For full disclosure, I was provided this copy of Charterstone from Stonemaier Games for this review. The provided copy has not impacted my views below.
I aim to keep this review spoiler free. There will be a review with spoilers that can be accessed here if interested. Also of note, there will be a distinct lack of photos for my review of Charterstone (spoiler-free and spoiled) due to a roof leak. Whomp whomp.
What is it? A legacy game from Stonemaier Games. Charterstone is a standalone game that is not based off of an existing IP (like similar legacy games Clank!, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Risk and Pandemic [Spoilers and no spoilers]).
What is a legacy game? A legacy game is a game where each play builds off the previous one. The decisions you make in game one may very well impact the choices you have available to you in game four. The story and board will evolve over the course of your plays and additional rules will be unlocked. You may end up destroying cards and marking the board permanently, which means that you won’t be able to go back to where you were a game ago.
How thematic is it? There is a narrative story that will guide players and sway their decision making over the course of the campaign. Players are also playing a unique character (that they can name) that will grow and progress as the game goes on. This adds a tiny wrinkle to the game play and allows each village to feel like their own. I never felt like I was truly developing the landscape however. While your village does grow, I felt like I was more interested in the resource building aspect than the village building one.
What about the story? There is conflict and the story ebbs and flows. As players learn more about the tale, the story unfolds and starts to make more sense (as all stories do). I wouldn’t base your enjoyment on the narrative after the first game or two. That being said, the narrative is not complex in the slightest and if players spend months between plays, not much of anything will be lost storywise. We took an extended break due to the happenings of COVID-19 and once we started the campaign back up, we felt comfortable with the knowledge we pieced together from our memories and that proved to be more than enough. I did feel after playing that the game felt more like I was building the board so that I could continue playing more than I was completing a story. Of the two of us that played, the finale of the story was a point of contention. One of us hated it, the other was fine with it.
So what do you do exactly? The base mechanic of Charterstone is worker placement with a minor degree of set collecting. The basic actions of the game are incredibly easy to understand and provide players with quick paced turns. On each turn, players only have two actions available to them: place a meeple on the game board or pick their meeples up. As the story unfolds, the amount of locations that players can send a meeple will increase and rules will be explained for those spaces but the base action of placing or returning will not be impacted. Only one meeple can occupy a location so when players place a meeple on a location that already features a meeple, that existing meeple is returned to the player. It’s a nice way to get meeples back without spending a turn action to do so. Due to this mechanic, there is no blocking of players and the only strategic advantage to placing someone in a location that another player wants to go would be to have them return your worker to you for free.
The game board starts with a Commons areas that feature locations that allow players to open crates (which helps progress the story), construct buildings on the map, gain victory points and score objectives. The Commons buildings available are the following:
Charterstone: This is how players will unlock crates (that introduce new rules, mechanics and more to the game) as well as score victory points. The cost is two influence tokens and four dollars.
Grandstand: Each game will have unique objectives to score and the Grandstand is how players will score them. Each objective is worth five victory points.
Market: Pay any one resource and one dollar to gain one card from the advancement mat. There are several different kinds of cards that can be purchased here. Buildings for example are a common purchase.
Treasury: Pay any one resource to gain $1. You cannot offload multiple resources for multiple dollars.
Zeppelin: The primary way to build buildings in your charter. This requires resources and influence tokens.
The Commons are an active location in the game and players will become very familiar with them the first few games as players try to unlock more stuff to do. The game board also features six city locations (one for each potential player) that will house the buildings that players start to construct. Players will be responsible for their own section of the board and any areas not controlled by human players will be filled in either by an automa that players control or other means (unlocked throughout the game). When buildings are placed, they are permanent additions to the board as they’re placed via sticker. To start the game, each charter of each player will have one building each which houses a unique resource. In addition to these locations, there is also the Cloud Port that allows players to pay items they’re in possession of (money, resources, etc.) to earn victory points.
So far, the game consists of players picking up and placing meeples that allows them to visit charter locations (to get resources) and then go to the Commons (to spend those resources on crates, buildings, etc.). It plays quick but begs the question: how does the round end? On the main board, there is a time tracker that will be activated when certain actions are taken or certain criteria are met. There isn’t a traditional round ending and the worker system is more akin to The Manhattan Projects than say Viticulture. The track will have spaces for each player count so as to ensure each round is balanced based on who all is playing. There are bonuses along the track for players to vie over as it winds down and once it reaches its end, the end of the round is triggered. Following the end of the game, victory points will be tallied and the scores recorded. Players will be able to mark their player box for the possibility of gaining more bonuses over the course of future games.
Is it easy to play? With the easy to learn rules and two actions, the first few games can feel lackluster as players are performing the same actions repetitively. The first few games felt like an extended tutorial without training wheels. The story fleshed itself out over these starting games but we did wonder if it was something that could have been condensed. While I appreciate a tutorial, it’s a hard activity to tackle for a legacy game as the game couldn’t answer what exactly we were supposed to be doing. You know the actions of the game, you know what scores points and you know how the game ends but you don’t know what you’re supposed to be striving for. Should I score objectives? Should I prolong the game and gain as many buildings as possible? Should I develop my charter fast? Should I aim to win the game? It just never felt clear and doing what I felt was the purpose of the game (developing my charter) did not line up with winning the game necessarily. On the flip side, the tutorial nature of the game allowed us to jump right in.
Is it monotonous? It took until about our fourth game until I felt like I was doing something new. The slow build in the beginning of the game is probably designed to create some awe and wonderment for the players as they learn and experience the new surroundings and get invested in the narrative but it honestly felt like a slug to get through. The choices were extremely limited and it just felt like I was doing the same thing game after game after game. Place a worker, place a worker, pick up a worker, repeat. Eventually the map was fleshed out enough that there was some slight strategical decision making but nothing that was a brain burner. Even then, I still felt like I was stuck in a repetitive loop as I continued to perform the same action turn after turn and game after game. The more actions available as the game progressed did not equate more engaging game play. In fact, it almost triggered a quicker rush to the game end as players moved the time track forward trying to gain the few bonuses allotted that would create a difference between a player and their opponents.
How are the components? Charterstone features some great components as the meeples and tokens are wooden and the coins are metal (and could easily be repurposed for other games once played through). The art is fun and cartoonish and helps create a slight personality for the pieces. There are tuck boxes for all the cards including the trashed cards to make it easier to pull the cards needed from the recharge pack (if you purchase it). Organization was great as we played the game and it may be the easiest to follow legacy game we’ve played yet. That great organization was a gift and a curse though as it did make unboxing everything slightly longer.
What about player count? As I’ve only played one campaign (and a two-player one at that due to the stay-at-home order), I can only comment on playing at that player count. With two-players, the game plays incredibly fast. We were playing two to three games in just over an hour and a half. It would sometimes take longer to set up and read new unlockables than it did to play the actual game. I know me and my SO play games at a much faster pace than others but the first half or so of Charterstone at two-players will not be a long game in the slightest. At two-players, I liked the brevity of each game but definitely felt that it would have done better with more people around the table. I was just picking up and placing people over and over again. If I ever played again, I would definitely hold out for six players. I think that would help break up the game slightly but it does bring on worries of its own, namely downtime. With a lack of real deep decision making, would I just be bored waiting for my turn to come back around? Probably.
I appreciate that Charterstone allows six players. It’s a nice surprise as there are not many board games that fit that player count that don’t devolve into some type of deduction or party game. The lightweight style of decision making would also help ensure that everyone is on the same page when their turns came around. Players can easily plan their turns in advance (for the most part) due to the lack of blocking and the constant state of the board.
What if someone has to drop out? Nothing the game throws at you will be overbearing and while the game is an entirely different experience once completed, it’s not hard to follow from game to game as additions are unlocked. If a player had to drop out for games three through five and returned for game six (or a player jumped in for one that dropped out), I don’t think anything would be lost. It would obviously be better if everyone stayed for the entire campaign as they’ll be more invested but at least there’s some flexibility if needed.
Are there AI or bot players? Speaking towards the two-player experience, there are two options for players in regards to expanding the Charterstone universe. They can either utilize the automa or not. The automa will act as a default additional player if players would like. There will be separate rules for not using the automa that are unlocked but the automa isn’t terribly difficult to learn. We used it once but decided to let the board happen more organically for our campaign. I had nothing against the automa; I was just lazy when it came to that aspect of turn taking. If we were playing a four- or five-player campaign, I would have been more likely to use the automa as there would have been more of a break between my turn. I didn’t like having to basically take two turns back to back. That being said, the automa will help make the board fill up quicker and is easy enough to follow. After concluding the game, I don’t feel like I missed anything by not including the automa. There was even a game in particular where I wondered if the automa would have done more harm than good.
Did you think you missed anything playing only two players? I never felt like we were unable to unlock certain elements at two-players (which was nice) and the game had decent pacing as items were unlocked somewhat easily and those that weren’t (and are vital to the story) will unlock for you. It does create a uniform story that will lead everyone to the same possible endings regardless of the actions you take (or don’t take). I sometimes struggle with that as I feel like I’m being lead through an adventure instead of experiencing it on my own.
Playing time? We didn’t find Charterstone overly complex so games tended to be quite short. If I had to guess, each player adds twenty minutes to the game but games could take less if players rush to push the game along or longer if they spend turns stockpiling resources. I don’t see this being a long game in the slightest though. Sometimes we would spend more time opening new unlockables than we did playing that specific round.
How interactive is the game? There is little to no direct player interaction and while the buildings you place matter and can be used by other players, that’s really the limit as to what you’re doing with others. There is no blocking of players or bartering. The only time I was aware of my opponent was when their actions triggered the time track or when I knew they wanted to go to a specific location and I wanted the resource for free (since they would bounce me on their visit). The gameplay reminded me of a light version of Lords of Waterdeep and is honestly the lightest game of Stonemaier’s that I’ve ever played. Between Two Cities is slightly more complex in my opinion (mostly due to the scoring).
Is there much downtime? In a two-player game? Never. In a full six-player game, I could see you having some downtime but not enough that I would say it’s a negative.
What is something completely unique to Charterstone? Unlike other legacy games I’ve had the chance to play, Charterstone offers purchasers of the game the unique ability to play two campaigns as the board is the same on the front and the back. The game itself does not come with enough components to complete both sides of the board but a recharge pack is available to purchase. Even if players don’t opt to play a second campaign, they can return to the board they created and play that as many times as they want. Charterstone finishes the campaign with a fully playable (and unique) board. I really dug the double-sided feature as I was able to play our copy and then rehome it to a friend to try with their family.
Is this a good gateway game? I would still recommend first time players to the hobby try the Stone Age’s and Ticket to Ride’s of the world but Charterstone could definitely be a game that is friendly to newcomers. The rules to start the game are simple and straightforward. I’ve basically explained the entire first game to you. Obviously slightly more complex variations will release as the game is played but this would be a good gateway game for players that want to play a legacy game but don’t want something with combat like Risk or high stress like Pandemic. Charterstone is incredibly easy going and while players are working competitively, it feels more passive than anything.
Is the rulebook clear and concise? For the most part; yes. However, once players start the game, I would recommend bookmarking the FAQ as there were a few questions that came up over the course of our play that the rulebook didn’t entirely explain. You can totally play the game without referencing the FAQ but I’m thankful it was available.
Did you replay it? No. Completing the campaign was good enough for us and I did not feel the need to visit the map following the conclusion of the story. Also, with playing at only two, I don’t see introducing a completed game to any of our group as a valid option.
Do you recommend this game? While I’m glad to have played Charterstone, it definitely didn’t set my world on fire and to be honest, I was uninterested in continuing the game due to the slow start and incredibly simple mechanics and decision making. I liked that the game never overstayed its welcome but I felt as if I was spending more time playing the game just to finish it rather than play because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. In the later games, where more rules were in play and games would last closer to forty-five minutes, it felt like games were over an hour. When we started getting used to the new normal and reintroduced board games back into our lives, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to break out and finish Charterstone.
However, that doesn’t make Charterstone a bad game; far from it. It just wasn’t something for me. If you’re looking for an incredibly light worker placement game with legacy elements, I’d recommend Charterstone. It’s a light game that would be a gateway-level experience for players and while there is a story, it’s not as imperative for players to follow along if that is not their scene. If I was going to play the game with less than five or six people, I would probably just buy the app instead (Android / iOS). There is also an implementation on Steam. I appreciate the effort and design and think this would be a nice social game for a group that wants to play something that has a board but doesn’t take much thought. The added benefit is that if you do play and love Charterstone, you have the opportunity to play it again (with a recharge pack) or to play the board you completed again. If you don’t love it, you can pass it along for someone else to experience (with a recharge pack of course).