Review – Charterstone

Charterstone arrived in its idyllic white box to much excitement at my house. The village-building legacy game is the latest from Stonemaier Games, a company that’s had an absurdly high “hit” rate on their select game releases, and was one of my most-anticipated games for 2017. Pandemic Legacy Season 2 was another, so you can see I’m into the whole legacy thing, although Mrs. Strange Assembly found my switch from my usual “every component must stay in pristine condition, including sleeving the cards” to “sure, let’s put stickers on the board, write on components, and who cares if the cards are bent.”

NOTE: This will be a spoiler-free review. There is no specific information about anything that happens after end-of-game content for Game 1, although obviously there are some vague impressions presented (and they are vague, because the legacy aspects of Charterstone are heavily mechanical, not story-driven).

The Basics – Theme

Each player in Charterstone represents one of six charters that are working together to improve the newly-founded village of [whatever name the players choose to put on the board] (ours was Stevensonia, because we all shared that last name, and we are apparently not a creative people). Note that there are six charters in the village even if there are fewer than six players (each player is a charter, but the inactive charters are still around).

The charters have been tasked by the king with improving the village, and within an individual game points are awarded for furthering this goal (points in a game become glory, which is a massive source of campaign victory points). The primary focus of this is constructing new buildings to turn the sleepy hamlet into, if not a bustling city, then at least a moderately prosperous town.

The Basics – Core Mechanics

Charterstone’s basic mechanic is worker placement, of a style reminiscent of Euphoria. You have two workers, and on each turn you either place a worker, or pick all of your workers back up. Workers do not lay exclusive claim to spots on the board, but if another worker (including your own) is assigned to a space occupied by one of your existing workers, then your worker gets ‘bumped’ and is available again without needing to spend a turn to pick up.

Each charter specializes in one resource – pumpkin, grain, clay, coal, iron, or wood – and starts with a basic resource-producing building for that resource. There is also a building in the neutral zone in the middle of the board that converts resources to coins. The final non-VP spot in the starting board lets you take an advancement card, which at the start of the campaign are primarily assistants (cards that give you a small bonus when you take a certain in-game action).

The remainder of the starting spots have two things in common – they generate victory points and they use of influence tokens. Each player only gets 12 of these (per game), so they need to be used efficiently.

The most significant of the starting locations are the Zeppelin and the Charterstone. The Zeppelin lets you turn influence, resources, and an unconstructed building card into (1) a fancy sticker on one of the plots in your charter; (2) a constructed building card; and (3) victory points. You can then visit the Charterstone, which lets you turn influence, money, and a constructed building card into victory points and a trip to the Index (a box of cards that are off limits at the beginning of the campaign). The building cards correspond to crates that the king has left at the Charterstone. The building cards have numbers corresponding to specific crates, with a handy reference sheet instructing the player what to get out of the Index, and what to do with it. The standard effect, as will be seen in the first game, is to get another unconstructed building card, and a persona for use in a later game (a player selects one persona per game, and this provides some sort of bonus).

In addition to expanding the village and putting into motion the primary legacy mechanic of the game, using these two spots (the Zeppelin and the Charterstone) also advances the progress track and thus moves each individual game towards its end. The third spot that does this is the Grandstand, which allows a player to put an influence token on a completed objective to score victory points. Objectives include having stacks of cash, having diverse resources, and having put influence tokens on the quota and reputation tracks. Speaking of which …

There final spot on the starting board is the Cloud Port, where players can sell various components (resources, money, cards) for victory points (this represents shipping goods back to the king), marking a quota track with influence tokens (so later players selling generally get less efficient deals). There is also a reputation track – players can game end-game victory points for putting the most influence tokens on the track (note that there is no dedicated space on the starting board for this; the players must accomplish other actions to earn reputation). Note that, while the Cloud Port and reputation track use of influence, they do not advance the progress marker.

As the campaign progresses, new mechanics will be unlocked that layer additional complexity on top of this framework (and more ways of generating victory points that don’t use up influence tokens), but the core remains the same.

Legacy Mechanics and Campaign Flow

As can be seen from the player/faction tuckboxes, players will be tracking glory, capacity, and wins across the campaign (all of these add campaign victory points, in addition to whatever other effects they might happen to have). Something else that’s tracked is use of persona cards, encouraging players to use different persona cards in different games, increasing variety. There is also a goalpost card for every game after the first (the first one is for game 2, so you see it when opening material at the end of game 1) further encouraging variations in play from game to game. Add in the value of buildings, and that’s what you know about campaign scoring as of the end of the first game.

It can matter what sort of condition your game development has reached in relation to the cycle of the game, but the mechanics of Charterstone are generally not punishing in that regard (unlike, for example, SeaFall, which could be brutally swing-y if you were one turn behind when the game ended).

The biggest change across games is the addition of new buildings to the board. And it will matter which buildings are in your charter compared to other charters, in ways beyond end-of-campaign scoring).

Because of building construction and some other things, how one finishes in a particular game of Charterstone does affect later games, although only a portion of this is straightforward ‘me doing something well in this game will help win future games.’ While there are a couple of catch-up mechanics in Charterstone, but they are pretty mild. So, for the most part, there isn’t much of a snowball effect from game-to-game, but there also isn’t a big catch-up mechanic if some players are more skilled than others (or if they catch a lucky break and end up with one of the handful of persona cards that were well above-the-curve).

Components/Rulebook

Charsterstone’s components are quality for this sort of game, including metal coins, wooden sculpted resource tokens (pumpkin, grain, coal, clay, iron, wood), and other wooden bits (meeples, influence tokens, etc.). I’m personally fairly indifferent to metal coins v. well-done punchboard tokens, but Mrs. Strange Assembly was a big fan of the heavy coins.

The cards were high quality as well. We played without sleeves, given the ‘consumable’ way in which I view legacy games, and there were no problems with card wear (although the sticker cards are noticeably thicker than the non-sticker cards, and we tended to bend them a little to get the stickers off, so if your group is concerned about that sort of thing you might consider putting the cards in stiff, opaque sleeves).

I particularly liked the very solid magnetic tuckbox that holds the Index (the cards that will be unlocked throughout the campaign through crates). There’s nothing like the gorgeous minis that graced Scythe, but there are more boxes of components, including something unique, that are available to be unlocked.

Note that the board is double-sided, with two identical empty villages. The second side of the board is only there for use with the Charterstone Recharge Pack, which contains the components needed for a second Charterstone Campaign.

The art and graphic design style, as depicted below (those are the six charter founders), is on the cute/gentle side. It isn’t exactly in my artistic sweet spot, but it works well for the game. The initial impression one gets from the box, art, board, and components is one of sparseness. Which is kind of the point – there’s a blank canvas to be filled in.

I found the rulebook to be clear. With one exception, every one of the few questions I had was answered in the online FAQ.

Overall, no complaints regarding the components.

My Charterstone Campaign

So you know where I’m coming from, I have played one complete Charterstone campaign. It was a four-player campaign (the game plays 1-6), with myself, my wife, and two extended family members over the holidays. In a couple of games, an automa was substituted for one of the players. We also played two “five” and two “six” player games, using automa. To the extent you think it could affect my opinions, notes that I won the campaign (and six of the individual games).

General Thoughts

We played one game twelve times (not quite twelve in a row, but close to it), and I was happy and eager to play it each time. That might not seem like much to some, but it takes a lot to pull me away from my usual routine of trying out the new thing (I revisit games, but I don’t often play non-customizable games more than a couple of times in a row).

The gameplay started fairly straightforward, and delivered variety through increased mechanical layering and variable goals from game to game. Being able to unlock crates for new buildings and persona cards provides both more variety and variable gameplay over the campaign.

Story

The legacy aspect of Charterstone focuses on the mechanical. There is a story, but it does not really drive the game. I felt like the story points existed mostly to justify the goalpost for given games. There was technically a big plot twist or two, but they didn’t feel big because the story faded into the background. However, as much as I enjoy story development in games these days, I can’t say I really felt the absence of a story. The game didn’t lack for theme, and didn’t leave me wanting story – it just wasn’t what this game was.

Mrs. Strange Assembly considered there to be an optimal amount of story. This is probably why I can never get Mrs. Strange Assembly to play things like T.I.M.E. Stories or Mansions of Madness with me.

Player Count and Playing Time

Charterstone lists 1-6 players and an official play time of 60 minutes. The progress track gets longer if there are more players, so there are about 4 stops on the track for player. If you’ve played a lot of games like this, you’ll know this means that the estimated play time is (as it usually is for designer board games) not entirely accurate. The game is longer with more players, and I’m not sure if we finished any four-player games in an hour.

For most “euro” style board games, the ‘correct’ player count is 3 or 4 – enough that you get the full effect of player interaction, but without the added play time of more players (or the same play time with less play per player). Charterstone, however, throws some wrinkles into this. There are six charters on the board, regardless of the number of players. Even with four players, the reputation and quota tracks were fairly open (indeed, with fewer than four players, everyone gets points just for showing up on the reputation track). With four players, we unlocked most of the content of the game, but not all of it (we unlocked every major addition; the cards we missed were things like individual building and persona cards). I thought I was going to be a bit vexed that we hadn’t unlocked everything, but another mechanical factor came into play such that I wasn’t troubled. Individual turns (except maybe for the last round or two) are very quick, so there shouldn’t be too much downtime between turns. This makes me wonder if six is the optimal player count for Charterstone. The tracks are much more competitive. The content should be pretty fully unlocked by the end of the campaign, and more of it will see relevant play. On the downside, the component limitations will really come into play – not sure if that would be a good thing.

Of course, we never played with six, so that’s a guesstimate. As I mentioned above, we did play some games with automa simulating the fifth and sixth players. This added more fighting for the track spots, some resource limitation, and the automa can build and unlock more content (although, of course, that isn’t nearly as interesting as other players doing so). On the other hand, the placement of the automa (which is random) can feel a bit too random when it gets some players bumped workers or certain other bonuses. And we had one situation where a random automa placement changed the story outcome of a particular game, which didn’t exactly feel great. Ultimately, I think that playing with four or five is preferable to ‘filling out’ the player count with automa.

I’m not so sure about 2 or 3 players, however, where there will be minimal congestion on the board and a much better chance of significant content going unlocked (or being unlocked in an even less satisfying way than automa unlocks). I would avoid a 2-3 player game if I had the option to go up to four, and if I was playing a 2-3 player game, I would want to use automa to simulate a larger player count.

Any Negatives?

Any complaints? Yeah, there are some imperfections. We unlocked a mechanic that felt like it was supposed to encourage assignments to another player’s charter, but ended up seeming pretty bad except when used in your own charter. The advancement mat can get stagnant at times, in part because there are some cards and types of cards that seemed much stronger than others. I wish that the higher-point buildings were better actions as compared to the lower point buildings, for specific reasons I can’t discuss because spoilers.

You might remember way back in my Euphoria review that I wasn’t a super-fan of the worker placement style there (it used a similar place, place, pickup rhythm, with bumping workers), in part because in my experience it led to players just taking the same actions over and over again. That isn’t really an issue in Charterstone, due to some structural differences in the game, although there is a benefit to (for example) taking consecutive actions to gather a resource and then consecutive actions to spend it, as opposed to alternating.

After the Campaign

Charterstone is designed to be playable after the 12-game legacy campaign has wrapped up. Is the post-campaign game good? First, let me note that my personal answer to this is “I don’t really care.” For me, getting 12 enjoyable games out of a legacy game (with this sort of game length) is fully satisfying. Playing through Pandemic Legacy Season One was one of my favorite gaming experiences, and I have no plan to touch it again (and it isn’t really designed to be). So I feel like I’m missing approximately zero if I can’t play a legacy game after the campaign is over. But Charterstone is, I think, more designed to be and is more playable after the campaign than the legacy games that came before it. At that point, Charterstone mostly becomes a worker-placement game with your own personalized board. It isn’t going to be tightly designed like one would usually expect from that sort of game, because the selection and layout of the buildings will be the result of your campaign, not endless playtesting. And, with how the post-campaign games work (again, spoilers on the specifics, but it isn’t a campaign any more, so some underlying differences might be guessed at), bringing it out for a lot of play requires the game to rise or fall on that sort of more traditional game judgment metrics. So, to me, I think that breaking Charterstone out post-campaign would be more about reminiscing about the campaign itself, rather than something I would want to bring out on a regular basis.

Parting Words

Charterstone delivers an enjoyable 12-24, semi-consumable experience, moderate-weight worker placement mechanics, variant play from game to game, and frequent player rewards in the form of unlocking crates. If that sort of experience sounds like the sort of thing you might like in a game, I recommend giving Charterstone a spin.

 

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

 

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