Note: Charterstone is a legacy game that has a multitude of secrets, twists, and surprises. While I will talk about the gameplay in this review, I won’t disclose much more than you would learn in the first round of your first game. There will be no spoilers about plot twists, special components, secrets revealed, or anything that you’d be disappointed in learning before tearing off the shrink. Enjoy!
What Is Charterstone?
Charterstone is the fifth game from St. Louis-based Stonemaier Games (Viticulture, Euphoria, Between Two Cities, Scythe). It is a legacy game, designed by Jamey Stegmaier and features art by the husband and wife team Mr. Cuddington (David Forest and Lina Cossette), who have recently dipped their electronic paintbrushes in Santorini, Grimm Forest, Unfair, and Brass; and Gong Studios (Dice City, Android: Netrunner, Smash Up). How’s that for a lineup? For Charterstone, Gong Studios worked on the buildings while, in a seamless meld of styles, Mr. Cuddington handled the board, characters, and other art requirements.
But what’s it about? Consider this, from the very beginning of the first game:
The immortal Forever King has selected 6 citizens of Greengully to start a new village far from the Eternal City. Congratulations for being chosen! Your goal is to bring the greatest glory to the Forever King so you may rule the village in his name. After spending all day flying over the kingdom, the zeppelin sets down and the guards open the hatch for you and your companions.
In this 12-episode campaign game for 1–6 players, aged 14 and up, players build their own charter within a larger village. It’s a competitive game with a cooperative heart, as all players look to build the village to the king’s tastes, while competing to outscore each other along the way. There are many ways to score points, but only one winner in Charterstone.
Wait, Before We Get Started, What’s a Legacy Game?
A legacy game is a game where players make physical changes to the board and its components as play goes on. Stickers might be added to the board or rule book, components may be destroyed or removed from the game. Players possibly write on boards, cards, or more. Additionally, the decisions that the players make in a session might have effects that show up later in the game or alter the final outcome. Most legacy games involve a single play through a campaign, with players reaching an end condition whereafter the game is discarded, shelved forever, or framed for the memory. Risk Legacy is credited as the first game in the new genre. Pandemic Legacy is currently the highest ranking game on BoardGameGeek, a distinction it has held nearly since its release two years ago.
What’s in the Box(es)?
While we’d normally go into great detail about all the components of a game, this section is going to be addressed very generally because Charterstone includes a large number of twists, including one of the most surprising and unusual components I have seen in a board game — ever.
When you first open Charterstone, after setting aside the rule book and boards, you see that the contents are perfectly and precisely packed away in subtly labeled white boxes with Art Deco flourishes framing the packaging. There’s a wonderful and calming moment of composition. Whether it’s the starkness of the boxes or the simple suggestions of labeling, it all evokes the sensation of a coloring book, with empty boards and banded box names representative of the outlines conjuring an image to be colored. However, the choice of palette, the tack you take, and the final product are entirely up to you.
Dominating your view, there are two large boxes: the Index, a vault where the game’s yet-to-be-revealed cards are held, and the Scriptorium, where the common resources are protected in between games. There are also six individual, color-coded boxes called Charter Chests, where the items for each charter are placed for safekeeping, and a slightly wider box called the Archive, where spent cards are banished. Finally, there is a small number of tuck boxes that hold secret components that will be revealed later in the campaign.
Charterstone includes one of the most surprising and unusual components I have seen in a board game — ever.
The first thing you’ll likely do is open the game board to get a sense of what’s going on, to survey the lay of the land. From the bald plainness of the boxes to opening the multicolored board, that moment is like waking up in the magnificent land of Oz, transferred from a land of monochromatic simplicity to Technicolor majesty. The landscape hints at the possibilities of riches and good things to come if luck and a sound strategy are at your side.
The artwork is amazing. Without doubt, it is my favorite of all Stonemaier’s games. While I completely loved Jakub Rozalski’s Eastern Bloc mech vignettes in Scythe, the iconography prevents that game from taking top art honors in their catalog. Charterstone is the complete package. From the standpoint of art design, it is perfect. The artwork is clear and beautiful, each element is easy to understand.
Mr. Cuddington and Gong Studios have done a consummate job of conveying the gameplay of Charterstone. In fact, it’s worth deeper consideration. At first, the game seems almost cartoonish. Characters, buildings, and items are illustrated in a way one might have once seen on Saturday mornings or, maybe, more accurately, in a bigger budget animated film. But couched in those illustrations are details that hint at Charterstone‘s deeper strategy and context. Scoring tracks follow the nooks and crannies of the land, characters’s outfits suggest abilities and benefits, and building architecture evokes the reward a visit to their doorsteps may portend. Simply put, it’s a joy to pause and take a few moments before or after a game to really study.
The box contains a lot. There are more than 350 cards, some of which are stickers; 230 wooden tokens; and 36 metal coins. You’ll have access to some of those components from the very beginning of your first game. The cards are on heavy stock; the wooden tokens are nicely sculpted and plentiful. The coins … the coins are hefty. At 3mm thick, they feel like a round pound in your hand — they are very nice and feel valuable. You’ll start with 163 wooden tokens on the table (a dozen of each of the six resources: brick, pumpkins, lumber, metal, coal, and grain; plus 12 influence tokens, 2 workers, and a VP marker for each of the six players; and a single progress token). That leaves more than five dozen tokens yet to be discovered.
The rule book, known as the Chronicle, presents another allusion to possibilities. Sitting down to the first game, it’s mostly empty. However, like most legacy games, there are plenty of marked spaces for incoming rules and story.
Everything is made to very high standards. Since the intent is that you can continue to play Charterstone as a stand-alone game long after you’ve finished the campaign, the quality is exceptionally good for all components — board, tokens, cards, and more. The only bits that aren’t great are the zipper bags. This certainly isn’t a problem that is exclusive to Charterstone and definitely not a criticism of the game, but it’s a good time to ask — why did the quality of zipper bags take such a deep dive in quality in recent years?
Without sharing any more, each time that you open Charterstone, it feels more like a unique experience than just a game. It’s a neat feeling.
How Do You Play Charterstone?
One of the things Stegmaier said about this game was that he wanted people to be able to play Charterstone the moment they opened the box, without reading a thick rule book. While he backed off this claim a bit, the Chronicle is still pretty empty to begin with. Stegmaier suggests at least one person should read the Chronicle before the first game, a task that will pass quickly, as there are only 14 rules among the many blank spots in the book and several are quite short. This framework provides the basis for your first game of Charterstone. The landscape will change rapidly, as will the rules governing it. But, when you sit down for the first time, here is how you will play:
When you open the box, you’ll be greeted with a variety of smaller boxes and boards. The main playing board opens wide to a huge 29″×17″ (approx.) and is double-sided. It doesn’t matter which side you choose, but you’ll want to stick with the same side for your entire campaign. The other side can be used for a second campaign of Charterstone by purchasing a “Recharge Pack” after your first campaign is complete.
Each time that you open Charterstone, it feels more like a unique experience than just a game.
On the board are rolling hills, a river, a smattering of trees, clouds, cliffs, and some floating islands. The land is split into six areas, all surrounding a central village. These are the six charters of Charterstone. On the outskirts of the board is a scoring track and there are three additional tracks on the board. There is information here, but overall, your initial reaction is of an open and bountiful land that is welcoming.
The initial instructions ask you to then sort the main resources from the Scriptorium, a box that holds the general supply. There are thick metal coins; wooden tokens for the six different resources: brick, pumpkins, lumber, metal, coal, and grain; a progress token; and the charterstone (a six-sided die with the icon for each charter on its sides). Everyone gets 2 workers, a victory point marker, and a dozen Influence tokens.
Players are given a card that represents a character in their charter and a basic building, as well. You can name your persona, or character, by writing on the card. With the basic building and all building cards in the game, after meeting the building requirement (the first one is free), players remove a sticker from the card, and place it on an empty plot in their charter. (Note: Stickers are very sticky. Make sure to read all directions and ensure you are placing it where you intend before making contact because, once placed, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to remove, replace, or readjust it. Believe me, we learned this the hard way. Twice.)
Since your first building card has a crate in the upper right of the card, you will hold on to it so you can reap the benefit of that crate later. Subsequent buildings and opening all crates come with a cost to activate. In the broadest of strokes, besides the story elements of the campaign, opening crates is how you’ll introduce much of the new content.
More Boards, More Cards
There are two additional boards to set up — one for Objectives and one for Advancement cards. A number of cards are removed from the Index, a beautifully crafted box with a magnetic flap. The cards you remove from the Index are dictated by a grid on the inside of the lid, which is printed in, what seems like, 4-point type. Thankfully, it has been reproduced for old and tired eyes on a much larger, more easily read chart.
The cards are shuffled and placed on the appropriate mats, revealing 3 Objectives and 5 Advancement cards. Objective cards are available to all players and provide unique ways to score points each game. Advancement cards include resources, ways to expand your charter, bonuses, and much more — they are a treasure trove of ways to improve your game.
During a turn, you do one of two things: You may place one of your two workers and then pay the location’s cost (if there is one) and receive the location’s benefit. Or you retrieve all your workers.
That’s it. Simple, right?
Well, there is more to it, of course. To visit a location, a player must be able to pay the cost. However, the player doesn’t have to take all (or any) of the benefit. The cost is represented by the icon(s) on the left of the building and the benefit is the icon(s) on the right.
When you place a worker, if there is already a worker there, you should return the existing worker to its player, even if it’s your own. What this means is that, rather than just having two worker placements before spending a turn to retrieve workers, a player might be able to take three, four, or more actions before having to retrieve.
At the beginning of the game, there will be just a single building in each charter, each generating a different kind of resource, each available at no cost. In the center of the board, in The Commons, are five buildings that allow actions that propel the game forward: constructing a new building, opening crates, earning objectives, trading resource for coins, and gaining advancement cards. Each of these locations has a cost to carry out each action.
Charting the Landscape
In Charterstone, all of the cards are laid out similarly, with requirements for their fulfillment either in the top left (in the case of buildings) or at the bottom of the card (everything else) and the benefit is in large iconography in the upper right of the card. There’s a reason for this. There’s no hidden information in Charterstone. All of your resources are laid out so everyone can see, your cards are laid face up in front of you. The large icons allow people across the table to see what your cards are capable of.
As you slowly begin game one, you might spend coins, resource tokens, and Influence tokens to build new buildings, gain resources, and try to complete various objectives, all in an effort to impress the king. You’ll discover new rules, citizens, and ways of progressing. Your charter — and your village — will grow quickly!
Each time you complete one of the major activities—constructing a new building, opening a crate, or achieving an objective—a player receives the benefit that activity provides and then advances the progress marker on the progress track. This movement may trigger another benefit, like adding to the reputation track, which might provide end-of-game points, or income, which is not a concept detailed in the first game.
If you run out of influence tokens, either by spending them as a type of currency or by placing them on one of the board’s tracks, you will also advance the progress marker at the end of each of your turns. The progress marker ticks down toward the end of each game and when it reaches the final position, the current round is seen out and that game finishes.
There is a lot more revealed at the end of game one, which dictates how future games will be played. I’m not going to touch on that because I think there are some nice surprises in how that all works and your future strategy may be influenced when these new rules are revealed.
(Note: before you start playing, be sure to check the FAQ and errata on the Stonemaier site.)
As an addendum, I also want to mention the Automa rules and how to play Charterstone when playing with fewer than six players; Charterstone includes Automa rules which help simulate human players. It is suggested that Automa rules not be used until after the first game, as you are still getting adjusted to the game’s rules at that point. Automa rules allow the inactive charters to develop right along yours and provide a challenge to victory. However, if you don’t want to bother with the Automa rules and play with fewer than six, you can do that too. Near the beginning of the campaign, you’ll be supplied with a rule that will allow you to get the full Charterstone experience, even if you’re playing with five or fewer.
Should I play Charterstone?
Let’s face it, committing to 12 games is not a decision to take lightly. For that reason, let me answer a few questions before getting to my opinion of Charterstone.
I have a tough time getting the same group together from week to week. Will I like Charterstone?
I think it’s better to have the same players for all or most of the campaign. We brought in a player at game four for a single game and, despite being a pretty serious and very competent gamer, he just didn’t quite get it. That puzzled me a bit and made me question the game a little. But when you drop in for a game, you aren’t going to be invested in your charter or have a long game in mind. That said, if a player has to drop out for a couple of games, there are rules to cover that and you shouldn’t feel like you have to play with your full group each time. What’s more, the game was made to play as a standalone experience when you’re done. I haven’t tried it yet, but now I’m curious about what a new player will experience, jumping in with everything unlocked.
I only play games with my wife/husband/partner/friend. Will I enjoy Charterstone as a two-player?
You’ll be OK. In the game there are actually a couple of different rules/ways to play that will help give you the full experience. Pick the one that’s right for you and have a great time!
I only have casual gamer friends. Will they like it?
I played this one exclusively with my family. Normally, when I play a game to review, I’ll play with a couple of different groups to get a representation of different types of gamers, but this time I played 12 games with people who I sometimes literally have to bribe to get to the table. While they have opinions about Charterstone (see below) they were able to pick up the game quickly and appreciate each game. I feel like this game is very accessible to a casual player. The ruleset is almost zero entry and the mechanics never become burdensome to someone who doesn’t play a lot.
I’ve got younger kids. Can they play?
To begin with, there’s nothing the least bit objectionable, though Stegmaier told me that he briefly considered a special pack of buildings for adults only but decided against it. It was a smart choice, I think. The game is suggested for ages 14 and up and that’s pretty accurate. In the beginning, our games ran two hours as we double-checked rules and figured things out. Toward the end you’re also going to be balancing 29 rules and a good number of those are multi-faceted. That’s a lot for younger kids to navigate. Could younger kids play? Yes, but you’re going to be helping them out a lot.
My game group plays Twilight Imperium — as a warmup game. Are we going to have any fun with Charterstone?
This is one question I’ve struggled with a bit. Will hardcore gamers like Charterstone? I just don’t know — mostly because of the group I played with. I play a lot of games, but my family does not (curse my luck). I enjoyed Charterstone very much but think my experience would have been improved by playing with more experienced players. I’ll get more into my observations below, but I have a tough time telling if there’s enough meat on the bone for a more strategic group. I suspect the answer is no. Then again, I don’t think this game was made for them.
My Experience Playing Charterstone
I’m a huge fan of Stonemaier Games, so when Stegmaier asked me if I’d be willing to review Charterstone early, I was over the moon — I couldn’t wait to play. When it arrived, almost a month ago, I felt a lot like a kid on Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to tear into it and so we played our first game that evening.
Learning Charterstone is a very streamlined experience. We were immediately playing, without having spent an hour counter-referencing a rule book. Although, I took notes for each game we played and I see that for the very first time out, it took us two hours to get through the game, which is double the estimated time. Some of this was rechecking rules, but a lot of the time was due to my family, specifically a couple of players who don’t play a lot and and had to really think before each of their turns. Before this puts you off, know that before the midpoint of the campaign, we were sailing through games in under an hour.
There is a story that accompanies the game and we really took pleasure it. Though the game lacked some of the typical elements of a fairy tale, the narrative unwound in a way that made us feel a bit like we were characters in a mythical fable and it enhanced the game play. In ways, it felt like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, played out in cardboard. As the games progressed, the story became more complex and intertwined, engaging us deeply, and it made me recognize that I relished Charterstone more on the nights when we played a single game, as opposed to the nights we doubled up. Too often, the game ended with a cliffhanger, a glimpse of things to come, and I really was fond of imagining those possibilities as I lay down to sleep. It was almost like Peter Falk was sitting by my bed, reading me a bedtime story.
As the game progresses, there are hints about gameplay or components to come and those are exciting moments. There are a lot of very clever consequences in Charterstone and that part of it — the reveals — might be my favorite elements of the game. How the story is unveiled, both physically, on the card, and as it is told, is exceptional. There are a couple of other moments that were completely unexpected and those are very fun, as well. I realize that I’m being nebulous, but I don’t wish to ruin the experience for anyone.
We played with the Automa rules for several games, to try them out and see how they affected the game. That engine is well-built and helps simulate another player while not being terribly intrusive. We ended up abandoning them for a couple of reasons — they did slow our games down a little and the Automa charters felt slightly overpowered. Your experience may be different, but know you needn’t play with the Automa characters if you don’t want to.
We did like how some of the decisions you made had lasting effect in the game and made a difference in the end of your campaign. It was ingenious how each game felt like its own unique chapter, independent in its goals and style of play, yet still a part of the bigger story. Because of that, Charterstone never felt stale to me. At its heart, Charterstone is about economics, as most worker placement games are, and those myriad choices to achieve a successful outcome tempted me, game after game. It’s worth mentioning that some of those at my table complained that, at times, they felt frustrated with lack of options and that they had fallen into repetitive cycles, which I feel is a problem that’s common to worker placement games if you are lacking an understanding of how to meet your current goal or are playing without a sensible long-term strategy.
While there was a lot of table talk and bumping a worker off a space wasn’t uncommon, there’s not a lot of player interaction in Charterstone. For more strategic players, this might be off-putting. However, my daughter loved the fact that no one could come in and upset her charter, that it was her domain and she could still move freely without anyone significantly influencing her and throwing her off her strategy and game. To be clear, you can still influence others and their games by taking a card or sniping one of the limited positions on the board before someone else has the chance, but there’s finite possibility for opportunistic interaction, which is probably fine for many. It helps maintain the sense of community as opposed to being antagonistic neighbors.
Charterstone is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had.
In addition to the story and goals pushing the game and no two games being alike, the gameplay I favored most was that there were always multiple ways to achieve those goals. I am head over heels for the thoughtfulness that went into the design and the cleverness that abounds in not only how all the cards and mechanisms interact, but just how much work went into bringing this game to life.
However, now that I’ve finished the game and really thought about it, I have to admit that there are a few things that I didn’t like about Charterstone. There’s a saying in writing that oftentimes a written piece would have been better served by a ruthless editor. The implication is that the writer has not stayed on point and the piece could be made better by slashing content. (The irony of the length of this review is not lost on me.)
Like the editor analogy, I had a feeling at the end of a game, late in the campaign, that there were just too many elements in Charterstone, that perhaps it would have been better served by carving out a couple of those components and/or categories. On one hand, I appreciate that with an abundance of content, your game will likely end up being much different than mine. And that’s OK. On the other hand, at times it felt like there were too many choices for players. And, on top of that, there was a fair amount of content that we never saw, a point punctuated by an event late in the campaign, which I won’t share, but one that left us feeling like we had missed out on some things. Maybe it would have been different if we’d played with six instead of four?
Further, my wife complained that winning in Charterstone has a multiplier effect. Good strategy (and good cards) can lead to benefits that keep driving the winning player ahead in subsequent games. She feels Charterstone is without a good, leveling, catch-up mechanism and there is truth to this, I could tell by her frustration that she showed in our final games. Still, I believe that a better strategy on her part might have alleviated those feelings and balanced the game a bit more in her favor.
In the end, I can see past these objections. We had such a great time playing Charterstone, getting lost in its world and building our charters and village, that, when the game was finished, we had to take a step back. Looking at our Charter Chests and the playing board, thinking back to where we had started, it all represented quite a journey.
Following in Scythe‘s tracks means shouldering a heavy burden. There is no doubt that expectations are high. I believe Charterstone is a very good game, but it might not be what some are hoping for. Like a certain fairy tale, Charterstone might be too much for some casual gamers. And for alpha gamers, it might be too little. But I suspect for a large number of gamers in the middle of that spectrum, it’s going to be just right.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this review that I struggled with Charterstone in some ways. I think that’s because that, for whatever reasons, my expectation was that the game would be more challenging. To me, Charterstone presented some tough decisions, but not difficult challenges. I still adored it and think most people will, but for that reason, it’s not my favorite of the Stonemaier games. Expectations are funny things. However, it is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had.
Sitting down with my family to build our village, over the course of a dozen sessions, just enjoying each other’s company, was an absolutely wonderful experience. Of course, this bonding experience isn’t unique to Charterstone and it’s one of the things I love most about boardgames, how they bring you closer to the people you choose to play with. But in the meadows of Greengully, it felt like something more. The sense of creating something together, the almost cooperative, non-combative, village-building gameplay, taking in the beautiful artwork, and the story we shared as we crafted our journey together, was inspiring.
After we had crowned our winner, read the final card, and taken a last look at all the cardboard and the wooden bits strewn about the table, I stood to begin putting the game away, a job that always falls to me. My daughter, who seldom plays games, came over and threw her arms around me, thanking me for sharing such a fun experience with her. That certainly seems like a fairy tale ending to me.
Charterstone will be released on December 12 and will retail for $70. The Recharge Pack will release at the same time and retail for $30.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.