Race to the Top in Cornerstone Essential

Cornerstone tower

It's crowded at the top. Photo: B. Liu

Cornerstone BoxOverview: Cornerstone Essential is a bit like Jenga crossed with Carcassonne — it combines the dexterity and balance of a building game with strategic path-building and blocking other players. Get to the highest position before the tower topples! (Note: Cornerstone Essential is a smaller, somewhat reworked version of the earlier game Cornerstone.)

Players: 2 to 4

Ages: 8 and up

Playing Time: 30 to 60 minutes

Retail: $39.95

Rating: An excellent game from Good Company Games, a smaller game company.

Who Will Like It? Fans of building/stacking games like Jenga will probably enjoy this, but so will fans of medium-weight strategy games. I found that playing with my civil engineer dad, brother and sister-in-law made for an intensely fun experience. Cornerstone (the original version, which is slightly different) was also a Mensa Select winner in 2009, so it has a good pedigree.

Cornerstone start

Get the GeekDad Books!

   

This is where it begins. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Theme:

Build a tower. Climb to the top.

That’s pretty much the theme of the game, and since you’re quite literally building a tower and moving your little wooden person around on the tower, I’d say the gameplay captures the theme of the game pretty well.

Cornerstone pieces

Building blocks: two of each size, 1 through 6. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Components:

It takes a steady hand ... Photo: Jonathan Liu

It takes a steady hand … Photo: Jonathan Liu

Here’s what you get:

  • 1 cornerstone starting block (seen above)
  • 48 building blocks (12 each in four colors, shown above)
  • 4 wooden climber tokens
  • 2 dice
  • 8 move tokens (basically little wooden discs)
  • 5 cloth bags (one for each color, and one for the extra pieces)

The cloth bags are thin canvas with a simple drawstring — serviceable but nothing special, and the dice are simple wooden dice with rounded corners.

The building blocks are made of individual 1-by-1 cubes which are attached together in a checkerboard pattern. From what I’ve read they’re stuck together with dowels and glue, and are supposed to withstand a good amount of dropping and falling without breaking apart. One thing to note is that the pieces aren’t all perfectly aligned — some of them are just a little crooked here and there, but it actually makes for more interesting play as you try to build with the imperfections.

Gameplay:

The game begins with the cornerstone and all the climbers on the table. On each turn, you roll the dice to see what piece you’ll get to use. You can build with a piece based on either one of the numbers rolled (the number of cubes in the piece corresponds to the numbers 1 through 6 on the dice). If you roll doubles, you get to choose whatever piece you want; but if you don’t have any pieces corresponding to the numbers you rolled, then you have to discard a piece and don’t get to build.

Two other rules pertaining to building: first, your building piece can only touch the table on the first round — after that, everything must be supported off the table. So the way people build during the first round can be pretty critical, either building a wide support for the tower, or starting off narrow and probably shortening the game with a collapse. Also, when you build you may not trap other climbers; each climber must have at least one space to move to (more on this later).

After you build, then you move your climber if you want. A climber can move any number of spaces on a turn, but with the following restrictions: first, you may only move on neutral-colored spaces and your own spaces. You may not move through other climbers. You may only climb up or down one cube high at a time. (The table counts as one continuous space so you can climb down to the table and back up somewhere else.)

Each player also gets two move tokens which can be used for three types of special moves: to build with any piece in your reserve; to cross over any color and/or through any other climbers; to jump up or down a 2-level wall. Of course, with only two of these tokens you need to use them sparingly because they are extremely valuable at the end of the game.

The game ends either when everyone runs out of blocks or if the tower collapses. If the tower doesn’t collapse, the player at the highest elevation wins — in the case of a tie, the player with the highest colored block in the tower wins. In the case of a collapse, the player who caused the collapse automatically loses, and the highest remaining player wins. In case of a tie, the player with the highest number of cubes left in their pile wins.

There are a couple variations, too. For a two player game, each player gets two colors and the score is the combined elevation of their two climbers. There is also a team play variant, and a more difficult Challenge option in which your block cannot touch any other player’s colored blocks when building (though you can always build on the table).

Now, a note about trapping: I’ve checked with Matthew Mette about the trapping rules. He said the intent is that you can’t completely trap somebody — for instance, in a six-sided hole with no exits — but you can build so that they don’t have any available moves yet, as long as it is possible for them to build their way out or use a token to get out. When we played (before we got this clarification) we made the point that the player needed to be able to move without using a token, but then we could move a meeple and block them that way. Either way, you can set your own house rules for how much you can block another player, as long as everyone agrees before the game begins.

Here’s a little video I made of one tower’s construction:

Conclusion:

When I first heard of Cornerstone Essential I thought, hey, that looks kind of cute. I thought it would be something simple that maybe I’d play with my little kids (and I have in fact played with my 7- and 4-year-olds, though with simplified strategies). But this past week my family came to visit, and we discovered that Cornerstone can be extremely challenging, particularly when three of the four players are civil engineers. My brother loved building cantilevered supports, hoping the next player would cause a collapse. We also discovered how tricky it could be trying to make a path to get up higher, and trying to decide when it was worth using a precious move token.

We also tried playing on both my felt-covered card table and the wooden dining table, and they offered very different experiences. The fuzzy surface was definitely more of a challenge because the tower was just a bit more wobbly, and the hard wooden surface allowed for more precision. We usually ended a game because of running out of pieces rather than causing a collapse, but perhaps playing with kids (or non-engineers) might make the game more volatile.

I thought Cornerstone Essential was a very fun, satisfying game. It’s not a heavyweight strategy game, but is actually comparable to something like Carcassonne in terms of building paths and maneuvering despite various restrictions. It’s definitely a game that I’d recommend for both casual and serious game players — it’ll get you out of your seat, which just might save your life.

Cornerstone Essential
is available from Amazon (with limited stock) or from Good Company Games.

Wired: A perfect blend of dexterity and strategic planning.

Tired: Imperfections in building pieces might not be appreciated by everyone.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.