Warning: Very light and mostly non-specific spoilers for the first 4 games of Charterstone. Lots of spoilers for stuff you’ll find out pretty quickly in game 1. If you know you’re sensitive to any and all spoiler material, you probably shouldn’t read this.
The short history of legacy games is somewhat odd, to say the least. I think most people would say that, so far, the best examples of the style were the first. Rob Daviau created the style of game with Risk Legacy, which still has some very loyal fans. Legacy really burst onto the scene, however, with Pandemic Legacy Season 1, which has been one of the most universally praised games of all time.
Both of those games started with an existing game that most players will already have known. And while I haven’t played Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy certainly takes the already good (some would say great) base game of Pandemic and builds upon it. By the end you have a substantially more complex game that, while still retaining some of the mechanisms of base Pandemic, has morphed into something new. In fact, the game morphs into about 3 or 4 somewhat new games over the course of the campaign. New mechanisms roll around and old ones become less important. Alongside those mechanical changes are story elements that justify their use. You’re playing a different game because the world of the game has changed.
Gloomhaven is another legacy game I’ve played, and it takes the route of diminishing the importance of the legacy elements. They’re there as flavor, not as a core element of the game. There’s not a whole lot in Gloomhaven that couldn’t have been accomplished without legacy (i.e. permanent) elements. But they undoubtedly make the game better and more interesting.
Now we get to Charterstone, a legacy game from Jamey Stegmaier and Stonemaier Games. Jamey is certainly one of the most important and influential figures in the world of board games in the past 5 years. He’s had two certifiable hits with Viticulture and Scythe, both of which I enjoy quite a bit. They’re both accessible and strategic; beautiful and enjoyable. So when I heard the announcement for Charterstone–a legacy eurogame where the end result of the campaign isn’t the end of the game, but a game you can keep and continue playing as-is–I was intrigued. When the first image of the cover was released I got excited. We’ve got to talk about this box cover, because it’s one of the best. It’s pleasant, with a typeface that evokes fantasy and whimsy. It shows a couple of small buildings on a floating island in the sky. But it’s dominated by a pure white cloud obscuring most of the canvas. In the top right corner, balancing out the image, is a darker grey cloud hinting at a bit of peril ahead. It evokes adventure, and exploration, and new frontiers. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.
That’s not a surprise, though, because Stonemaier has some of the best production values of any board game publisher working today. Charterstone is no exception. All of the cards that drive the legacy parts of the game are in a lovely magnetic-latch box. Every player gets their own sturdy tuck-box that holds their pieces and tracks various continuing statistics. Everything is white and pleasant and unobtrusive.
First First Impressions
But much of the sheen fades when you actually get to playing the game. While the Daviau legacy games take a solid foundation, tear it apart, and rebuild it into something new, Charterstone, at least through ⅓ of the campaign (4 plays), seems to be taking a strategy of legacy-as-tutorial. I’m not going to beat around the bush: the first game of Charterstone is dull as a brick. It’s a very simple worker placement game with some of the most boring and rote decision making I’ve seen in a long time. There are seven primary resources, and you’ll simply be gathering them, usually one at a time, in order to cash them in for things that seem like they might be interesting: building new buildings and opening crates.
Each player has their own charter on which they can build. There are six spaces for buildings, and they’ll start to fill up pretty quickly. The crates are what unlock and advance new parts of the game. You might get a new building to build on your charter, or unlock a new mechanism, or get a new passive bonus for future games. You’ll also sometimes unlock new goal cards that prescribe ways players can get victory points for, say, gathering certain resources. You’ll also get milestone cards, which prescribe an overall goal for the game and give people who accomplish the milestone an additional star. The stars, once accumulated, unlock passive beginning of game bonuses for the player.
It’s all very euro and simple and rote, and after the first game I was extremely discouraged. One of the fundamental obstacles to any legacy design is the added pressure the players will feel to not mess up something. Stickers are difficult to remove, something written down is hard to erase effectively without leaving residue (note: pens look nicer but smear REALLY easily on the Charterstone board, cards, and boxes.), and messing up a key rule in a game can leave players with that unfortunate feeling that they might have ruined part of their experience. Pandemic Legacy did a good job in the rulebook highlighting that most mistakes you make are not going to be particularly important. Pandemic Legacy is also a cooperative game, so any mistakes will affect the group equally. In a competitive game like Charterstone a rules mistake may favor one player over the other with permanent consequences. Doing that kind of thing just feels bad on an interpersonal level. My group has done it 2 moderately significant times in 4 games, partially perhaps because I’m not great at reading rules/was tired/was stressed/etc., but partially, I think, because Charterstone really front-loads the rules additions.
You begin with a rulebook that’s clearly only partially complete to get even a basic idea of what’s going on, and then the game gives you the rest of the rules to make sense of what you’re doing as you play the first game. In a game that, of course, follows one of the Stonemaier design principles of quick individual turns, the frequent stopping to unlock new things and contextualize new rules is quite jarring. After the first game that pace slows down to something more manageable. But if you watch our liveplay of the first game you can see my growing frustration of simply not knowing what’s going on at all.
It’s even more frustrating when you figure out how dirt-simple the game really is! Think about Catan–remember that game? I think a good number of gamers have rightfully grown out of it to bigger and better games. But imagine if Catan didn’t have the trading or the dice rolling. Instead on your turn you can gather a single resource or purchase something. That’s close to where Charterstone is in the first game.
Four Games Later
By the fourth game we’ve unlocked some new and more interesting stuff. We have some new mechanisms that play with the idea of going onto a space that someone’s already occupying. Usually that would just bounce the worker there back to its owner (delaying for a bit their very dull turn where they simply pick up their workers), but there are some new complexities there. We have a good number of new buildings that do more interesting variations on resource collection and a couple of buildings that interact with pieces parts of the game in different ways. Deciding what series of turns you want to take to accomplish a larger goal (something you also need to do in Viticulture and Scythe) doesn’t feel entirely obvious anymore. And the game end mechanism is playing a bigger role for us.
That mechanism will be familiar to people who have played Scythe, in that each person begins with 12 influence cylinders. Once someone has placed their final cylinder through (usually) doing one of the major victory-point gaining actions, the meta-timer for the game starts to accelerate more quickly than before. Once that timer runs out you simply finish the current round and tally the scores. It’s less jarring than Scythe’s star system; a welcome improvement on the mechanism.
But what am I doing with Charterstone? What’s my ultimate goal? Pandemic Legacy has a strict win/lose condition for the party. You could balance that against what you thought were long term goals, which was sometimes interesting, though a bit too gamey. In Charterstone I’m trying to win each individual game, yes, but is there anything to balance that against? Am I trying to carefully curate which buildings end up in my charter, even if it makes a few games VP-inefficient? Should I go for the milestones ahead of individual victories? The only minimally interesting short vs. long term decisions I’ve had to make are over what kind of resources I’ll choose to carry over to the next game. It’s not much to hang your hat on.
(Below image is spoilery if you look closely)
I’m hoping for a shot in the arm. Maybe we’re in for a dramatic story change next game. I sure hope so, because there’s not been much so far. This isn’t really spoiling anything but ⅓ through the narrative of the game we basically have been told that a guy called the Forever King (that’s not ominous at all) has given us this land to develop and a couple of very vague maybe foreboding things have happened. That’s it.
After four games we’ve found enough to pique our interest and keep playing, but only barely. It was difficult to get the motivation to make it this far because of how unpleasant the first couple of games were. Maybe the overall narrative of the campaign will snap me out of the doldrums and make me reevaluate the entire experience, but I thought it was prudent to write from my current perspective. If Charterstone is simply a long tutorial with some light story elements I don’t see how it’s worth it. Even now I’ve invested about 5 hours of time getting to the point of playing a mildly enjoyable game. 15 hours of a glorified tutorial is a hard pill to swallow, to say the least.