We just finished 12 games of a six-player game of Charterstone (it took about 6 months!) This week, we look at the ups and downs of the game and whether it’s worth the major time commitment it asks of its players.
Charterstone is a competitive legacy worker placement game produced by Stonemaier games. Players compete over twelve games to score the most victory points while developing their section of the map with building upgrades that give better options for workers. We played all games with six players. This review is full of spoilers, we have tried to keep the details of unlockables and special events secret, but we really want to get into the strategy of the game, so we need to get specific in parts, you have been warned!
Stand Out Features
Dozens of Worker Placement Options: Each player has six spaces to build buildings which act as places for any player to put workers. Plus, there are six additional "neutral" spaces. So, with six players there are 42 potential spots to put your worker each turn which I think rivals even the heaviest Worker Placement games like Feast for Odin. But Charterstone is a Medium/Light game and the number of positions grows with the players as they get more experienced game-to-game. Unfortunately, this does have the potential to cause very long decisions each turn if players aren’t actively working to keep their turns short.
Permanently Build your Own Village: In most games, when you build your village (which serves as an engine), it lasts only one game. Charterstone introduces the idea that your engine and village can carry over game-to-game. This is pretty neat if your town is executing as designed, but unexpected rules changes and losing important pieces of a combo of buildings can cripple your engine later in the game.
The Index: as you play through the game activating a “Charterstone” enables you to pull cards from the index that get added to your hand. Initially these cards are linked to your territory, but since you can only keep a few cards at the end of each game, you will end up putting some of your cards back into the supply, which in turn other players can steal. This is a unique mechanic that means each game of Charterstone is going to play out a lot differently.
The Guidepost: each game has special Guidepost rules and a goal which makes each session in the 12 games play out slightly differently. These can have very minor effects on the game (mostly the first few games) or major game-changing flips (a couple of the last games.)
What We Liked
Charterstone is at its best in the first 3 games. Players are having fun building multiple structures and unlocking multiple Charterstones in each game. Building a structure is really satisfying and makes you feel like you have accomplished something important towards your overall victory in the game. Opening a Charterstone means unlocking more personalities and eventually new player powers (that everyone has access to), and it’s awesome to see the game unfolding. That said, Charterstone and building is really only a good scoring mechanic in the first half of the campaign, it becomes much less effective later (but we’ll get into that below.)
The game itself is simple worker placement. Put your worker somewhere, pay the cost to take the action, and receive an award. As you unlock more structures, you will have more types of beneficial actions that become available to you.
With six players, we had a lot of fun customizing our village, the cards, and our charters, naming them funny names and some players even drew on the board in marker and printed out special stickers to decorate their charter.
What Could Be Improved
Ultimately only one person in our group of five enjoyed Charterstone all the way through. This is because the last six games were a total drag for our group. While there are lots of neat things that unlock late game, the core gameplay of Charterstoning and Building had largely disappeared by game 7. It was replaced by a rush to focus almost entirely on scoring victory points in order to fill in as many stars on the back of your box. When the final scoring was revealed, it became obvious that whoever had the most stars filled in (these are awarded for every 10 victory points you score in a game), was going to win the game.
We had one player who started to work a combo in his village that was pumping out Victory Points much faster than the other five players. The only way he could be stopped was if two players decided to block his spaces to prevent him from playing his own hexes. This required those two players to effectively concede scoring their own combos and goals, and was unsatisfying.
In my opinion, the game should end at game six. The content has largely been exploited at this point, and there isn’t much fun to be had with the late game. By game 8 - when we realized we weren’t having much fun anymore - we all just wanted to finish the campaign and were driven by the sunk cost fallacy more than an actual desire to enjoy and have fun with the game.
The biggest problem with the late game is a lack of catch-up mechanism for the losing players. There’s a couple mild attempts at implementing one (players that lose get to keep a bit more game-to-game), but a winning player can completely mitigate this by focusing on unlocking the same ability with stars. I think the design should make it harder and harder for a winning players to win more games, instead it gets easier and easier as more star abilities are unlocked on the back of their box.
Our last big problem with the game was that the charters did not seem balanced at all. One charter in particular (steel) seemed to get the best buildings, personalities, and minions. We expected asymmetrical charters, but the way ours played out, it seemed like one player had access to the best things. He had a personality that allowed him to return all workers everytime he put all of them out (effectively saving him 3-4 turns of pulling workers back a game.) He had minions that gave him a free item (something that normally costs a resource, a gold, and a turn). And he had buildings that allowed him to use these workers to consistently score VP. We had games that were 95 vs everyone else sub-50. This is because he stopped focusing on advancing by building or charterstoning, and instead focused on repeatedly exploiting loops to score more and more victory points to the point where he was scoring 5 points average a turn. Five victory points is what you earn for all the difficult-to-achieve goals including Objectives, Building, and Charterstones. This is the correct strategy to win the game, but none of us (not even him), particularly enjoyed this aspect of the gameplay.
I think some players may take issue with the fact that we think stars are all that matters to winning, and that may not be true for some campaigns. In our campaign, even the player who had the most stars (by about 20), had all of his personalities unlocked, and had filled his charter with 10-20 point buildings. There’s not much room for catching up when he could play two personalities a round (thanks to early personality and capacity upgrades) and his scoring loop allowed him to get plenty of resources for building.
Since you can lose key buildings in your combo at the end of the game, this means other players are building (and thus controlling) buildings that you need to pull off a half-built combo in your Charter. One of our players lost his minions building this way, and it wasn’t until a couple of games later that he was able to capture the building and recover his minions. This loss of key buildings also means that the base buildings can never be upgraded (I believe this was done for balance reasons so you ultimately always controlled one core resource.) Late-game these spots are a waste and very rarely used as they are the least efficient spaces on the board.
Finally, there are too many actions on the giant board. With 36 actions to choose from, some of our players just stopped looking at the rest of the board focusing on their side of the board. Late game, the available spaces shifts and formulating a strategy can be difficult and cause analyzation paralyzation if players aren’t careful.
Overall, we did not enjoy playing after game six. I think the curve of the game is supposed to be you go from building the worker placement game to actually playing the worker placement game, but we didn’t find the “playing” part much fun. Having really unbalanced charters and half-complete combos due to losing buildings that are part of a combo was very frustrating for most players.
Time To Learn: You can play this right out of the box, but it’s a good idea to very carefully read the new rules as they are introduced, and be sure to watch Rodney’s intro rules video.
Price: Charterstone frequently goes on sale on Cool Stuff. You can get it for $30 if you wait for a sale.
Thom: (Early Game: 9/10, Late Game: 4/10) Not so Good - but could play again.
Nick: (7/10) Good - usually willing to play.
Cristalle: (4/10) Not so Good - but could play again.
Ryan: (2/10) Very Bad - won’t ever play again.
Brenda: (Early Game: 10/10, Late Game: 4/10)
Trevor: (3/10) Bad - likely won’t play this game again.
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