Charterstone is the first legacy-style board game from Jamey Stegmaier’s Stonemaier Games, known for the hit strategy game Scythe. It’s a worker-placement game that evolves, telling a story over 12 linked games. But, after six playthroughs with a dedicated group of five, I’m finding it to be more clever than coherent. While its systems are both intricate and engaging, they can be tedious at times. More concerning is that the narrative seems spread on a bit too thin.
At first glance, Charterstone looks like a childish thing. Bright-eyed, bubble-headed characters compete with a lush green board scattered with floating islands. When I opened the box I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a Golden Book or an anime. The game tells the story of the kingdom of Greengully, ruled over for centuries by the mysterious Forever King. Players take on the role of settlers, each with a particular set of skills hand-selected to colonize a remote village.
Throughout each game, players take turns moving their worker pawns around the board to gather resources and build out the village. Over time, players will earn new abilities, called personas, that impact how they score victory points. But those personas are just a small part of the game. Every player at the table will need to build their own engine out of disparate elements, with more mechanics being added and tweaked as the campaign goes on.
For instance, my corner of the village excels at the production of metals, while other corners of the map produce clay or pumpkins or coal. In the early games, I used my metal to construct new buildings, earn income and gain favor with the Forever King. But things get more complicated from there. It’s hard to get into the specifics without ruining the joy of the legacy system, which introduces new themes and mechanics over time. As in Scythe, there are multiple complex systems that fit together like gears.
Knowing which gear to turn, from round to round and game to game, will allow you to get the most out of your territories. Unfortunately, that also means the game plays a bit like multiplayer solitaire at times. It’s a failure of many games in the worker placement genre, and Charterstone is not immune.
One of the problems with Scythe, as originally designed, was its pacing. It often felt that the game ended suddenly and without warning. Legacy-style games have their own issues with pacing, mostly in how they deliver new information to players over time.
Introducing new rules too quickly can add too much of a cognitive load for the players at the table, while also exposing threads of the game’s overall narrative or strategic layers before players have the wherewithal to prepare for them. Charterstone effectively abdicates the designer’s role to moderate that pacing in the early games, leaving it up to players to unlock its secrets in their own time.
The manual seems to recognize this as a flaw, and takes time to give special instructions that players should go slow in the early games. But, given that one of the easiest scoring mechanics is to unlock those secrets, that’s easier said than done.
Effectively, players are admonished not to reveal Charterstone’s secrets too quickly. At the same time, they are rewarded for churning through them as fast as possible. That’s evidence, in my mind at least, that the game is not properly balanced.
The production quality of the game is, however, excellent. It includes metal coins as standard, along with dozens of wooden bits. Each player has their own tuck box, which they’ll fill with resources that carry over from game to game. There’s also a magnetic tuck box crammed with a stack of more than 400 cards. Throughout the course of the game, players will use these and other bits to augment the game board, add to their abilities and gain boons. Charterstone’s stickers and scratch-off cards are all very high-quality. What would otherwise be a collection of fiddly parts stands up well from game to game.
So far, I’m only enjoying Charterstone in fits and starts. After about 12 hours at the table, give or take, I can feel my corner of the map becoming more powerful. I have a plan for how I’m going to tackle our seventh game, and more and more options are opening up for me on the fly. But at the same time, there’s a growing sense of tediousness with it all.
Take that stack of 400 legacy cards, for instance. To figure out which ones to add to the game at any given moment requires that you read from a spreadsheet. Early on we were reading it wrong, which meant we added a few things we shouldn’t have and had to try and roll the game back a few rounds to make amends. Screwing up like that makes a big difference in the overall campaign, since players score points that carry over from game to game.
There’s just so much to keep track of in Charterstone. It seemed like in every single session, someone at the table was doing something fundamentally wrong. Sitting down to begin a game each week starts with at least a partial refresh of the most basic rules, and a considerable amount of time spent teasing out its nuances before we begin.
Most troubling, however, is how the game’s theme is applied over time. Charterstone promises a branching storyline, and in our campaign at least the Forever King has become a fairly ominous figure. But we’re halfway through the campaign and I still have no idea what’s going on. It feels like Charterstone is being too coy with what it holds back, and I wonder if that reticence to reveal itself will pay off in the end. Only time will tell.
One thing to note about Charterstone is that it is a rechargeable game. With most legacy-style games, you can only play through it once, and many consumers find that irritating. SeaFall solved the problem by degrees in making the final map replayable any number of times, but Stonemaier has gone further with Charterstone. The standard game board is double-sided. Once you’ve used up all the stickers and other components that come with the game, you can buy a new pack of them for around $30, flip the board over and begin again.
In the end, I’m still on the fence about Charterstone. Now that my group is over the hurdles of the early game, and we’re up to speed with most of its complexities, things are running relatively smoothly. But I’m still waiting for the story to make its turn and get its hooks into me.
Is Charterstone a breakout hit like Scythe? Almost certainly not. Is it an excellent worker-placement game? Absolutely.