Thursday 25 March 2021

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight

Game: Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight

Publisher: Blue Orange Games

Designer: Hjalmar Hach
Year: 2021

It's wonderful to see so many games with a nature theme now populating board game shelves - it's a theme that has a wide range of appeal both inside and outside of traditional hobby gaming circles - really broadening the market for the games we all love. Photosynthesis was one of the first games we noticed making the most out of a nature theme and it did so in a big way. I have really vivid memories of sitting on the sofa, punching and assembling the trees - such an iconic board game piece! The look of Photosynthesis has instant appeal and elevates Photosynthesis from an abstract game to one that really integrates theme and mechnics with the trees literally overshadowing one another.
Photosynthesis has been a standalone game for 4 years, since its relaease in 2017, so a first expansion was unexpected. Like many abstract games, Photosynthesis feels elegant and complete, so we were intigued to see what Under the Moonlight might try and add into the mix.
First a quick recap of the base game. In Photosynthesis players will be completing the life cycle of trees, from planting seeds to having a fully grown tree die, it's remains rotting away providing nutrition for the next generation. This is done via the medium of solar points, every round the sun is in a new position around the board and all trees that are hit by its rays gain you from 1-3 solar points depending on their size. Trees also send out a shadow, so if your tree is behind another player's tree you won't get any points. Bigger trees tower over smaller ones, gaining points even when in a smaller tree's shadow, but also sending a bigger shadow behind them. Once solar points are earned players will take turns spending these points. They can be spend to plant new seeds, grow trees up one size category, or remove pieces from your board, making them ready to be used.

Under the Moonlight is an expansion in three parts. The simplest of all is the Great Elder Tree, this gigantic cardboard tree takes up one space on the game board. Not only is this space blocked for the whole game, but the sunlight (and moonlight) cannot pass through it, all trees behind it are in shadow for the round.

The other two modules revolve around animals, and the moon. When playing with these a pair of new tokens rotate around the board. The moon token acts in a similar way to the sun, sending two rays of moonlight across the board, any animals under the moonlight earn their player 1 or 2 lunar points, depending on whether it's a full or half moon. The moon phase tracker is always 5 'spaces' ahead of the moon around the board, letting players easily see where the moon will be next round. This token rotates around the board in the opposite direction to the sun, every time the tokens overlap the phase tracker flips, changing the moon from full to half and vice versa. If you are playing with the moonstone module then there will be up to three moon stones on the board. Not only do these block spaces and sunlight like a small tree, but when hit by moonlight they radiate it in all directions, giving nearby animals bonus lunar points.

With all these ways to get lunar points, you're going to need to spend them, that's where the animals come in. Each player has a different animal which they can move 1 space around the board each round. In addition they can spend lunar points to perform their animal's special ability. These vary hugely from the fox, which acts as a bully pushing other animals ands seeds around, to the simple owl who converts lunar points to solar points. Some of the animals are more involved than others, such as the beaver who sets up an area where trees can be grown faster, or the turtle who wants to find all their baby tokens to get bonus powers.

Amy’s Final Thoughts 

Photosynthesis is a great game and one that I've had great joy in introducing to people at the board game cafe where I work. The rules aren't the simplest, but because they are incredibly consistent and the game mechanics are so closely tied to theme it's surprisingly easy to teach. While perfectly good at two, the game is perhaps at it's best at three players where there is just the right balance of competition for land, and therefore sunlight. The game has a great internal balance, with trees on the outer rim having an easier time collecting sunlight, and trees on the central area being worth more points when they eventually die.

So an expansion seemed like a fantastic idea, upon first opening the box you are shown the same great quality components from the base game, along with the fantastic looking animal meeple. There's certainly no complains to be made about the quality of the contents. The simplest part of the expansion is the Great elder tree, a game mode which certainly works, adding a huge light blocking tree from the start of the game changes which land is the most valuable for gaining sunlight and certainly alters the dynamics. But while it does change how you play, it's not by much. It isn't much different to being in the mid-game where fully grown trees cast half the board into shadow anyway.

So that brings us to the lunar stones and the animals. I lump these together as without animals in play the lunar stones are merely three more blocking pieces on the game board. The animals themselves all have interesting powers, though some feel far more potent than others. There is certainly a question of whether asymmetrical powers was needed in the game, and some animals certainly feel more useful than others. The beaver was certainly a standout winner, being able to give you five or more free growths over the game when used well. 

While the abilities were fun, the rigmarole of powering them was less so. Having a token on the board constantly chasing around the orbiting moon was often more irritating than fun. Much of the time catching the moonlight two turns in a row was impossible, so you'd have to predict where it would be in two or three turns time. The moon's movement is fixed so that is perfectly doable, but does add to ap. Even worse the method of moving the moon around has taken the elegant movement of the sun and made it a right faff! Instead of moving one carboard section around the board each turn you are now moving the sun, potentially picking up the lunar tokens to put them back in place on top, then moving the moon, then moving the phase marker exactly five spaces ahead. It's an inelegant solution which feels like it belongs in an app, not a physical game.

Unfortunately, much of what this expansion adds ends up feeling like busy work. The powers gained from the animals are interesting, but largely just give you the equivalent of a few free solar points. While they do add a little charm and fun to the gameplay they also bring a bunch of admin, making the game flow feel off. The great elder tree is fine. Just fine, nothing special, it's ok. Which in my mind sums up this expansion. It's fine, a little rough around the edges and I think I'd rather play the base game, but it does have some nice ideas and there's something thematically great about rescuing all the turtle's babies.

Fi’s Final Thoughts
Of the three parts to this expansion, the combination of the animal powers and the moonlight is certainl the most significant. On first impressions, the animals provide you with an opportunity to do more on your turn, with the moonlight acting as an additional currency allowing you to take specfic and different actions to all other players at the table. Some require long term planning, like the beaver, whilst others, like the badger are more opportunistic. After trying out a few animals I felt really frustrated by how Amy seemed to be managing to do so much whilst I did so little. When playing as the turtle I was trying to focus on rescuing my babies, but it was hard to stay near them whilst also trying to get into the moonlight. Adding the lunar stones into the mix only exacerbated the problem, so that I felt trapped in a corner, unable to double up on moonlight, while Amy was running amock, getting double moonlight points quite frequently. Playing with this powers either requires a lot of experience, else there are some that just feel better, or easier to play than others.

The expansion is not quite modular because certain aspects bounce of other elements, so it seemed logical to play with it all in at least one of our plays. With all of these elements on the board, it was really crowded, even in a two-player game, and it felt like you were really desperate for sunlight. I don't like an expansion that makes the game more restricted - it squahses all of the fun out of the game for me to be trying to pick up scraps rather than having fun and satisfying big turns.
For me, this expansion feels like an afterthought, almost as though someone decided that after a few years Photosynthesis deserved an expansion to re-ignite people's interest in the game. Yes, the mechanisms work but they just don't gel with the base game for me - they are literally tacked on elements to a game that was originally so elegant. Both fiddly work for you brain and your hands really ruin the enjoyment of the game for me and the mecnaisms create situations that almost always feel frustrating and dis-satisfying. I fondly recall fantastic times I've had playing the base game of Photosynthesis, but after playing this expansion, I'm done with it and can move onto games that don't make me feel miserable.

You Might Like...
  • The expansion comes with a very cute collection of meeples!
  • The assymetric powers of the animals feel nicely thematic.
You Might Not Like...
  • Having to keep track of the moons position and move lot of cardboard tokens around the perimeter of the boar every turn is tedious and fiddly.
  • With the large tree and other obstacles to success, frustrating turns are more common than fun turns.
  • We often felt that one animal was stronger than the other in a 2-player game.

The Verdict
4/10 Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight is only the second example of an expansion that ruined the base game enough to push the base game out of our collection. It added layers of fiddliness that seemed to spoil what was a very elegant base game. While the additions were thematic and the meeples were very cute, we spent reluctantly finished our games with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment. Every aspect of the expansion felt like a barrier to fun rather than an enhancement to fun!

Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight was a review copy kindly provided to us by CoiledSpring Games.

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