Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight or Lost in the Dark?
Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight expansion brings confusion, cuddly meeples
When Photosynthesis (designed by Hjalmar Hach and published by Blue Orange Games) sprouted onto the scene in 2017 it was widely praised. Great theme and incredible artwork (by Sabrina Miramon) carry this abstract strategy game. It was a staple at our house – the game to pull off the shelf when you’re in the mood to try to “beat Dad”.
Over time, though, I started to hear that Photosynthesis suffered from repetitiveness. The lack of any randomness meant that certain starting sequences were guaranteed to take the most valuable center spaces. There weren’t enough strategic options mid-game that could flip the outcome.
This was all heady stuff for my preteens, who just wanted to find a way to beat Dad.
Enter Under the Moonlight, last year’s expansion by the same designer (and new artist Simon Douchy) which promised to add that missing complexity without introducing any randomness. Unfortunately, complexity is all that it brought to the table.
Under the Moonlight, as its name suggests, brings the Moon into Photosynthesis. The Moon travels counterclockwise, in the opposite direction of the Sun. It is the source of “lunar points”, which players track on a separate gameboard from the light points of the base game. Since it is smaller, it only projects its light along two diagonal lines across the main board. To catch that light and earn lunar points, use the most important addition of Under The Moonlight: your animal meeple.
Each animal comes with special powers which help you save your light points and/or be more efficient. Some animal powers, like the Squirrel and Badger, affect seeds and are more helpful in the early game. Others, like the Boar, affect the harvesting of trees, and are powerful late. We found these differing powers weren’t as balanced as we would have liked.
Chasing the Moon
You start the expanded game with two lunar points, but it’s not enough. It took far too many turns chasing the moon around the board to build up enough lunar points to do anything. By then the opportunity for any advantage the early-game animals would have given you is long past.
And chase the Moon you will. Most animals can only move one space at a time. The game includes a “next phase” moon token that’s designed to show you where the Moon will be next, but the very limited movement means you really need to think two or more turns ahead. Otherwise, your animals likely won’t remain under the Moon’s glow. This proved way too much for even our 12 year old to handle. He kept getting caught with his animal so far out of position that he was hopelessly behind in lunar points.
Moving the Moon itself is an incredible hassle. There is a fiddly mechanic where it flips from half-moon to full-moon or vice-versa whenever it crosses over the Sun. This changes how many lunar points you earn, but it felt totally unnecessary and adding nothing. We would have preferred the game just stick to giving out two lunar points every time you were in the moonlight, and adjusted the costs of the animal powers accordingly.
Meanwhile, all that positioning and fiddling with the Moon has little to no payoff, because the animal powers just aren’t at all impressive. I haven’t said much about them because there’s nothing interesting to say. Relative to the base game, you save yourself maybe a handful of light points by invoking them, tops. Yay. And most of the powers require your animal meeple be on just the right space – forcing your meeple to get badly out of position for catching any more moonlight.
By now you can guess this expansion left our kids in the dust. Photosynthesis is a solid family game that can be enjoyed by kids as young as 7-8. Under the Moonlight promotes it to a game only for older teens and adults.
If you do play with your younger ones, have one family member to serve as “celestial god” who does not play, but takes care of the sundry mechanics of keeping the game moving.
Under the Moonlight comes with two other optional additions in the box. We liked the moonstones, which reflected moonlight that hits them onto all the spaces surrounding them, providing more spaces to tactically place your animal meeple. They are also permanent obstacles: players cannot plant trees nor move animals onto them.
They helped a bit, but not enough to change our opinion that it requires too much mental investment for too little strategic benefit.
In one playthrough, I completely gave up on using my animal, and (because you can’t have two animals on one space) just left him in the center space where my wife was growing a tree, just to prevent her from EVER using her animal power on that tree.
The second optional addition is the Great Elder Tree, which like the moonstones is a permanent obstacle. It also casts an infinitely long shadow, blocking both sunlight and moonlight from anything behind it. Being permanent, its initial placement is critical to how much it affects the play. This is the only element of Under the Moonlight we’re considering re-using with the base game.
Turn the Lights Back On
Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight feels like an expansion that had a great idea for a theme, but then doggedly stuck to that theme even when it hampered the implementation. An expansion that altered the rules of tree growth or seed placement, without fiddly token management, would have been more welcome.
It’s possible more strategic gamers would find something to enjoy here, but this expansion did too much to push a casual game into strategic territory. Between this and the unbalanced animal powers, we were struggling to determine why this expansion was paired with its base game. It’s unlikely strategic gamers would have Photosynthesis in their collection, and so wouldn’t look at the expansion.
Thus, the rapidly shrinking sweet spot of this game seems to be an advanced gamer who happens to have this game in their collection due to also playing casual games, perhaps with different audiences. The fit seems forced here, unless the matchup magically works for your situation.
Fortunately, it is unicorns that most enjoy the moonlight.
If you’d like to up the ante on the complexity of your Photosynthesis play session, you can order your own copy of Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight here.
The Family Gamers received a copy of Photosynthesis: Under the Moonlight from Blue Orange Games for this review.
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Photosynthesis - Under the Moonlight: Lost in the Dark
Number of Players: 2-4
Age Range: 10+ (we say 13+)
Playtime: Adds 15+ minutes (we say 30+)