A brief note on spoilers: This, unusually, is a brief note on spoilers that actually does say something worth reading about. You see, the board in Charterstone is more or less blank at the start of the game and it’s no spoiler to reveal that populating this board with new buildings is a crucial mechanic. Because the board begins blank, I decided to use photos from games one, two and three of our twelve-game campaign and I’ll also discuss some of the new elements that are introduced early in the game. Please consider this fair warning that this review contains spoilers, albeit fairly minor ones.
Charterstone is the latest creation from Stonemaier Games and, most notably, the mind of Jamey Stegmaier — the creator of Viticulture and Scythe, among others. As far as I am aware, Charterstone is the first Stonemaier game to feature a comprehensive legacy system that unfolds over the course of multiple games. Whilst some legacy games are effectively over once the campaign ends and others become considerably less interesting at that point, Charterstone is built to offer a compelling experience once all the development is done. It also features a dual-sided board and Stonemaier have already released a “Recharge Pack” which lets players start the whole campaign anew, should they wish.
Whilst I must admit that I am yet to be disappointed by a Stonemaier Games product to date, I was still unusually impressed by Charterstone right from the outset. The box is nicely proportioned but heavy, and inside you’ll find a literal (well, almost literal) ton of cardboard, wood and metal. From the beautiful, soft artwork that links every component to the tiny wooden bricks and lumps of coal, Charterstone is a beautiful thing to unbox, with absolutely no component letting the side down.
The initial feeling of overproduction soon gives way to one of pleasant surprise, as you notice the first trick Charterstone has up its sleeve. Simply put, that trick is stickers: hundreds of them. The manual asks you to draw numbered cards from an index that houses just over four hundred of them (in a very specific order) and you’re asked to peel the faces of some of them, affixing them to specific slots. We’ve seen this kind of thing before in Pandemic Legacy and a couple of other titles, but that’s not even scratching the surface of what Charterstone uses stickers for. Spoiling much more wouldn’t be fair even with a disclaimer, so I’ll just say this: all those buildings that populate the board? They are also stickers and come from cards, most of which then remain in play as crates for later use.
Indeed, any card with a building on it is called an “Unconstructed Building Card”. When a player uses an action to build the building shown, he or she peels off the sticker and places it on the board, then retains the card as a “Constructed Building Card” if it has a crate shown on it. A separate action then allows that player to open the crate, which results in drawing more cards from the index and unlocking more powerful buildings, character specialisations (called Personas) and other, more exciting features which might even involve rummaging through some of the sealed boxes Charterstone also contains.
Whilst placing buildings and opening crates are two of the most rewarding ways to progress and score points in Charterstone, placing workers to take those actions are just two of the many, many options available to players as the board develops. There are also shared objectives to work toward, enhancement cards to purchase and five different kinds of resources to generate, not to mention cold, hard cash (which is actually metal, as if the components weren’t already impressive enough). Taking specific actions advances reputation and progress tracks, whilst (as you can probably imagine), buildings become more and more powerful as new cards are introduced.
Charterstone has a wonderful way of introducing increasingly complex mechanics, rules and engines, even allowing players to stick new buildings over their existing ones (with a few exceptions) which adds further layering to the decision making. When I reviewed Viticulture, I noted that several players found it too complex to understand and build an efficient engine. In Charterstone, one of those same players remained entirely comfortable throughout thanks to experiencing the journey from having one or two decisions to having twenty or more, albeit with a much better insight of what benefit each one had on their chances of winning.
Because Charterstone is a six-player game about building a village divided into six charters, it’s no surprise that each player is limited to their own section. A very welcome feature in Charterstone is that it features two ways in which unoccupied charters can develop in the absence of a human player. One involves the placement of random buildings drawn from the shared enhancements pool, which in itself grows in most games thanks to a smart limit on the number of cards that players can carry from one game to the next. The other, more involved (but more powerful) method is to use the separate Automa rulebook, which lets even solo players compete with up to five AI opponents. I haven’t tried the Automa rules in anger, but having read the rules and understood the rest of the game, I can see how they could certainly make for an interesting solo challenge.
Even though the likely order of buildings revealed by the players in each charter is somewhat predetermined (less so the longer the game goes on), each game of Charterstone is fairly quick and punchy. I found it less consistently capable of producing complex victory point engines than Viticulture (and many other worker placement games), but Charterstone is also more immediately gratifying. Scoring a notable number of victory points (three or five) is achievable with relatively few steps and there are a number of ways to enhance and improve action sequences in iterations. For example, certain personas offer bonuses to taking a particular action, as do assistants, whilst some buildings offer the same outcome as base actions with either a lower input or a bonus output. Making the most of these bonuses in individual games is a lot of fun, but for the more strategic thinkers among you…
…there are the campaign features to consider, which are mostly awesome. Creating point-scoring engines for the late game is even more satisfying than winning individual games, especially considering the bonuses and effects for winning are relatively modest. From the second game onward, players may only keep one resource or coin, one enhancement card and one of another kind of bonus depending on what crates have been opened, but by scoring glory (which is a calculation of total victory points at the end of each game) it is possible to upgrade your storage options.
There are lots of other thoughtful features to keep the campaign fresh and interesting — using different personas yields more endgame points than using the same one over and over again and hoarded enhancement cards are always placed back into the shared pool to be drawn in the next game. There are also some very interesting mechanics introduced through story cards and in the hidden boxes the game contains, although I don’t really want to spoil anything more than I already have on that front.
I suppose the only challenge I have encountered with Charterstone is understanding exactly where it fits in terms of a target market. It has the kind of beautiful, cartoonish artwork that could appeal to anyone and it is certainly less heavy than a number of other worker placement games I’ve played, even though players with long term vision will do better in the end. Demanding that a casual audience work their way through twelve games is quite an ask, even if those games can be as short as sixty minutes each once everyone is up to speed. The Automa rules could be used to stand in for an absent player on one or two occasions, which leads me to think that Charterstone might be intended as a legacy game anyone can dive into.
From the gorgeous art and incredible component quality to the simple-to-learn gameplay and steady introduction of new rules and features, Charterstone is a well-made and thoughtful game. Its looks tie in with the story, which matches beautifully with the cooperative yet competitive theme of building a thriving village under the watchful eyes of a demanding and temperamental king. As a result, whilst I recognise that Charterstone might not appeal to the hardest of hardcore board gamers, I think it’s more likely to appeal to their non-gamer friends.
It’s unfair to say that Charterstone is a gateway legacy game, but it is at least that and often much more. It offers some of the most carefully considered and rewarding legacy concepts I’ve ever seen, whilst the basic worker placement features remain at least on par with what is expected from the genre, even if the variable nature of building placement limits the complexity of the potential engines slightly. Never mind that, though — if you want to have a laugh with your pals and the idea of a legacy game has piqued your interest, then Charterstone is a very solid choice.