Photosynthesis (2017) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NamePhotosynthesis (2017)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.29]
BGG Rank338 [7.25]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Hjalmar Hach
Artist(s)Sabrina Miramon
Buy it!Amazon Link

Version Reviewed

Multilingual edition

Introduction

Photosynthesis is an inventive, beautiful game that lacks the staying power for us to be as enthusiastic about it as we’d like. We gave it three and a half stars in our review, noting that while It’s easy to recommend people play it’s much harder to recommend they buy it. There are so many clever ideas that in the end work against each other – it’s an emergent and complex forest state that becomes predictable as a consequence of its complexity.

Still, if you cared what we thought about it as a game you’d go read our review. You’re here to find out if a game of placing tiny trees in dense forests is going to be accessible. Well, I don’t know – take my hand and we’ll go exploring. No, I’m not saying that because I think you’ll be scared. It’s a dark forest and I’m scared. Hold me. We’re going in.

Colour Blindness

Each player has a different kind of tree, and they each have different shapes and different art. There are the conical Blue Firs (I think?), the lush and dark green Mint Willows (maybe?). There’s the reddish Fire Bush (perhaps?) and the light green Shrub Puffs (I’m pretty sure that’s right). The colour palette isn’t ideal, but the game is technically accessible because you can tell the difference between trees without reference to colour.

Colour blindness within Photosynthesis

The problem is, it’s not always easy to do this and the game state does become very dense as time goes by. Consider this view specifically for people with Protanopia:

Protanopia and Photosynthesis

You definitely can tell the reds and two different kinds of green apart but it takes close inspection, particularly with reference to the bottom silhouettes of the trees. Coincidentally, the part that’s hardest to see in a large forest. Deuteranopes will have a similar problem, although Tritanopes shouldn’t have serious issues. asymmetricallyasymmetricallyThe specific hues of green actually become easier to differentiate in that circumstance and the blue trees that then become ambiguous are the most distinctive of the shapes.

Colour blindness seeds

This is a problem you don’t get with the seeds because they are very notably different and have a unique icon as well as colour – this maps on to the information present on the player board so you can see reasonably easily which seeds belong to which player.

There’s nothing in the game then that uses colour as the sole channel of information but there is a substantial burden for colour blind players in using the information that is provided. The board state doesn’t change rapidly but it does evolve and knowing which player has which trees is important information when it comes to making plans for the short-term.

We can unfortunately only tentatively recommend Photosynthesis in this category. It’s definitely playable, it’s just not ideal for some when the board gets busy.

Visual Accessibility

There’s a lot of tactility in a game of Photosynthesis. The trees you place can be differentiated by touch to a large extent, although there will be some ambiguity when dealing with those of a similar shape. You can easily tell small trees from medium trees, medium trees from large trees, and the regularity of the board means you can assess the impact of the sun without having to ask much of the table. If a player also has some degree of ability to ascertain visual information, particularly colour, the entirety of the game state is likely to be substantively parseable. Failing that, inquiring of others at the table about the colour of trees is unlikely to leak gameplay intention. There’s an extra cognitive burden that comes with building up a mental map of the board, but while the board does change it doesn’t change especially quickly. It takes a lot of time for a tree to be seeded, grown and then eventually harvested. The nature of the game cycle means you don’t necessarily want to ‘speed run’ this since you want trees contributing light points as long as they realistically can. That puts a limit on how much you’d need to remember.

Photosynthesis board

Your own player board too is accessible to a large extent because each part has a physical representation. The trees you have available are actual cardboard trees, and while their costs are not possible to tell by touch they follow a reliable progression and can be memorised. Bought trees and seeds are positioned off board and again can be investigated by touch. Light points are the only part of the board that can’t be identified by tactile profile but there are many alternative systems that could be used – coins, poker chips or notation on a suitable supporting device.

Photosynthesis player board

The main board uses icons to distinguish the best territory, but again there is a regularity here that can be committed to memory and as we discussed in the review it doesn’t actually have a major impact. All you really need to know is that you get more points the closer to the centre you get. Points tokens are indicated only with numbers, but they’re not secret information and again an alternative system could be used to track someone’s points. A handful of change can easily substitute for the tokens you are provided.

There is some degree of binocularity required to see small trees in dense knots, but that tends to not be particularly important because if you get to that stage the smaller trees usually aren’t strategically important. They’re in shade too often to play a major role in your game engine.

We’ll recommend Photosynthesis in this category, which is a result I myself wouldn’t have expected before I sat down to do the teardown. Much as was the case with Lotus, the beautiful innovation of the game interface creates accessibility where it might not otherwise have been predicted in a complex, spatially explicit game state.

Cognitive Accessibility

There’s no reading level required of Photosynthesis, but the numeracy expectations are very high. As is often the case that’s not in terms of explicit arithmetic, although there is a fair bit of that. It’s instead to be found in the shifting context of value and opportunity. This is numeracy that needs to come with a degree of projection estimation. You need to get an idea of how much light you’ll have in particular turns, how to maximise your light production, and how that’s all going to work with the growing and harvesting of trees. You only get points when you fell one of your largest trees, and the time to do that is when it’s no longer impacting on the economy of the game. It might not be generating light for you if it’s in shade but it might also be blocking another tree that belongs to someone else. The value of a tree can be explicitly calculated, and it needs to take into account a lot of variables over a number of future turns. Deciding when to do things is pretty much the only real thing you do in Photosynthesis and it’s important to get it right.

Coupled to this is the need to trace imaginary parallel lines through the treeline so as to work out where light is going to fall, both in the current turn and in future turns. There’s no need to worry about randomness or branching possibilities here except with regards to what other players do. Mostly though you’ll know reasonably clearly what’s likely to be coming your way in the next turn if you can do the calculations. However, that involves building a mental map of where the light is coming from, what trees are blocking other trees, and what spacess are in shade. Predicting more than a turn in advance puts a big burden on memory too because in order to do anything with the information you’ll need to have an idea of what the previous turn got you – how much light you earned and where you changed the composition of the forest.

The flow of the game is reliable and play is in turn order. Everyone has the same options each turn but the sun is going to be constantly moving which will change the opportunities players have. You might have ten points one turn and none the next. While this doesn’t change what you theoretically can do on your turn it does require you to synchronise your ambitions to the times when you have the resources to carry them through. It’s not a good idea to simply spend money when you have it unless you can use it because it locks up a lot of your ‘light capital’. Photosynthesis is all about getting those light points into the game and working for you.

Scoring at least is reasonably straightforward – you count up the points on your tokens, add your light points, and that’s your score. Mostly it breaks down into ‘harvest the most trees’ and while that won’t always get you a winning score it’s a good enough heuristic to simplify a lot of the work in play.

Photosynthesis does come with a simpler mode of the game that asks players not to worry about shade when it comes to planting seeds and growing trees. While this does lower the cognitive burden a little it doesn’t address the complex predictions needed to appreciate and plan for the erratic income of light that will come a player’s way. Removing that particular element through house rules would result in Photosynthesis losing pretty much all of its merit as a game and we couldn’t recommend that as an accessible variant.

We don’t recommend Photosynthesis in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility.

Physical Accessibility

The 3D trees you make up in Photosynthesis require a fair bit of work to begin with, and it’s reasonably fiddly. The two parts of the trees also don’t necessarily always slot together firmly enough to keep them together when being moved. Some glue will solve that problem, but it’s only intermittent in any case.

Dense board in photosynthesis

Assuming they will hold together a single piece, Photosynthesis actually accomplishes a fair degree of physical accessibility with the way the trees work. You’ll be placing them usually by holding them from the top and while the game state does become dense and tricky to navigate you’re almost always manipulating it from the top downwards. It’s still not ideal for players with fine motor control problems, and similarly so for gross-motor control conditions, but it’s about as good as a game of this nature can be. However, it also means that it will occasionally be necessary – especially when moving towards the centre of the board – to stand up in order to reach inside a knot of trees. Sometimes too in order to see the squares or what may be found behind a tree that blocks another.

If this is not possible then verbalisation is feasible although it’s not explicitly supported. Squares on the board can be differentiated by their symbols, but they’re often going to be obscured by other trees around them. As to their fertility that can be ascertained by heuristic and in any case it’s not going to leak gameplay intention to ask how valuable a square is. The problem is more to do with explicitly and unambiguously referencing which tile a player might mean when indicating placement. The possibility space of verbalisation is constrained because the board is small and it’s going to naturally have numerous features that emerge as a result of tree composition. In any case, ‘row four, column five’ will work although there are no markings for that on the board itself.

The player board you have is reasonably easy to upset, but aside from the score tracker it contains no information that can’t be reconstructed in the event it is dislodged. For scoring, coins or other tokens could easily be substituted with no impact on the game.

We’ll recommend Photosynthesis in this category.

Emotional Accessibility

Much of what you’re doing in Photosynthesis is intentionally blocking the progress of other players. They plant a tree so you plant one blocking theirs. They grow a tree so you grow one bigger so as to deprive them of light. It’s difficult to truly shut someone out of gaining benefit from what they do, but you can certainly temporarily inconvenience them. Given how much of the game is about timing this is the equivalent of seeing someone ready to leap off a dive-board and giving them a push before they actually commit The revolving nature of the sun mitigates this, but it doesn’t prevent it. The only good news really is that you’ll just as often be doing that to other players.

This isn’t really aggression – it’s too slow paced for that and too situational in its impact. It’s passive aggression. You will see a tale repeated many times during a turn. Someone will look at what you have. They’ll look over to see where the sun will be in the next turn. They’ll do something explicitly designed to sap away some of the efficiency of your ecological engine. They don’t ever rob you of anything directly. They just get in your way. Imagine an entire game where an annoying younger sibling is constantly standing in front of your line of sight of the television while you’re trying to watch something. A lot of Photosynthesis plays like that and it can be aggravating.

That kind of impact too doesn’t need to be intentional. When someone grows a large tree it casts a long shadow – they don’t need to be trying to ruin your day in order to spoil your fun. Trees will tend to clump in the middle of the board because that’s where the richest terrain is and that means all your roots end up entwined.

There’s also an issue here in that the order in which players are sitting can have a massive impact on opportunity. The person who takes their turn after someone cuts down a large tree has a sudden golden chance to claim the vacated area. The time when it’s right for someone to harvest their points is driven by the sun and the emergent complexity of the board, and you might well find the only thing that stops you winning the game is that you fell foul of turn order.

It’s certainly possible for players to gang up on each another in Photosynthesis, but there’s rarely any real benefit. You can block off a tree from sunlight by surrounding it on all sides, or prevent a seed from growing in especially valuable soil. That requires a degree of collaboration though that will almost always be to the detriment of the conspirators – what it costs is far in excess of what it accomplishes. Partially that’s because there’s only so far that you can get with a technique like this – score disparities at the best of times are not particularly high but it rarely comes down to sapping points away from people. You get points in large chunks, they don’t slowly accumulate. Unless you can stop someone scoring a tree you’re not likely to have a massive effect.

Now, none of the things raised here are critical issues but they do come together in a game that can feel quite oppressive even if there’s no explicit PvP mechanism in place. It’s just that a game of blocking people can lead to people feeling aggrieved that they’ve been blocked. We’ll tentatively recommend Photosynthesis in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The theme of Photosynthesis is about as inclusive as you could hope – I mean, who doesn’t love trees? They’re magnificent, leafy wonders. Check this awesome box art and tell me you wouldn’t do sexy things to these trees:

Photosynthesis box art

Wow, that got a bit weird. Sorry.

The manual doesn’t default to masculinity and there’s no gendered art anywhere in the game. Just sexy, sexy trees.

Sorry! I will leaf them alone.

Photosynthesis has an RRP of £38, and I already said in the review that I think it’s difficult to recommend people buy it. It’s definitely beautiful and it’s a great way to introduce people to some slightly heavier gaming fare because it presents such an attractive package. It’s just – do you really need a game that fills that niche, and why should you be the one that buys it? I think it gets dramatically less interesting the more you play it and that makes it a difficult recommendation. You do get some lovely components for your money though and there’s no other game I can think of that looks quite so nice on the table.

We’ll tentatively recommend it in this category.

Communication

There’s no requirement for literacy and no formal need for communication during play. Play it with the ponderous silence of an Ent if you like.

We strongly recommend Photosynthesis in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

Physical impairments paired with visual impairments and colour blindness represent a problematic intersection. Much of the game is playable through tactile investigation but that may not be appropriate if a player has limited fine or gross motor control. It would be easy for game state to be upset through inquiry, although it would also be reasonably straightforward to put right. Players with colour blindness will have to get up close to some trees to identify their colour. If players are happy to have colours identified by the table that need not be a critical issue but it’s something to take into account. Players where physical and communication impairments intersect will have some more difficulties in dealing with a suitable way of indicating intention but it’s not impossible.

We already don’t recommend Photosynthesis in our cognitive accessibility categories, but we’d intensify that if they combined with a visual impairment. Remembering the layout of the board, location of trees and presence of player colours is dependent on a strong memory.

Photosynthesis plays in about 30 minutes per player in my experience, although there is a simpler mode where you play for only three rotations of the sun rather than four. It’s reasonably long and quite ponderous, and there often isn’t much for you to do when it isn’t your turn. That can be an issue when dealing with players with attention disorders, especially given how little there is to actually do on a turn if you don’t get a big income of light. It doesn’t lend itself well to dropping in and out either since the expectation is that trees will change and evolve and eventually vacate their position on the board. You can’t just leave them in place without impacting heavily on the game state and you can’t just return them to the box without potentially asymmetrically advantaging players . If someone drops out, someone else will have to tag in for them if the game is to continue.

Conclusion

I was honestly expecting a lot worse as far as visual accessibility goes, and a lot better for colour blindness. As I occasionally say in these teardowns I’m often as surprised as anyone by what the results end up being. The cognitive costs are not surprising, but who would have thought a game with such tactile components would get treated so gently in the section on physical accessibility? It’s been a roller-coaster, let me tell you.

Photosynthesis, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessC
Visual AccessibilityB+
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryD
Physical AccessibilityB-
Emotional AccessibilityC
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC+
CommunicationA

I’m not sure there’s much that could be done here to change the cognitive profile of the game – it’s all about managing that emerging game complexity. While that becomes easy over time it does require you to think carefully about a lot of things from a number of (occasionally literal) different angles. Still, there are some easy fixes in here across all these categories for the publisher should they want to produce a more accessible second edition.

We liked Photosynthesis enough to give it three and a half stars, but not enough to recommend people buy it. The review it got was strongly flavoured by the inventive systems and the luxurious components. In our view though it doesn’t have a lot of staying power. You shouldn’t let that dissuade you though if you fancy picking it up – if you can play it, in the end our views couldn’t matter less.

 


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

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