Charterstone: A Tale of Two Gamers
I've always been paranoid about the safety and preservation of my board game collection. I sleeve my cards, dislike open drinks near games, and chips or greasy food are prohibited during play. I'm even coming around to the ridiculous practice of some GMT games that include large ziplock bags for the boards. I realize this is dumb, obnoxious, and ludicrous, but it's who I am. Even though I've started to relax my rules for sleeving cards, I still break a sweat whenever my Everdell cards are riffle shuffled. My heart is pounding just thinking about it.
When I first heard about legacy games and their use of ripping up cards, writing on boards, and using stickers to alter gameplay, I laughed nervously at the idea. I didn't want anything to do with them. However, a game who's mechanics, rules, and story evolve throughout sounded interesting to me. I'm a stickler for theme and story and the idea that a game of Pandemic legacy could tell a different story from one copy to another excited me.
Despite my apprehensions, I have tested the waters a couple of times. I've played Shadowrun Crossfire, but I have only filled in my character names with dry-erase markers. I'm struggling to commit to a given name. And don't get me started on the stickers used to level your elf, human, or ogre. I'm still looking for a method to peel them off and reuse them, in case I choose my upgrades poorly. Reusable stickers are the only reason Gloomhaven was ever able to find a place on my shelf and see over 30 hours of playtime. If and when I ever finish the game, I will be able to peel every sticker off, pull every card that was supposed to be torn up from the ziplock bag I store them in, and restart the game. My horrible choice to start the campaign with the Cragheart and Tinkerer will be remedied with some patience and another set of reusable stickers. That is if I ever finish the game.
My wife has always encouraged me to better myself and try new things. Believing I should venture out of my comfort zone, she insisted we try out Charterstone when the opportunity arose. She could have asked me to start exercising. I've heard changing your habits and trying to read a book a month is beneficial for a healthy mind. I would have been happier if she asked me to stop drinking. I'd even agree to change out of my sweat pants when going out for dinner. Instead, she decided to share in my love of board games by recommending the one thing in life that makes me shake nervously permanent markers and stickers.
We got Charterstone a few months ago and played it regularly in the beginning. But, I have to start this review by saying we didn't finish the game. The Corona Virus showed up and changed everything. We were fortunate that neither of us lost our jobs, though. My wife began working from home and stressing out over the decision to put makeup on for work or not. I, on the other hand, work in a hospital where medical guidelines are changing every day. I've also been forced to quarantine twice because I'm unlucky enough to have seasonal allergies and the occasional headache. As a result, game nights have been replaced with Netflix, cursing the government, sleeping pills, and wondering if we should wear underwear tomorrow. We still plan to finish the game. My wife actively asks to play it, and we've found time to play it a couple of times in the last week. But, if I waited to write this review once we have completed it, several more months might pass.
With that being said, we did finish 9 of the 12 scenarios included with Charterstone. And I think that's enough to give a fair opinion on it. If something changes between now and when I finish the game, I will either update this review or write a part 2.
Charterstone is much like the other games released by Stonemaier games. It's a beautifully produced game, with vivid colours, gorgeous art, and some of the best components in the industry. It doesn't offer miniatures like Scythe, a dice tower like Wingspan, or pre-painted buildings like those included with Tapestry. Instead, it comes in a clean and sharp looking white box and includes beautiful illustrations, custom meeples, tons of stickers and metal coins. It might not sound as impressive as the previous games mentioned, which, to be honest, isn't. But the game comes in quite a bit less expensive than Stonemaier's other offerings.
At its heart, its a worker placement game that tries to tell the story of 1-6 citizens selected to found a new village in the Kingdom of Greengully. Each player is responsible for one section of the village. They use actions to gain resources and money to pay for the construction of new buildings and to unlock new personas (a sort of job system) for their player. Each new building erected in the village offers new opportunities and actions for the players. Beginning actions are simple and few, but by the sixth game, the board will represent a large village with more complex actions, new mechanics and higher scoring potential. With each new persona gained, changes are made to how you can earn points, achievement cards, or other gameplay aspects, during a single game.
This might sound like a similar but cheaper option to other legacy games like the Pandemic or Aeon's End options. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to the promises or potential of the genre. The story of the "Forever King," entrusting this village and its success with you and the other players, feels tacked on and paper-thin at best. Sure, each new game starts and ends with a narrative and a choice that will somehow affect the next game. But, unless something changes in the last three games, the tale is quickly forgotten. I promptly forgot what I was playing for, and only focused on how to score the most points, while managing a dwindling personal resource that usually dictates the end of the game. At most, the choices that change gameplay provide a slight boon or hindrance to the players during the next game and is replaced with another gimmick soon after.
Ultimately, the choices in this game are meaningless. Sure, you choose which buildings to construct, making one copy of the game different from another. But, unless you're trying to hinder yourself and the other players, the same resources will always be available. The only differences will be the frequently under-utilized buildings that offer pitiful amounts of victory points. Meanwhile, the story-specific decisions only account for temporary changes. All that Charterstone ever felt was a worker placement game that forces the player through 11 tutorials before it trusts you with the full game.
To be fair, the gameplay, though simple, is solid and enjoyable in the right setting. I personally prefer complex games that require strategy, forethought and thick rule books. But, similar to novels or movies, it's often refreshing to put down Altus Shrugged or pause Schindler's List, to read through the first Harry Potter book, or laugh your ass off to Pauley Shore in Bio-Dome. I enjoy a strategically light game that takes 45 minutes to play when it takes my mind off the 5-10 hours needed to learn and play The Dark Valley, which I'm struggling with at the moment. Luckily, Charterstone has offered me that relief nine times over the last few months.
But the problem remains that I was only interested in Charterstone because I wanted to try a legacy game, and it didn't live up to my expectations. If I was looking for a light worker-placement game, I would choose Lords of Waterdeep instead. If it had provided a similar experience to Pandemic Legacy or Gloomhaven, I'd be happy to finish it and see where the story goes. But, after 9 games, I'm not excited to play another three, to see what the finished game looks like after the tutorials and hand-holding.
I could stop the review here, but I think it necessary to elaborate on a previous line in this review, "My wife actively asks to play it..." There are several games in my collection that my wife has helped pick out, and really enjoys playing. She likes the random dice throws in Dice Throne. She loves looking at the bird illustrations in Wingspan. She adores the tea theme of Chai. And after all the games we've played of Awkward Guests, I can only assume she loves losing against me. But, very rarely does she actually ask to play a game. Usually, I ask, and if she has nothing else to do, she agrees. Or, on occasion, she will offer to play Nemesis, if she sees me eyeing up the bottle of Tequila after hospital procedures changed for the third time, just last week.
But, Charterstone has changed that. I don't need to suggest it. I don't need to throw out hints. I don't have to offer her chocolates. Almost every game we played of Charterstone was because she asked to play. In fact, the only reason we've made it to 9 games and where I feel comfortable reviewing the game, is because she has insisted on playing it so often.
Primarily, the simple, accessible, and non-threatening gameplay appeals to her. There's nothing that drives my wife crazier than a game that takes over 30 minutes to set up, and the prospect of listening to me drone on for an hour, trying to teach her rules. But, Charterstone takes 5-10 minutes to get to the table, and the game teaches you as you play. It's very similar to a video game, where you learn the controls by moving the character, following button prompts and going through tutorials that teach a few things at a time. Conveniently, Charterstone is taught in the same manner. Board games aren't her hobby. She spent a lot of time and effort learning to play guitar because that's an investment she loves. She's not going to invest long hours and many headaches in learning Root when she can find similar enjoyment while playing Charterstone.
And because of the accessible nature of Charterstone, she has a fighting chance at winning against me. Out of the 9 games we've played, we are nearly tied for wins. In comparison, I doubt my wife would ever stand a chance against me at Pax Pamir, a game I have played more often than any other game last year. Unless she wants to play it a dozen times without me, she will always be at a disadvantage. But, for the casual gamer, it's easy to see the strategy in Charterstone. And, since its a legacy game, you'll always play it with the same players and the same amount of times.
Generally speaking, I don't recommend Charterstone as a legacy style game. But, looking at it strictly as a worker-placement game, it becomes a tale of two gamers. If you like complex games and find enjoyment in learning the strategy and mechanics offered in those games, I'd probably avoid Charterstone. Even if you're looking for a light game to relax with, there are better options. But, if you prefer experiences that are easy to set up and learn, or looking to buy a gift for a new gamer, I'd give Charterstone a shot. It's a great game to play with a casual group of friends who still want to engage in conversation, a movie, or the constant interruption of a child crying or begging for attention.
Still, it hasn't changed my mind about legacy games. My crooked placement of every building sticker continues to keep me up at night. I'm also not impressed with some of the names wife chose for the different locations.