other at certain times; this requires players to constantly consider all the angles and future possibilities when deciding to grow or plant a tree. Bigger trees generate more light points and cast longer shadows so positioning and growing your trees strategically can put a stranglehold on your opponent’s light income, and subsequently, the number of actions they can perform. This is a surprisingly simple system for a game that seems so complex- every action has a light cost, and that cost is clearly printed on your player board.

Photosynthesis Player Board - Critics Corner - Outset Media
The clearly labelled player board makes planning your turns a snap!

What results is the world’s most passive-aggressive war game- and it’s fantastic. You can’t attack your opponent’s trees directly so the keys to victory are claiming the best spots, managing the growth of your trees and your “light economy” effectively, and securing your own light while limiting your opponents as much as possible. The closer your trees are to the middle of the forest, the more points they’re worth when they finally return to the Earth. Ending the life cycle of a tree is the only way to score points, so the competition for real estate is VERY real in Photosynthesis. Every seed you plant takes options away from your opponents and growing the right tree at the right time can cripple their light income for a turn or two- less light means fewer actions, so this can really hurt. You feel it when your opponents do 4-5 actions in a turn and you barely have enough light to plant two seeds. It really is a fascinating back-and-forth, especially since the decisions you make in the game tend to linger on the board. You get to watch the forest grow from a few scraggly saplings to a healthy and hearty ecosystem – albeit a cutthroat one.

Photosynthesis Game Board - Critics  Corner - Outset Media
The sun beats down on the forest- clearly indicating which trees are in line for light.

This game is a knockout in every way I could score it. The game is chock full of difficult decisions and player interactions. Is it time to throw seeds and grab land? Or would it be better to grow that tree, get more light, and block your opponents? Aesthetically, it might be one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played. Each colour has their own distinctive species of tree, replete with their own unique seeds, adorable toadstools and fuzzy animals peering out from the branches. The way the forest comes together as you play is a fascinating process to watch, and it’s always satisfying to see what you’ve built at the end of a game, especially when you can see how the decisions build off each other. Additionally, the theme is fantastic! These invisible wars happen all around us in nature, and it’s cool to think that this game must take place over hundreds of years for so much growth to occur. Not only that, but the gameplay supports the theme! Some games are guilty of having what’s known as a “pasted-on theme”- these games may look great and have a cool theme, but that theme could be replaced by anything since the game itself is about playing cards or moving cubes around- not so with Photosynthesis. This game is a perfect marriage of theme and gameplay- you really feel like you’re growing something, and it’s frustrating to lose those precious soil spaces to your opponents. Additionally, it’s also easy? to learn, quick to set-up, and takes only 30-40 minutes to play, which is incredible for a competitive strategy game. Any one of these reasons would probably merit a recommendation on my part- all of them together means this game is an absolute slam-dunk.

If I tried my hardest to muster a complaint about Photosynthesis, it would probably be that I could see it getting a little old after numerous play-throughs. Once you find a strategy that works for you, you’re going to do it every game, and it’s not until the 3rd round or so that your opponents would be able to stop you. Ideally, the fact that you’re playing against people who can adapt their strategies to yours SHOULD nullify this complaint, but if not, there is a FANTASTIC expansion called “Under the Moonlight” that should keep Photosynthesis fresh indefinitely with optional additions like the “great elder tree” that makes the board asymmetrical, little animals that offer each player a different power to up their strategy, and moonstones that take up forest space and reflect moonlight for the animals. We’ll get into the mechanics in more detail in our upcoming review of Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight!

If you’ve made it this far into the review without checking your local or online game retailer for a copy of Photosynthesis, I’m not sure what else I could say to convince you! This last paragraph is usually where I collect my thoughts, reiterate the major pros and cons of the game I’m reviewing, and explain the sort of person this game would appeal to- but I think it’s pretty clear that I’m a huge fan of this game in every regard- they even made the game from 100% recycled materials so you don’t have to feel bad about killing real trees to grow tiny fake ones! With the caveat that it is substantially better the more people you play it with, I think Photosynthesis has a little something for everyone and I would absolutely consider it a must-buy for the vast majority of board game fans!

Disclaimer: Photosynthesis is published by Blue Orange Games and distributed in Canada by Outset Media.