Photosynthesis – How To Play

Hi! Welcome to Watch It Played, my name is Rodney Smith, and in this video, we’re going to learn the 2-4 player game Photosynthesis, designed by Hjalmar Hach and published by Blue Orange Games. When you’re a tree, even in the tranquil setting of a quiet forest, there is competition — for light, for growth, and for rebirth.

You and the other players will strive for space in a dense forest to spread your branches and your seedlings. So join me at the table, and let’s learn how to play. To set up, place the game board in the center of the play area and look for this Sun dot, which is where you’ll place this Sun piece at the start of the game. Now each player should collect one of these boards. We’ll be setting up a 2-player game, so we’ll return these others to the box. You’ll now collect the trees and seed tokens matching your player board.

The trees come in three different sizes, and there are spaces indicated on your board here for 2 large, 3 medium, and 4 small trees, which you’ll place there now. This column is for seed tokens, so place 4 of those there, while all leftover pieces stay by your board in what is known as the “available area.” This is your light track, and each player should collect one of these light tokens and place it in the zero space. These are the scoring tokens, and they should be separated into four stacks, based on their backs, which will show either 1, 2, 3, or 4 leaves.

Then, flip these over, and ensure they’re ordered with the highest value on top, down to the lowest value on the bottom. Place this beside the board, along with these round tokens, which should also be stacked from the highest down to the lowest. You’ll only use this #4 token if you’re playing the advanced rules, so we’ll return this to the box. Also, in a 2-player game, you’ll not use the darkest-color scoring tokens, so these can also be removed. The youngest player starts the game, so give them this first-player token, or choose randomly.

But either way, they now take one of their small trees from their available area, and place it into any empty outside edge space of the board. Then, going in clockwise order, each other player does the same. Now, repeat that process once more until everyone has placed a total of two small trees.

And that’s the setup. In Photosynthesis, you’ll be trying to strategically place your trees so they can soak up the sunshine and grow as the rays move around the board. When your trees reach their tallest height, you can collect them for points and the player with the highest score after the Sun has done 3 full rotations around the board will be the winner. The game is played over a series of rounds, and each round is broken into two phases, starting with the photosynthesis phase. Here, the first player will move this Sun board one step clockwise. You’ll skip doing this during the first round of the game, but on a future round, it would move to here.

And there are six different points like this that it will stop on, as it moves around during these phases. After it moves, or even during the first round when it doesn’t move, players will now collect light points based on whether or not their trees are in the shadow of other trees. To understand how shade is cast, you need to imagine that sunshine comes from the Sun board here in straight lines as shown by these arrows, across the rows of circles that are printed on the board. Each tree on the board then casts shade in that direction a certain number of spaces, depending on its height. A small tree casts shade a total of 1 space. Medium trees cast shade a total of 2 spaces, and tall trees cast a shadow 3 spaces away.

Any trees that are in the shadow of another tree, even one of your own, will not score light points during this phase, unless they are taller than the tree that is casting a shadow on it. To help illustrate this, let me set up a more complex example, and I’ll walk you through how this works. The tree here is casting a shadow 3 spaces in this direction, because of the position of the Sun.

And that means its shade will hit this tree, so this will not be gaining any light points because it is equal to or less than the height of the tree that is casting a shadow on it. And even though this tree is blocked, it’s still considered to be casting its own shadow and that means it’s blocking the tree here, so it won’t gain light points either. Over here, this small tree is casting its shadow 1 space onto the tree here, but because this is taller than the tree that is casting a shadow onto it, it is not considered blocked and will still gain light points. This tree is also blocked by the one here, but this one isn’t because it’s far enough from the other trees that are casting shade that it still will receive sunshine.

Sometimes, seed tokens will be on the board, but these will never collect light points. Either way, players now gain points for each tree that is not in shade based on its height. An unblocked small tree gains 1 point, medium trees gain 2 points, and the tallest trees get 3 points. So in this example, the blue player would get 3 + 2 + 1 + 1 for a total of 7 light points, while yellow will get just 1 point for its 1 unblocked tree here. Record how many points you have by adding the new amount to any you had leftover from a previous round and then move this token to that new total. Also, keep in mind you can never have more than 20 points at a time, so any extra you would be owed are just lost.

During the first photosynthesis phase, each player will have placed two trees on the board, so at most, you could have 2 light points. Once players have gained all their light points, you move on to the life cycle phase. And here, the person holding the first-player token will fully take their turn, then the next player in clockwise order will go, until everyone has had a turn.

And on your turn, you’ll perform as many actions as you want, and can afford, in any order, as often as you’d like. So let’s go back to the table, and I’ll show you what the actions are. One option is buying, where you’ll spend light points equal to the value shown on your board by the tree or seed that you want, and these are arranged in columns.

And you can always buy the bottom-most item from any one of these. For example, if I wanted a medium-sized tree, I’d need to buy this one for 3 light points. Now in the first round, at most you’d have 2 points, so I coulnd’t afford this yet, so we’ll pretend that I actually have a little bit more. And then I could collect this tree, placing it into my available area, and reducing my light points accordingly.

If I want to buy another item now, or later in my turn, I could, but let’s move on to another action called “planting a seed.” To do this, you’ll need to pay 1 light point, as shown here, and then you can place a seed from your available area onto an empty space of the main board a certain distance away from one of your other trees there, based on its height. As we see here, one space away from a small tree, up to 2 spaces away from a medium tree, and up to 3 spaces away from one of your large trees.

For example, I could place one of my seeds into the spaces around this tree. Or, if I had a medium tree here, I could place it into one of the spaces adjacent to it, or up to 2 spaces away. You’ll also notice that when counting those spaces, you don’t have to go in a straight line. Here, I’ve gone 1 space in this direction, and then over to here. Also, other trees, either your own or an opponent’s, cannot block you from getting to an empty space where you’d like to place a seed. That said, an important rule to point out with this, or any other action, is that you cannot target a particular space on the board more than once with actions that you perform during your turn.

When planting, your counting is having activated both the space where the seed came from, and where it ended up. So that means with other actions I take this turn, I could not target either of these space to either plant more seeds, or perform any other types of actions. Now though, let’s move on to another action: growing. To do this, you’ll pick a tree or seed that you already have on the main board and then pay the cost shown to the right of it here, to advance that piece to the next stage. So for example, to grow a tree from small to medium, it would cost me 2 light points. Then, I could replace this tree for example, with a medium one from my available area.

It’s very important to remember: you can only grow a tree using pieces in your available area. Anything on your board must be bought first to move it to here, and then it can be used in this action. A seed or tree that was replaced on the board is then returned to the highest available space within its column. Now if there isn’t space for it, it is removed from the game and returned to the box. Also note that you must take this action one step at a time.

In other words, I couldn’t have a small tree and pay 5 light points to immediately grow it to a large tree. Also remember that each space on the board can only be activated once, for example if this turn we had just planted a seed here, we couldn’t then grow that seed into a small tree because this space has already been activated this turn. This brings us to the last action we need to cover: collecting.

You’ll actually find this one shown on your player board in the same place that we saw the costs of growing a tree. But this is an action that can only be taken with one of your tall trees. And after spending 4 light points, you remove one from the game board, returning it to your player board, into the top-most empty space for it. Then, you gain the scoring token from the top of the stack that matches the number of leaves showing on the space your tall tree was collected from. So in this case, since the tree came from here, which shows 2 leaves, we’d collect this token, which also shows 2 leaves. In a 2-player game, you will not have the 4-leaf scoring tokens that are used when collecting from this space.

So if you collect a tall tree from this central spot, take a 3-leaf token instead. If a stack you ever need to draw from is empty, take the token from the top of the next lowest stack with available tokens. And if there were no lower stacks either, you’d simply gain no points for this action.

So, those are all the actions. And on your turn, you can perform as many of them as you would like, in any order, as often as you want, assuming you can afford them. But remember: you cannot perform an action that targets a particular space more than once within your turn. But after you’ve finished taking your actions, then the next player in clockwise order has their turn, until everyone around the table has taken a turn. And then, the first player token is passed to the next player in clockwise order, and then a new round is begun, starting with the photosynthesis phase. If you’ve finished a round and the Sun is in this position, just before you would start the next round, moving it to the space that shows this initial Sun spot, first remove one of these tokens as a reminder of the number of revolutions around the board you have remaining for the Sun to make.

When you finish a rotation that brings you back to here, while this final token is in the stack, finish that round, and then the game immediately ends. This means a complete game will last a total of 18 rounds, which is how many will be played as the Sun travels around the board 3 times. Now total all the points on your collected scoring tokens, and gain the points showing next to the row your light point token is in.

So in this case, I’d gain an extra 3 points. The player with the most points wins, and in the event of a tie, the tied player with the most seeds and trees on the main board wins. If there’s still a tie, then the tied players share the victory. And that’s how you play Photosynthesis. Now there are some additional advanced variation rules which you’re seeing on screen, that I’ll leave for you to discover on your own. However, if you have any questions about anything you saw here, feel free to put them in the comments below and I’ll gladly answer them as soon as I get a chance.

But, until the next episode, thanks for watching.