A digital legacy game, does the first of its kind Charterstone live up to the hype?
Android, iOS & Steam
# of Players
Charterstone is one of the most ambitious digital board games in memory. It is a Stonemaier Games’ worker placement legacy title that plays out over twelve individual games and is brought to our digital tabletops by Acram Digital. For the unfamiliar, a legacy game is one in which each scenario, or game, changes the state of things heading into the next. Over the course of the full campaign things generally take multiple twists and turns before arriving at their final destination. The app offers the full legacy campaign along with standalone games. A single game takes about 20 minutes.
Update 7/9/20: So. I was playing a full online game of Chartstone which started a week or two after release. Four players, playing at a relaxed pace, we had just finished the fourth game of the 12 game campaign. The game booted all of us. To their credit, Acram has been very responsive and are clearly doing their best to resurrect the game, but they aren't hopeful since nobody was left in the game. They said this was the first time they've seen all players get booted. To be clear, we had been playing turns the same day, nobody legitimately timed out of the game.
This is a tough situation. I've mulled for a day or so about how to handle this in the context of our review. I stand by everything I said in the original review (which is presented, unchanged, aside from this italicized text and the final section). The ambition of an online legacy game is to be commended and the execution of the game (on a turn-by-turn basis) is well done. I didn't account for the chane of losing ten weeks worth of game when I was writing the review, however. I don't know if it is the best answer, but I've decided to change the score to four stars and provide this warning text. Others who chimed in have not run into any issues during their games, so hopefully this is an isolated incident, but it was such a letdown that I thought I had to make a change here. I don't feel motivated to even try another online game which is a terrible feeling for a game I was so excited about the first few weeks of having my hands on it.
The trouble in reviewing legacy games is that spoilers are bound to arise unless you haven’t played past the first scenario or spend a lot of time ensuring you are spoiler free. I’m not going to discuss specific things that are unlocked in the campaign, but I will write some overall thoughts on the campaign which might be considered spoiler-adjacent. You have been warned.
Players in Charterstone begin by selecting one of six different charters. At the most basic level, each charter has a different base resource and begins the game with a building which produces that resource when activated with a worker. Each player begins with two workers and takes their turn by simply placing a worker on a building to activate it or returning all of their workers. Should a worker use a building which already has a worker, the existing worker is returned to its owner’s hand. In addition to the charter-specific buildings, there are a few common buildings in the middle of the board which allow you to take some more exciting actions such as play another building into your area, grab a powerful card, advance the game closer to its end, and others.
Along with the six basic resources from the charters, players also earn gold, influence, reputation, assistants, complete goals, and a handful of other things. The primary goal is to earn points which can be achieved in a number of different ways. Placing an influence token on the reputation track, as allowed by a specific building, is one way to earn points. The player with the most tokens gets the biggest point bonus at the end of the game. Be careful, however, as influence tokens are finite and, generally, quite difficult to earn after you spend them. Speaking of finite, if you were playing the physical version you might be surprised to see only 12 tokens of each of the basic resource types. This goes a long way in telling you what kind of game Charterstone is. Resources are limited and you must plan and act accordingly.
Other ways to score points include earning five points by completing one of the goals for the game. This is generally something along the lines of “have six coins.” Should you meet the criteria, there is a building you can use to earn the goal and take your points. You can also open crates which give you cards specific to your charter and generally do fun things like give you new buildings which you can later pay to build and add to your area on the board.
Many of the more fun actions in the game have you moving the advancement track token one space. This is the timer on the game and the game ends shortly after it reaches the end of the track. The track also advances when a player with no remaining influence takes a turn.
That’s incredibly vague but Charterstone is a fairly standard worker placement game that runs on limited resources and uses a “cool things advance the timer” mechanic to determine when the game ends. The things you open across the campaign offer some interesting additions and twists, and slowly build on each other in a satisfying manner. On a more micro level, each turn is as straightforward as you would hope. Place a worker on a building or retrieve your workers. Of course, this could trigger follow on actions, but most turns in this game are super simple and short.
Charterstone received a bit of a mixed reaction when the physical game was released. (Not BAD, mind you, it’s still a top 250 game on BGG which is fantastic, obviously.) A big reason for that, I believe, is that most of the highly successful legacy games that came before (looking at you, Pandemic and Risk) carried a huge scope and accompanied that with a heaping dose of narrative. Charterstone has a much smaller scope which isn’t necessarily a problem on its own, but the narrative aspect really isn’t there for me. You’re kind of just playing out a really long game of Lords of Waterdeep (insert your worker placement game of choice here), adding new buildings and unlocking cool stuff.
Having said that, I think this probably works in Charterstone Digital’s favor. One of the main draws of digital is stripping away unnecessary pieces of games, allowing the code to handle the minutia. Things like having a character die or losing a tough battle to set yourself back heading into the next scenario/month/whatever work really well when you are building up a narrative with the same group of people sitting with you at a table for weeks and months. I have my doubts that these traditional, major legacy events would translate well into digital ports. (This isn’t to say I don’t want Pandemic Legacy Digital right now, because I definitely do.) Charterstone is a low key legacy game which emphasizes new mechanics and building up your tiny chunk of land in this peaceful countryside.
I really appreciate what this game offers and what it means to see a digital version of a legacy game. I think this can be a real breakthrough for the medium and that it is quite well made is a huge bonus. When I first played through the game I wasn’t quite sure I enjoyed what it offered. I was ready to file this under “really impressive accomplishment, but not for me.” Then, I kept playing. And played some more. As this continued, I maybe never quite fell in love with Charterstone, but I did come to at least fall in like with it. The additions the game throws at you over your campaign are each small but really add up to a lot. Too much? Maybe. But it is a unique kind of fun seeing everything evolving in your little world.
Maybe the best way I can explain my feelings on Charterstone is that while I enjoy working through campaigns, I would absolutely not be at all interested in playing single games with a campaign-ending board. I don’t find the sum of what the game offers in terms of a worker placement experience to be all that enjoyable. I do, however, find the journey to get to that point an enjoyable one.
Starting a campaign
Barrier to Entry
When you first launch Charterstone, a pop-up suggests you try a local campaign to begin learning the game. If you do so, you are guided through some very basics and the five buildings in the central board area are explained (you can skip this part for later plays). From there, you get a suggestion to try to open your first crate in this first game and you are off on your own. As each new crate is opened, some will contain new rules, these are concisely explained with text as they are opened. All told, the base game is a fairly straightforward worker placement title, the app doesn’t make much of an effort to hold your hand if you are unfamiliar with the basic concept, but the new rules the legacy aspect adds are folded in as if it were a physical game. That is, you are given a card with the new rules. Read them and that new piece is a part of the game going forward.
The game also features a set of text rules, with large portions initially blocked out until you have unlocked those rules in a campaign.
Although it might be a bit counterintuitive, I would highly recommend playing through a full campaign before trying a single game. The single game is an absolute mess if you don’t have a campaign under your belt to understand what’s going on. I feel like Charterstone will be tough for truly new gamers to graps, but anybody with worker placement experience should find it easy enough to pick up.
Look and Feel
Like other Acram ports, the entire digital adaptation is built around the aesthetic from the physical game. From the start, everything fits into the Charterstone visual style which makes for a very cohesive, appealing look throughout. The cartoon style drawings are very easy on the eyes as is the color pallet. The light, breezy background music and sound effects only add to the overall feel of the game.
Control-wise, everything is simple and easy to use. On a turn, you select a worker to place, then choose a building on which to place them. There is a separate button for returning your workers. You can undo most actions during a turn, and the game is sure to make you aware when you cannot with a warning icon. You then confirm your turn and wait until you get to play again. It’s a very simple system, but it works very well.
There is a huge amount of information the game needs to convey. This is a major challenge in games with huge game states. You need to know what resources you, and all other players, have at any given time, along with your cards, the goals, reputation/progress tracks, and so on. It is a lot to fit on a screen which, oh by the way, also needs to show the actual game board (which is quite massive). Most of the game details are placed at the top along a toolbar style area, while individual player states are given the left 20%. The rest of the screen goes to the board which can be easily zoomend and panned. You will need to expand submenus in the game to see things like track progress, but I’m still very impressed with how well laid out the game is given the volume of state it needs to convey at all times.
Online games can be played as single games or over campaigns. Games are created and joined via a lobby system, with optional password protection to allow for private sessions. The time limits are on a per-turn basis and range from 24 hours to no limit, with a few increments between. The player starting the game decides how many players will be allowed and whether charters are randomly assigned or players take turns selecting. Once your game is full, you get a notification and things get started.
There was a warning in this section about some initial hiccups some online legacy games experienced. I'm happy to report that Acram has ironed those out, I've been playing a steady online game since a few days after launch and after the first little bit, we haven't experienced issues. As such, I'm happy to report that online play works well. Acram has always done a good job in this category and Charterstone is no different. Notifications, no issues with lost games, and so on. The only nitpick here is that the load times are a bit lengthy. Nothing out of the ordinary for most games, but certainly not as snappy as some of the higher achievers in this category. And to reiterate, a digital board game which allows online campaign modes is an amazing thing.
The game also features local pass-and-play.
Single player games can be played as single games or as campaigns. In single games, you choose which of the slew of additional rules to use, pick your AI opponents (with three difficulty levels), and get going. The game has six local campaign save slots. Choose your charter, how many AI players to play against, and which level each of them will be.
I’m not going to be the best to comment on the AI difficulty here, but I was winning against the easy AI on my first time through. I switched over to medium for the majority of my plays and it has been a good balance for my skill level. I’m not getting blown out, I am winning a game occasionally, and things generally stay close throughout the campaign. I did try hard and got defeated rather easily.
The game allows you to save off your map and reuse it later for single games. This is a really interesting concept that I wanted to make sure to call out. Have a really fun campaign with friends? Save the final board and replay it over and over in a single game. The game also includes some pre-loaded maps from notable names. Personally, as alluded to earlier, I find single games to be a mess. If you throw everything in the pot and have the app randomize it for you, it’s a complete disaster when you first play. You didn’t watch everything grow which forces you to spend time taking stock of the entire board to formulate a plan. This is my take, but I’m sure others disagree, so it is great to have the option included.
First game scoring
Performance issue. The app drags a bit at times as the AI plays through their turns. Not in a “the app is doing nothing because the AI is thinking” kind of way, but a “animations are moving very slowly because the game is overwhelming my device” kind of way. It also runs noticeably hot on mobile devices. There is a menu option to conserve power via lowering frame rate, I choose the power savings over frame rate as I suspect many mobile users will.
The Wrap Up
Charterstone is the most ambitious title we’ve seen in the digital tabletop world in a long time. Possibly since Galaxy Trucker with its real-timeness core getting the digital asynchronous treatment, if that even compares. A legacy game packaged in a digital version you can play over and over and over again to unlock different paths. Add in the game having six unique charters to play as, you could spend a long time trying to discover everything this game offers, and probably still end up not seeing it all. Adding a strong online play mode makes this one of the most interesting digital ports ever. If this game interests you and some friends, why would you not each buy it and fire up online campaigns? Even if you only make it through one, it will likely take months of asynchronous play to finish which is a fantastic value proposition.
The complaints here only exist in the personal reception of the game. Are you a big enough worker placement fan to enjoy slowly unfolding the layers upon layers that the legacy aspect adds? Are you interested in a legacy game without a significant narrative? Rest assured, the port is very well made, so the decision on whether or not to purchase this one is solely up to your interest in the underlying game.
We rarely see apps which break new ground that wasn’t broken by the physical game. It is refreshing to see Stonemaier take the chance on Charterstone Digital and even better to see Acram delivering a rock solid port. Charterstone offers a digital experience unlike any other out there, and it deserves a heaping of credit for that.
In case you missed it earlier, I had my online game crash ten weeks in and everything was lost. It was a giant wet blanket on the otherwise awesome experience of playing an online legacy game. As such, despite all of the (unchanged) high praise here, I've adjusted the score to reflect the letdown. Hopefully it was a truly isolated incident and nobody else has to have the same experience.