Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 45-75 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: Mid
There is no obviously good reason for Stonemaier games to be a hotbed of controversy. They do good, solid and amazingly well produced games. However, they are almost a model for the double edged sword that success can bring, every announcement they seem to make on sites such as BoardGameGeek bring a wave of support from their fans, followed by backlash from non-fans and so forth. It is with that knowledge in mind that I’m offering this review for Charterstone, a review that will take the position that it has, at best, mixed results.
Gameplay wise Charterstone is reasonably straightforward, there is a village that the players are building via the game’s Legacy elements, built parts of the village form spaces in a worker placement game which involves both building more parts of the village and using them for victory points. Players own a certain ‘charter’, a smaller section of the village, that they have certain minor advantages within. Each charter begins with characters and buildings available, constructing a building by sticking it on the board turns the card the sticker came from into a "crate" that can be unlocked to gain access to other buildings, and so on. The game end is driven by player activity, building locations or completing certain objectives advances the end of the game making things a bit of a race between efficiency and game end.
As seems to be standard from Stonemaier, this game is an amazingly well produced package and I in no way mean that as a back-handed compliment, the box and contents are truly fantastic. To have a game with this sort of premium price tag where half the content is locked up at the start of the game where you still have a deeply satisfying sense of value when you get the bits out for the first game is a real achievement, but Charterstone nails it. I challenge anyone to pour out the real metal coins, grab the shaped resource tokens (the pumpkin shaped pumpkin is a particular favourite) and open the magnet catch box containing the game’s version of a Legacy deck and not be both delighted and certain that the price tag is worth every penny. This is a major thing for Legacy games where many of the best parts of the product need to be locked away for later access and it has really been done excellently here, but it should be said that a lot of the production value has been front loaded. It’s a minor enough issue that many players might never notice it, and I’m trying to be vague because it is an unlocked item, but there is a later resource that is provided with insufficient markers to properly note in the game.
The fact that Charterstone is arguably the first ‘true’ Legacy game that hasn’t had Rob Daviau’s hand in it makes it a fascinating product for people following that genre (which I certainly am) and Stonemaier has done a few things with the format that are great ideas, some of which come off with more success than others.
First and most apparent, the initial rule book is, even for a Legacy game, pretty scant. This is because the game teaches a chunk of the rules after set-up of the first game by unlocking the rules with sticker cards before the first turn of the first game. As I understand it there was an intention for the game originally to have no rulebook before the first game and go all in on this process. I think the intention was to have a computer game style opening where players learn as they play, which is a great intent and one that I’d love to see more of, but it honestly doesn’t come off one hundred percent here. Firstly there’s the minor point that in general gaming groups devolve the process of pre-learning the rules to a few people who are naturally suited to parsing rules and explaining them out, and this sort of gets in the way of that process, rather than helping the group’s rule guru it puts them in the position where they can explain a bit of the rules, but have gaps in their knowledge. Ultimately the game requires everyone to read all the rules, which sort of slows things down more, and the first session can go very slowly as pretty much half the rule book gets read out by rote and digested then stuck in place. Secondly, in computer games rules are parceled out as actions are taken, here the rules are all still presented before any actions are taken, just in a slightly more awkward form. Lastly, by splitting rules across cards some end up in weird and inconvenient places, chief among them the end game trigger rules don’t actually end up in the rulebook for some strange reason. It doesn’t really notice until a game, probably a few weeks after the initial rules read, where it really matters whether you finish out the round or not after the end game trigger and you’re certain you remember reading that rule so you search the rule book for it, and then search again, and again, but its not in there. The reason it’s not in there is that the rule is on a card in the archive, again its not a big thing, but it’s weird and annoying.
On the subject of little things that are weird and annoying in the game, this one is such a minor and personal thing that again it might not occur to most people, but the fact that the game is called Charterstone and that the Charterstone is in the game but does little or nothing does bug me. The Charterstone in the game takes the form of a dice with symbols matching each player’s charter on it. You roll it to decide first player at the start of the game (and if you’re playing with half or fewer of the maximum players you usually end up re-rolling and re-rolling it. With two players it’s like having a dice that you have to roll a 5 or 6 on before you’re allowed to start) and that’s about it. Once or twice you roll it on other split decisions, but it’s a big chunky nice and impressive wooden dice that the game is named for and it takes almost no part in the game. There is a part of the village called the Charterstone that does take a bigger part in proceedings, I just wished the physical Charterstone could have had more actual weight in the game. As I say, it might just be me, but it bugged me.
On the front of little touches there are two others, one brilliant, one less so. Player scoring between games is recorded, along with a few other things, by colouring in the box that a charter’s components are stored in. This is a tiny thing, but it’s a real touch of genius, your little deck box tells the story of your campaign and shading in stars, circles and even trophies is easily the most characterful and intuitive way of recording wins from game to game that I’ve seen in the whole of Legacy gaming. The other touch, and this is not just something that Charterstone does but they are a major culprit, is asking me to name every single random stranger I come across. I know naming stuff is a Legacy thing and I know it helps people to attach feelings to them, I still remember the name of the soldier from my game of Pandemic Legacy Season 1, his name was Don and he was a heavily scarred vet of a tough year in the east. But it has a very real law of diminishing returns, once I’ve named four or five people I really start to lose a strong feeling towards them and it becomes an increasing chore. By the end of Charterstone I think I’d named about 20 different people and I couldn’t honestly tell you what any of them were called, you can see the law of diminishing returns in those names where the first few are unusual multi-syllable affairs with second names and everything and then the last few tend towards the ‘Bob’ ‘Frank’ and ‘Jim’ end of the scale. So this is a general call to Legacy game designers, please don’t make me name every single thing I come across in the game, it doesn’t make me like them more.
The biggest and best difference between Charterstone and most other Legacy games is that there’s no real equivalent of a ‘Legacy’ deck, a set of cards that are pulled at the start of each game and drive the game along. The game has a light connecting plot thread triggered by single cards at the end of each round, but nothing like a more traditional Legacy deck and so the majority of the game’s growth does truly feel like its being driven by a satisfyingly player driven loop. There are a few points later on in the game where things are unlocked if not reached already, but the feeling is much more like an attempt to make sure you get to play with all the toys rather than forcing you on rails through the game. Instead almost all the game’s advancement is driven by the process mentioned above of building something then opening the crate that it leaves behind, so almost all cards and rules added to the game are added due to direct player agency, if unwitting agency.
The biggest issue that Charterstone has though is that it’s a Legacy worker-placement game. Generally, worker-placement games have to be pretty tightly designed, each space needs to be tempting and where you place your workers has to really impact on how I place mine to create tension and attention. Charterstone has over 35 spaces, so with two players its pretty tough to create tension over who places where anyway, most of the time I have four or five other perfectly legitimate options, and even if I decide I want to use the space you’re on, the pushback is pretty mild also. The problem becomes that 30 of those 35 spaces are placed with a variety of motivations. When playing with less than 6 players they could be placed randomly by the basic automation process or slightly less randomly by the full automata, but even when playing with other humans there are a variety of motivations since buildings add to an end of campaign score and certain characters can reward building multiple new buildings in a game. As such locations can end up being placed fairly randomly, and even if players are trying to formulate a shape to their charter the fact that what the next building unlocked does, and so how it might fit into your plan is not revealed until after the current building is constructed, makes formulation of a long term charter shaping strategy extremely tough. It’s often the case that players will build what they can when they can and figure out any issues afterwards. The upshot is that in a gaming genre where tight design is a must players will end up with a game board assembled not as tightly and interestingly as it possibly could be meaning that the actual worker placement engine that drives the game, particularly in the later games, ends up being very loose and possibly unsatisfying precisely when it should be at its tightest and most compelling.
This feel is somewhat exacerbated by the charters themselves and the few temporary rules that the game throws out, the charters because they do not feel as finely balanced as they could possibly be. Without wanting to spoil anything, each player is given the base buildings for their own charter, which will unlock characters and buildings in turn. This means that a player will almost certainly end up with the first few bits and pieces on their charter’s progression tree in their charter and there are a few advantages to having better buildings in your charter. As such it’s pretty vital that the elements in each charter should be pretty finely balanced, particularly in the earlier part of the engines and to be honest, they’re not. Some charters have a definite advantage over others which again makes driving for tight competitive play frustrating and leaves the game’s choices feeling less interesting. As for the temporary rules, these are effects placed on the game for one match only and range from having almost no effect to wrecking formerly effective strategies, which again makes things feel less tight and clear. Additionally, some will suggest priorities that others seem to ignore, for example one end condition values the highest possible score across the game, but Charterstone is a game of totally relative scores since every game can go on to an infinite score if players choose, so if this is intended to be an overall goal it shifts play style totally but it appears to be a goal for only one game.
That looseness is a serious issue in the game and it alludes to a lack of depth. Its genuinely tough to set up more than a three-building effect chain in Charterstone, and even when you do its generally less rewarding than many other options. Most of the time just cashing out for quick points pays greater dividends than any kind of real engine construction attempt and the whole result is a feeling of thinness to the design. I honestly don’t know if there is a version of the game that could be put together out of the available buildings and stickers that would lead to smooth running and humming chain engines that would spit out points at a terrifying level, but if there is its not signposted or telegraphed in building the village and if that’s where the fun is meant to lie players should be helped towards it.
Charterstone uses automata to potentially fill in for other human players around the table, but there is something a little odd about automata in a Legacy game. Firstly, the game suggests not using the automata for the first few games, but it also suggests if possible, keeping the same set of players throughout the campaign, making the choice of when and if to use the automata in your own campaign a little unclear. Added to that the whole joy of the game is finding and unlocking stickers, slapping them on the board, knowing and remembering who put them where and why. Since the automata are the now standard Stonemaier hollow gamers rather than a full AI it seems strangely unsatisfying when they unlock exciting cards and buildings.
Generally, the first three or four games of a Charterstone campaign is a fantastic experience, well driven and full of fun discoveries of a high-end product accessible to most players. I’d recommend those games to most players without reserve. However, there is a drop-off as those games go on, I’d say that some people will continue to love them all the way through, personally somewhere around game six I lost all affection for the game. By the end my wife was actively dreading each game as it came and making veiled threats about what would happen if we took the game up on its suggested offer of further playthroughs. In the end a Legacy game has to be a long term relationship rather than a single date, attempting one is a huge thing and Stonemaier games have bought in a range of splendid innovations to a genre that is dominated by one man’s design vision otherwise, but ultimately the attempt here has fallen wide to a significant degree.
I will try to standardize my Legacy reviews by using several categories: Legacy Presentation, how does it physically present its Legacy aspects during the game; Legacy access, what level of elements can players reasonably expect to unlock through play and what will be lost; Life length, specifically re-play value before, after and during the campaign mode; Advancement satisfaction, whether the upgrades given to players during campaign mode come at a rate that feels worthwhile; Rules Progression, whether added rules slot in naturally or come and go at such a rate that players never manage to settle into play; Group consistency, how necessary it is to keep the same gaming group from game start to end and Storyline, Legacy games generally present an overarching story which can be successful or not.
Legacy Presentation: Charterstone mainly uses a huge deck of cards that are searched through and added into the game by virtue of a key directing players to the right ones, similar in nature to the Purgatory deck from Betrayal Legacy, referred to as the index and stored in a large magnet catch box. Otherwise there are a set of small tuck boxes to be unlocked.
Legacy access: The vast majority of the content will be unlocked by the end of the campaign whatever players do, certainly all the tuck boxes will be opened and the board will be completed. The only significant element likely not to be unlocked or used will be a handful of the building sticker cards but players who really must see them all can carry on playing to get through them all. As such the access level is excellent.
Life length: Not only can the game be played infinitely once the game is complete it can be reset with a recharge pack to allow the actual Legacy campaign to be played through again making this easily the Legacy game with the best potential lifespan on the market.
Advancement satisfaction: Almost every game will see a player adding at least one building to the board and filling in enough sections of their personal charter box to see an upgrade in powers making advancement constant, satisfying and player led.
Rules Progression: Permanent rules are mostly easy to follow although they lean more towards the surprise end of the spectrum so sometimes feel not well integrated into the system. The initial rules are presented via the legacy system which may work for some groups and not others.
Group Consistency: A single group is not necessary, automata can fill in from one game to the next. There is an overall campaign scoring system which players will not be able to compete in realistically if they have not been present for the majority of the game but otherwise a reasonable game could be played by taking over a charter run by an automata for the rest of the campaign. As usual the experience is better if players remain consistent.
Storyline: Not the strongest for a legacy game and sometimes at odds with what players might expect from a game apparently about founding a quiet village in a leafy fantasy steampunk world.
In conclusion the game is well presented and an excellent attempt to broaden legacy into a true genre, but after a strong start it fails on balance more than it succeeds.