Charterstone makes its distinctive mark on legacy boardgaming

, | Game reviews

The Charterstone box is a nearly perfect expression of the experience of playing. It’s mostly blank. An empty sky. There’s nothing there. It’s unpainted. A canvas. Or rather, it doesn’t even exist yet. Not a void that has swallowed stuff, but an immaculate space waiting for your contribution. Oh, look, there’s a little patch of artwork on one side. A tiny zeppelin hovers over some crates. There are two quaint and assuming buildings behind it. This is how your game of Charterstone will begin. Twelve games later… Well, I’ll get to that in a sec.

I’m skeptical about the whole legacy concept. Games can create and maintain persistent states just fine without having doo-dads sealed in boxes or stickers closed behind perforated advent calendar doors or my sloppy writing in indelible marker on the main board or instructions to rip cards in half. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game or the Arkham Horror living card game accomplish the same stakes as any legacy game by simply arranging decks of cards across multiple playthroughs. Swords and Sorcery or Imperial Assault are both tactical dungeon crawls that let you level up characters over multiple game sessions without defacing anything. Even Gloomhaven does most of its persistence by keeping discrete stacks of cards. Putting the stickers on the board to represent unlocked locations is nothing more than a pointless boondoggle.

But the moment you open the box, it’s clear that Charterstone’s presentation as a legacy game is beyond reproach. Pandemic Legacy introduces itself with a bewildering handful of boards and dossiers and sticker sheets and mini boxes. As you play, you’ll add more sticker sheets of varying size to the box. Where’s that sheet with the new skills on it? Weren’t there new skills for the characters? No, those are the stickers for cities on the board. The perforated openings in the boxes stick out like jeering tongues. Oops, you were supposed to leave that box in a state so you could close it again. No one would ever accuse Pandemic Legacy of being elegant.

But that’s the overriding sensibility from the moment you lift the top off the Charterstone box. Elegance. The boxes inside fit perfectly. Every card has a box. The discards have a box. Each player has a box. Every piece lives someplace clearly labeled. Precise and specific. It’s like coming into a carefully prepped hotel room, calculated to look orderly and welcoming. Even if you don’t remember how the boxes inside Charterstone fit together, they’re one of those marvels of geometry that finds its way back into a perfect square. Putting Charterstone up is the very picture of order falling into place. There are no sticker sheets left lying around or ugly ripped boxes or advent calendar flaps. The unlockables live mostly in a stately white box with a magnetic flap that shuts with a mild whump. The locked cards are clearly and unobtrusively numbered in the corner so that you can pull card 159 without seeing any of card 160. If only all legacy games could be this tidy. It’s enough to bring a legacy doubter around!

But as a worker placement game, I can’t say there’s anything exceptional about Charterstone beyond the legacy element. You can trace of few of the stronger design elements to developer Jamey Stegmaier’s earlier games, Euphoria and Scythe. In those games, each player has a limited number of stars to place onto various objectives. When someone runs out of stars, the game is over. There’s a similar mechanic as a fundamental part of Charterstone. Each player gets 12 influence tokens. You can spend these as resources, but you also use them to claim cards or spaces on the board. Unlike the stars in the earlier games, they’re resources as well as markers. In fact, the only real blocking in Charterstone is done with these influence tokens, which can be put into a couple of areas with limited space. But unlike the stars in Euphoria and Scythe, running out of influence doesn’t slam the game shut. Running out of influence accelerates the game clock, however, so now everyone knows you’re in the final stretch. And if you’re the player without influence tokens, you can no longer do some of the things you want to do, because you don’t have the influence token to mark that you’ve done it. Also, certain important ties are decided by who’s holding the most influence at the end of the game. So how are you going to use your 12 influence? And when? As an exercise in making the best of a limited pool, Charterstone stands out. And the way it works in the early games of the legacy campaigns isn’t quite the way it works in the later games. You’ll see.

Also carried over from Euphoria and Scythe are quick and simple player turns. Place one worker. You’re done, next player. Except that if you have no more workers to place, you spend your turn bringing all your workers back. You’re done, next player. That’s all there is to a turn. Better than most other developers, Stegmaier gets pacing. And because there’s no blocking — another smart mechanic that makes Euphoria one of my favorite worker placement games — there’s no reason you can’t figure out your turn before it gets around to you again. Charterstone is a snappy little affair.

As the box art promises, the Charterstone board is a whole lot of blank space when you sit down to play the first game in the legacy campaign. Here’s what it looks like out of the box, before the first game:

Here’s what it’s going to look like:

Each player gets a generous slice of the board, which is his or her “charter” (the stone is the die you roll when you need to randomly determine a charter or player). The middle area is the commons, where you’ll find basic actions related to filling out the board and unlocking new rules.

Although it’s listed as a game for 1-6 players, with a deck of cards that advance a dummy player up the victory point track at a variable rate, it’s really not for 1-6 players. I wouldn’t recommend this as a solo game any more than I’d recommend Scythe, which also has a deck of cards to control a dummy player. Charterstone really really wants you to have six players. And it really wants each of them to be around for all 12 games in the campaign. Which is what you should expect from a legacy game. It belongs to the six players who started. They should see it through, especially when it’s a competitive game like Charterstone, where only one of them will win in the end. It should be played by players who care how they’re doing, what changes they’re making to the board, what changes they’re making to their resources and workers and cards. Handing an absent player’s faction over to someone else feels weird. It’s like playing someone else’s character in an RPG. Or using someone else’s toothbrush.

The RPG comparison is probably the most apt, because as you’re playing Charterstone, you’re advancing your faction and its patch of land. Your charter on the board, and your holdings as a player are different from everyone else’s, and they’re developing from game to game. In fact, the reason you want victory points isn’t necessarily to win. You want victory points because every ten victory points lets you fill in a star on the box that holds your stuff. Fill in a row of stars and you unlock an advantage at the start of the game. A free resource, free money, a free card, a free worker. It’s like a character earning a new skill in an RPG.

You also level up your carrying capacity from one game to the next. After the game has been played, the scores tallied, and the xp stars checked off, don’t put everything away just yet! Now you get to decide what things to carry over to the start of the next game. Which resources, which workers, which cards. You also get cards with unique gameplay tweaks. No one else gets those. They’re characters you can name. They’re tweaks only you can use. Your box with its stash of goodies, unique gameplay tweaking characters, and starting bonus is something unique. You leveled it up. You made this, you named it, it is yours. Charterstone is legacy gaming at its best.

For the most part, the factions are identified by their resources: iron, coal, grain, bricks, lumber, and pumpkins. But as the game progresses, you might lose ownership of your resource. With new buildings representing new spaces for worker placement, the resource model expands widely, overlaps, criss-crosses, sometimes even repeats. You could even say it gets sloppy. Where can I get grain? In the grain charter of course, but look, I can also get it here, and there, and of course from that place that gives me any resource. As the board fills in, any sense of order goes out the window, and as new systems are folded into the game, players have different amounts of control over parts of those systems. This is a worker placement game with 42 different actions available to you every turn. Yep. 42.

What’s more, it’s possible to shut down things that you control. Ideally, if you’re the grain charter, you want to make grain valuable. But there are viable reasons to make things you control scarce. Eventually, you can affect the board — and therefore the economy — in a new way. Suffice to say, the stickers are not the final word. Every game of Charterstone will have a variable set up. It makes a potentially messy game even messier. I’ve gotten through entire games without realizing I could have done something more efficient if I’d just noticed that building was in play. 42 spaces will give you a lot of options. It might even give you too many options.

And here’s the thing that’s not so much a criticism of Charterstone as it’s a criticism of the genre: there isn’t much interaction with the other players. When Stegmaier takes the blocking out of worker placement, he also takes out the fundamental interaction. In a normal worker placement game, you choose a space either because it does something you want, or because it does something someone else wants and you don’t want them to have it. Worker placement players should be looking askance at each other, caring very much about where they put their pieces. The frustration of being blocked is integral to worker placement and it’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan of the genre. Unless we’re fighting a war, I prefer interaction that isn’t just a matter of ruining each other’s economies for want of a piece of flax.

But Stegmaier flipped the script with Euphoria and now with Charterstone. There is (almost) no blocking. If you want to do an action where another player has already put a piece, go for it. Feel free. We can all do that action whenever we want! However, when you put your piece down, the other player gets his piece back. Now he has an extra worker, and therefore an extra action, before he has to spend a turn taking all his workers off the board. In Euphoria and Charterstone, you don’t get blocked. Instead, you help the person who would have blocked you. Stegmaier turns a negative — you can’t do what you wanted to do — into a positive — you gave one of your opponents a little boost. Early on in Charterstone, you’ll unlock a mechanic that pushes this dynamic even further, and it evolves in a gratifying way as the games progress. It’s a fundamental part of Charterstone’s charm and interaction.

However, this is still very much a multiplayer solitaire game, where we mostly have our noses down in our own economies. I’m interacting with other players only by helping them from time to time, and it’s usually by accident on both our parts. It’s the equivalent of occasionally passing each other on the street and giving each other little gifts. The interaction I look for in a boardgame is more like the interaction in Scythe, which has a territory control element, but more importantly a psychological dance around the thresholds of a score multiplier (you’re not truly playing Scythe until you’re playing mind games with the popularity track). But Scythe isn’t a worker placement game, so it lends itself more to direct and contentious interaction with everyone else at the table. Because Charterstone is so friendly, because we’re helping each other when we would normally be blocking each other, and because our victory points are mostly about leveling up our factions, it almost feels cooperative. There is a minor exception when we’re trading direct licks, but it doesn’t come into play until the next to last game in the campaign.

Of course, I don’t want to spoil any of the new developments added by the legacy system. Many of the developments are surprising, a couple are exciting, a couple are baffling. One of the systems in the game feels so underdeveloped that I had to go back and check the choices we didn’t unlock to see if we missed something. We didn’t. It’s just a strangely integrated system that never saw much use. Our group also felt this way about one of the types of cards. They clogged up the pool of available cards because no one wanted them.

After playing the 12-game campaign, the intent is that your group is supposed to have their very own worker placement game, uniquely shaped by the choices they made over the course of the campaign. This is certainly true. After 12 campaign games, you’re going to have a board festooned with stickers, and tiles with stickers that can be placed on the board to change it up. But you’re also going to be playing without the two main delights of Charterstone. Namely, building buildings to put stickers on the board, and opening crates to fold new cards and rules into the game. You might have a few dregs left. The rules specify that you can still build those last few buildings and open those last few crates, but they’ll only be incidentals. Charterstone made sure you got all the goodies no matter which choices you made.

But now the once important spaces that used to advance the legacy concept have become nothing more than resource sinks for victory points. The magic is gone. There are no more legacy bits to unlock. No more stickers to apply or new rules to discover. All the presents have been opened. Charterstone is now a chaotic worker placement game with a slapdash economy, Sharpie writing all over its components, and holes where the exciting stuff used to happen. The starting conditions are variable enough that the economy will vary from game to game, but it’s still a crazy shuffle of 42 actions. Pumpkins might be useless one game. They might be all the rage the next. Rats, I didn’t notice that building was in play. Does a worker placement game really benefit from having 42 spaces? It’s all going to feel pretty random. Which raises the question: Would you rather play a game made with intentionality by a game developer or a game cobbled together haphazardly by you and your friends over a couple of months?

That might be an easy question for you either way. It’s certainly easy for me. Without the delight of its surprises, I’m not terribly interested in playing Charterstone anymore. That enthusiasm will have to come from other folks in my group. I suspect it will. They’re not as snooty as I am and just as Stegmaier intended, they’ve developed a sense of attachment to the game and their factions. And even if every game of Charterstone from the 13th on is underwhelming for me, it’s far better than the Pandemic Legacy approach: “Well, you’ve played through all twelve months, so now you might as well chuck your $60 game into the trash!” You play Charterstone to have something to keep, no matter how slapdash. You play so that somewhere along the line, someone can look at a card and ask “Who named this character Sarah Palin?” All that white space in Charterstone, that lovely pristine canvas, has become your group’s personal chaos. Charterstone began as something you own. And that’s precisely what you and your friends will do.

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  • Charterstone

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • The legacy game for people who might be skeptical about legacy games.