I recently introduced Photosynthesis to my gaming group. No one had played it before and we were all impressed with the simplicity of the rules and gameplay. It is incredibly easy to learn, but a real brain burner to play. We had an absolute blast and everyone agreed that the game was beautiful. It made for some fun photos and more than it’s fair share of tree-related puns.
As I played I wondered if this game was designed to fit the theme or the theme used to capture the gameplay. I tried to envisage this without the theme in prototype form. I could see the trees as represented as cubes of varying sizes or even dice. As the tree grows I could simply turn the die to the side with the next number of pips in ascending order. This made me consider if the component design was integral to the game experience or if I could strip away the fancy trees and clever sun and still have a fun and equally enjoyable experience. While I like to think of myself as a reviewer that is unimpressed by component design and remains true to the core of the game mechanics, the reality is that I am very influenced by component design. What this ultimately boils down to is functionality vs aesthetics. Upon reflection, I am beginning to think that aesthetics are essential now and will continue to grow in importance as the market expands.
The case for Aesthetics:
You have likely heard the saying, “you eat with your eyes first.” This is a concept reinforced by every cookbook, celebrity chef, and competitive cooking reality show. Presentation is a key feature in all judging and for good reason, well-presented food is more appetising. Our mind is capable of transporting us into a space where we can imagine how the food will feel and taste as we eat it before we even take our first bite. A plate of baked beans we throw on a plate to eat on a Friday night functionally is satisfying because it meets our hunger, but baked beans from a Michelin Star restaurant is a whole different thing. There really is no comparison.
Michelin Star restaurants are no longer simply interested in functionality. In many respects, their need to fulfill hunger is not their highest priority. Baked Beans are readily available. What makes baked beans from a restaurant different are all the design elements of the baked beans, the colour, the texture, the smell, how it is plated and so forth. This is a pretty common part of design. When a product is unique how it looks is not as important as to how it works. Yet when there are many products that do the same thing aesthetics start to differentiate the market. The early Ford car is a great example. Henry Ford once was the sole provider of a product people wanted. His slogan was, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. And who could argue? There was nowhere else to go for a car. But go and look at the Ford catalogue of cars on the market and see if they have that same attitude today?
The interesting thing is those aesthetics impact our psychology as well. The Halo Effect is a psychological bias we all have to beautiful people. In general, we are more favourable to beautiful people and esteem them higher than less attractive people. We are even more forgiving of their failings based solely on looks. This effect is true for the products we buy as well. We regard a more aesthetically pleasing product as having greater versatility and of better quality even when we know that it may be exactly the same as another less visually appealing product. Good aesthetics get us feeling good about a product even before we have had a chance to experience it. Aesthetics does more than make a product look good, it makes us feel good about it. Writer on design Anton Nikolov stated that good aesthetics should do be designed for pleasure, namely psychical pleasure, social pleasure, psychological pleasure, and ideological pleasure.
Psychical pleasure is the pleasure of the senses. It involves feel, look, taste, and smell. Ok, so hopefully you are not eating your miniatures. The basic idea is that the design should not overload the senses. In fact, you want the senses engaged. This is what Photosynthesis achieves by the tactile trees and the beautiful seasonal colours. The tree size makes sense in the context of play. As the board gets more populated it becomes quite pretty. On your turn, you are focused on the trees, but when you are finished it is nice to look at how the forest has changed and grown. I'm sure there is a pun or perhaps a metaphor in there.
Social pleasure should come from design that allows us to interact. This is about connecting with people. In photosynthesis every move I make impacts other players and vice versa. Each play has implications for later turns. While this could be said of 'Take That' games as well, decisions in Photosynthesis feel less like I am trying to hinder you and more like I am trying to benefit me; overall I think that makes a difference.
Psychological pleasure is often connected with usability, as it should help the user to feel safe and in control. This could be compared to a solid and safe looking car compared to a rundown bomb. One makes you feel secure while driving whereas the other leaves you concerned about breaking down or running off the road. This may not work on the same level as a car, but Photosynthesis does have a great usability. I do not feel overwhelmed by the design as I do when setting up Robinson Crusoe or Eldritch Horror. Everything is simplistic and provides me plenty of information that leaves me confident that I'm not going to stop halfway through the game and realise I've made a horrible rules error and ruined everything. The Sun moving around the board provides great information about my turn and allows me to predict future turns. The board design provides me clear information about where everything goes and how it works. It never feels cluttered or busy and this puts me at ease and makes focussing on the game a pleasure.
Ideological pleasure is about how the product connects to us on a deeper level or aligns with our values. Photosynthesis offers an interesting insight into this. We joked at the table that the game says it is all about growing trees, but in reality, you only score points when you cut them down. Tongue firmly in cheek we renamed the game "Lumberjack." But values in gaming are an increasing point of interest for consumers. In Cry Havok you win the game when you kill off the local population and generally engage in traditional forms of imperialism. Many will resolve this conflict by appealing to the fiction of the game. However, there is a growing trend for political agendas to find acknowledgment in the hobby, such as people from minority experience seeking better representation. As our quality improves and variety expands this element of diversity seems more reasonable to request and even expected. While I am sure this discussion point warrants an article in itself, suffice to say that our values are becoming a bigger factor in how we purchase games, a trend I do not see slowing down anytime soon.
Photosynthesis illustrates to me the value in good component design. This is more than just making a bunch of mini's. As the market expands and games try to differentiate better design will prove a defining factor of what games do well and what good games gather dust. Good design needs to factor in more than just 3d populations and sturdy dice, it needs to meet the hobbyist on multiple levels from physical aesthetics to the psychological and moral. For our hobby to grow I can only predict the design will have to become more rigorous and considered as a result.