Charterstone – Review (Spoiler-Free)
Thanks to Stonemaier Games for providing this copy of Charterstone for review.
If you’d like to read our initial thoughts after the first 5 sessions with Charterstone, click here.
Charterstone has proven to be a difficult game to reflect back on and review. There’s no doubt that the sense of discovery and the thrill of change constantly drew me back in and left me curious about what else waited for me within its chest of secrets, but I often questioned whether it was solely that feeling bringing me back or whether I was truly hooked on the gameplay itself. Charterstone is a fun and unique take on the legacy format, but it falls short of other games in the genre, such as Pandemic: Legacy. However, it still does a lot of things right and at times left me pleasantly surprised and amused by what I found hidden inside the box. And really, isn’t that how you want to feel when diving into an experience like this?
I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling any of the secrets so that you can hopefully experience them all for yourself, but I’ll be alluding to a few of these hidden items in a general sense, without giving away any specifics. If even this sounds like too much for you, either skip ahead to my verdict at the bottom of the page, or wait until you’re further into the game and have uncovered most of these elements for yourself.
ARTWORK AND COMPONENTS
This is one area that Charterstone shines. The quality of the components and their organization in the box is top notch. Stonemaier Games is known for their meticulous attention to detail in this regard, and this is no exception. The components you’ll unlock are a joy to admire and there’s even a surprise component waiting that I can honestly say I’ve never opened in a board game box before.
The artwork is equally detailed and very cheerful. Each building you unlock has its own unique design and I spent a lot of time just admiring each one as I unlocked them, often laughing at their implementation. The Persona cards also offer a lot of charm although as we neared the 12th game, the excitement over their art started to wane. There are only 6 characters and all of those illustrations are just repeated with a different outfit on to match the persona. This wasn’t a huge issue and I completely understand the design choice, but as you progress it becomes more noticeable.
There are hundreds of Advancement cards and whether they’re actual characters or objects, they’re all wonderfully drawn and all fit within this world. It never stopped being fun to discover the other unlockable cards due to the artwork.
Charterstone is such a unique type of legacy game. Think of a semi-complex worker placement game you’ve played, and imagine if each of the worker spots were gradually added to the game over 12 sessions. Imagine if the deck of cards in a game like A Feast for Odin started with only 10 cards available and you slowly added more and more to the deck as you went. That’s basically Charterstone. You create a worker placement game as you go. That concept alone is super intriguing and ambitious.
The discovery and slow build of the board, decks and components was by far my favourite concept in Charterstone. I was constantly intrigued and excited to flesh everything out and expand upon what the game had to offer. This is the main feature that kept bringing me back and I can safely say I never grew tired of that aspect over the course of the 12 sessions.
The game also has a great engine-building type of system going on. Since you control which buildings you construct in your charter, you quickly realize you can create a little engine for yourself that usually only you will be able to utilize to its full potential. Several mechanics incentivize you to stay within your charter, or punish others for venturing into it, and creating a smart engine or desirable set of buildings can really shape the outcome of each game.
However, there are some nagging flaws with this system. First, because you unlock new mechanics as you go, the base game at the start of Charterstone is noticeably less interesting than the game it becomes. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, but by the time we reached the halfway point, I had a strong desire to unlock more and more mechanics to make the game more complex and create more opportunities for scoring points and jockeying for position with my opponent.
Speaking of opponents, another unique aspect of Charterstone is that it isn’t cooperative, it’s competitive. While I have no problem with that concept, often times Charterstone feels like a cooperative game that you have to remind yourself is competitive. Much of the fun comes from unlocking new stuff, so I was just as excited and anxious for my opponent to unlock new components as I was for me to do so. There was actual incentive for me not to prevent my opponent from unlocking crates, because I legitimately wanted him to succeed so we could find new things. The competitive aspects almost feel like they take a backseat, which might not seem like a huge issue, but it sometimes devalued the scoring track and made the game more about just finishing the session rather than winning.
The base game at the start of Charterstone is noticeably less interesting than the game it becomes.
Another issue we ran into is that because there’s no set order to how you unlock new game components, several of them only became available on session 10 or 11. These components were added into the Advancement deck, which was already massive at this point, and then we never encountered many of these new cards at all before finishing our 12th and final session. Charterstone was made to be played even after the 12 campaign sessions are complete, but it’s hard to deny that the main draw revolves around these, and having these interesting elements never be utilized is kind of a drag.
I suspect your experience with Charterstone will vastly differ depending on the player count. We completed all 12 sessions with a group of 2 people, and because of this, games were quicker and unlocks were less frequent. Several of our issues, especially those involving not unlocking certain new mechanics until late, were directly affected by our player count. If you can get a full group of 6, or even 5, and play all 12 sessions with that group, you’ll likely have far more fun with Charterstone. One particular twist, which comes into play for a single session, would’ve been wildly more tense and hilarious if we had 6 people rather than 2.
For almost the entirety of our Charterstone campaign, I had fun. The thrill of unlocking content always put a smile on our faces, and our charters ended up being different enough from one another that it was fun to see the different strategies and engines being employed and how we were each using them to gain points.
However, the earlier games of Charterstone were definitely more exciting than the later ones. The last couple felt like they were running out of steam.
Some aspects of the base rules never quite felt that fun or interactive, such as the reputation track. I appreciated that it was another way to score points and another scale you had to balance, but its implementation felt like it was just…there. I would add a couple markers to the reputation track, usually while trying to accomplish other tasks entirely, and whether I was in first or second, the small difference in points rarely ever mattered. This is another example of where the player count can have a big effect on the experience, as with 6 players, scoring 0 points here would be a big loss and thus, there would be more incentive to stay active on the track. With 2 players, it was sort of an afterthought.
Likewise, the Progress track served its function as a means to determine when the game ends, but did little else for us. In our campaign, we didn’t unlock a purpose for the Income circles until very late in the campaign and even then, we were rarely able to utilize them to much of their potential. And the reputation bonuses, for the reasons stated above, never felt significant enough to justify moving the progress track at specific times.
Also, I wasn’t the biggest fan of how late we were finally introduced to the way the campaign scoring would work at the end. I would’ve much preferred being given that full breakdown earlier on and being able to see the full scope of the concept, “lose the battle, but win the war”. If both of our overall campaign victory conditions had been different from each other and more varied, and we could’ve used that information to have more competitive games in the interim.
A big draw with Charterstone is supposed to be the fact that it doesn’t end after 12 games; it’s a legacy game that you can play after you’ve finished. While I love the idea and appreciate the intention, I never felt all that compelled to return to Charterstone once the campaign was over. The concept of creating your own, unique worker placement game as you go is brilliant, but for me, the game we ended up with after 12 sessions doesn’t hold a candle to the other worker placement games in my collection, and thus, if I’m looking to scratch that particular itch, I’m not turning to Charterstone. That being said, I know people who feel overwhelmed by worker placement games and I’ve often thought that with Charterstone’s overall aesthetic and relatively simple game mechanics, all things considered, this might be a great option to ease them into the genre.
Even though I didn’t find any longevity with Charterstone after the campaign, the campaign itself still gave me lots of mileage. Each session took 45-75 minutes, which is right around 12 hours of gameplay. There are some board games in my collection I’ve never played for 12 hours and still deem them as having great value, so it’s hard to knock Charterstone when it gives a heck of a lot to work with over its campaign.
To echo my initial thoughts: reviewing Charterstone was a challenge. There’s no doubt that I enjoyed my time with it, but there are definite flaws that kept it from holding a lasting place in my memories in the way Pandemic: Legacy did. The concepts in Charterstone are ambitious, for sure, and although they’re hit or miss, when they hit, they’re an absolute joy. Your continued interest will rely heavily on the sense of discovery and the call of the unknown. After having played the full campaign with only one other player, I’d recommend you attempt to gather a larger group that will meet consistently, as your experience will be more enjoyable, and some of the elements I found dull or frustrating will actually be much more positive with more players.
Nonetheless, Charterstone is a very unique legacy game and one I’m thoroughly glad I was able to experience. I recommend it to anyone who loves the feeling of unlocking new content in legacy games and watching the game evolve as you go. In that regard, Charterstone hits the mark. It’s just not quite a bullseye.