Charterstone: Review

Fairway has said before he’d never buy a legacy game, but will happily play someone else’s.  Well, this past Christmas, he got Charterstone for a gift and this marks his first review of a legacy game. Find out if the “journey” was worth it. If you don’t like spoilers, then don’t read this review.

Charterstone is a one- to six-player, legacy game in which players build a shared village over a series of twelve games. At the end of that many games you end up with a fully-constructed game that you can then just play as a regular, worker-placement game. However, for reasons I set out below, I will probably never get to the end.  This review is written at the close of game 8.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. This game is a commitment. Full-stop. If you’re not really interested in playing more than 16 hours of a game, you can probably just stop reading. I also cannot imagine that the 60 minutes on the box matches reality for anyone outside maybe 1 or 2 player games.
  2. The art style and whimsy and sprinkles of creativity are very nice. I think this charm saves aspects of the game.
  3. The components and presentation are also top notch.
  4. While the game purports to play as few as one player, I think there’s definitely diminishing “fun” as the player counts decrease.  I can immediately see the appeal of this game if you can find five of your gaming friends who are willing to commit this amount of time.
  5. The automata option for lower player counts isn’t great. I’d be curious if anyone thought this feature was a good or useful one.
  6. The rule book is down right terrible to use. Awful. Not to mention, we made mistakes in applying stickers to the rule book right out of the gate. They must have realized as much since the rules flat out state that it’s helpful for someone to know how to play before starting or to “go watch a video.” Ugh.
  7. The overall campaign is uneven waffling between slow and tedious to charming and light.
  8. The campaign nature of some elements sure make it hard for some players to ever catch up. And, like individual games, it felt uneven and disjointed at times.

How to play ^

Before we get too far into the review, one thing to keep in mind: there’s no good way to sum up all that happens over the course of all the games.  And everyone’s game will probably turn out slightly differently depending on choices that are made. Charterstone is a campaign, a series of twelve games that all build on each other. Each game, a player picks up the same role as the leader of a small group of settlers in the land of Charterstone. At the start of each game, the players will read from the “Index” and pull out cards that introduce new game elements, concepts like quests, new cards, new rules, additional buildings, new characters, etc. that weren’t present in the previous games.

Then, each of the individual games is a simple, worker placement game. Each player turn consists of either (i) putting meeples on the communal map to perform actions, gain resources, spend resources, etc. or (ii) retrieving all the workers on the map. Early in the campaign, there are a set of basic buildings and a basic set of actions. Like other worker-placement games, it’s basically move a meeple, pay something, get something.

As the campaign progresses, new buildings unlock and make available other things to do. These buildings come on cards with stickers. When a player constructs one of these buildings, the sticker is removed and placed on their portion of the map. The card then becomes a “crate” that can be opened by another action allowing the player to draw a new card (set of cards) from the index. As should be clear, the Charterstone board is a communal map. Once a player applies the sticker, there’s no going back. Over the course of the campaign, the map will evolve since most of the games have players applying stickers to the map.

Games continue over these series of turns until the players advance the “progress” marker signaling the end of the game.  At the end of the game, a winner is determined based on points.  In addition, players will track their progress on their charter boxes.  At the end of the campaign, an overall winner is determined.

Cutting to the chase ^

Normally, at this point in a post, I break my posts down into the Good (i.e., On the green) and the Not-so Good (i.e., Where it comes up short).  And I do outline some of those thoughts down below. You absolutely should read that part if you still think the game might be for you. There is a real struggle with reviewing this game. Rarely does a single game get to my table for so much time. Rarely do we play a game in which someone is doing something fundamentally wrong, we don’t notice the issue until too late in the game, and then have no way to “fix” it. Rarely do we spend 30 minutes refreshing our memories about what the rules are from the last play session — not to mention what happens if a player doesn’t come to a session. Rarely do we play a game the both piques everyone’s interest and simultaneously frustrates everyone. Rarely do I play a game for a review that I have had so much of I can’t really stand to look at it much any more. Rarely are the expectations for one thing so often defeated by giving us something we didn’t really want.

I’m not going to suggest it. I’m not going to recommend it.

But after game 8, I can safely answer the question “would you recommend this game?” with a “no.” Not to anyone. It’s not that there aren’t people who may enjoy the game. There certainly are. But I’m not going to suggest it. I’m not going to recommend it. It’s redeeming qualities do not overcome the core problem for me: at the end of the campaign, even if Charterstone is the greatest worker-placement game, the journey there is just too tedious and too time-consuming to ever suggest it. If you want an above average worker-placement game that you can just play, there’s a great many I’d recommend before Charterstone. Applying my rubric to the game/campaign as a whole, outside art and components, the game does not fair well especially when pitted against other games in its class. In the context of any single game of the campaign, I could see scoring this between one of the worst overall games I’ve scored (double bogey?) and average. It’s saving grace on that rubric is art and production. (More on that at the end).

For this reason, Charterstone is in the hole for a bogey. ^

On the green ^

Charterstone does have some things going for it.

Art and aesthetic. Among other things, we were drawn in by the art and whimsy of the world. The characters feel like they belong. The colors are bright and vivid. We definitely connected with this aspect of the game. Similarly, the presentation of the whole game from the moment you open the box to the individual cards themselves, it’s inviting.

Components.  Charterstone does a great job with its production. The box, the boards, the wood bits, the clever sticker cards. All of it.

The “surprise.” The early game is full of little surprises. As a player got to open a crate, there was a definite “ooh, ahh” moment about it. These surprises were fun for awhile and did continue to introduce elements to the game. But, see my notes about this same topic below.

The resulting worker placement game.  Even by game 8, it’s clear the worker-placement game itself is pretty interesting. There are real choices, real competition for resources.  I think those that toil through to the end of the game are likely to be satisfied that they’ve built a replayable worker-placement game, should they want to replay it.

Access to “recharge packs.” Having now gone through this, I can’t really picture who’d buy these. But the fact that they exist is a nice answer to the the perennial question of “but I don’t want to destroy my game.”

Where it comes up short ^

In just about every other meaningful way, Charterstone is set up to underwhelm, annoy, infuriate, or some combination thereof.

Rules. Let’s start with the first thing most people encounter: the rule book. I can think of no worse way to implement this than the way Charterstone did it.  The rule book starts with “cards” of rules printed into the base rule book. The starting rules are spread out across a series of pages. Each rule is numbered and the rule book leaves empty slots where future rules will be stickered in. In isolation, adding an occasional rule sticker to a page in the rules that otherwise read like rules, I get it. But, fundamentally, I think the way Charterstone implements this is a terrible design: it’s counter-intuitive, it defeats how most people think about rules and expect to read them, and it creates serious continuity questions when you go to read things later.

To add insult to injury, the rules even have the gall to pretty much say, “you should watch a video or play with someone who understands the rules before.” Nope. You cannot just shift responsibility for the rules on to the player anymore than you can try to disclaim an obviously questionable game mechanic. In this case, it’s particularly unhelpful for a game intended as a sequence of surprises and a campaign. This revelation (on the first page of the rules) followed by the sticker-applier messing up where to put the first set of rules stickers, was I actually think this was an early indicator of all that was going to unfold.

It’s hard to understand the rules before the first game without playing it. It’s even a bit harder, in the abstract, to fit the pieces of the puzzle together without having played through the first and second games. It’s probably safe to say, the campaign really should have started at game 2.

That Results Matrix.  It’s possible I’m not only one that thinks this is a terrible design idea, but Charterstone has what is essentially a multi-factored results matrix for determining what to do with crates.  You look up a number. And then pull various cards from various locations from the huge deck and then do as many as five different things depending on the crate. And it’s tiny, with lots of whitespace and prone to error! Just what everyone wants.

The “new” rules.  The surprises throughout the game were fun. (see above). They have one serious, unfortunate, infuriating and time-consuming drawback: they often introduced new rules. Those new rules then forced a halt to the flow of the game (in the middle of the game!) while everyone read it, for the first time, and considered the implication.  We kept asking ourselves, “why oh why would they do this?”  This is unlike games like in which new elements and aspects of the game are mostly introduced at the start of each new book.

Maybe I’m thinking about this wrong, but it seems just as valid a strategy to open the crates as a reward at the end of the game than in the middle of the game.

The story. Part of the draw, I think was originally thinking this was going to be a story-driven game. If this is your expectation, your experience will probably be a letdown. There is a story. Yes. It does evolve throughout the game. It’s mostly using the story as a “reason” to make you spend 16 hours building the worker placement game. It’s of such little consequence that skipping the story wouldn’t have been much of a detriment. If you’re looking for a story game,  or  do this better.

Play time. I struggle with games that require my attention for 90 minutes or more. Some of the early games definitely suffered from analysis paralysis and periods of just waiting. Even if another player “bumps” you from a spot, it’s not like there’s much you can do accept get your meeple back.  Watching people open crates has the surprise element, but also the “oh great, new rules” aspect too.

The reality is, to maximize the game, you really need a full contingent of players to show up on a regular basis.

Player counts.  I think people who will get the most out of this game are those with higher player counts. I did not try solo, but we played a couple of our games with just two. They’re not nearly as interesting. You then have to deploy the catch up mechanics for players who miss sessions. Ugh. The reality is, to maximize the game, you really need a full contingent of players to show up on a regular basis. That’s just not reality for most people, much less five or six people for 90 minutes at a time, twelve times.

Catching back up.  The campaign elements of this game seem to make it hard for a player who has lost a few early games to ever meaningfully catch up.  And while it’s hard to tell, it felt from our plays that winning a few early games really does boost your chance to stay in the lead.

I could keep going on, but I won’t belabor it at this point. I don’t like writing negative reviews. I don’t like piling on. I really wanted to like this game.

Rethinking my own rubric ^

I’m not sure what to make of a game whose demise on my rubric is saved merely because of high production and visuals.  It hasn’t really happened in a game I’ve reviewed to date.

Does slapping pretty pictures, metal coins, and nice wood bits suddenly make a bad game better? In one sense: yes. Having high production cost when attached to a “good game” can make a game more immersive, increase the appeal, etc. In this case, the art and components build upon the intangible aspects of the player experience. It can also be seen to increase the perceived value of the game. Conversely, I can’t really think of a good game made bad merely because it was saddled with mediocre art. Again, mediocre art might reduce it’s intangibles. It might get fewer eyeballs. But it doesn’t make a good game, bad.

That leaves me to rethink whether I need to move away from treating art and components on the same footing as overall game play. I haven’t made a decision, but I’m thinking about moving components & art into an “enhancer” where it is like bonus points.

None of this makes me happy.

One thought on “Charterstone: Review”

  1. I just happened across this review and I couldn’t disagree with it more. My kids (teenagers) and I just finished game 7 of the campaign and we absolutely love this game. The rules for this game are perfectly easy to follow and the “Watch It Played” video they suggest watching is great. It gives a good introduction to the game mechanics without spoiling anything. It’s also not mandatory as the game can be played without pre-reading the rules. It says so in the introduction. It does say that having one player read through the starting rules or watch the video helps and that’s what we did, but I think you could skip that and just start blind. The game is just not that hard to follow. The rest of the game has unfolded pretty easily and the new rules and components unlocked along the way are just so much fun. As you say, the components and art are great and they really add to the experience. We can’t wait to finish the campaign!

    From your discussion of the game, it sounds like someone misread a rule somewhere and that caused frustration for your group. It is hard to undo an error in a legacy game. This was not my family’s experience. We are loving it. It’s our first legacy game and we look forward to trying more.

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