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Photosynthesis - title

Blue Orange is a company that has released a series of very successful board games that are geared towards children, and which feature educational themes. My girlfriend and I came across some of their games in a kids' hobby store while on a family road trip last year. The game that stood out the most on the shelf was a new release called Photosynthesis, a game about players competing to grow a small forest. The box art and pictures on the back made the game look very pretty, and its educational theme about the life cycle of plants intrigued us. So we bought a copy and held onto it until our kid's birthday in the fall.

The game is recommended for ages eight and older, and is easy to dismiss as just a "kids' game", especially given its status as "edutainment". However, this game is more complicated than your standard kids' fare. There actually is some strategy involved, and the game runs for about 90-minutes. It's not a random dial-flicker or dice-roller like Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, or other such Milton Bradley / Hasbro / Parker Bros. games that make up a kid's board game shelf. It also has deeper strategy than the children's version of Carcassone (which our kid also has). This game (along with most of Blue Orange's catalog) is definitely geared towards family night, in which people of all ages are playing.

The game board is very pretty once multiple trees of different colors are placed.

A vibrant forest

This game's components certainly are pretty. The trees (and everything else) are simple cardboard cutouts, but they are printed on some thick and sturdy cardstock. Production quality is pretty high for a kid's game, and that high quality is always important when you're playing a game with kids, as it means the game will last longer before falling apart. All the colors are vibrant and attractive, and they all mix together very well when the trees are all clumped together on the board. I'm not particularly keen on the blue evergreens, which look very unnatural and kind of out of place. Maybe Blue Orange could have gone with more of a blue-green color? Or maybe red, as in "redwood"? Ah well, it's not a big deal. Maybe the blue trees are an homage to the company's name. The game looks very pretty, in any case.

The gameplay is pretty simple and elegant. Each turn, sunlight comes from a particular direction on the board, and any trees that are not blocked by an adjacent tree (e.g. the tree is not "in the shadow" of another tree) collects sunlight points for the owning player. Each player then spends their sunlight points to plant new seeds on the board, or to grow existing seeds into small trees, to grow an existing tree from small to medium or medium to large, or to let a large tree die. When a large tree dies, it creates new soil, which is awarded to the owning player as victory points. Trees in spaces further from the edges of the board score more points.

The sun moves across the board each turn, providing sunlight and shade to different trees.

Each round the sun moves around the board, casting different trees in the shadows of other trees. Medium and large trees also collect more sunlight, cast longer shadows, and can collect sunlight if partially-obstructed by smaller trees. So where you put the trees, and how tall you let them grow, will determine whether they will get sunlight, or if they will block other players' trees. You also have trade offs between planting more trees or growing your existing trees. Your own trees can also block your other trees, so you have to keep that in mind when you are placing or growing your trees.

The game's strategy mostly comes down to controlling spaces on the board. The inner tiles on the board are worth more points, but are more likely to be surrounded and cast in shadows from all directions. The outer spaces are guaranteed to get sunlight for at least 2 or 3 rounds, but they are worth much less points. Effective play requires thinking ahead several turns -- knowing how to plant your trees so that they will maximize the sunlight they will receive, while simultaneously blocking other players' trees from receiving light.

An optional variant prevents actions
from being taken on a space that is shaded.

The rules prevent a player from taking more than one action on the same board space in the same turn. This prevents a player from killing a tree and then immediately planting a new seed to maintain control of the space (which would be a problem with the center space, being that it's worth the most points). It also prevents a player from rapidly growing a seed into a large tree and killing it for instant points. This comes into play near the end of the game. If you don't plan ahead, you won't have enough time (or enough sunlight points) to grow your trees to full size and kill them all for victory points before the end of the game.

All these rules feel very appropriate thematically and follow common sense. If you get a rule wrong, you'll probably immediately notice and question, "Wait, that can't be how the rules work!". If being able to do something on the board seems too good to be true, then you're probably getting a rule wrong. But the rules aren't complex at all. The entire rulebook is just a single-page folded in half to make a pamphlet, which makes the game easy to learn and easy to set up.

Number-crunching

For being a kids' game, the victory point tokens sure have odd numbers assigned to them. The smallest victory point chips have only twelve points on them, and the biggest one is 22 points. Adding up 22+19+16+13 isn't the most taxing of all arithmetic calculations, but young children may have problems with the arithmetic -- especially when having to add it up on the fly, mid-game, to find out if they are winning. I don't know why they couldn't go with smaller numbers (maybe 7 through 12?). The spread of values would be almost the same, but it would be a heck of a lot easier to add up in your head. I dunno, maybe it didn't work in play-testing.

Smaller numbers that are easier for a kid
to add up would have been preferred.

Smaller numbers would also make unspent light points worth a bit more. Every third unspent light point is worth a point at the end of the game. As it stands, this is little more than a tie-breaker, since adding 2 or 3 points to a score of 60 is pretty trivial.

There's a couple variant rules that can make the game more challenging for older players. One adds an extra round to the game (which makes the game take longer, and increases the amount of victory points that players might achieve). The other makes it so that players cannot grow a seed or tree, if it is in the shadow of another tree that turn. I'm curious if applying this rule only to adults would serve as a handicapping mechanic to allow younger kids to compete. I'll have to try it out next time we play.

I am disappointed that the rules don't explicitly include rules for handicapping younger players. An older, experienced board gamer is certainly going to make mince-meat of an 8-year-old unless you go out of your way to play very poorly.

I also feel like the game plays best with 4 players. With fewer than 4, there's a lot of open space on the board, which means there's a lot less conflict for real estate, and the game becomes very passive. In our very first game, we played with three players, and my girlfriend and daughter were competing for space on one side of the board, while I was left all alone on the other side of the board to do pretty much whatever I wanted. Yeah, that's partly their fault, but it's also partly the game's fault for not scaling anything with the number of players.

Having less than 4 players leaves too much open space
and can easily allow one player to run away with the game.

A good kids' game that's also fun for adults

Despite being educational -- and a great game on its own right -- I'm not sure if I wholly recommend Photosynthesis for your 8-year-old. There's probably plenty of 8-year-olds who could play and enjoy this game, but I feel that it's probably more appropriate for ages 10 and up. At over an hour long, the game can go on a bit long for younger kids, takes a few rounds before it really gets going, can be rather slow while you wait for others to take their turns, and might require a bit more strategy and forethought than an 8-year-old can handle. You know your kid better than me, so if you think your kid has the patience and attention span to handle it, then go for it! My experience is that the kids get bored.

None of those issues are likely to be deal-breakers for adults. The fact that the game is very enjoyable for adults means that if your kids don't play it, then you can still play it and have fun! My colleagues at the office enjoy it, and it will probably join Dominion, Avalon, Bloodborne, Terraforming Mars, and Dark Moon as an office game night staple. It's even quick enough that experienced players could probably play it over a lunch break!

I'll also be happy to check out other Blue Orange games in the future. If I can get my daughter to play more board games, then I have my eye on Vikings On Board as a potential holiday present for my daughter's next birthday.

WHAT I LIKE

  • Sturdy and attractive components
  • Very simple and elegant rules
  • A kid's game that requires actual strategy!
  • Unique, educational premise
  • Optional rule can maybe be used to handicap adults?

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Probably too complex, too long, and too slow for younger players
  • Score chips have numbers not well-suited to grade-school-level mental arithmetic
  • 2 and 3 player games leave too much open space

FINAL GRADE: B+

Manufacturer: http://www.blueorangegames.com/
Lead Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Original release: 2017
MSRP: $45 USD
Player(s): 2-4 players
Game Length: 90 minutes
Official site: http://www.blueorangegames.com/index.php/games/photosynthesis

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