Playing Forever with Charterstone
Even though it remains a fledgling subgenre, I think I can safely anoint myself a legacy game veteran. I’ve played ’em all. Like, all of them. Basically, I’m sick of legacy mechanisms at this point. The sole upside is that my time in the trenches has endowed me with Opinions.
The first commandment of legacy games is simple. No, I mean that literally: the first commandment is simple. Be thou simple. If possible, build on something that was already there. Which is why Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy were so breezy to learn, while SeaFall was one learning game after another until you gave up and played its hidden game, which was opening all the boxes early and laughing with wild abandon while you sorted the pieces into recyclables and garbage.
Charterstone is the simplest of them all. And when you get right down to it, it’s the legacy game that I’ve enjoyed the most.
As it says right on the front of the box, Charterstone is about building a village. Each of its up to six players are granted a pizza wedge of land within the village, a character, and a handful of starting cards, and ordered to build, work, and refine their charter until it’s a bustling center of commerce and culture.
There was no Charterstone: The Non-Legacy Game for Charterstone to spin off from, at least not in the way you might first expect. Instead, Charterstone plays like the streamlined culmination of designer Jamey Stegmaier’s work leading up to this point. Like Scythe, it features an inbuilt timer that also happens to be an objective that also happens to be a limited resource — in this case, influence, which acts as a gatekeeper standing between you and the game’s most potent actions. Even more pertinently, like Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia, it’s a worker placement game with a very different idea of what worker placement games should be about.
Here’s what I mean. In most worker placement games, the primary form of interaction between players is the “block.” As in, because I’ve sent my grunting cavemen into the breeding hut, you’re just going to have to wait your turn. Or, because I’ve sent one of my magical students to pillage the library for spell scrolls, you’re going to have to light them on fire or teleport into a shadow dimension in order to make space for yourself. Whether it’s a stone age hut or a magical university, the placement of one worker means another can’t be sent to that particular space. Blocking.
In Charterstone as in Euphoria, that cornerstone of worker placement has been roundly defenestrated. In its place, Steigmaier has erected a sort of perpetual motion machine. Ordering one of your workers into a spot occupied by another worker isn’t only allowed, but also bumps the original dude back into their owner’s pool of available workers. You’ll still spend the odd turn reclaiming all the guys you have out on the board, but it goes a long way to ensuring that Charterstone’s sole downtime is waiting for That Friend to finish planning their turn.
It’s fast, is what I’m saying. Most of the time, especially early on in the campaign’s progress, it’s possible for even a full staff of six players to bring a match to its conclusion in around ninety minutes. That zippiness is greatly appreciated, especially once new ideas and rules begin popping into existence.
I’m speaking carefully to avoid spoiling anything significant, because as is the case with any other good legacy game, most of Charterstone’s central delights are found in watching the way the rules are modified, twisted, or perhaps even upended entirely. There were two surprises in particular — one illuminatingly clever and one hilariously punitive — that had our group laughing out loud. Both ranked up there with some of Pandemic Legacy’s best twists, and it would be a shame to see them ruined prematurely.
Suffice to say, almost immediately your workers receive a significant addendum to the way they operate, and the division between your charter and those owned by other players becomes more notable. A little bit past that, new cards are shuffled into both of the game’s decks, resulting in a grab-bag of options both considerable and minor. By around the game’s halfway point at match six, the story begins to generate a bit of heat. From there, even its low-key tale of a charming village finding its footing becomes as gripping as the falling sky histrionics spat up by its legacy-game counterparts.
In fact, one of Charterstone’s greatest strengths lies in its smooth blend of lightweight drama and heavy investment in the growth of your charter. By the conclusion of your second play, persistent elements come roaring to the fore. Victors stockpile “wins” that promise to be valuable later on, the defeated get to expand how many resources and cards they can carry between plays, and everyone’s performance translates into stars that gradually amount to new bonuses and perks. Like everything else in Charterstone, this end-game bookkeeping is as much a cinch as it is rewarding.
Of course, persistence comes parcel with its own pratfalls. It’s entirely possible for someone to develop a winning strategy — a strong set of buildings in their charter bolstered by complementing cards and resources — and then employ that same strategy in one match after another. Every match provides its own set of rules, minor alterations that can vastly change the way the game plays even though they’re easy enough to remember, and these can help unseat a player for a little while. Invariably, though, those alterations are rolled back for the next play, and a winner can go on winning.
There are other issues, though they’re generally matters of preference rather than design flaws. Like many worker placement games, it’s low on player interaction and high on fiddling with your personal stockpiles of resources and actions, but, well, that’s more a feature of the game’s genre than anything else. And while there are hundreds of cards to be discovered, much of your progress comes down to the order they’re revealed rather than anything like a branching storyline. This isn’t to say that the story doesn’t arrive at a handful of course corrections, but they’re generally “false choices” that lead to minor narrative differences rather than moments that will significantly alter your gameplay experience.
That these are my strongest criticisms of Charterstone should probably indicate its overall tidiness. Even its box is tidy, a grid of white crates that each have their place and their function. Unlike its more complex brethren, it’s nearly impossible to get lost among the sprawl of unlockable options.
And when the whole thing is done, Charterstone is one of those rare legacy experiences that doesn’t begrudge the prospect of being played for as long as it takes for you to bid farewell to the charter you’ve developed. Fondness is only natural when you’ve spent twelve plays raising something from its first wobbling steps all the way into adulthood. Beyond that, Stegmaier’s businessman brain was shrewd enough to provide a double-sided board and purchasable recharge packs, meaning that a second play is as easy as flipping the board and spending some bucks.
Will I be doing so? Well, no, though that isn’t a ding on Charterstone’s quality. What I got from Charterstone was a legacy game that was more than just accessible. Its slow-burn narrative, energetic worker placement, and straightforward bookkeeping were all relaxing. More than Pandemic Legacy or SeaFall or Gloomhaven or any of the other legacy games I’ve played, arriving at its conclusion was a delight rather than a chore.
For that reason alone, Charterstone stands out as one of the fullest expressions of what this peculiar little legacy genre can accomplish. May our village, Chumbuckit, stand forever.