The prosperous Kingdom of Greengully, ruled for centuries by the Forever King, has issued a decree to its citizens to colonize the vast lands beyond its borders. In an effort to start a new village, the Forever King has selected six citizens for the task, each of whom has a unique set of skills they use to build their charter.
Back in 2017 when publisher Stonemaier Games announced that Charterstone, the village-building legacy game designed by author Jamey Stegmaier, would include an official solo mode I honestly thought that it sounded like a monumental nay dare I say impossible feat to accomplish. How would one let alone several neutral dummy players be able to handle the highly interactive nature that signifies a legacy style board game with an evolving game state and component manipulation? Well shame on me for doubting the talented folks over at the Automa Factory, as Charterstone does indeed support solitaire play out of the box. The question though is whether or not a legacy based game system lends itself particularly well to playing solo?
Full disclosure: a review copy of Charterstone was kindly provided by publisher Stonemaier Games.
With the rare exception for Pendulum, a board game that I genuinely disliked the overall aesthetics of, for me the act of opening a Stonemaier Games box for the first time is often comparable to being a kid on Christmas morning; diving head-first into a world of shiny trinkets exquisitely crafted with the greatest attention to detail. Similar to Petrichor from publisher Mighty Boards, Charterstone opts for a light aesthetic combined with lovely colourful pastoral illustrations courtesy of the incredibly talented artists Lina Cossette and David Forest otherwise known as Mr. Cuddington. To a certain extent the game reminds me of the art style in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which is high praise considering how much I adore the escapades of Link.
From the Index card tuck box which features a magnetic lid to keep the contents snug and secure to the thick metal coins and custom shaped resource tokens, Charterstone looks and feels like a luxury item when fully displayed on the game table. As per usual the solo rules for the Automa(s) are presented in a separate booklet, they are introduced in a clear and concise manner making the solo mode in Charterstone an enjoyable process to learn in terms of complexity and grokking the underlying systems for the actions of the neutral players.
THE SOLO MODE
Before proceeding, it is worth emphasising that this review of Charterstone is entirely spoiler-free regarding my thoughts on both the components and the story that unfolds over the course of the campaign. Because this is a legacy style game with an evolving narrative and game state I will not go into specific details. Rather, I will provide a more general overview of the core mechanisms and instead focus on my personal feelings of playing Charterstone from a solitaire perspective.
At its core Charterstone is a worker placement game where you take on the role of one of six citizens chosen by the immortal Forever King to grow and expand the village from its humble beginnings to a bustling community. On your turn you will deploy your workers to locations on the main board in order to collect the necessary resources needed to construct new buildings, buy blueprints for more advanced structures, or recruit assistants which will grant you some form of bonus for the duration of their allegiance to you. If all of this sounds rather pedestrian then you would be right because the early games of the campaign are simplistic to say the least. You will undoubtedly experience a sense of déjà vu creeping in as turn after turn follows the exact same pattern of deploying workers and collecting resources ad nauseum.
The upside to this rather rudimentary initial exposure to the game system is that Charterstone might very well be one of the best introductions to worker placement for people new to the hobby, in large due to how the game drip feeds new rules and mechanism over the course of the first few play sessions. To its credit the game does ramp up in complexity by adding new components and interlocking mechanisms, thus providing a bit more meat to the bone for seasoned board game veterans but one should be aware of the fact that it takes a handful of games for Charterstone to truly shine in terms of providing an engaging experience.
So how does Charterstone fare as a solitaire experience? The short answer is not particularly well I am afraid. Allow me to elaborate. When playing the game solo, you will incorporate one or more neutral players who, much like yourself, will lay the foundation and expand their charter in order to appease the Forever King at the end of the campaign. Similar to previous solo modes the neutral players in Charterstone perform their actions based on a deck of cards which is used to stipulate where on the board an Automa will place their worker and also what benefits to collect in the form of victory points and additional bonuses. As a result, discerning and performing the actions of the neutral players is incredibly straight-forward to the point that I think this is one of the best solo modes that the Automa Factory has designed in terms of usability.
Unfortunately, this leads me to one of my biggest concerns about Charterstone as a solo experience. Because the neutral players do not adhere to the general rules of collecting and paying resources in order to construct buildings or unlock new content from the treasure trove, they will undoubtedly perform these actions at a much higher rate than yourself. Even if you are really efficient with the placement of your workers the fact of the matter is that constructing a building is a significant task that requires several turns of laboriously collecting resources and coins. It may just be the case that I am not particularly skilled at playing Charterstone, but I found myself constantly struggling to get a decent engine going. The result is a solo experience where you will spend the lion share of the game peeling stickers and searching for cards on behalf of the neutral players, an aspect of Charterstone which is far less enjoyable and one that quickly becomes rather tedious. It is such a crying shame because I genuinely believe that Charterstone at its core is a terrific bordering on brilliant piece of board game design.
In her review Liz Davidson of Beyond Solitaire described Charterstone as a game she appreciated and respected but nevertheless did not enjoy. Having played through the campaign solo I will definitely echo her sentiment as I find myself exceptionally torn in regard to my personal feelings towards the solitaire aspect. For me, playing Charterstone solo became a stark reminder of the impact of the ongoing pandemic and how much I long for the day when we are able to get together at the game table in person as opposed to staring into web cameras and computer screens.
Despite having only played the game solo I have no difficulty imagining the joy and excitement one would experience playing Charterstone with friends and family as you are collectively contributing to the evolving game state whilst simultaneously sharing the “burden” of managing the administrative aspects of the legacy campaign. It is a crying shame because fundamentally there is nothing wrong with the way the solo mode is designed, quite the contrary.
It is worth emphasising that I do genuinely believe that Charterstone might very well be one of the best introductory games ever designed. From a solitaire perspective though, although fascinating and admirable in its execution Charterstone is not a game I would recommend exclusively for solo play.