Charterstone feels like a game that’s going to shift the board gaming world, just as Pandemic: Legacy did two years ago, by taking the legacy format—where the game’s board, components and rules change and carry over from one play to the next—into the competitive sphere. Collecting resources and building things for victory points is one of the oldest and most hackneyed themes in tabletop gaming, so Charterstone, designed by Jamey Stegmaier (Scythe, Viticulture), folds that into a larger, twelve-session story where each play reveals something totally new, while still ensuring that no player can build up too big of a lead from one play to the next.
Charterstone is a village-building game at heart, as two to six players (there’s a solo mode I haven’t tried) compete to fill out the six “charters” on the board, representing the new kingdom of Greengully. There are five buildings in the center, and each player will start with one “basic” building in his/her charter. Players each start with two worker meeples, and can send them to any space on the board; if one is occupied, then going there bumps that meeple off the board. If all of your meeples are out on spaces, you have to use a turn to return them to your playing area off the board. Basic buildings let you take one of the game’s six resources for free—and yes, one of them is wood, because what we do in board games is collect wood, lots and lots of wood.
The central buildings allow you to undertake the three main point-scoring activities available at the start of Charterstone: Building, scoring objectives and opening crates. If you have a building card in your hand, you can build it by paying the four resources shown on the card, and then you remove the sticker from the card and place it somewhere in your charter on the board, scoring five points for you. That building becomes part of the board for the remainder of the game, unless it’s later covered up by something else, and is open to all players. The objective deck is shuffled before each game, with three such cards laid out for any player to score; they include things like gaining a certain number of coins or collecting all six resource types at once, letting you score five points.
Crates are how the game evolves over time, probably familiar to players of Pandemic: Legacy or Seafall. Many building cards in the deck also have crate numbers in the upper right; to open a crate, you pay four gold coins and then refer to the game’s Index to see what cards in the box you’ll reveal. Some add new rules, some are new building cards, some add personas that you can use in future games, some add assistants who give you little bonuses, and some do other things I won’t spoil here but that add substantially to the game’s versatility and entertainment value. You’ll also open a new crate at the end of each game play, adding a few new elements and a special rule that applies to the next session.
Each play takes a little over an hour, due to the combination of a progress track that triggers the last round when its token reaches the final space, and each player’s limited supply of influence tokens, which must be used just about every time you do something that gains you points. The progress token starts at a different spot depending on the number of players involved, and moves forward one space whenever someone builds a building, opens a crate, or scores an objective; certain spaces on the progress track trigger other game features, like allowing the active player to place one influence token on the reputation track, which scores at game-end (10 points to whoever has the most tokens on it, seven for second place, four for third).
Those influence tokens are a huge part of the game for the first few plays, because you have to spend them for any of the major actions—three for a crate, two for a building, one for an objective—and may also choose to place them on the reputation track or to use them to cash in certain combinations of resources or other items for points. You start with twelve, and early in the sequence there aren’t ways to retrieve them. (There’s one assistant card that gave my daughter, the player who drew it, a huge advantage, because she had the only route to regaining spent influence tokens for two full plays.) So you have to plan out much of your game around your limited tokens; once a player has zero tokens left, the progress marker moves forward one space on every one of his/her turns.
Charterstone avoids the problem that many complex strategy games have—the Russian novel-length rule book that must be read, and then re-read, before the first play, after which you run to YouTube or boardgamegeek’s forums with your list of questions about what you did wrong. The first Charterstone play is very simple because there aren’t many rules yet and there also aren’t a ton of options on the board. You add rules gradually, placing new rules stickers in the rulebook (as well as additional stickers that extend the story of the king and Greengully, although none of that seems to affect gameplay). Some of these aren’t that clearly written—the rules around minions, which you’ll encounter roughly around game three, did indeed send me to BGG, where I found lots of other people sharing my misunderstanding.
There’s an engine-building component to Charterstone’s mechanics, but because the buildings you draw are random and you can use buildings in other players’ charters, that defines strategies without giving any player a substantial advantage. You pick one persona card each game, and may deploy assistants, with some of those granting you significant benefits (e.g., gain two extra points every time you use the Zeppelin center space to build something), but in our play so far, halfway through the 12-play sequence, final scores have always been close and everyone has won at least once.
Charterstone has the aforementioned solo mode, and allows you to either leave unused charters as “inactive,” with rules for filling them with buildings, or to deploy neutral players called Automa. While it’s designed for the same players to play each time, there are also guidelines for how to handle a player leaving the game, or for how to add a player once the game has already begun. Stonemaier Games also sells a “recharge” pack that lets you reuse the board and many components to play the game a second time through, using the back of the board. You can also play a completed Charterstone board as a single-play game, although at that point it’s going to be a straight resource collection/worker placement game, without all the fun of opening crates and altering the board. If you can navigate some of the more confusing text on the cards, Charterstone is a brilliant, well-balanced, quick-moving game, one that elevates both the legacy format and the oh-my-god-another-wood-collecting-game genre with the fun of discovering new features as you play and a meticulous design that keeps everyone in the game right up until the end.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.