Oct 18

We Built This City – A Review of Charterstone

Quick Board Game Reviews That Pack a Punch. No Rules, Just Opinions. 

The prosperous Kingdom of Greengully, ruled for centuries by the Forever King, has issued a decree to its
citizens to colonize the vast lands beyond its borders. In an effort to start a new village, the Forever King has selected
six citizens for the task, each of whom has a unique set of skills they use to build their charter.

In Charterstone, a competitive legacy game, you construct buildings and populate a shared village. Building
stickers are permanently added to the game board and become action spaces for any player to use. Thus,
you start off with simple choices and few workers, but soon you have a bustling village with dozens of possible

Your journey through Charterstone’s many secrets will last twelve games, but it doesn’t end there. Your
completed village will be a one-of-a-kind worker-placement game with plenty of variability.


Much like other legacy games, Charterstone is a game that changes and progresses based on player choices over a set number of games. For some reason I expected it to have a strong narrative that ratcheted up tension between games, and every decision to have life or death consequences…thanks Pandemic Legacy! It’s not that at all. You and your fellow players start out with a directive from the Forever King to go colonize a new land. From there your collective choices on which buildings you construct, crates you open, and responses to the Forever King’s edicts will reveal different paths and engines to compete for the highest score. This is a new take on worker placement that puts a ton control into the player's hands by letting us create the actions that are available during the games without all of the Pandemic Legacy PTSD.
I’ll cut right to the chase: Charterstone is a quite different type of legacy game than your previous experiences have established. Though you will see changes in rules and components like in other games of this ilk, it charts its own course by leaning on mechanics rather than narrative, so you won’t experience the roller coaster highs or moments of dread that other legacy titles such as Pandemic Legacy and Seafall evoke. The central conceit is building a village worthy of favor from the mysterious Forever King, so Charterstone has players constructing buildings on the map that provide resources and other benefits for a cost when a worker is sent there. It’s an organically mutating worker placement game with a board that evolves in weird and wonderful ways as buildings are added.

At it’s core, it’s just a worker placement game. You get 2 workers and a limited number of action spaces to fight over. In what seems to be a Stonemaier hallmark, the actions aren’t really blocked when taken. You are allowed to bump a player from them, but to do so makes their worker available to place on that player’s next turn. Once all of your workers are placed you must take a turn to retrieve them, so every placement is an exercise in creating efficiency and it’s especially useful getting another player to bump you. As you progress during a game more options will become available. If you are clever you can build effective engines by getting resources, changing it into something else and then using it to score points. But you can’t rely on what you do this game because the board is in a constant state of flux and you only have control over your charter. While the first game or two is a familiar dance, it soon becomes a multiperson tango with each player trying to take the proper steps to finish with the most points.

Charterstone may be the most tactical worker placement game I’ve ever played. As each game progresses, it pulls out more plates for our amusement and somehow keeps them all spinning in the air to our delight. Each crate card you open will put more stuff into the game, and each game you play will have a unique, tiny rules tweak. Most of these additions and tweaks create interesting decisions, and some simply create extra work; one had me rolling my eyes at first but led to the most tension-filled game I’ve played in the campaign. You have your own individual plot of land to develop so you always have a measure of control in building your engine, but the randomness of the advancement card draws can point you in a completely different direction, making you tinker on the fly. Each round offers players a guidepost, similar to an objective card in Pandemic Legacy, that will give players a chance to earn an extra glory by fulfilling certain achievements. Along with guideposts, quotas will let you turn in excess stuff for points, and the reputation track will reward you for being influential, so there are several options outside of your engine to score.

Theme is not essential for me to like a game. It’s a fun add-on that can enrich the experience, but most times it’s the gameplay that matters. I did feel a strange disappointment in the lack of a Pandemic Legacy style narrative. The story elements so far have felt like random choices that haven’t made much sense to me. There are many elements of the game that we get to name including our charter, but it hasn’t made me feel more connected to Charterstone. If anything I have abandoned any attempts to understand the story and focused solely on just playing the game. Once I did I was able to appreciate it for what it is, which is a very dynamic worker placement game that melded a good amount of strategic and tactical thinking. With all of the opportunities it provides, maybe you can make the Charterstone world come alive, but I am fine without some overwrought and stressful narrative.
As I mentioned earlier, Charterstone is largely absent of narrative drama. It won’t have you on the edge of your seat, as the tiny story bites you do get are closer to flavor text than an actual plot. Theme is not its strong suit, which is something I really struggled with on my first few plays. After the plot twists and shocking moments of Seafall and Pandemic Legacy, the small snippets of story Charterstone was providing felt largely inconsequential. I was surprised at my early reaction, as I appreciate thematic games but a rich theme is usually not necessary for me to have a good time. But after about 6-7 games, I was finally able to come to grips with the fact that Charterstone is just an entirely different beast in the legacy game genre.

The art in Charterstone is fun and whimsical and in perfect step with the evolving gameplay. When I saw the box art it reminded me of a Studio Ghibli world with the fantastical revealed around every corner. After playing, it’s more like Munchkin Country from Wizard of Oz. It’s cute, engaging, and very appealing to look at. Both Mr Cuddington and Gong Studios have a nice track record and a good quality and sense of style. The closest analogy is the style of Santorini, which I think most people will like.

There is no place for grim and gritty in the land of Charterstone, sporting a charming story book aesthetic that fits its fairy tale theme. Everything has a lush, bright, shiny cartoon look -- even the coal mines! Buildings and people are rendered in a sort of isometric view with clean lines and bold colors a bit reminiscent of 16-bit RPG artwork, but without the pixelation. Icons are clear and easy to read, but some of the items in the box can be hard to distinguish for folks with a bit of color blindness. It’s oh so pretty, but I must admit I preferred the original title treatment artwork, which had a more construction-y, tinker toy motif.

I think the quality of Stonemaier Games is top notch, and this game is no exception. I feel like they analyzed legacy games, took what works, and improved what didn’t. Having the stickers for rules and buildings on the cards you reveal is smart, even though I have a heck of a time trying to peel them off. I love that they created a double sided board and a recharge pack to make the game playable a second time. On top of that if you get the Stonemaier’s component upgrades, it adds even more to an already high production value. So for a $70 MSRP for the game and $30 for the Recharge Pack, it’s a great value. Basically you get 24 games for $100.

Oooooooh metal coins! When it comes to value in gameplay and components, Stonemaier Games delivers. A $70 MSRP is toward the higher side but you get lovely artwork, a big ol’ stack of stickers, a pile of cards, quality wooden resources and the aforementioned metal coins. You will probably get about 15 hours of play out of the game which seems like a pretty good value to me. And if you want to play the campaign again, to try out a different charter and see how the board design shifts in different directions, you can get a recharge pack which includes all the stuff you destroyed in your first playthrough. Your first inclination is probably, “why the hell would I want to play a legacy game again?” and I would reply, “Unlike other legacy games, there aren’t really any shocking story moments that tilt the game in a drastically different direction in which experienced Charterstone gamers could decidedly take advantage,” and you would say, “Oh, ok.” So (busts out calculator) you’re looking at $100 for 30-ish hours of gaming, which you can’t beat with a stick.

After we finished each game, I wavered on my rating, and it has been driving me nuts. What does it mean that I can’t quite get a read on my play experience? My struggles with Charterstone have much to do with the legacy format. I don’t like having to play the same game over and over and because of this review we played 9 times over 2 weeks. Normally I would’ve taken more time, but if I had, would I have been able to remember all the actions available on the board or my strategy between games? Probably not, but I do think Stonemaier did a good job on giving you a save method. You may not remember why you saved what you did, but you will have plenty of clues based on what’s there and after a few minutes reviewing the board, it hasn’t been too bad a process to get reacquainted. The lack of a strong story has made me feel the repetitive nature of the legacy format more intensely. There are moments of boredom and sometimes the analysis paralysis can be tiresome, especially my own. I mean I have played this game 9 times already and I should know what to do by now. So here is what I think all of this means. Charterstone is a legacy game for more of the euro-crowd. While there are random elements and at times a lack of control, there are plenty of ways to mitigate it too. I think we have had some games that have been more exciting than others, but overall I’d say that Charterstone has a high floor more than a high ceiling. I like the additive approach to gameplay and its worker placement roots. I think the thoughtfulness of the design is apparent, and Stonemaier has created a great legacy game. Maybe by game 12, I might rate this different but for today it’s a strong 4. I don’t love legacy games, but I like this one quite a bit.
By sacrificing story for mechanics, Charterstone skillfully avoids the murky depths of Seafall but can’t quite achieve the feverish highs of Pandemic Legacy. It’s a solid production like we’ve come to expect from Stonemaier Games. Euro fans will really dig the hot worker placement action on the constantly evolving board, but may be cooled by the ever present randomness. Fortunately, it never sinks to the “flip a card, get punched in the stomach for 6 turns” issues that Seafall has. I must confess, this was a really hard review for me to begin writing. After our first couple of plays, I discovered Charterstone wasn’t what I thought it would be, which was a story driven experience weaving us through highs and lows, twists and turns, eventually guiding us to a triumphant climax. And though the mechanics were interesting, I was pretty unimpressed, leaning toward a rating of 3. But as we progressed, more stuff came out that altered the game in interesting ways, and created several tough decisions. And, as I am sometimes slow on the uptake, it finally dawned on me that Charterstone isn’t a story game. It uses the legacy structure to organically generate a thoughtful, heady, worker placement game, one capable of generating its own interesting meta in each unique campaign. Though we still have three more games to play before we learn if the Forever King finds us worthy, Charterstone has certainly risen in my esteem to a rating of 5.

The Dukes of Dice Rating System
1 = Poorly designed but playable. Not necessarily fun.
2 = Game has some merit but has significant detractions.
3 = Game is okay, not exciting. Will play in the right situation.
4 = A good game. Worth playing, just not all the time. Belongs in the Duchy.
5 = A great game, will rarely turn down a play of it.
6 = An all-time favorite that is a contender for the top 10

If you want to connect with us you can find:

Matthew on Twitter as @uncouthtooth or matthew@dukesofdice.com

Matt on Twitter as @matosowalker

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