Charterstone (Game Review by Chris Wray) (Spoiler Free)

  • Designer: Jamey Stegmaier
  • Publisher: Stonemaier Games
  • Players: 1 – 6
  • Ages: 10 and Up
  • Time: 45 – 75 Minutes
  • Times Played: 12 (The entire campaign.)

charterstonebox.jpg

Charterstone is the latest creation of Jamey Stegmaier and his publishing company, Stonemaier Games.  Though the game made a limited appearance at Essen back in October, it was released worldwide in December 2017.  

Charterstone is a competitive legacy game in which players develop a shared village.  The game is a worker placement game at its core, with players going to different action spaces to gather and spend resources, earning victory points along the way.  In the first game of the 12-game campaign there are only a few different actions that can be taken, but as the campaign advances, players unlock new spaces to add to the board.  Each individual game in the campaign has a winner, but there’s also an overall winner across the entire campaign.  And unlike other legacy-style games, Charterstone can be played even after the campaign is complete.  

I bought a copy at Essen, and me and three others recently completed the entire 12-game campaign.  What follows is my spoiler-free review.  Though I admire the idea behind Charterstone, this game ultimately fell flat with me and my group.  It isn’t my lowest-rated game of 2017, but given how much I was looking forward to it, I’m sad to say it is my biggest disappointment.  

The Gameplay

Note: To keep this spoiler-free, I’m going to focus on the rules for the first game and keep the rules explanation simple.  

Charterstone is a worker placement game, and each player starts the campaign and each game in it with two workers, a persona, and 12 “influence tokens.”  

The game board shows a village with a few spaces on which the players can place their workers.  The board is split into eight rough areas: a “charter” for each of up to six players, a “commons,” and a “cloud port.”

Each player’s “charter” has room to build new buildings, which will happen as the campaign progresses.  At the start of the campaign, though, the players just have a basic building allowing them to gather the campaign’s basic resources: metal, coal, pumpkins, grains, clay, and wood.  

The “commons” features the spaces with the game’s core mechanics, and the bulk of the spaces that will be used early in the game.  The following buildings are in the commons:

  • The Zeppelin.  The player pays three influence tokens plus the 4 resources shown on a building card to construct the building in their charter and earn VP.  This is the main mechanic for building new action spaces.  Players start the campaign with a building to build, and they can earn more as the campaign progresses.
  • Charterstone.  The player pays $4 and 2 influence tokens to unlock a crate and earn VP.  A crate is what remains on a card after a building has been constructed.  This is the main mechanic for getting new characters, buildings, and crates, as well as unlocking new game rules.  When a crate is unlocked, players use a legend to pull new cards from the “index,” a large box of pre-sorted cards.
  • Grandstand.  Each game has a number of objectives which players can “grandstand” to complete.  They play one influence token and earn 5 vp.  The objectives vary, but as an example, one says to have six coins, and another says to have one of each in-game resource.  
  • Treasury.  Pay any one resource to gain $1.
  • Market.  Pay an 1 resource and $1 to gain 1 card from the advancement mat.  The advancement mat has “assistant” and other cards that can help you earn victory points and other resources.  They also can have buildings and/or crates.

The “cloud port” allows you to pay in-game items — resources, coins, cards, etc. — to earn victory points on the “quota” track.

On a player’s turn, he simply places a worker on a space and takes the action.  Each player has two workers, and if both are on the board, it takes an entire turn to pull them back.  You can go the same space as another player, but if you do, you bump their worker and they get it back.

The game is timed by the “progress track.”  A token is advanced along it whenever a building is constructed, a crate is unlocked, an objective is scored, or a player begins their turn with 0 influence markers.  The game ends after the progress track hits the final space.  

At the end of the game, players earn additional points based on who had the most influence tokens on the reputation track, a few other items happen, and the highest score wins.

After the first game, players can also start with a limited number of resources, coins, and other items from previous games.  Each player has a small box in which to store their items; storage is limited by item type, but can expand as the campaign goes on.

That’s the bulk of gameplay — Charterstone is at its core a remarkably simple worker placement game — and though things become more complex as more and more buildings are constructed, the core gameplay doesn’t change that much over the course of the campaign.

In a novel approach to legacy games, Charterstone can be played even after the 12 game campaign.  We didn’t attempt that, but is a cool feature of the game.  

CharterstoneCommons.jpg

My Thoughts on the Game

Though I admire the innovative ideas behind Charterstone, this game ultimately fell flat with me and my group.  The gameplay just isn’t interesting, and at times, it was downright awful.  We had severe problems with rules ambiguity, especially in later games.  Stonemaier needed to have spent more time developing Charterstone, and the great ideas I saw in the game suffered from that lack of development.  

Charterstone is, in theory, extraordinarily simple at the start.  The worker placement mechanic at the game’s core is easily understood, and there aren’t that many different locations to choose from.  Yet we struggled to figure the game out from the beginning, in large part because the goals of the campaign were unclear (by design, we later learned), despite us desperately wanting to understand them.  Worse, we repeatedly found ambiguity in the game’s rules, especially as the campaign advanced.

For the first two games, I was annoyed at how simple the game was, yet frustrated that despite that simplicity I didn’t understand the best path forward.  I felt like I was in an extended, entirely-too-drawn-out tutorial.  And, frustratingly, it was a tutorial that wasn’t answering the questions I wanted answered, like what the victory conditions for the campaign were.  Early on, should I focus on developing my charter, or winning games?  That seems like a basic question, but it is one where I never felt like there was a clear answer.  

Compounding the feeling of the first games being a tutorial was the fact that all of the rules had to be read and understood out loud, together as a group.  That’s an annoyance I have with all legacy games, but it was especially pronounced here.  We’d routinely have to interrupt gameplay to read — and try to grasp — rules.  None of us are rules lawyer types, but we’d repeatedly have “I don’t think that’s what that said” moments.  The rulebook advises that players ask questions on BGG or the Charterstone Facebook group, but when you’re in the midst of a gaming session, that’s not desirable.  It can be hard to get people together for the campaign — especially the same four people on a regular basis — and taking mandatory breaks for answers to rules questions is frustrating.  We’re experienced gamers, and we didn’t struggle with Pandemic Legacy or Seafall.  The problems here are unique to Charterstone, which already has hundreds of rules threads on BGG and the Charterstone Facebook group.  

If you play with people who insist on knowing every rule in advance and relitigating everything — and we all know people like that — this is going to drive them nuts.  Our group isn’t like that, but there has been a lot of tossing of hands in the air and saying, “I wish I had known that sooner.”  

Starting in game three, as the village began to fill out, things became more interesting gameplay wise.  With more actions came more choices.  But those choices never truly became engaging, and all in all I’d describe Charterstone as having little tension and consisting mostly of random parts that seem cobbled together.  Plus, the tradeoff of having more options was a game that, even with four normally fast players (and no automa), Charterstone seemed to grind to a halt.  Our games rarely lasted longer than an hour, yet they often felt like they did.  

The ending of game three made me experience a good-old-fashioned case of game hate.  (I won’t spoil anything, but I think the end of game three is just terrible game design, as it destroyed any sense of faith we had in the designer’s vision of the campaign.)  After game four, though the game was getting better, I didn’t think I was going to get my group to continue.  Ultimately, we forged ahead after some pleading on my part.  

The games, I realized, felt slow because I was continually following the same boring pattern: get a resource, get another resource, pull my workers, do all that again, build a building, get resources yet again, get coins, unlock a crate, rinse & repeat.  Maybe grandstand in there or make some other side play.  But in the end, the moves I should be making often felt obvious and trivial.  If you’re a fan of Stonemaier’s games — and I am — then you’ll be familiar with Euphoria.  This felt like the most dry parts of Euphoria worked into a legacy game, without many of Euphoria’s other charms.  

By the seventh game, I actually enjoyed Charterstone, briefly.  (My friends described it as Stockholm syndrome.)  But after that, we started encountering severe rules ambiguity, as I discussed above, and at one point were completely unable to come to consensus or find an answer online.  And in the eighth through twelfth games, we felt that things were becoming repetitive, and we were largely finished with in-game discovery.  We powered through, but in the end, we were all relieved when the campaign ended.  

If you’re familiar with legacy games, a good portion of the fun is in the story and the discovery.  Pandemic Legacy — one of my favorite games — has an amazing story arc that develops over the campaign.  Seafall had its faults, but it had some cool discovery elements in the game.  By contrast, I never enjoyed (nor fully understood) the Charterstone story or theme.  And the discovery aspect was downright awful.  I often felt like I was opening crates to get a rather boring building that was functionally identical to one that had already been unlocked by an opponent.  I never had that “wow” moment I was expecting.  Instead I just kept getting more and more gameplay elements that didn’t excite me.  And many of the other elements — like naming characters — felt gimmick-y (a complaint I’ve had with other legacy games), though naming the charters and village was cool.  

As I said at the start of the review, I admire the idea behind Charterstone.  Competitive legacy games are famously difficult to design.  Despite my criticisms, I recognize that making a workable competitive legacy game is a major achievement.  And in the end, some parts of Charterstone were successful.  The gameplay seemed balanced — the top three players were remarkably close in scores at the end of the campaign — and the production value (attractive artwork, metal coins) was top notch.  There were some cool ideas here.  For that, I applaud Stegmaier and Stonemaier.  

But those ideas were betrayed by two preventable problems.  First, when it comes to writing rules, go find an editor, and run every rule past multiple groups.  Especially in a game like this, where spoilers lie ahead.  This is a game where nailing the clarity of the rules was a must-do, and it simply didn’t happen.  Second, knowing how competitive gamers can be, it is important to explain scoring and other contours of the campaign early.  Charterstone merely gives scoring ranges early on, and none of us ever fully trusted the designer not to throw curveballs at us, in part because he did throw us curve balls at the end of an early game.  After that situation, none of us trusted that Stonemaier wouldn’t allow arbitrary decisions to affect the results of the campaign overall, and I think that hampered our experience.

Maybe your group will enjoy Charterstone.  A lot of people do seem to be enjoying the game, judging from BGG ratings.  If you’ve never experienced a legacy game, perhaps the novelty will drive you to love this.  And the best hope for Charterstone is that maybe your campaign will be different: one benefit of legacy games is that they unfold in a unique manner to each group.  

I even think many of my concerns with Charterstone — such as the rules ambiguity — could be fixed in a new edition, though I doubt the gameplay will ever be as interesting as in Viticulture or Scythe.  

I’m still a fan of Stonemaier, and I admire the attempt, but this game badly needed some additional work before being published.  For my group, this was one of the biggest disappointments of gaming in 2017.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it.
  • Neutral.  
  • Not for me… Chris Wray

 

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4 Responses to Charterstone (Game Review by Chris Wray) (Spoiler Free)

  1. Kindle says:

    You are not wrong with rules ambiguity. Best rule issue we’ve had was understanding exactly how minions functioned. The rule book states it in such a way it could be interpreted different ways. The website clarification was a horrendous English mash of something that made absolutely no sense at all (unless they’ve fixed it when I complained directly to them of this pooy job).
    The biggest complaint I have is playing this with fewer than 6 people and running automatas. Players are naturally going to aim for buildings and unlocks as they offer the best victory point rewards which at the end of each game results in the most amount of stars (glory) which if you look at it long term, will benefit you greatly the quicker you can get those check boxes filled. There will be one player that will pull ahead of everyone else because they’ve managed to obtain the best valued buildings within the game along with the best personas. To cash in on this further, they can throw down minions to make this less appealing, but in any event they are gaining more benefits than anyone else who tries to make use of them. The automata suffers in having many open spaces. When the sky islands appear, these blank out empty spaces in their charter first, so post game, the player who ends up with this charter is getting shafted for “owning” optimal buildings; when I mean owning, it’s a building they are able to capitalize with minions. The board becomes a big unbalanced mess post game.

    As for beginner goals, I thought it was obvious that maximizing victory points was a good aim.
    VP = glory = bigger advantage next games = more games won.
    In that way, you are gaining glory, gaining capacity and gaining trophies.
    Building = crates = personas.
    Buildings allow for better options (if you can get them), crates unlock new game content that can increase ways of getting rewards and personas add small benefits while also at the end of the campaign being worth something.

    So what do you aim for first?
    Here is what I learned after the second game.
    Look at the board. Look at your persona(s). Build your strategy on that information. Can you benefit enough from Peril tokens? A resource? Advancement cards? What are the Objectives?
    Losing games in a campaign is smart as next game you will be able to carry over additional things. Keep in mind what you will need for the next game, and stock up enough so you can use them next game.
    This I learned after game 4. Don’t concern yourself too much over the Guidepost objective. Benefits gained from these are few. If you can fulfill this while fulfilling everything else to the best you can, that is great otherwise, it is not a priority at all.

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