Introducing Charon Inc
The name of the game
When first hearing about a game called Charon Inc., our first thoughts were about the mythological boatman named Charon whose job is to ferry the souls of the departed across the River Styx and into the abode of the dead. Just what kind of game could this be? Would we be tasked with gathering resources to transform into coins, and in turn using those coins to pay the boatman to carry souls across the River Styx? Or, would we be forced to wrestle with the metaphysical and existential quandary of whether or not meeples have souls? And, most importantly, if we lost, would we be condemned to walking the shores of the River Styx for a hundred years?
Fortunately, a quick glance at the rules made it clear that the game’s namesake wasn’t the fabled boatman, but rather the largest moon of the planet formerly known as Pluto. Well that’s good news – no souls to worry about and we have always felt a little sorry for Pluto. After all, getting downgraded to the status of dwarf planet had to have hurt a little. Maybe, with the status symbol of having a game named after so close an associate, Pluto will be able walk (or should we say orbit?) a little taller amongst his planetary friends.
In this game, players assume the role of CEOs (here's hoping that the corner office and six-figure salary will be included in a later expansion) of a space-age mining corporations that are leading the rush to colonize and mine the moon Charon. As a player, your job is to lay claim to the various mining regions of the moon and, utilizing the resources you collect, construct various buildings that will ultimately earn you victory points at the conclusion of the game.
We're always curious to know something about the pedigree of a new game. A little research on the history and development of this new game uncovered our first pleasant surprise: the designer of Charon Inc. was Emanuele Ornella. Why a pleasant surprise? Because Ornella is also the designer of Oltre Mare, a game which has remained perennial favourite at our gaming table. One of the the strengths of Oltre Mare is that while having simple rules and easy play, it provides a rewarding and satisfying gaming experience. As such, there was good reason to hope that Charon would generate the same kind of overall feeling as Oltre Mare – straightforward game play, while at the same time providing us with the sense that we had played a meaningful game that required thoughtful decisions. It should also be noted that in addition to Oltre Mare, Mr. Ornella is the designer of Hermagor (a game which had considerable impact on the design and development of Charon Inc.), as well as Assyria and Il Principe (both games noted for their heavier gamer’s game feel).
Let's begin with a confession: we have a problem. It's probably one that the spouses of most gamers will recognize. Hey, who are we kidding, isn't it true that most of us here on BGG are addicts – board game components addicts that is? There are few things that we love more than unpacking a new game for the first time, right? Each acquisition is savoured, and every moment of the entire unpacking process is discussed and evaluated. We love the whole experience: from the crinkle of the shrink wrap as it peels off the box, to the childish glee that comes from that first box-fart when you open and close the lid for the first time. We carefully remove each component and evaluate it for both quality and function. There’s even something we about love the way new games smell. Oh, come on now – don’t pretend that you don’t know exactly what we’re talking about! That fresh cardboard scent is intoxicating! So let's enthusiastically start sniffing the components of Charon Inc, to see what it has to offer board game components addicts like us.
Let's begin by looking at the box itself. It just breathes quality, from the linen finish, to the solid cardboard, and even the thematic artwork.
The back of the box tells us what the game is about: "In the year 2288, off-world mining is now controlled by a few mega-corporations. It is no longer just people or nations that are subject to exploitation, but entire planets and moons. As the CEO of one of these mega-corporations, in Charon, Inc. you will vie against CEOs of other corporations as you exploit the planet’s resources and colonize Charon, the largest moon of the dwarf planet Pluto." We are CEOs? I like the sound of this already! Bring it on!
So what do you get when open the box (besides the indescribable high of new game ownership that is), and how do Charon’s components stack up? Well here's what you see in your first glimpse, as you get your initial whiff of that new game smell inside the box.
Here's a complete list of what you get in the box:
● 1 Game Board
● 35 Plastic Flags—7 for each player in 5 colors (burgundy red, white, deep blue, gold and teal)
● 106 Gems (Mineral Resources): 6 clear; and 20 each in blue, yellow, green, purple & black
● 1 Round Track Marker (a large, clear gem)
● 55 Building Cards—numbered 2-12 (5 of each number)
● 1 Cloth Bag
● 1 Rule Book
As for the components themselves, we are pleased to report that Gryphon Games has produced another solid game. The game board, while perhaps a shade minimalist in character, is both attractive and functional. The building cards have been printed on good, durable card stock with a nice linen finish; they shuffle easily and should stand up well to repeated play. The plastic flags which will be used to stake claims on the lunar surface are nothing special, but they work just fine. The plastic gems that represent minerals are of a reasonable size, and we were particularly appreciative of the inclusion of a drawstring bag from which to draw said gems. As many of you know, a good drawstring bag is worth its weight in gold. We are suckers for over-produced game components (our favourite being the leather dice cup in Stone Age – totally superfluous, but wonderful all the same) and Gryphon Games hit a high note here by including an oversized (and completely over-the-top) clear gem to serve as a round marker – it’s ridiculous but fantastic for exactly that reason! Let's just show you the components, so you can share somewhat in the new-game high.
Let’s be honest: how many of you out there would agree that games are often made or broken by their rulebooks? When it’s done right, even heavier games can be rendered appealing and approachable. But when “rules go bad”, so to speak, otherwise good games can find themselves relegated to the bottom of the infamous “I’m gonna get to that game someday” pile. The good news is that this is one of those pleasant games where the rule book has been well produced. The six page rule book is well laid out, clearly written, logically organized and enough examples are provided to make game play clear. As such, this is a game that we found to be straightforward to both learn and to teach.
The board is a solid mounted product, and the chief feature is the moon Charon, divided into the different areas where gems/resources will be mined.
On the left of the board is the "Action" area, detailing special actions that players can become eligible to use - we'll explain this later.
The flags need to be assembled (which is a cinch), and come in five different colours, seven of each.
You'll use these to stake your claim for gems/resources on Charon. Oddly enough, they add to the thematic flavour of the game, and even though the theme is arguably thin, using flags to stake your claims gives meaning to the majority area control mechanic, and makes the mechanics more understandable to a family audience or even non-gamers.
Did we say gems? Oh yes, my friends, Gollum would LOVE this game! My precious!!! Look at that Pile-O-Precious!
Bright, shiny, gems! They come in five different colours, representing the five different types of resources that can be mined on Charon. The six clear coloured gems are `wild', and can be used for any of the resources. There's also a cloth bag to help with some of the randomizing of gems that needs to happen at the start of each round.
Finally, there's a `mega' gem which is used to keep track of the four rounds. I like this kind of unnecessary overproduction and `bling' value!
You use the gems to make buildings that will score you points, and the each of the 55 cards represents a building.
The cards are numbered 2 through 12, and represent different value buildings that require different combinations of gems to build them. There's five of each building, each requiring a different set of gems to be built. Here's a sample of the different building types:
Overall, this was a job well done in the production department. Our only real complaint is that the game could have benefited from some player aids summarizing the different phases of the game, or perhaps have included this information on the board and integrated it with the relevant special actions. Aside from that small detail, the components get a thumbs up.
Another positive characteristic about Charon is that it sets up quickly and easily. Lay out the board and distribute seven flags of the same colour to each player. Randomly determine a starting player and place a flag from each player in the box which indicates turn order, and one flag from all players in each action area. Separate the gems by colour and set them in piles at the side of the board, but place the six clear gems in the action box marked “Rare Mineral Find”. Now, depending on the number of players, throw the required number of gems into the drawstring bag and then seed the board with randomly drawn gems from said bag. Next, fill up the remaining “mining holes” with gems (drawn from the stock this time) matching the colour of the gems you just placed in each region.
Remove all of the 12VP buildings from the deck of cards and place them at the side of the board as well. Deal two random cards, face down, on top of the stack of 12VP buildings – this will provide you with an initial discard pile. Then deal three cards to each player. Each player then secretly selects a card from their hand that will be simultaneously revealed and placed in a common `building' row in front of the board.
You are now ready to play! As you can see from the picture below, illustrating a set-up for four players, Charon looks good on the table!
Flow of Play
As noted above, Charon Inc. is a relatively easy game to pickup and learn, so there is no particular need to spend an enormous amount time going over the rules. Let's just give a brief overview of game play and provide a comment or two about the game’s central mechanics – what might be called the ‘market mechanism’ and the selection of the special action boxes.
With respect to overall game play, Charon is played out over a series of four rounds – each of which progresses through five phases. For those rules managers out there who are just jonesin’ for a fix, those five phases are:
(1) staking claims
(2) claiming gems
(3) adjusting turn order
(4) building cards
(5) resetting for the next round.
The heart of the game is to be found in the first phase in which players use their player flags to stake claims on certain regions of the map in the hopes of subsequently collecting gems from those regions and, in turn, using those gems to construct buildings that will gain them points at the end of the game.
In this sense, Charon Inc. might best be described as an area control / set collection game: players use their flags as a means of exerting control over a given region of the Charonian landscape and then use the gems they acquire as result of their flag placements to meet the resource requirements necessary to build certain buildings (represented by cards which detail the specific type of building being constructed and the necessary number and colour of gems needed to construct that building).
For example, building an Embassy (the highest valued building in the game, worth 12 points at the end of the game), would require two gems of four different colours: yellow, blue, purple, and green.
Ultimately, each building is worth a specific number of victory points and, at the end of the game, each player will total the points provided by all of the buildings they constructed and the player with most points wins. In this example of final scoring in a four player game, the maroon player win by having buildings worth 49 points.
Staking Claims: Variable influence
There are two things worth noting about the claim staking aspect of the game. Firstly, the mechanism by which the ownership of a given claim is established is somewhat unusual. In turn order players select and place one of their player markers on the board. These flags may be placed one of several possible locations, including: (a) an empty crossroads (touching 4 zones); (b) an empty road (touching 2 zones); and (c) directly in the middle of an empty zone (thus touching only 1 zone). When all players have placed their flags, ownership of the gems in a given region is determined by calculating which player has exerted the greatest influence on that region – the amount of influence being calculated by ascertaining which player has the most flags touching that particular area. In cases of a tie, the gems are awarded to the individual whose flag resides in the middle of the given claim, and following that to the person who has placed their flag on the most road spaces. If there is still a tie, some gems end up unclaimed, as seen in this two player example.
The challenge here is that while placing your flag at a crossroad provides a contact point with the greatest number of claims, planting your flag in the middle of a claim (and thus restricting your potential influence over a larger number of claims) provides the most reliable means of claiming the gems in that territory. This can create tense decisions: do you try to influence a larger number of claims, or do you try to influence a smaller number of claims but make your claim staking more potent? Delicious!
Staking Claims: Special actions
The second notable feature about the claim staking mechanism is that while each player has access to five flags, only four of those flags will be used to stake claims on the lunar surface. The remaining flag will be left behind in one of four `action areas' on the left of the board, each of which has the potential to provide a unique and helpful benefit to the player (or players) who leave their flag on that particular spot. As such, beyond simply trying to place your flags as advantageously as possible, you need to have an eye for what potential benefits may or may not be available during the coming round. The trick is that if too many players (a number which varies depending on how many people are playing) choose to leave their fifth flag on a particular location, no one will be able to take advantage of the special ability which that location provides. And so, one has to imagine what others players might want (or might not want) to do when you choose which flags to place on the moon itself. It may be that everyone wants the same action and that other areas are left uncontested; or perhaps it might prove advantageous to leave your flag on a given row in an effort to block your opponent from gaining access to a special ability that would be of particular benefit to them. In a nut shell, it isn’t just about where you place your flags on the board, it’s also about deciding in what specific action box your final flag can most profitably be left in. This mechanic creates some good interaction and suspense towards the conclusion of each round.
The special actions are Stolen Intelligence (Move a flag you control after all others have placed their flags), Rare Mineral Find (Gain a `Wild' gem), Engineering Advance (Gain an extra card), Synchrotron (Exchange one colour for another), and Underground Warehouse (Improves gem trading from 3:1 to 2:1, and enables you to keep 6 instead of 2 gems at end of turn). The Stolen Intelligence action seems particularly powerful, but all the actions have their uses at different stages of the game, and offer various benefits in one way or another - what you choose will also depend on what other players are choosing.
From Hermagor to Pluto
Those interested in more detailed information of how the mechanics that lie at the heart of the game were developed, would do well to read the "Game Designer Diary" at Boardgame News, where designer Mr. Ornella ruminates about the history and development of Charon Inc. The core of the game originated with Ornella's Hermagor, which he reshaped to make it suitable for a more family-friendly market, and added various elements to turn it into a completely new game with very different flavor and strategy. The team at Gryphon Game took this further by retheming it, and retooled various aspects of the game to make it even simpler and cleaner, with the aim of making it appeal to a broader spectrum. Ornella himself was pleased at the result, and given that this is more of a family game than Hermagor, it's well suited to the new Gryphon Family series that this will be part of.
What do we think?
Clearly Charon Inc is primarily targeted to the family audience, although there's enough here to please some gamers as well, especially when enjoyed as a quick tactical game with two or three players. There's some randomness in the cards and cube distribution, but the choices of players in placing their flags will determine the outcome more often than not. The components are good quality overall, and using flags helps gives the `claim staking' area control mechanic some flavour, sense, as well as visual appeal. If you're the AP prone type, the game time could quickly exceed an hour, and become a painful experience. But when played as intended, a two player game can easily be played in 30-45 minutes, and games with multiple players in 45-60 minutes.
One of the most important things to know before purchasing any game is how well it plays with different numbers of people. Charon Inc can be played with anything from 2 to 5 players, but the setup is different depending on the number of players you have available. The portion of the board which depicts the moon itself has been divided into twenty distinct claim spaces. When playing with five players all twenty claim spaces are used. However, for each player less than five, two spaces are removed from play. So only eighteen spaces are used with four players, sixteen with three players, and fourteen claim spaces with two players. The moon has conveniently been both colour coded and labeled to clearly indicate which claim sections are off limits in games with less than the full complement of five players. We have had the opportunity to play Charon several times with two, three and four players and here are our thoughts on each of those experiences.
● The Two Player Experience: Charon proved most enjoyable as a two player outing. This is a game which is more tactical than strategic in nature and, as such, is most enjoyable when played relatively quickly. In comparison to the three and four player experience, the two player game is less prone to becoming bogged down by players with even a mild case of AP. With two players the decisions about which claims to stake are relatively more obvious and there is also higher percentage chance of getting the gems that you need to meet the set requirements for constructing a given building, leading to high scores. The decisions that need to be made are still thoughtful ones, but they are not so tense or chaotic as they are with more players and we found that the game moved along more quickly with two. Thumbs up.
● The Three Player Experience: Here too play is solid and smooth but perhaps not as clean and enjoyable as with the two player game. It should be noted here that some of our three to five player experiences involved playing with children ranging in age from seven to fourteen and this may have contributed to slower game play. Having said that, we would note that while the suggested age on the side of the box is thirteen and up, with the aid of a little parental coaching here and there, intelligent children of seven to eight years of age can easily handle the game just fine. As such, Charon Inc. might prove particularly appealing to those looking for a family game that can be played by parents with children aged eight to fifteen.
● The Four and Five Player Experience: Here, in our experience, the game seemed to bog down a little bit – although to be honest we were both playing with individuals who were prone to AP, so our experiences may be somewhat coloured by that reality. With AP prone players at the table, games with four and five players take well over the suggested time limit of sixty minutes, and as such some of the fun factor was lost along the way. This was particularly the case for decisions about the penultimate and final moves when players had to try and calculate which flag placement would prove the most profitable – and as often as not, re-jig their plans to reflect the losses affected by the flag placement of other players. If you are going to play with four or five players, you need to ensure that people play casually and fairly quickly, otherwise a certain element of chaos (that isn't present in a 2-3 player game) will become frustrating, and the game time will become painful.
While the game board has been designed in such a way that it scales well for any number of players, the game seems to play best with fewer people, and is arguably strongest with two in a number of ways. It's harder to plan with the full complement of players, so perhaps Charon Inc shines the most when played with 2 or 3, although it works well with 4 or 5 when played in a casual environment.
In a sense the core mechanics of Charon Inc are not new: area control combined with set collection for victory points. But what makes this game interesting, aside from its sci-fi theme, are the way that it puts the mechanics together, and some novel twists. The special `action area' abilities are especially useful, because they offer ways to break the game's basic rules to get special benefits, and they create interesting ways of interaction and tension as players jockey to see which abilities will be available at the end of a round, since if more than one or two players choose the same ability, they cancel each other out and neither gets any special benefit. It's an interesting concept, and seems to work well - and if everyone seems to opt for the same action area, then try to maximize the advantage that might be afforded by another action area. The method of staking claims is also intriguing, because while flag placements on certain location of the board have influence on less areas than others, they give a more powerful trump value for winning ties. Again, these are interesting concepts to explore while gaming.
Is Charon Inc. for you? After several plays with varying numbers of players and with players of differing gaming expertise we have come to the conclusion that Charon Inc. is game that has a lot going for it, but which needs to be valued for what it is. Is Charon Inc. the next Agricola? No it’s not – but that’s also not what it aspires to be. Charon Inc. is best understood as a lighter, family-friendly game; one which can serve double-duty as a solid gateway game for introducing people to the world beyond Monopoly. For those of you out there who love all things sci-fi, it should be noted that the theme is somewhat pasted on, but it has to be conceded that the resource collection mechanic and the theme proved surprisingly satisfying for some of the people we tried this with. There is nothing “spacetastic” about this game in a thematic sense and one doesn't really have the feeling of being either a space explorer or a CEO of a major corporation, but there's enough there in the artwork and gameplay to offer fans of this kind of theme something to appreciate. And when played with two or three players (ideally players not prone to AP) there are undertones of elegance to Charon Inc.. Ultimately, it plays smoothly, relatively quickly, and provides a satisfying gaming experience, when matched with the right expectations.
Credits: This review is a collaborative effort between Enders Game and jtemple.
The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596
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Tue Oct 5, 2010 11:17 am
Really nice review! It makes such a different when a review is well formatted, and uses cropped and well inserted images.|
Tue Oct 5, 2010 12:03 pm
|Thank you very much for this. I've been waiting for a review such as yours in order to get a fuller perspective on the game. Charon Inc. has been on my radar for a while now, and I never expected the game to be anything more or less than what I now know it to be. Can't wait to get it. This is in no small part thanks to the Ender's Endorsement.|
Wed Oct 6, 2010 1:34 am
|Fantastic! Pluto-riffic, even! Thanks for this. I am a big fan of Hermagor, and this is on my radar.|
Wed Oct 6, 2010 8:29 am
|I always enjoy your reviews! I like pictures!|
Wed Oct 6, 2010 11:10 pm
Wow. Excellent review!|
And thanks for doing that!
Thu Oct 7, 2010 4:31 pm
Hey, who are we kidding, isn't it true that most of us here on BGG are addicts – board game components addicts that is? [...] There’s even something we about love the way new games smell. Oh, come on now – don’t pretend that you don’t know exactly what we’re talking about! That fresh cardboard scent is intoxicating!
Literally -- the solvents in the inks are the same chemicals that people who sniff glue get high on.
Sat Oct 9, 2010 2:27 am
|I wasn't going to get this one till I read your review. Good review. Thanks.|
Mon Oct 18, 2010 7:22 pm
|Nice review with nice format and good title. Thank you very much !|
Tue Nov 2, 2010 11:24 am
|Great review, but i would not call this a family game, the mechanics might be relatively simple but this game is highly interactive, as in I'll stab you in the back at the last second and now you may begin to cry cuz you don't have a chance at winning anymore. It's very hard to regain a shot at the title when you get completely screwed at any given round and that is something i would hesitate to call family friendly. And adults playing this agains a 8 year old? He would get hammered, cry and never play again.|
Mon Aug 19, 2013 11:18 am