Disclaimer: this kind-of-review comes after just a couple of plays. We haven’t quite figured out all the complexities of the different strategies and I’m far from an expert. But here are some early thoughts.
I was very excited to get my copy of Photosynthesis; it looks like a beautiful game and the concept was unusual and intriguing. I’m the sort of person who rates originality and creativity above trivial things like, say, intelligence or charm or religious views or political affiliations. I like to see things I’ve never seen before. And I’d never seen a game based on trees in a forest vying for precious sunlight.
It follows, then, that my biggest hope (and fear) is that the theme comes out as strong – preferably stronger – than the mechanics. Again, my personal preference in gaming is the sweet spot where you cannot tell whether a game design originated with mechanics and a theme was added on, or if the theme was used to build bespoke mechanics to represent it. This utopia is rare, but suffice it to say that I’d rather play something like Panic Station with all the flaws and ‘suspensions of disbelief’ in its mechanics than Yet Another Factory-Produced Abstract Eurogame where you build trains or farm fields or trade corn for diamonds. It may make me vastly unpopular, but I don’t greatly enjoy Catan or Ticket To Ride.
So, then, the question becomes: “Does the theme of Photosynthesis hold up and immerse you in the underlying concept?”
And the short answer is: No.
And the much longer is: No, but it’s a seriously difficult idea to transport the human brain into and this is still an immensely enjoyable gaming experience. Trying to make someone feel like a species of tree growing and spreading within a forest is as easy as imagining you’re a single plum, floating in perfume, served in a man's hat. The synthesis of Photosynthesis falls just a little short, and on your turn you think more about maximising your Light Points for the coming round(s) than thinking “what would I do if I were a tree over there?”. The mechanics do indeed dominate the theme, but I’m still happy to place this just left of centre on the Theme-to-Mechanics spectrum. Why? Well, for two reasons.
Firstly, despite the mechanics being more prominent than the theme, they do represent the organic processes of flora life and the struggles they go through really well (to the best of my knowledge). Hjalmar Hach has done an absolutely remarkable job at representing all the necessary functions for Photosynthesis and, unlike many games on the far right of the spectrum, they would simply not work or make sense in any other setting. They are purpose-built to simulate the theme at hand and they do it amazingly well.
Secondly – and I know the aesthetics of Photosynthesis have been discussed to death already – but the overview of the game is stunning. Any time you metaphorically (and/or literally) step back from the board it looks and feels like a living, active forest. So, while the seconds of the game are focused on manipulating the rules to maximise your point tokens at the end, the minutes and hours show the true nature of the game in all its beauty. [It would be awesome to make a time-lapse animation of each game afterwards.] My recommendation to all players is to pause a moment at the end of each Revolution (or Round) and just take in the board and see how each species is trying to thrive (and win). I'm expecting that learning to think like a tree is the key to finding the best strategies for playing the game.
I still need to play a lot more games to fully grasp the rules and develop a deep appreciation for Photosynthesis, but my early thoughts have been incredibly positive and it’s a delightful attempt to build a genuinely new gaming experience.
A few miscellaneous notes:
It would have been good to have the ‘Available’ area on the players’ game boards. It’s a very strange disconnect to have playing pieces floating around the table when everything else has such a precise position in the game.
I was very grateful that the box was made big enough that you don’t have to disassemble all the trees to pack them away! Yay.
I haven’t discussed the rules at all here (you can download them easily enough, and there are plenty of reviews that go into them in detail), but it is a really simple game to teach to new players. This is one of those ‘gateway’ games where non-gamers will be drawn in by the pretty, sit down because of the simplicity and stay because of the subtle complexity.
I know people have figured out the four species of tree in the game, but I wish they had been mentioned in the rules!! And maybe a few paragraphs of fluff at the beginning to immerse you into the theme.
Thanks for reading!