In 2011, game designer Rob Daviau released Risk Legacy, a campaign-driven reimagining of the classic strategy game Risk. In the process, he created an entirely new way of thinking about board games.
Previous releases had largely been immutable, with players resetting games to their starting states every time they were played, like the orderly arrangement of pieces on a chess board. Daviau’s approach threw this assumption out the window. His take on Risk saw players permanently alter the game as they played—writing on the board, destroying cards, and revealing new components hidden in sealed compartments.
The result was a game that changed based on players’ actions, where different groups could experience an episodic campaign in very different ways. Risk Legacy met a rapturous response from players, and a handful of games have since adopted the idea, most notably Pandemic Legacy, co-designed by Daviau and Matt Leacock. A December 2017 release takes the concept and adds a few twists of its own.
Charterstone casts players as a group of colonists working to build a thriving village in newly discovered territory. Over the course of 12 games, you’ll harvest resources, construct buildings, and unlock an array of special abilities in an effort to turn a bare patch of land into a productive and prosperous community. But while you’ll work alongside your fellow players to expand your settlement, this isn’t a cooperative game. Throughout your campaign you’ll compete to gain prestige, vying to emerge as the most influential citizen in your newly founded township.
That’s about as much as I can tell you without giving away some of Charterstone‘s secrets. From your very first game you’ll make choices that have knock-on effects on subsequent play-throughs, and while I’m not going to reveal those developments in detail, it’s impossible to discuss the game without making some mention of them. If you’d prefer to have everything come as a surprise, here’s a spoiler-free synopsis:
“Charterstone plays with some interesting ideas, but it takes time to get to them. The first few games feel like they come with training wheels attached, and it’s only later in the campaign that the game develops enough variety to be truly engaging. Once you’re there, though, it’s a multifaceted game that challenges you to think two or three turns ahead and to make the most efficient possible use of the resources at your disposal. It feels decidedly more analytical than Pandemic Legacy, and while it has some real aesthetic charm, it prioritises mechanical developments over plot.”
But if you’d like to dig a little deeper, read on.
Chartering the stone
The first impression you get when you take Charterstone out of its box is of a blank canvas. Its board is a wide-open expanse, waiting for players to make their marks. Its components are tantalisingly housed in plain white boxes, some of which you’ll open as you start your campaign; others hold contents that remain a mystery until you unlock them. The result is a sense of anticipation that kicks in before you’ve played a single turn.
Your first game feels like a learning exercise, introducing the basic concepts that you’ll incrementally expand on with each play. You start out in control of a pair of workers, who you can deploy to locations like mines, farms, and forests to harvest resources including coal, crops, and timber. Once you’ve assembled these raw materials, you can add new buildings to the board in the form of adhesive stickers. Each new addition brings a new action for your workers to take, like trading goods for gold or converting one type of resource to another.
Constructing buildings is one way to gain victory points, but the structures you add won’t just be available for your own use. Your opponents can use them as well, and as you populate the board, you’ll compete to find the most effective ways to use these new options.
Each game sees players attempt to complete a set of goals drawn at random from a deck of objective cards, and Charterstone’s evolving central puzzle revolves around finding the most efficient ways to achieve the objectives using the tools at your disposal. It means you’ll need to adapt your tactics not only for each game, but for each new development that unfolds as you play. Getting it right takes some real mental agility.
Buildings aren’t the only way that the game changes. You’ll also be able to upgrade your character from one game to the next, gaining new skills and recruiting assistants with their own special abilities. Players’ characters thus diverge over time, and while you’ll all start the campaign on a level playing field, you’ll gradually develop your own set of special skills and tactical advantages that can edge you ahead of your rivals. In an interesting touch, Charterstone also rewards players with bonus points when they use new combinations of abilities, encouraging you to experiment and avoiding the temptation to fall into a the rut of using a proven set of skills in every game.
There’s no shortage of other elements to discover: new rules that you’ll paste into the manual each time you play; new types of worker pawns, each with their own strengths and drawbacks; floating island tiles that let you expand your domain, even when the board starts running out of space for new structures. From simplistic beginnings, Charterstone evolves into a genuinely engaging challenge.
Its biggest flaw, though, is that it takes a while to get there. The game layers new elements one on top of another, eventually reaching a tipping point where the decisions it throws at players become satisfyingly complex. But in our campaign, that didn’t happen until around our fifth session. Admittedly, we chose to play with two players, and if we’d had full complement of colonists—or used the game’s semi-automated system for introducing dummy players into the mix—things might have developed at a quicker pace.
This stands in stark contrast to Pandemic Legacy, which benefited from having a familiar game as a base to build on. Charterstone takes its time to introduce its rules, and it suffers as a result.
Then there’s the narrative element. Where Pandemic Legacy dropped players into a fast-paced conspiracy thriller, emulating the twists, turns, and cliffhangers of the genre, Charterstone is far more concerned with developing its mechanical framework than its storyline. The prospect of unveiling new rules and components is always more of a draw than discovering what happens next in the tale of your fledgling settlement.
That being the case, it’s a shame that unlocking new stuff doesn’t necessarily lead to victories. You’ll often have to choose between adding new elements to the map or taking less exciting actions that net you more points, and it can create a sense of dissonance when the elements that most dramatically drive the game forward end up feeling less rewarding than, say, exporting some pumpkins.
That might explain why my opponent eventually bailed on me, and I still have to decide whether I want to play through the remainder of the campaign solo or start again from scratch with a new group of players. Publisher Stonemeier Games offers recharge packs with replacement cards and stickers for anyone looking to play again, and unlike other legacy games, Charterstone comes with a degree of replayability. You can even keep playing after you finish your campaign, building a one-of-a-kind worker placement game as a living record of your efforts.
I’m not sure whether I have the patience to run through the early stages again, though. If a novel has to grab a reader with its first sentence, and a movie has to hold its audience from its opening scene, then perhaps a legacy game has to captivate players from the first turn.
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