Review: Charterstone

2017-06-21_1027

Length 20-30 minutes a player per game 12 games in total

Release Date 2017

Designer: Jamey Stegmaier
Artists: Lina Cossette, David Forest, Gong Studios
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Category: City Building, Economic, Medieval
Players: 1-6
Price: $43.01 Amazon

Charterstone is the long anticipated legacy game from designer Jamey Stegmaier and Stonemaier Games. Jamey is the owner of Stonemaier Games. Jamey is dedicated to excellence and the Stonemaier Games fanbase, as well as the tabletop hobby as a whole.

The name of Stonemaier Games is synonymous to strong design and high production quality. Jamey has designed most titles under the Stonemaier umbrella. The company has published Viticulture, Between Two Cities, Scythe, Euphoria: Build your own Dystopia, and more.

(Photo courtesy of Stonemaier Games.)

Review

A lot of thoughts have run through my mind as I’ve played through Charterstone‘s twelve-game campaign. I’ve wondered how to comprehensively review the game without providing spoilers for the uninitiated. In some ways, it’s also been a reflective experience on my time in the tabletop hobby, both as a gamer and a reviewer.

Not sure why he loves sitting in boxes, but this box top was the perfect size for Jasper.

First off, here is some critical context for my time with Charterstone.

To begin, I want to make clear I’ve not had any experience playing through an entire legacy game until now. In fact, there are very few games which match the depth of Charterstone that I’ve played twelve times. I played our twelve-game campaign with two other friends (3-player game) for 10 games, and played two games at two-player, with our missing friend controlled by the Automa AI.

For me, I’m unsure if legacy or campaign games stick with my gaming groups. I’m not convinced this is to the fault of Charterstone either. My wife and I only completed 3-4 games in Pandemic Legacy: Season One, and my group gave up on Gloomhaven after 6-8 games or so. Around 9-10 games into Charterstone, without even mentioning it, our group somehow came to a joint conclusion of fatigue. This isn’t to say Charterstone is overwhelming (though at times it can be), or lacking fun reasons to play (it’s usually exciting).

For us, playing the same game with such repetition is the challenge. Some of us want to return to gaming favorites, or at least play the same game a few weeks in a row. Attempting our way through a 12-game series has taught us that perhaps we ought to look elsewhere. For those considering Charterstone, I hope this helps raise the right questions for your gaming group. Do you desire variance and replayability? Charterstone is always changing, so this might be a good thing. The question is whether or not you want those factors to play themselves out within the same game system each time. This was difficult for us to engage with, but perhaps others are fine with this similarity.

I played the charter character on the left.

I played the charter character on the left. (Photo courtesy of Stonemaier Games.)

Second, while I wanted to document the colors, cards, sights, and sounds of Charterstone, this game is laden with spoilers. You’ll see just production photos here, but rest assured, all the secret content inĀ Charterstone is dripping with great production. This game is pretty. Its cast of characters is incredibly diverse and full of unique people. Every new component is fun to hold and see placed on the board.

Finally, another critical question to resolve before purchasing Charterstone is the size of your group. Stonemaier’s website says Charterstone is intended to be played more than once on a given game night (we’ll return to this later). Though my group is struck with analysis paralysis from time to time, I not only suspect a six-player campaign of Charterstone to be completely different than our three-player games, but the length of games will dictate how often you will play. Our games with the Automa topped out at just around 35-40 minutes, where an hour or more was guaranteed with three players. I have the suspicion that six-player games would hit closer to 1.5 hours, but I’ve no personal evidence for this.

With this review, I want to take more time helping readers to gauge whether Charterstone will be the right game for their group. This is due in part because I can’t discuss the contents of Charterstone far from the introductory game (because hello, spoilers). At roughly $40, Charterstone isn’t a gigantic financial investment, but if you’re going to get it, you should probably feel fairly confident your group will play the entire campaign, or at least 80% of it.

These coins are amazing to hold and play with. (Photo courtesy of Stonemaier Games.)

From game setup, Charterstone organizes players around the table, sitting next to one of six charters. After naming their characters, players will being placing their workers onto one of the six available action spaces in the center of the board, or onto one of the basic resource actions in theirs or others charters. These actions will allow players to gain various resources, spend resources to construct buildings or open crates, complete objectives, and more. Players can also turn in resources at the Cloud Port for victory points and other goodies, all while spending their influence tokens to do so. In fact, many game-progressing actions will require players to spend their twelve influence tokens, which will work toward triggering game-ending mechanisms as well.

Constructing a building allows a player to add a new action to his charter. This is the primary way in which Charterstone introduces ways for players to interact with each other. Opening a crate means the player compares their crate number and consults a spreadsheet to find their new cards inside the massive index box. The index is sometimes a chore to work through, and is best utilized by one player who becomes familiar with navigating it. It reveals new mechanics, instructs players to open hidden boxes, creates new strategic avenues for players to pursue, and tells the story of Charterstone. Both building construction and opening crates result in victory points for the offending player.

Each game of Charterstone will end once the progress token makes its way to the endgame location, at which point, the current round of play will become the last. This token moves whenever a player completes an objective, opens a crate, or constructs a building, and acts as the ticking-time bomb for each game. If a player pushes the progress token onto a reputation space, that player can place an influence token onto the reputation track, which grants points to players in ranking order. Players furiously gather resources and try to wrap up their plans before it’s too late.

Yeah, the index is a bit difficult to work through at times, but the treasures beneath make it worth it.
(Photo courtesy of Stonemaier Games.)

Though each game features a winner, Charterstone takes care of the runaway leader problem. I won’t spoil the specifics, but each game of Charterstone isn’t an attempt to win individual games, but instead, to place and play well over the course of the entire series. In fact, winning every game of a campaign does not guarantee final victory. Many other factors are important to pursue, and this is a shining point of Charterstone. It eliminates the terror of being seven games in and feeling you’ve no chance to win. After all, who wants to sit around for another five game nights knowing full well you won’t have a chance to place first? Sure, winning isn’t everything, but staying competitive for a campaign is a big draw for the game.

Charterstone is such a different type of game from most titles out there. The most exciting moments we had in our games weren’t necessarily by our own actions or by big comeback wins. Instead, the most interesting moments would come in revealing new cards from the index. Each new mechanic adds more ways to interact with the world. For the most part, you’ll never flip over a card, read its effects on the game and have an earth-shattering realization that everything is about to change. Most changes feature variations on already introduced mechanics, new methods of strategy, new components, or sometimes a big rule change to the upcoming game.

The index is the boon which keeps Charterstone fresh, but unfortunately it can also halt the game in its tracks. With so many cards to examine and numbers to reference, games where players are opening lots of crates drag the game to a crawl. I’d have to ask which number crate they opened twice, recognize some cards listed had already been revealed, etc. Furthermore, while it’s great to introduce more ways to engage with Charterstone, it also feels difficult to integrate them during games. Other legacy games do a bit of this, but for the most part will introduce new mechanics after a game has finished. This became extremely tedious for us at points, where we’d forget whose turn it was, or would have to ask again what the new addition to the game was going to do or change. Imagine this happening 5-6 times in a game, especially when opening a crate means more victory points. It seems weird to be critical of the mechanism that keeps a game fresh but it was a point of conflict for us.

Amazing components all around. (Photo courtesy of Stonemaier Games.)

After being away from the game for a week, it’s sometimes difficult to reorient oneself with all the actions available on the board. This is even more complicated because it’s somewhat easy to keep track of what other players are building, but challenging when playing with fewer than six people. This matters at lower player counts because the game introduces a mechanic that creates interaction for charters without players. This is great because it increases options, but difficult to manage because in our games, three new buildings would pop up each game, and being mindful of their existence was hard. To some extent, a lot of this felt like upkeep and bookkeeping, which is a bit of a drag for the entire experience.

This is why I’d mentioned I’m not sure I’m on the same page of the publisher description that notes Charterstone works to be played multiple times in succession. If each game continues to introduce new ways to play and new things to keep track of, it becomes a chore. This was the downfall of our second half of Charterstone. We would feel constantly overwhelmed by new options and sometimes just stuck to our original strategies instead of engage with new actions on the board. Some old strategies might prove strong, but learning the changing board is important as well.

This isn’t to say we hated the latter half of games. One of the most innovative and unexpected surprises happened toward the end of our campaign. I was completely stunned to the point I called my wife immediately after to relay what had taken place. These moments are sometimes rife in Charterstone though. I would feel quiet and unsure of how to pursue my strategy, until a new card came up, then I’d audibly think, “Oh gosh, I can do this now!” Those moments of learning your charter and card choices bring lots of satisfaction. There are seemingly limitless ways to play the game, and most of them provide exciting results.

Player choice in Charterstone does make each game unique. Looking back on our decisions and timeliness, I can tell that activating certain crates sooner or later would have changed and provided variance from our path. I wish we would have taken a specifically different path through the course of our game, but our journey was still satisfying.

Finishing a campaign allows players to sit down and play their unique worker placement game of Charterstone, using the game state of their final game, scoring a winner only by the victor of this game. For us, we won’t return to Greengully, but the option remains for others. Those who adored their time in Greengully can simply flip the board over and buy a Recharge Pack and begin the journey again. This would also work great for gifting Charterstone to a friend, as I’ll likely be doing soon.

I hope I’ve communicated our experience with Charterstone in a way helps you to determine if this game will work for you. It’s an exciting experience, and the first half of our campaign was always fun. We were constantly “oohing” and “ahhing,” excited to see what the next crate would bring. Some might find the second half of their campaign to be just as exciting as the first, but perseverance through all twelve games is the only way to know for sure.

If this one is for you, you likely already know it by now.

Charterstone is unique, engaging, and provides an experience unlike anything else I’ve ever played on the tabletop.

A review copy of Charterstone was provided by Stonemaier Games.

The Bottom Line

Charterstone is one of the most inviting and engaging games I've yet to play, but needs a committed group willing to take their time through the ever-changing world of Greengully.

 

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