Blue Orange Games has had quite a year, with Kingdomino winning the 2017 Spiel des Jahres award for the family game of the year, its sequel Queendomino appearing this fall, and the release of Photosynthesis, my number three game of 2017 and one of the most visually arresting new titles this year. With a short rulebook of just four pages and a clever core mechanic that changes the values of spaces on the board each turn, it manages to take a real-world theme and work it into a simple, highly replayable game.
Photosynthesis is a game of happy little trees—you plant them, you grow them, and eventually you harvest them for victory points. The game’s currency is light, rather than money, and you collect light points each turn that you can expend to plant new seeds or grow trees you already have on the board. You collect light points based on the location of the sun, which rotates through six positions around the board through each game ‘year,’ and whether the spaces on which your trees sit have unimpeded access to the sun or are blocked by other trees—your opponents’ or even your own. The trees comprise two pieces of cardboard joined at a right angle, so they’re three-dimensional, and the sizes are different enough to distinguish at a glance. They come in four colors which sort of correspond to the four seasons, although in our plays, everyone wanted to use the blue conifers.
Each player gets a board with a light point counter and four columns of resources, one of seeds and three of trees in various sizes. At the start of the game, each player places two small trees in spaces at the outer edge of the board, and also begins with two seeds, three more small trees, and one medium tree in his/her supply; further resources must then be ‘purchased’ from the columns on the player’s board before they can be planted or grown. The board itself is hexagonal, so the cardboard sun piece moves around it to six fixed positions in each game-year, casting light on each of the seven columns of spaces on the board from a new angle on every turn. A tree receives light unless its space is in the shadow of a tree that stands between its space and the sun; a small tree casts a shadow of one space behind it, a medium tree casts a shadow of two spaces, and a large tree three spaces. Trees receive light points related to their size—one per turn for a small tree, two for a medium, three for a large, assuming they’re not in shadow.
When you’ve grown a tree to the largest size, you can then harvest it at any time for four light points. The payout depends on where the tree sat on the game board; the outer ring of spaces is worth the least, while the single space in the center of the board is worth the most. The bonuses for harvesting trees also decline over the course of the game, so the first player to build and harvest a tree from that center space gets the largest single bonus available, 22 points.
The main decisions in the game all revolve around when and where to start your trees or to harvest them. You’ll always want to focus first on getting trees built and harvested toward the center of the board for maximum points, although this takes a few extra turns (compared to growing on the exterior ring), and trees in the center of the board can be blocked from the sun from all directions. You will likely also plant some trees for offensive purposes, to try to block an opponent from gaining light points for his/her largest trees. And you have to balance the timing of your harvest decisions—the sooner you harvest, the more points you’ll get, but you gain three points per turn for those large trees any time they’re not in shadow.
The base rules suggest playing three game years, with four years recommended for more advanced players, which helps swing the game a bit more towards long-term play; with just three years, you’ll end up with three or four tree tokens, and probably a lot of unfinished business on the board. The last 2-3 turns end up a bit of a rush to grow and harvest any large trees before the game concludes, and since you can’t do two actions on one tree or space on the same turn—for example, you can’t grow a medium tree into a large one and then harvest it immediately—certain moves are wasted in those final turns. (There are no points for trees left on the board at the game’s end.)
Final scoring is simple, as each player just adds up all bonus tokens acquired from harvesting trees and then adds one point for every three unused light points s/he has at game-end. That means that the game has strategic elements, but they’re easy enough for older kids to grasp so they can play competitively with adults. Turns are quick, especially in the first two game years, since you will only have enough light points for maybe two actions. And the game’s mechanics are easy to memorize, because of the 1-2-3 system—everything related to a small tree costs one light point (or you can plant a seed one space away from a small tree), then two for a medium tree, and three for a large one. It’s also easy to plan ahead and know your actions for your next turn ahead of time, which helps keep full game times under an hour. The visual appeal gets you into the game, but the elegant rules and quick turns really sell Photosynthesis as one of the best new board games of 2017.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.