WBG Score: 8/10
Player Count: 2-4 players
Published by: Blue Orange Games
Designed by: Hjalmar Hach
If you have played Photosynthesis, you will know how interesting a game this is. On face value, it looks very calming and relaxing. Beautiful cardboard tree miniatures all gathered around a board basking in the sun. It’s a walk in the woods isn’t it?
Well, the game is relaxing, and very good. But it is also a bit of a head scratcher. To be successful in this game, you need to plan ahead. I am not talking two or three steps, more like eight to ten to maximise your scoring opportunities. The game works very simply and it develops very quickly. You plant a seed. That seed becomes a small tree. This small tree grows into a medium sized tree then a large tree. You can then collect that large tree for points. But as more trees appear and the sun rotates, you need to think about how you can score something you lay now, in ten turns time. It’s a simple idea but with some complex decisions.
In Photosynthesis, you play three to four rounds. Each round consists of one full rotation of the Sun around the board. This takes six turns. Each movement creates a new direction that the Sun shines in. Each tree hit by the Sun gets a light point to be spent on upgrading your trees. But be aware that each tree casts a shadow, and no tree in shadow can gain light points.
You may only plant a seed within range of each tree, and there are more points to be won from the centre of the board. So, you need to move your trees closer to the centre. This makes this in part, a race game with area control elements too. Yes, this is a light abstract strategy game. But there are some complex decisions to be made if you want to score well.
Questions of a Forest
As you place your trees you need to be thinking about how they will get points for each rotation of the Sun? What shadows will they cast? What shadows may be cast upon them? How will you use them to grow into other areas on the board? Will this ever become a tree you will collect and score points from, and if so, should I place it here?
That is a lot to think about and can make some turns difficult to decide. As such, I was very interested to see how this game would be expanded. Seeing as it has this strange position of looking simple and light but being full of interesting and complex decisions. I know some cried out for more complexity, but this is one of the games that works well as is. Its beauty is in its simplicity for me. I was concerned it could be ruined by unnecessary additions.
In the first expansion for this game, Under the Moonlight, this was my initial fear. There are three mini expansions in this small box, and I was worried the designers were throwing too much at this. As such, I did the only sensible thing and played with all three expansions at once on my first game! Ok, maybe not sensible! But I did want to see if it was easy to learn all the new expansions if played like this, and how it affected the experience.
I was very pleasantly surprised. They all worked brilliantly. It was a smooth addition into the game and enhanced the experience in many new ways. This was a two-player experience initially, and later at a three count. Each time, with other players who had played the base game a lot, so that certainly helped. But the introduction of three expansions at once in this way worked. I have since tried with just soe of them on their own, and it is a nice way to learn for sure. But the way I will always play this game now is always with the expansions added. And always with all three modes at once. This is a good reflection of how this expansion adds to the game as I am not usually like this with expansions.
The Moon and the Forest Animals.
The first mode is the largest and the most interesting change. In addition to the Sun rotating around the board, you will now have a Moon token moving around in the opposite direction. This will cast moonlight onto the board in two diagonal lines, providing lunar points to all animals it touches.
There is also a Moon phase tracker token which shows players where the Moon will be next time. Always five spaces counter-clockwise. This helps you plan where to move your animals each turn to try and maximise the lunar points available.
Your animals can use these lunar points to activate specific powers. The animals all have completely different powers and offer a lot of replayability and fun into the games.
The Boar can collect large trees for points as usual but without spending light points to do so. It can also plant a seed in the space it took the tree from.
The Hedgehog can plant seeds for free. The seeds do not need to be bought or available to player at the time and can be taken directly from their player board.
The Squirrel is a cheeky rascal that my wife loved that can eat other players seeds! The player who loses the seed gets it back on the board and a light point in compensation, but this new addition of take-that is an interesting decision. Take-that exists a little in the game with the placement of your trees that can block other people’s trees. And taking spots first in the battle for the centre spot. But that was more area control. This is out right take-that and I am unsure how I feel about it in this game. Especially as there is no way to get back from this. There are no counter moves. But as I say, my wife loved it!
The Fox has some similar powers though, so perhaps works well with the Squirrel. The Fox can move other people’s seeds and animals if they are next to them. They don’t come off the board though, they just move a space or two.
The Owl has the interesting ability of being able to convert lunar points into light points. A precious commodity in this game.
The Badger can make seeds grow into small trees. This can be from available trees to that player or ones from their player board depending on the lunar points spent.
The Beaver has its own little Dam board that is added onto the main board when they have collected 6 lunar points. It must be placed on the edge of the board by the river. When the dam is built, all trees or seeds on the spaces taken up by it grow one size. The Beaver on later turns can make the trees continue to grow by spending more lunar points.
The Turtle has some pre-game set-up. The player using the Turtle must chose six of the eight tiles at random and place them on the outer edge spaces of the board. For four lunar points, that player can then flip one of these tiles and “hatch” the baby Turtle that is there. Later, for one lunar point, the Turtle can activate each tiles’ unique power one time before turning the tile to the box. These powers can help grow trees, collect them, score points or light points, and even have two actions on the same space on their turn. Something otherwise forbidden.
The variation from these eight animals is great. I enjoyed experimenting with each one and seeing which ones worked best together. The Turtle and Beaver were my favourite as they changed the game the most. Interesting to me, as this was my fear coming into this expansion.
The Great Elder Tree.
This is the simplest of the three modes. There is a large tree in the box that you can add to the board at the start of the game. This tree casts huge shadows over the board from both the Sun and the Moon. It is not owned by either player and cannot be moved during the game.
This is a simple addition that works well in lower player counts. Perhaps not needed and cumbersome in higher player counts when the board gets very busy anyway. But this depends on how tactical a battle you want. It is a nice simple easy addition that I think has been included to help with two-player games when the board is less busy.
The Moonstones are the only mode that cannot be used on their own and need to be included with the Moon and Forest Animals. When hit by the Moonlight, the Moonstones radiate the light onto all surrounding spaces. This benefits all animals on any neighbouring spaces and provides Luna points to them.
Like the Elder Tree, this is a simple addition to the game and makes the Moon and Forest Animals mode work a little better. I see no reason to use this every time you are using the first mode. Unless you are playing in a four and are concerned about the space they will take up. But the rules account for this and only one Moonstone is used in a four.
I would say this is a very good expansion. It enhances the game and makes it feel like quite a different experience. I would suggest to anyone familiar with the base game to use all three modes. But I would not teach the game to a new player with it included from game one, but I would from game two. And as someone who has played the base game many times I think this breathes new life into the game.
The animals are the highlight for sure. They have some interesting powers that work well together and make the game look and feel quite different. I will enjoy playing with these little critters for many years to come I am sure.
Photosynthesis - Under The Moonlight expansion is out now and available at all good retailers.