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Photosynthesis is a visual and mechanical marvel

A board game that marries theme and mechanics in a magical way

Photosynthesis was one of the most sought-after games on the floor at this year’s Gen Con. It was also the most visually striking. It’s a high-concept strategy game that centers around planting trees in a forest and harnessing energy from the sun.

In the two-to-four player game, each player controls a different species of tree. They take turns sowing seeds in an empty field, working together to build a beautiful forest. But each species at the table wants to soak up as much of the sun’s energy as possible to move toward the forest’s center, where the soil is the most rich — and valuable.

At the start of the game, there are only a handful of planted acorns and small trees around the edge of the map. Every round, players convert solar energy into actions, allowing them to plant more seeds, grow their trees taller and ultimately harvest them to score victory points. Once harvested, spaces open up for players to plant new trees and the circle of life begins again.

The core of the game’s unique design comes into focus at the end of each round. A large yellow piece representing the sun gradually moves clockwise around the forest, granting energy to all trees in view. The taller the tree is, the more energy granted to its owner.

To win, players must focus on how the trees on the board cast shadows.

Green, yellow, brown and blue trees made of cardboard spring up around a brightly-colored forest clearing.
Four species of trees compete to cover a clearing in the forest. In the early game, trees pop up around the edge of the map. The richest and most valuable soil is toward to middle of the clearing.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

All trees, regardless of height, cast imaginary shadows based on the position of the sun. The taller the tree is, the longer its shadow and the further it can potentially block a smaller tree from getting energy. Because of the gorgeous three dimensional pieces, it’s easy to see which trees will be successful and which will go hungry each round.

But while one turn may yield minimal energy, it’s entirely possible to see the opposite result as the sun moves on. Light will shine from a different angle, and the shadows will stretch in a different direction than before. This is what elevates Photosynthesis from a simple-yet-pretty game into a top-notch strategy title.

During my demo on the convention floor I foolishly thought it would be a good idea to spend my early energy planting more and more acorns. My assumption was that I would be able to use those seedlings for future expansion. Across the table, my opponent spent her energy to grow a few small trees into taller ones, casting a shadow directly over me. Once the sun moved around the board I found myself receiving very little daylight, slowing down my growth in the opening rounds.

Photosynthesis requires players to think ahead and know that the placement of their trees may not consistently reward them. In later rounds, I managed to position my trees so that they would see sunlight on multiple consecutive turns. I had to be patient, and that patience was rewarded with more available actions.

Each player has a sideboard to track energy, and hold their available trees.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

High-concept strategy games aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea. They can require a bit more effort to get your head around than other games bursting with theme. Kathryn Hill, from publisher Blue Orange Games, agreed. To overcome the hurdle, her team pushed to meld the gameplay to the game’s gorgeous art.

“I feel like you either love [these kinds of games] or you hate them,” Hill said. “But the one thing that I think makes Photosynthesis unique is that the theme and the gameplay tie so well together. Some themes are copy-and-pasted into games to make them look good to sell or what not, but this style is so well integrated into its mechanics.”

Photosynthesis is also a bit of a departure from most of the titles that Blue Orange publishes. Last year, they released the successful small-box game Kingdomino, which won the industry’s annual Spiel de Jahres (Game of the Year) award. And while Kingdomino was a hit, it was also much more of a family-friendly game.

“We have over 80 games in our catalog and most of them are children and family games. Photosynthesis is a game you could play with your family, but it’s definitely more us diving into the hobby gaming world. And so it's definitely encouraging, the response that we're getting. It's really nice to be diversifying and to see Blue Orange ... have a little more to offer everyone.”

Over the course of Gen Con, Blue Orange’s booth was crowded with curious onlookers desperate to catch a glimpse of the game. By the afternoon of the first day, Photosynthesis had completely sold out.

“We were expecting to sell out at Gen Con, but I don't think we were expecting to sell out that fast,” said Hill. “The line formed and we actually got yelled out by Gen Con because it was a safety hazard, blocking aisles and booths. I handed over the last copy at 2 o'clock, and we all looked at each other like, ‘That was absolutely insane.’”

Photosynthesis, with design from Hjalmar Hach and art by Sabrina Miramon, is widely available now for $39.99.

Polygon was on the floor at the 50th annual Gen Con tabletop gaming convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find all our stories here as they go live throughout this week.