In the 2 weeks of experiencing playtime in BCM325, one boardgame stood out to me the most as one of the smoothest, most aesthetic, and most fun gaming experiences I have had: Photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis is an abstract strategy, euro game for 2 – 4 people, where each player plant and shape a communal forest through cultivating seeds and planning one’s own strategy to gain the most space. The players will take their trees through a life-cycle, from seedling to full bloom to rebirth, and earn points as their leaves collect energy from the revolving sun’s rays.
The game is developed and distributed through BlueOrange, an LA-based company known for its commitment to environmental responsibility (Wiki) Consequently, Photosynthesis reflects its producer’s value through its theme of forest-growing to its material of recycled cardboard. Its designer, Hjalmar Hach, is an Italian music-major turned game designer. And though Photosynthesis was his first professional game-designing experience, his aesthetic and artistic background clearly showed through his creation as the game is designed to have a soothing and calming flow (from the emerald blue river wrapped around the main board to the beautiful color palette of each season).
Watching through his interview with The Dice Tower, it showcases, even more, the number of thoughts and details that go into this game. Here are just a few that I found so interesting:
- Graphical presentation
Although it was the first time I had played the game in class, it took me and 2 of my other friends just 10 – 15 minutes to understand and be fluent in the gameplay. This smooth process, I suggest, comes from the physical and real-life presentation of the game. When we’re planning trees, we are physically placing tree-like figures on the board. When the sun moves, there is an actual big yellow piece of cardboard that goes around the table in a certain cycle. When each tree grows, we have to replace it with a bigger-sized tree. The graphic makes sense and it simulates a natural process that we are all familiar with (I imagine even a kid would know how to grow a tree right?).
Hence, a massive part of the “rule-book” is hidden because the physicality of the boardgame reflects what we had already known in real life, making the learning process super smooth.
This element ties in with the former in the sense that in the game, everything is inter-related. For example, the size of the tree determines a lot of factors: from the number of sun points you receive, how far can you spread your seeds, to the shade-blocking of the opponent’s trees. Because one factor determines many others, plus it plays along with the actual photosynthesis process in real life, the rules are justified and make sense to an average new player.
It’s similar to arguably the easiest game of all time: Snakes and Ladders – the graphic of snakes and ladders alludes to the reality of these elements. If you see a ladder in real life, you climb; and if you see a snake, you get eaten. In this interesting article on the history of Snakes and Ladders, the writer notes “play is as much a way of being entertained as a way to work out how we interact and negotiate with the world” (Bierend, 2015). And a part of that process is the game itself has to reflect how we perceive our surroundings.
3. Authority and control
In Photosynthesis, each person has a private “bank” or “garden” to buy their own trees and seeds. And in that card, simple graphic instructions are printed to guide the players throughout the game without a person having to stop and asking annoying questions. It gives the players (at least in my experience), a feeling of control and confidence in the gaming experience.
Take COUP as a similar example, each participant is given an instruction card with an easy-to-follow, boiled down version of the rule book. This way, it allows for a smoother game by allowing private thinking and thus preventing strategy spoilers.
All in all, Photosynthesis has given me an immersive experience of how to be a tree in only an hour! Although I didn’t win, I felt a sense of accomplishment as I have contributed to a colorful forest. This game is definitely a good gateway for a healthy addiction and the study of board games!