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Subject: Charterstone: A (Very) Long Spoiler-ish Review of “Our” Campaign rss

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Jeremy McMahon
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So you want to build your own thriving city?

Not sure if you’ve got what it takes?

Read on, potential founders, and maybe see if Charterstone is the blueprint you need for your designs.

(I am afraid I have let the exuberance of finishing a non-stop campaign get to me, and have written a rather long piece. If you want to read a spoiler free conclusion, you can skip to the end. Otherwise, spoilers (hopefully mild) are present in the following praise and criticism of the Charterstone experience)

Spoiler-ish Warning

Some founders may wish to go into this founding phase of their lives unspoiled by the notions and expectations set out by those who have gone before them.

This is entirely appropriate, despite the gravity of the task before you, as one of the main joys of building your own legacy is the discovery process. Indeed, some consider the peeling back of layer after layer of the new task before them to be the overwhelmingly best part of building your own legacy.

When you do this in Charterstone, after 12 not so gruelling “months”, your thriving metropolis will be a unique invention that will be unlike the clumsy efforts of my group of founders. And others consider this to be the best part of building your own legacy; that it is truly your own.

But for those already familiar with the idea of leaving a legacy, whether it be from prior experiences saving the world from global Pandemics, or exploring the wilderness to fix the ails of the legendary city of Gloomhaven, you may wish to know a little more about your potential journey.

If you get that this journey will leave a legacy, but want a slight taste more of the experiences you can savour, read on. If you wish to know nothing more of the travails of our group of founders in Charterstone, turn back now or forever be encumbered by the weight of knowledge.

Keeping in mind that our experiences may not match yours, as every journey through the Charterstone process is unique, I present an early example of a discovery that our group made so that you may still turn back after learning of this if the hint of knowledge spoils too much for you. I will try to present all our discoveries in a similar such fashion, with the same level of vagueness, so that you may determine from this revelation if you wish to keep reading my guide.

Proceed with caution, dear readers.

Early in the founding of our great city of Doomhaven (named in an obvious tribute to the mark we had made in a previous city) we discovered that a founder starts off acquiring a great deal of stuff. This includes the materials and the means, the processes as it were, and some helping hands, needed to build a thriving metropolis.

At first, overcome with enthusiasm, and keen to make their own marks in unique ways, some founders hoarded these materials and resources so that they might have plenty to work with in future months. Other founders just got on with the business of building Doomhaven.

There are hints from your founding guide that the latter path may be preferred, but looking to get an edge in their quest for immortal fame as the greatest of founders, some ignored these warnings. Sadly, dear reader, I was one of these brash young founders that greedily took whatever I could, without giving back to our grand city, and I was buried by my own hubris.

To my horror, and much to the delight of some of my fellows, I discovered that running and building a city is a bigger task than I had imagined, and I could not keep my hold on all my greedily acquired resources, month to month. Knowing this now would radically alter (and I daresay improve) both my earliest founding moves, and my long-term strategies for building a metropolis.

So there you have it. One of the many secrets of designing a great city in Charterstone revealed. If this knowledge has distressed you, dear reader, I apologise and urge you to turn back now. But if you would like to know more, in a similar vein, of the trials and tribulations our group of founders faced, and our opinions thereof, I present my humble treatise on the positives and negatives of becoming a Charterstone founder.

What is Charterstone?
A Charterstone is a curious cube, a location found at the heart of a settlement, used for opening crates that contain materials needed to grow the settlement. Anyone may use this device to develop their resources and add blueprints for previously unimagined buildings to their personal or to collective resource pools.

Additionally, it is a die with 6 curious symbols on it. It is used at the start of a month to determine which founder gets the jump on her or his peers by acting first, but curiously has very little use beyond that. One founder noted that it was a rather grand component for such limited use (and sometimes unsatisfying use, when it is used as a random tiebreaker).

But Charterstone is more than a location or wooden cube. It is a method, a system, for developing your own unique city. At its heart, it is a system in which you will use workers to navigate the myriad locations in your city. If you have experienced systems before that allow you to direct, to place workers in order to acquire resources and achieve goals, you will very much be familiar with the core systems in Charterstone.

Rather than the harsh confines of placing your workers in limited places, such as happens in the deep dwarven realms of Caverna, or the wild, magical streets of Waterdeep, the workers act much more generously here, as they do in the dystopian Euphoria.

This founder particularly enjoys bossing workers around, but does not have a particular preference for their behaviour, be it the traditional blocking type of worker who prevents others from visiting the same location, or the bumping type of worker found in Charterstone, who merely returns previous workers back to base early. This effectively gives you a small-time advantage if you can anticipate the location to send your worker to before your opponents need to use that space.

Personally, I have found the traditional blocking system a bit more strategic and interactive, and the bumping system a bit friendlier to those who are less competitive. Along with the story and discovery nature of Charterstone, this adds to the feel of Charterstone being a system that is accessible to many potential founders, but may not fully satisfy those looking for a very deep, cerebral experience.

Why would you become a Charterstone Founder?
Well mostly because it is enormously fun.

If you have ever experienced and enjoyed leaving your legacy before, and much like this cruel overlord you enjoy bossing your workers around, the chances are very good that you will have a great time designing your own unique Charterstone city.

It is undeniable that a large part of the joy (and a sizeable portion of the frustration, if you are concerned at optimizing your strategies) comes from not knowing what lies ahead, and discovering how your decisions have impacted the future of your city.

In many moments, our group experienced a collective joy at new revelations and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
And there were also gimmicks and bizarre revelations that we did not understand at first, but we enjoyed them immensely (or at least most of us did…) when we applied ourselves to exploiting them.

This particular curmudgeon is loath to deface the materials needed to build a legacy experience, a concern shared with a number of his fellows (we have even left some “Exit” experiences intact!). So despite having a Charterstone sitting on my shelf for some time, I was not particularly interested in opening that Pandora’s box.

But it is undeniable that the permanent crafting of our city from the gorgeous materials provided within the box was delightful, and my own concerns about the permanence of any potential missteps were somewhat allayed by both the joy of the uniqueness of the experience, and the beautiful and hopefully functional final product of our endeavours.

Why might you be wary?

At the duel risks of again spoiling too much of your potential experiences, and of sounding overly critical of a system that overall provided many hours of exemplary entertainment, there are a procession of critiques provided below that you may wish to consider.

For ease of digestion, my rantings have been categorised into early (the first two months), mid (months three to ten) and late (months eleven and twelve and the future of our city) period observations.

In the early period:

As a tactical experience, the early part (first two months/stories) of building your own village is not deeply engaging. That is not to say it is a terrible tactical experience, but there is just not that much you can do, and a large part of your early experience will be concerned with uncovering early story and crucial early systems for understanding how to be a successful founder.

There is still much joy in this early phase though, as both anticipation and discovery, two of the main drivers of delight in your Charterstone experience, are ascendant in this phase.

In order to eek out any strategic advantage, some of our founders tried to anticipate which sort of actions would give them long term success in the development of our city. This is also part of the nature of a campaign, and in my view, a very fun part; your decisions have a lasting impact.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you take glee in the demise of your competitors) it is easy at this point to completely misjudge what the best things to do are. Or even to accidentally stumble in to a dangerous path. It is also possible to do great things, in terms of your long-term success, without really knowing what you are doing. Or at least it seemed that way to us.

Keeping in mind, this is just my view of our city, and other experiences may vary, and the early Charterstone experience may actually be very forgiving. But in retrospect we felt that the seeds to our relatively weak Charterstone end experience were sown by almost arbitrarily random (in the face of the knowledge we held at the time) decisions we made in this phase. And we have some concerns that if we were to try our hand at a new founding, inexperienced founders might have very big disadvantages against us due to decisions with lasting impact, made at this phase of the game.

But I could be completely wrong here. A different early decision might lead to a completely different late path where all my experience is invalidated, and until I try founding a new city, I won’t really know.

The mid phase:

The “middle” part of your Charterstone experience, if it is anything like ours, will be challenging, surprising, and joyous in great and equal measure, with very little to complain about. By “middle”, I refer to the vast bulk of our experience that happened from our 3rd to 10th month.

Some of the months were enjoyed more by some than others, and the early parts of this phase continued to have hangovers from poor decisions made early, and the late parts started to go down the dangerous paths of the late phase, but overall this part of our city building experience was pure delight.

But in retrospect, the parts of our experience that were troubling later, and that give me concern for the future, were not only started in the early phase, but were built upon in this phase. We were just having too much fun to really notice at the time.

As with many things, the great strength of the Charterstone experience is also its great weakness. In a campaign style experience, in order to feel like your decisions matter, they must have consequences. Good decisions should have good consequences, and bad decisions should have bad consequences, or at least less good consequences if you are not Stefan Feld.

It is only fair that you get rewarded for your efforts, but for those of us that inadvertently or stupidly failed to contribute properly to our city during any particular month, we expect to wear the consequences, but also don’t want to find the future months too punishing while one founder repeatedly reaps all the glory.

One very nice part of the middle months is that many of the revelations, even the one that others have said is gimmicky, are structured to prevent founders from falling into complacency. Just because you have been rewarded for past brilliance, doesn’t mean your strategy will suit the current month. And mostly in the middle months you must adapt your resources to suit the current situation, preventing any one resource from being overly useful.

Two other systems reveal themselves within this period to further prevent founders from being repeatedly punished, and these are both good ideas, in theory, that fell a bit flat in practise, and did not really curb the issues with the last few months.

One mechanism rewards the winning founder in a month with campaign victory points, but the “non winning” founders (a name used in a nod to the family friendliness of Charterstone) accumulate a small permanent advantage of their choice. This is a fine system, except that the advantage is so slight that it pails compared to acquiring any of the particularly useful resources in a month, and the advantage can cap out rather early, so founders in a particularly poor situation have very little hope of catching up in the late months, at least from this system. To be fair, any founder, even one doing poorly, could acquire in a month a “particularly useful resource”, but chances are good that whoever is winning has a few of these, and are just as likely to get more as anyone else, so the catch-up mechanism does not necessarily catch up enough.

The other mechanism was actually effective. I should know, I was the beneficiary. About halfway through the campaign, I was coming last and acquired a resource (an ability, really) as a catch-up mechanism that really helped me. I finished 2nd, and feel this mechanism really helped me. And it was fun, thematic, and had a really cool draw back (thematically, in play the draw back was a non-issue for me, but could have been perilous for others).

But I bet the founder who came third feels it was a little heavy handed. At the time when this mechanism was distributed, I was coming last, along with the founder who ended up 3rd. And we probably would have swapped overall places if he had been the beneficiary instead. I acquired this ability through the cunning tactic of rolling the die and being awarded it randomly, instead of my fellow last founder. And at the time the founder who ended up last was 1 point in front of us, with a less developed permanent presence, but no chance of getting the effective catch up mechanism. Mind you, the founder who won was 1 point in front of her. The problem is that the mechanism is distributed rather arbitrarily, and helps only 1 player who may or may not really need it. The effect is significant in some circumstances, though not necessarily that good, and I get the feeling our city arrangement made this effect particularly useful.

But you will probably not notice the influence of these catch up mechanisms in the middle months. You will enjoy picking your “non-winning” bonus, and not think about its long-term effectiveness, and hopefully just enjoy the middle months of building your city as much as we did.

The final months:

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Doomhaven, our little Charterstone city, was built in two.
Though due to some quirk in the space-time continuum, the Eternal King (the grand ruler and story driving NPC of the Charterstone world) breaks the Charterstone experience into 12 stories, and refers at least to some of them as months, so this critique is of the last few stories, or “months” of the Charterstone experience.

It speaks to the strength of the processes that our group of founders basically went through the entire campaign, non-stop in two days (or maybe it suggests we are binge addicts…). This is not something I have done since the days of my youth (nor intend to do again anytime!) but was also part of our unique experience. And in fairness, some of our concerns at the end months may just have been fatigue induced, particularly my complaint that one founder had accumulated unbeatable advantages, given that I beat him in the very last month…

Each month brings revelations, but for some, month 11 will be a doozy. I can not vouch that this will be the experience of all founders, but for us, the 11th month brought with it a spewing forth of all the mechanisms (maybe not all, but it seemed like a lot) that we had somehow managed to miss during the campaign. I appreciate this is to both show us all that a city has to offer, and to help set the foundations for a strong city beyond the first 12 month founding period.

And I did not mind getting the (probable) remaining mechanisms and resources all at once, though some may object to the change of pace. What I did object to was the resources themselves. We felt that they were wildly powerful compared to previous resources, and added a good deal of randomness to what had been, until then, a decent tactical experience.

If we had unlocked these resources earlier, maybe we would have been more acclimatised to them and we would have felt their presence less dominating. But two vague examples may show you our concerns, and give you warning of the experiences you may have if you do unlock them earlier.

In essence, the main resource we were managing throughout the founding process was time. In time, we could accumulate anything, build anything, do whatever we needed. But throughout each month we could not do whatever we wanted, because we were limited with what we could do at any one moment, and our number of moments was limited. A bit of a metaphor for life, really….

With one of the new resources unlocked, it was possible (and probably unlikely in any given game but did happen in our game), through the application of dumb luck (i.e. multiples of the resource were available at the start of your turn and you have the means to gather them) to have many turns in a row. In a time limited situation, getting a free turn is very good, getting multiple is ridiculous.

Through another blend of resources that the winning founder had accumulated (and they were great but had not been too great most of the time) he was able to accumulate more often and more efficiently this fantastic new resource.

“Well played!” one might say.

Except that he had accumulated this useful combination before the new resource was revealed, and unintentionally could now get many more turns than other founders in a time limited worker placement experience, inadvertently turning his good engine into an unbreakable machine.

We theory crafted at the time, and whilst I can not guarantee that our theories are correct (nor indeed our understanding of the rules of the land that allow Charterstone cities to flourish), we believe this combination if tweaked, could actually have lead to infinite turns and infinite points.

Whether or not our theories hold true, the turn that came with the 11th month not only added a lot of new material to our city, but changed the essence of what we were doing from placing workers, to forming combinations. If one has experience in the great realms of Dominion or Hyperborea, for example, one may be familiar with the sorts of experiences where a strategic resource gathering operation shifts to a protracted, and sometimes painful combination developing operation. And this happened, to some extent, to us in the late stages of building our Charterstone city.

Additionally, as our city evolved over time, paradoxically some of our buildings that we discovered seemed so situational as to be less useful. Which is perfectly fine, except that some still got better, and it seemed largely a matter of luck as to which a particular founder got.

One founder unlocked two buildings that each enabled founders to accumulate 8 victory points over the course of a game, for one “influence”. Influence is an important and limited resource that is essential for most actions that acquire victory points, and pretty much 5 victory points for a point of influence is the standard set throughout the campaign. 8 might not seem a big deal, but two lots of 8 becomes a bigger deal. But anyone can use them, so again, no big deal, right?

Except that in Charterstone, if you “control” the buildings you can get some advantage from that if others want to use them, under some circumstances. And the resources needed to use these buildings are easier to acquire from the same region this founder controlled, so he could control the resource gathering buildings that supplied these point gathering buildings as well. And this founder had ways (that we may have got wrong, we had some mild issues with rules at various points, that were probably cleared in FAQs but we did not turn to FAQs often so as to not disrupt the flow) to further increase his points. So he could essentially get 24 points every game from 2 influence, a 14 point advantage over other methods, and if other founders wanted to catch up a bit to get 16 points from the same 2 buildings, they had to pay him for the privilege (and pay him for the resources to power those buildings).

Oh, and this founder was the one with the combo that gave more extra turns than the rest could get, and also because of that combo was more likely to control the flow of the game and extend the point advantage from those 2 influence to 30 points…

At this point, it may sound like sour grapes from a founder who found less glory. In fact, I finished the campaign a very close 2nd, and actually beat the other founder in the twelfth month. I also had a distinct, unearned advantage from the catch-up mechanism. And I think we both played well and used the resources available well.

But the situation, carried over from previous months, of the founder who finished last (who is very good at most strategic exercises) seemed so dire that none of us could think of a way for that founder to remotely stay in touch of the glory of the top founders. As a consequence (and maybe also due to fatigue), that founder was really just going through the motions for the last two months, which felt a bit anticlimactic for all of us.

It is entirely likely there was some group think, and strategies we missed that make the play fairer, and other campaigns may go in different directions. And overall, most of the months were very competitive with very small differences between the winning and second scores.

So feel free to ignore this grizzly old man and his complaining. And I enjoyed the last two months, just not as much as the earlier months. It is just that they felt much less balanced than the earlier months. And some strategies seemed obviously much better than others, and some founders could achieve them much more easily due to decisions they had made in earlier months, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes inadvertently. As a tactical experience, the end felt much weaker than the middle, and even the start.

Which leads to my last concern, again purely theoretical. I have not had the chance to revisit our glorious city of Doomhaven, but one magnificent consequence of our short 12 months founding efforts is that the city is now there, in all its unique glory, for all to experience in the future. This is a fantastic feature of our Charterstone experience.

But because one founder was accumulating Glory by clever manipulation of combinations at an alarming rate as others floundered, the parts of the city they controlled (called “Charters”) were definitely developed differently, and certainly differently from the randomly generated charters of the “inactive” (absent) founders.

The final stage seems to mostly free the new visitors to Doomhaven from the shackles of the founders of the original founders. New visitors don’t have to, and don’t get to, use most of the same accumulated resources, at least in the same combinations, that the original founders had. The resources are redistributed to new visitors every time they come to control a charter from our fair city. But the base city itself, and some of the redistributed resources, are quite varied in quality from one part to another (or appear so to my unseasoned eye). I do worry that some sections of our city may be close to unplayable.

Also, some parts of our city remain undeveloped, and there are resources available for new visitors to develop them, but there is probably not much incentive for them to do so, given some of the in built economic engines already in place. So there is an awkwardness to the use of the unconstructed buildings left after our founding 12 months. If they are available for new visitors, they may just clog up their resources list. If they are not available (an option vaguely suggested by the guide book) the city will forever have undeveloped space. If they are arbitrarily developed by the owners of the city outside of a competitive process, some things may be included or unlocked in a process that does not match the organic initial development of the city.

But I am happy that there is a final product, however flawed it may appear. And only future visits to our beautiful Charterstone city can really unravel the suitability of it for future competitive endeavours.

Conclusion: Are you ready to become a Charterstone founder?

So much time spent reminiscing on the bad old days may have potential founders (players) wondering why I would recommend becoming a founder. Again, most of my criticisms are off our own unique playthrough, and may not apply in all situations. Indeed, they may not apply to our own city, with a fresh pair of eyes to re-examine our group thinking.

The overwhelming emotion from the Charterstone experience was joy. I’m not sure you can have a 20 or so hour marathon experience like we had (broken up by a smattering of sleeping and eating) without some frustration, but the wonderment of discovery, the satisfaction of formulating and executing a plan, and the pleasure of a shared experience were much more prominent.

You should consider Charterstone if you have enjoyed other legacy or campaign games. I have not personally tried to cure a 12-month global Pandemic, but other founders had come fresh from that, and compared their Charterstone journey favourably to their Pandemic Legacy experiences.

I have spent many hours exploring Gloomhaven. It is very different, and my current favourite Legacy experience (although very light on the Legacy part compared to Charterstone), so it is difficult to compare to Charterstone. I would say the best parts (most of the time) are comparable to the fun of Gloomhaven, with the same discovery and progression elements really making them both great. But it is more accessible than Gloomhaven, and finishing a campaign in less than several (real time) months is possible (ours took 2 days, compared to the 12 months or so we have been working at Gloomhaven).

If you enjoy Lording it over Waterdeep, the strategic depth and tactical feel is often similar. The complexity of both in their most developed states is similar (including the Skullport and Undermountain expansions). I would say that Lords of Waterdeep is more straightforward, but also less random and swingy, so probably a bit more tactical than building a city in Charterstone. The story and particularly campaign parts to Charterstone more than make up for this though, so the experiences are not that comparable.

Because of the bumping of workers, in some ways this is similar to Euphoria, but really, the month to month experience is not that similar to Euphoria, or many other worker placement tasks I have completed such as Caverna, Simurgh, Ave Roma or Anachrony. Out of worker placement games I have tried, the “feel” is most like a thematic Lords of Waterdeep with bumping, though with more (and more random) mechanisms.

There is about as little player interaction in Charterstone as I have ever seen in the worker placement genre, but whether that is a positive or negative I leave to you to decide. For the most part the city is full of locations, and even using an occupied location merely provides a small boost to your opponent. There are virtually no opportunities to disrupt the plans of your fellow founders.

I very much enjoy how each month ends, the level of control founders have over that, and the tension it creates. For the most part, I appreciated the differences between months, and liked how developed strategies had to be modified or even abandoned each new month, whilst some things that worked could be retained. This gave players the space to explore new strategies each month without being walloped by the person following the one true path.

As a stand-alone experience, each separate month of Charterstone would just be “fine” (some would be good and others merely OK). But that is like playing the first Chapter of the Witcher 3 computer game, or reading the first chapter of A Game of Thrones (or watching the first episode) and calling it fine. The experiences are not meant to stand alone, and it is not just the excitement of progressing, the satisfaction of permanently crafting, or the fun of exploring your own city that enhances the Legacy of Charterstone beyond the similar worker placement games I have previously enjoyed.

The campaign nature adds a definite strategic level that is just not possible in other types of games. At points, founders were saying they would be happy not to hog all the Glory one month, just to gain another strategic advantage for future months (whether I believed them is another matter!).

On the downside, the campaign play has some possible weaknesses. It seems to us that some founder’s positions become less tenable over time, and the catch-up mechanisms are not entirely effective. It is hard to imagine an asymmetrical game, with progressing asymmetry, entirely avoiding this problem, but it did seem an issue that emerged towards the end of the campaign.

If you treat a campaign as one big “game” over 20 or so hours like we did (which is not necessarily something I recommend, but is hard to resist as continuing to the next story is so compelling), you may be a little disappointed with the apparent randomness of the finish to an otherwise epic event.

And the final product, for good or ill, will of course be heavily shaped by your campaign play, and I hope that ours will still remain a good product, despite the lopsided play at the end.

Despite the proffered recharge packs I have concerns for campaign replayability, should I wish to venture in to another Charterstone city, if I am against novice founders, though again that is hardly unique to this game or to this genre, and the value you get out of just one campaign play through is enormous.

But this campaign element present in Charterstone is why I adore Gloomhaven. It is what elevates Bloodbowl or Necromunda from good to great. It is why I will prefer a “shooter” RPG like Fallout over a straight shooter, every day. (I might even argue it is present in one of my other favourites, Twilight Imperium, as your long-term strategies take nearly as long to develop as over a Charterstone campaign!). And it makes Charterstone greater than the sum of its parts, and an adventure I can most definitely recommend to virtually every type of gamer.

So, at long last dear reader, we conclude. And how do we conclude?
Become a founder! Your Forever King and country need you!

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Derek Strand
British Columbia
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MASK Crusaders... working overtime... fighting crime... fighting crime!!! Secret Raiders...
Nicely written review of Charterstone. Consider writing a novel?
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Jeremy McMahon
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I would (write a novel) but then I wouldn't have time to write long reviews
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Cosmo Girl
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Thanks, Jeremy! Patrick and I thoroughly enjoyed the review.
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