If you hop into the way back machine and set the dial for 2017, one of the hot games to be released was Photosynthesis. This abstract strategy game not only looked great on our tabletops but was pretty fun to play too. It involved planting trees, growing them, and then harvesting them for victory points. You can read my original review of Photosynthesis here if you’d like to get up to speed (spoiler alert, I enjoyed it).
Three years later, publisher Blue Orange Games has tasked designer Hjalmar Hach with expanding the forest, and on that front he brought us the Photosynthesis expansion: Under the Moonlight. Is this expansion a must-own for fans of the game? Let’s find out.
Under the Moonlight adds three new modules to Photosynthesis. They can either be played independently or all included in the game for the most variety.
The star of the expansion is the Moon and Forest Animals module. This adds 8 unique animals and a moon tracker token. Each round, when the sun moves, the moon tile also rotates around the board (in the opposite direction). When you collect light points, if your animal is in the path of the moonlight, you’ll also earn lunar points. These can be spent to activate your animal’s special abilities. They range from really simple (convent lunar points to light points) to fairly complex ones with a page of rules in the rulebook.
The second module is the Great Elder Tree. This is essentially a blocking tree that permanently takes up one space on the board. It blocks both moonlight and sunlight the entire length of the board.
The final module is the Moonstones. These are somewhat of a hybrid of the first two
modules. Up to 3 moonstones can be in the game and they each permanently take up on space on the board. They block sunlight as a level 1 tree. However, if moonlight hits one, they will radiate moonlight to every square adjacent to them.
Game Experience with the Expansion:
It’s not often that an expansion detracts from a game so much that we never want use it again… but mission accomplished with Under the Moonlight. Every game we played with the new rules were not only less fun, but much more fiddly than the core game alone. My golden rule for an expansion is usually that I want more variety in the core game without feeling like I’m learning a new game in the process. And that definitely doesn’t happen here. So let’s get to the why.
First, using the new lunar light system was kind of a pain. The moon rotates 5 spaces each round (it does have a tracking token to help plan ahead at least), yet when it overlaps the sun, it turns into a fiddly mess of tiles as you try and move both the sun and the moon at the same time and things get knocked around. Overall the whole moonlight system adds another level of complexity to a game that really didn’t need it. Not only are you tracking sunlight rays, but now moonlight as well. And actually getting your animals into position to collect moonlight isn’t always easy as most only move 1 space a turn. The game, which was already a tad bogged down during the sunlight phase, now grinds to a halt.
When it comes to the animals, overall they are kind of neat as they all have their own rules and special powers. I actually had fun trying them out, even if managing their lunar points was a pain. Unfortunately, the light points don’t come as often as you’d like so you are using your special powers maybe 3-4 times a game, at most. But the biggest issue with them is that Blue Orange Games neglected to include a player aid for any of them. We were constantly passing around the rulebook as people trying to remember what all of their powers did, some of which had an entire page of rules. This was a massive miss in what’s supposed to be an accessible “next step” game.
The Great Tree module was probably the most benign of all of them, but it also felt wholly unnecessary. Photosynthesis is already a bit of a cutthroat game that can be really tight. Adding a permanent blocking space, especially at the higher player counts, ended up being more frustrating than fun. Most of the time we just wanted to cut that tree down.
Finally, for the moonstones module, this was probably the most well-received of the lot. They actually made playing with the animals a little easier as they increased the chance of collecting moonlight. Their sunlight penalty wasn’t nearly as bad as the Great Tree, and it helped get around the laboriously slow movement of the animals. I probably wouldn’t recommend using the animals module without the moonstones.
It’s rare when an expansion comes out for a game I enjoy and I want absolutely nothing to do with it. Pretty much everyone I played Under the Moonlight with said that they would have preferred to be playing the game without it. The entire moon points system was fiddly and definitely didn’t improve the game. While the animal powers were neat (at least for some of them) not having player aid was a confusing choice. I’d recommend copying the rulebook a few times if you are going to use this module.
I struggle to recommend Under the Moonlight to even the most die-hard of Photosysnthes fans. Nothing here made me enjoy the game more, quite the opposite actually. This one is just a pass for everyone who tried it.