Design Diary

This is a compilation of the designer diary entries Jamey posts on the Charterstone Facebook group. They are listed here in chronological order, with the most recent entry at the top (so if you’re just now finding this, it’ll make more sense if you start from the bottom).

***

August 15

I heard some good news from Meeplesource today! They expedited their custom character meeples for Charterstone, and they’ve been shipping them all over the world for the last few days. As a result, the meeples will be available at the booth we’re sharing with them at Gen Con (#2656). Charterstone itself won’t be at the booth, nor will I, but the folks at Meeplesource are very friendly, and they’re going to have a lot of different custom meeples and Stonemaier stuff there.

Because I’m heading to Gen Con tomorrow, I’m posting this week’s design diary entry today. As a thematic tie to the Meeplesource mention above, I thought I’d talk about a critical part of Charterstone’s design process: blind playtesting.

Prior to Charterstone, the last blind playtest I coordinated was for Invaders from Afar. Similar to core-game Scythe, we brute-force blind playtested it. That is, I reached out to our ambassadors, invited them all to blind playtest, and compiled as much data as possible to ensure that it was fun and well-balanced.

As a legacy campaign game, Charterstone is a completely different beast than Scythe. With discovery as a core feature of the game, I didn’t think it was the best idea to release a digital PnP, as the person building the prototype would inadvertently spoil quite a bit. Plus, I needed groups to commit to playing the game 13 times (12 campaign games plus 1 post-campaign game) over a short time period—having data and feedback for just 1 or 2 games wasn’t helpful, nor was it useful if it took a group 2 months to complete the playtest.

So I implemented a completely different blind playtest process: 4 waves over 6 months, a total of about 20 different groups, over 250 games played. Cynthia Landon, the co-owner of Meeplesource, was the lead playtester for one of those groups, hence why I’m talking about this today.

For each group, I asked our prototype helper, Josh Ward, to create a prototype from scratch (fortunately, we were eventually able to reuse some of the contents of each game). I had him send those prototypes to 5 different groups for each wave of playtesting, each at a different player count (solo playtesting would happen later).

Each lead playtester was expected to film the first game, something I learned from the Pandemic Legacy process shared by Rob Daviau and Matt Leacock. It was painful to watch those videos, because it’s quickly apparent when rules are poorly written or a mechanism doesn’t work as well as it should, but I found it incredibly helpful to watch people stumble through that first game on film.

Over a 2-week period, groups would play through the 13 games, entering data and feedback on a detailed Google Form and taking photos of the game state. I tracked the game length, certain legacy decisions, and player ratings, in addition to questions like the following:

–Was there an overpowered strategy? Or was there a boring/repetitive (yet successful) strategy?

–What was the most frustrating thing that happened during the game? Why was it frustrating?

–Which rules did you play incorrectly? Were there any rules confusions?

–If the game lasted longer or shorter than you feel it should have, why did you feel that way and what was it about the game that made it too long/short?

At the end of each wave of blind playtesting, I paid the lead playtester for their time (I typically don’t do that for blind playtests, but for Charterstone, they were doing a job with very specific expectations—they weren’t volunteering at their leisure), and sat down with a huge amount of quantitative and anecdotal data to sort through.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to these blind playtesters. It’s a sacrifice for them to spoil many aspects of the game and stumble through the campaign using a prototype instead of the final version, but the game is so, so much better for it. Charterstone wouldn’t even exist without these blind playtesters.

 

 

 

 

***

August 9

I need to start this week’s Charterstone post with some bad news.

Our manufacturer, Panda, has actively been actively printing Charterstone for a while now. It’s going well…with one exception: the sticker cards.

As you can see in the image below, each sticker card is comprised of multiple layers. There’s the sticker material itself (the top layer), then the waxy paper the sticker is peeled from (middle layer), which is glued to the regular cardstock (bottom layer).

These cards are printed on giant sheets and then diecut by a giant, very sharp machine.

Normally this machine is very fast. With Charterstone, every time it cuts a card sheet, the blades get a little bit of glue on them. This glue accumulates to the point each day that the machine must be stopped and the blades must be cleaned.

Compounded with a few other lesser factors, this has resulted in Charterstone’s estimated completion date (at the factory) changing from September 15 to as late as October 8. Because of the way Thanksgiving week impacts freight shipping in the US, I had to adjust the retail release date from late October/early November to December 12.

So, that’s the bad news. It’s far from ideal, but I’d rather let you know now than the last week of October.

The bright side is that some of our international partners will likely air freight some copies in for Essen Spiel. I think you’ll see French and German copies there, and I may sell some English copies to those partners for Essen too.

The other good news is that all of the non-printed components—those that are usually more likely to slow down production of a game—are going great. These photos are of most the non-printed components you’ll see when you first open the box: They’re the standard player pieces, coins, and resources.

Thanks for your patience, and I look forward to hearing what you think when you play Charterstone in December.

***

August 2

Yesterday we released the Charterstone teaser trailer, which we’ve been working on for a while. I wanted to share it with this group today and talk about some of the people and decisions that went into it.

Step 1: SCRIPT. I created a PowerPoint slideshow to storyboard the video, with each “scene” containing 1 line of text and some images. I typically aim for 10-12 slides so the video won’t be too long. My main goal with the script is to pair it with visuals—some of them animated—to convey concepts that I can’t express as well through text or static images. That’s particularly the case about halfway through the video where a building sticker is removed from a card and placed in a charter.

Step 2: VOICEOVER. I sent the slideshow to voiceover artist Alex Hall. I had met her recently during the filming of a web series about game design, and I thought her clear and friendly voice fit the tone of Charterstone. She sent me a few different audio files and I picked my favorite. It’s important that this step came before Step 3, which requires me to know the exact length of the video.

Step 3: MUSIC. Now that I knew the length of the video, I could buy some music for it. I chose premiumbeat.com’s “Production/Film Scores” genre and found a great variety of music there. Again, I went for something light and cheery for Charterstone’s video.

Step 4. INTRODUCTION. This wasn’t in my original plan, but I decided to put about 10 seconds of me talking to the camera at the beginning of the video for a few reasons. Primarily, because we’re not using Kickstarter for Charterstone, I wanted to show people that Stonemaier hasn’t gone corporate—I want to connect with you on a face-to-face just like before. Secondarily, I wanted to assure people that the video would be spoiler-free.

Step 5: EDITING/ANIMATION. When all of the content for the video and the game itself was ready, I sent it off to the maestro that is Josh McDowell. He’s the one who makes the video look so polished through editing, animation, and probably a lot of other stuff I don’t even know about.

You can watch the final result here.

***

July 26

Let’s talk about the recharge pack.

When people started engaging in the Charterstone Facebook group in January, someone mentioned the idea of a recharge pack. It gained enough traction that I added it to our Future Printing Request Form to gather some hard data. (http://stonemaiergames.com/future-printing-request-form/)

The idea was that after you play a 12-game legacy campaign of Charterstone, you will have permanently altered a number of components. The game is designed so you can continue to play your copy post-campaign, but you no longer have that feeling of starting from scratch and building a village with your friends. The recharge pack would refresh all components that were permanently changed during the original campaign while allowing the wooden tokens and metal coins to be reused. And the game board is double-sided, so you’ll just flip your board over and play on the back side.

My original plan was to poll people after they finished the first campaign to see if they wanted us to produce the recharge pack. That way you could make an informed decision as to whether or not you wanted to play again, and Stonemaier wouldn’t need to invest heavily in something if only few people were interested.

However, the request survey indicated that my concerns were unfounded. To date, 2300+ people have indicated that they want the recharge pack. That’s 30% of the people who have indicated on the same form that they want Charterstone. So I recently decided to move ahead with the recharge pack as part of the first print run of Charterstone.

This led to some creative problem solving largely inspired by our German partner, Feuerland. I wanted to offer the recharge to our international partners, but I knew that many of them would want fewer than the 1000-unit minimum for any printed component. Also, despite not having wooden tokens or metal coins, the recharge pack is quite expensive to make.

The solution was to create a universal box for the recharge pack. You can see the image here—the bottom of the box features all 8 languages even though the contents of each box will be for a specific language. When Panda packs the box, they’ll check the box next to the language and send it to the corresponding partner.

The end result is that you can double the campaign/legacy value of Charterstone for less than half of the price of the original game. Charterstone is $70; the recharge pack is $30. If you want to add a copy to your pre-order with a retailer, just tell them you want STM701.

This is another great example of the positive and creative power of the Charterstone community. Thank you!

***

July 19

A fun but nerve-racking step of the game-manufacturing process is the pre-production copy (PPC). This is a copy of the game that looks and feels like the final product, but it’s really just a close approximation.

The purpose of the PPC is to ensure that all of the printed components look and feel exactly as they are supposed to. We check for the type of paper and cardboard, that the card backs match the fronts, and that all of the diecut materials are aligned properly. With the approval of a PPC, a manufacturer can finalize the various steps of the printing/cutting process, and production can begin.

I received the Charterstone PPC this morning, and the good news is that 99% of it looks fantastic. There are a few tuckboxes that need minor adjustments, and the “insert” (which, given the amount of stuff in the Charterstone box, is a pretty small piece of cardboard with the function of preventing stuff from sliding around) could use a few tweaks, but overall it’s great. These are things Panda can fix by the end of this week, which keeps us perfectly on schedule.

So today I’m going to show you a top-down view of unboxing the Charterstone PPC, layer by layer. No spoilers here, and I’m not going to open any of the tuckboxes (even though you could open most of them without spoiling anything).

Will the Index hold sleeved cards? When the cards are in use, they’re kept in the Scriptorium and the charter chests, not the Index. Those boxes do fit sleeved cards, but we highly recommend not sleeving cards during the campaign, as there are lots of cards you need to interact with (remove stickers from, write on, scratch off, etc). If you had to pause the game to sleeve new cards every time they’re added to the game during the campaign, it would be pretty annoying.

***

July 12

(this 3-part post was written by Morten Monrad Pedersen)

A long time ago, I concluded that Jamey, enjoys throwing curveballs at us in “Team Automa” (we make solo modes for the games he publishes), so that we don’t grow complacent, but get new tough challenges each and every time.

Because of its legacy aspect, Charterstone is a new breed of curveball: Getting humans to adapt to a game where major rule changes are implemented between plays and the game board itself frequently change is challenging, but you try to make a stack of cardboard with the intelligence of, well, cardboard, handle that same challenge and you’ll feel our pain and agree that Jamey is a sadist.

Not only did he do that to us, he also added, “by the way, the Automa rules for handling all those changes should only take up a few cards.”

Since we didn’t want to make Jamey think that he had beaten us, we one-upped him by challenging ourselves not only to make a good solo game, but also to make the game work with any number of humans and Automas, and to enable Automas to stand in for players who can’t make it to a game night.

So, we locked ourselves in our virtual office together with a crack team of elite playtesters and banged away on the Automa system until we got all the challenges beaten into submission. We hope you’ll find that we succeeded in doing so, once the game gets released.

As an aside, I can tell you all that we in Team Automa are firmly convinced that very soon Jamey will announce that the has acquired the rights to 504 and want an Automa that can play all the 504 games included in the box while having a rulebook the size of a stamp.

********************

Since the release of the Tuscany expansion, my team and I have been doing bots (we call them “Automas”) for all Stonemaier releases. They’ve been aimed at making the games playable solitaire.

Over time, though, we’ve gotten an increasing number of requests for adapting our Automas for multiplayer games, so that 2 players might play a 3- or 4-player game, if they like the game better at a higher player count. For Scythe, we also got a ton of requests for making games playable solo with multiple Automas.

We’ve accommodated these requests by making variant rules available for free on Board Game Geek. For Charterstone, though, we decided that you should be able to play the game with any combination of humans and Automas out of the box.

So, if at the start of your campaign, you think that more players might join the campaign later on, you can let Automas keep their charters warm until then, so that they have something more interesting and competitive to take over.

You can also start out with an Automa or two in the game, if you’ll have a low player count campaign and want a busier village. Alternately, you can also play your first game without them and then add them in for the second game, where you should be comfortable with the core rules.

If you find out that you don’t like the Automas? Well, then you can simply ban them from future game nights and let their charters become inactive or you can replace them by human players. I’m standing here ready with buckets of comfort ice cream and piles of Kleenex in case you ban them and they come crying home to daddy.

*****************

Charterstone is intended to be played with the same group of players throughout the campaign. Getting the exact same group together for 12 plays can be, well, let’s say challenging. Therefore, the rules support players leaving or entering the campaign (temporarily or permanently), but it’s not ideal.

Since we created bots (called Automas) to make Charterstone playable solitaire, it seemed natural to allow a bot to stand in for a human player who’s not there. Instead of that player’s charter being inactive. This not only scores the various kinds of points for the charter, it also gives the other players a play‑experience that’s closer to what they’re used to.

This presented an interesting extra challenge to us in “Team Automa”. Normally we can design our Automas with solo players in mind. This matters because solo players are used to running bots. They’re OK with putting in some effort to learn the bot rules, and spending time each turn to carry out the bot’s actions.

Multiplayer gamers, on the other hand, are not used to doing this and are often less inclined to spend the time and effort required. I’m not saying that multiplayer gamers are less intelligent or less patient than solo gamers, I’m simply talking about a difference in preferences and experience levels regarding bots in board games.

So, we needed to make the Automa system as simple as possible without compromising the solo experience and we put in a lot of effort to achieve this.

  1. We boiled the system down to a few streamlined actions, that still mimic the core interactions you have with a human player.
  2. We limited ourselves to using the icons of the base game.
  3. We made the cards that implements the Automas simpler and easier to read, than we did in our Automa for Scythe.

In most cases, players are able to tell a fellow gamer apart from a stack of cardboard and the Automa is not a perfect replacement for human player. We hope, though, that our work will improve your game experience, when a player can’t make it to game night.

If you’re interested in learning the approach we use for making Automas and perhaps use it yourself, you can read an introduction here.

 

 

 

***

July 5

We’re doing something with Charterstone that we rarely do: The first print run will be in 8 different languages.

Our typical method is to make the first print only in English, and while it’s being manufactured, international partners have ample time to work on their translations. That way the English version isn’t delayed by international versions, and international versions aren’t rushed along. My detailed thoughts on this are here: https://stonemaiergames.com/kickstarter-lesson-198-translation-localization-and-language-independence

So why take a different approach with Charterstone? Two main reasons: One, the game isn’t language independent, and the rulebook evolves over time—it’s not like other games where we can simply offer digital translations of the rules. Two, we didn’t want to make non-English speakers wait 4 extra months to unravel Charterstone’s secrets. That didn’t seem fair.

Also, this is what many of our international partners requested. They could have waited until the second print run, but they chose not to. And I’m grateful they didn’t—I’ll explain why in a moment.

First I want to mention how this process works, because it wasn’t easy, and I really appreciate 7 of the original partners (out of 9) sticking with us. On the Stonemaier side of things, we started having final versions of the Charterstone files ready in May. These were fully tested, proofread files. When they were ready, we uploaded the source files to international partners for translation. Their job was to translate the files, export them to printer-ready PDFs, and upload them to Panda.

At the point when the partners started to receive the digital files, they had not yet actually played Charterstone. This is because the version of the game I wanted them to play isn’t something that my prototype maker—as good as he is—could create, especially the sticker cards and numerous custom components. So it really wasn’t until the partners got the fancy prototype from Panda that they truly knew what the game was. Several of them proceeded to play marathon sessions of it.

This was in late May, the timing of which was crucial, because we started making the non-printed components for Charterstone in early June. Partners were required to provided their quantities before the non-printed production began (though they could decrease that number during June if necessary).

June was a really intense month for these partners, as the hard deadline for the final files was June 30. It was a really tight timeframe for the amount of content that needed translation. The June 30 date was so important because we wanted to release Charterstone in time for winter holidays (late October/early November).

But, amazingly and miraculously, these partners pulled it off: Feuerland (German), Matagot (French), Maldito (Spanish), Lavka Games (Russian), Ghenos (Italian), Surfin Meeple (Chinese), and Brazilian-Portuguese (Ludofy).

Not only that, but they all helped to make the product better. Our proofreaders are great, but when you have translators who are invested in getting every word, icon, and number right, they catch stuff that proofreaders miss. Every one of those partners contributed to making Charterstone a better game in every language.

Also, having these partners involved in the first print run helped to increase the total quantity to 56,500 games. That has a big impact on the per-unit cost of the non-printed components.

If I had to change one thing about this process (other than not having such a tight deadline) would be that we should have sent the final English files to Panda for digital proof review before we sent those files to the various partners. There were a few things that were out of alignment or were low res, and instead of making such changes before the partners got them, we’re now in a situation where each individual partner has to make those changes this week. But they weren’t too bad.

Thanks to all of our international partners and their fans for supporting Charterstone’s first print run! I’m so happy that thousands of people around the world will be playing Charterstone at the same time in November.

***

June 28

You’ve now seen the starting rulebook for Charterstone, so you know the core mechanisms. Over time I’m going to discuss the evolution of how certain elements changed during the design process. Today I’m going to jump to the juicy bit: unlocking crates.
 
One of my favorite aspects of legacy games is opening new content and permanently adding it to the game. There’s a wonderful sense of discovery when you get to open something new.
 
In the rulebook, you may have noticed Rule 19 (Unlocking a Crate) and wondered, “What’s a crate?” Thematically, it’s exactly as it sounds: A crate of stuff you get to open up. But how does it work in terms of actual game components?
 
Well, for a long time throughout the design process, the crates were 75+ sealed envelopes. When you used the Charterstone building to open a crate—like Crate 1 shown in the example here—you would simply find envelope 1 and open it. Easy peasy.
 
But the more Panda looked into manufacturing these envelopes, the more they realized how big of a problem they presented for assembly. I was essentially asking Panda’s employees to hand-stuff 75 envelopes in 50,000+ games with absolute precision. There’s simply too much risk for human error.
 
This problem was compounded by the fact that there are 3 different card types in Charterstone. That is, 3 completely different card compositions: regular cards, sticker cards, and scratch-off cards. Each of those card types needs its own card sheet (or multiple sheets). So if a crate contains 2 regular cards and 1 sticker card, it’s not like those cards can be printed sequentially. They would have to be pulled from separate decks and placed inside the envelope.
 
I didn’t want to let go of the envelopes, but I knew the risk of mispacked envelopes was too high. So after much teeth grinding, I thought of a solution: We would number the cards sequentially, with breaks between each of the 3 card types. Panda would print the cards, sort them sequentially (an automated process), shrinkwrap them into decks, and place them inside the Index tuckbox (see photos). Whenever a player opens a crate, they’ll refer to the Index Guide, which will tell them exactly which cards to extract from the Index.
 
For example, let’s say you unlock Crate 1. You’ll look on the Index Guide and see (I’m making this up) that you need to extract cards 18, 19, and 227 from the Index. The Index Guide will tell you what to do with those cards—keep them, put them in the general supply, etc.
 
Of course, there are a few things to be unlocked that aren’t cards. They’re referenced on the Index Guide, and they’re stored in labeled tuckboxes.
 
Also, I should note that even though the envelope concept didn’t work out, I still wanted the physical experience of opening a crate to feel really good. That’s why the Index is a thick, sturdy tuckbox with a magnetic clasp. If you’ve been following this page for a while, the magnetic clasp is the thing I was really excited about when we figured out how to wedge it into the budget.
 
That’s how crates work in Charterstone! Without saying any spoilers, what’s your favorite unlocking mechanism in a legacy game?

***

June 21

Charterstone has somewhere around 300 unique illustrations, yet I’ve never formally introduced the artists. That changes today.

The first step, dating back to December 2015, was to select an artist for the buildings. After discussions with Stonemaier insiders (Alan, Morten, and Christine) and one of the best art directors in the business, Ed Baraf of Pencil First Games, we decided to work with Angga Satriohadi of Gong Studios. Angga created the announcement image, and it was a pleasure to work with him and his team on the 100+ building illustrations they created and revised. Angga also illustrated some of the people who will populate your village. I think Gong Studios may have also worked on the game Dice City for AEG.

You’ll note that most of the buildings in Charterstone have an exaggerated style to them. The reason for this is to help players identify (mostly for thematic reasons) what they do from across the table. You’d have to get really close to see a beer mug on a tiny sign hanging from a tavern, but if the tavern itself is shaped like a giant keg, you can understand what it is with a quick glance.

While working with Gong Studios, I found myself admiring the work of Mr. Cuddington more and more. “Mr. Cuddington” is the studio name of a husband-wife team of illustrators (David and Lina). They’ve worked on a number of games for Roxley Game Laboratory, as well as the recent Druid City game, The Grimm Forest.

I thought Mr. Cuddington would be perfect for the characters and box for Charterstone, and I was very fortunate that they had some availability. At the time, neither of us knew the full scope of what they would create for us. I can’t say more without spoiling anything, but David and Lina created a ton of illustrations for Charterstone. I also discovered that they are incredibly adept at card layout, board design, and icon creation. They are the perfect creative partners.

I’m incredibly grateful for the time, effort, and creativity that both Gong Studios and Mr. Cuddington put into Charterstone.

***

June 16

The day has come for the Charterstone rulebook to be revealed. First, some context.

One of my favorite features of Risk Legacy (and, later, Pandemic Legacy) was that it was really easy to play the first game. It helped that I had played Risk a lot as a kid, but there were also these big gaps in the rules where stickers would later be placed. Rob Daviau could have introduced a dozen new rules from game 1, but instead he slowly unraveled them, easing players into new systems through the joy of discovery. It was brilliant.

Risk and Pandemic have the benefit of a lot of people understanding the core rules. Charterstone does not have that benefit. There is no existing foundation. So I decided it was incredibly important to ease players into the rules organically over time, even giving players control over when new content is unlocked so you won’t be overwhelmed.

There was a certain point in Charterstone’s design when the rulebook started off completely blank. When you opened the box, there was just a little note saying, “read card #1.” Card #1 had some rules on it for you to learn, and after you understood them, you’d peel a sticker off the card, affix it to the rulebook, and continue to card #2.

We tested this for a while, but I realized that when rules are introduced that way, there’s a much higher chance of players missing something important than when there’s some foundation for them to start with. So I moved certain rules to the rulebook—now called the Chronicle—while certain other cards are unlocked via the system I described above. As indicated on page 1 (which I revealed in this group last week), the game encourages at least one player to read through the Chronicle before Game 1.

So that’s what you’re going to see today, the foundational rules of the game. There are holes in these rules that are filled at various times throughout the campaign, and sometimes you’ll even have new rules replace older ones, all through the system of peeling a rule sticker off a card and placing it in its assigned spot in the Chronicle. That’s why the rulebook looks like an assortment of cards.

I applaud you if you read all this before looking at these pages! Without further ado, here is the Charterstone rulebook, which is perfectly fine to read in advance of Game 1.

Oh, and the Chronicle will be available in all 10 languages of the first printing in a few weeks. The translators are currently working on it.

 

 

 

 

***

June 7

A long time ago, when I knew that Charterstone would not be on Kickstarter, I decided to put metal coins in every copy of the game.

Sure, I could have sold them separately as we do with the Viticulture and Scythe coins, but I really liked the idea of including something that felt like a treasure inside a legacy game. Also, even though you can play Charterstone after the 12-game campaign, if you decide not to, at least you have 36 metal coins to use in other games.

Also, I wanted Charterstone to be a game where you can open the box and proceed to play it—no need to punch out a bunch of tokens.

Originally I wasn’t even going to tell people that metal coins are included in Charterstone—it was going to be a surprise when you opened the box. But given the expense of adding them to the game, I figured it was best not to keep them a secret.

You’ll notice that the coins are all $1 denominations. Early in the Charterstone design, players had storage limits that applied during each game. You could only hold a certain number of resources, coins, etc unless you expanded your storage capacity. There were slots in your tableau that could hold 1 coin each, and I wanted to avoid the confusion caused by different denominations (i.e., can each slot hold $1 or 1 coin of any denomination?).

However, I quickly realized that I don’t particularly enjoy storage mechanisms. While they can be a useful construct, I’ve never met a storage mechanism that increased the fun factor. However, in a campaign game, it is fun to be able to carry over some components from one game to the next. So I shifted the storage mechanism to something called “capacity,” which you’ll learn more about after you complete Game 1.

Once I knew there would be only $1 coins, the challenge was deciding the quantity and quality of them. I eventually selected 36 as the quantity—you need exactly 36 coins in Charterstone, no more, no less. As for the quality, I wanted each coin to feel substantial heavy. So I made them 3mm thick (compared to the 2mm Scythe coins—see photo).

Some people have asked if we’ll be selling these coins separately, and I’m 99% sure the answer is no. If a significant number of people love the coins and want to buy more for their other games (remember, Charterstone has a hard limit of 36 coins—you’re not allowed to use more), I’m open to the possibility, but I’ll wait until people actually play the game before I add them to our future printing request form.

***

June 2

A month or so ago, I sent the final prototype files for Charterstone to both my graphic designer and my manufacturer, Panda. The latter was a bit unusual–typically we only send Panda the final, printer-ready files, not the prototype files.

But Charterstone is an unusual game. I felt it was important for me to have a copy that functioned like the final version. For example, up until this point the playtesters and I have been cutting the building hexes off of cards, as there wasn’t a way to create card prototypes with hex stickers. I wanted to see how the unpeeling experience felt and functioned, among other things.

The other reason I asked Panda to create these special prototypes is so we could have something to send to our international localization partners. They’ve been taking it on blind faith that Charterstone is a game they want. Each of them got 1 copy of the nice prototype.

Alan and I sat down with the prototype at our weekly meeting on Wednesday to simulate the process of opening the game (when you sit down for your first play of Charterstone, there are instructions and story elements on a series of cards). Even though we’ve done this before with rough prototypes, it was incredibly enlightening to use a version that felt “real,” and I tweaked some of the instructions as a result to foolproof it (Alan does a good job of playing the fool when necessary).

I also realized that a few of the tuckboxes (one that holds global components from game to game, one that holds components you no longer need, and one other box with secret stuff) are too small. Fortunately, there’s horizontal space in the box available for adjustments.

I’m really grateful that Panda put forth the effort and resources to make these nice prototypes for us and our international partners. Overall, I’m really happy with the functional results, and I look forward to testing out the pre-production copy in 1-2 months.

For now, here’s a quick unboxing video of the nice prototype!

(After watching it, make sure to click on the link in the description for the real video, which shows Charterstone’s box size.)

***

May 24

Today let’s talk about Charterstone’s resources.

From the earliest stages of the design process, resources were part of Charterstone. I wanted each charter to have a specific role to play in the village, and the resources would be the building blocks of those roles.

I knew it would be a 6-player game and that players would both be constructing buildings with the resources AND spending those resources at buildings, so I selected 6 resources that would meet those requirements: coal, iron, grain (for thatched huts; this was originally reed), brick, pumpkin (giant pumpkins), and wood. You can see in the charter image here that each area is primed for a specific resource—wood for the green charter (top) and grain for the yellow charter (bottom).

Another requirement was that the wooden resource tokens have unique and easily distinguished shapes and colors. While I’m sure there are some types of colorblind that may have trouble with certain color combinations, the custom shapes make up for it.

As Gong Studios went through the process of creating the art for the buildings, I would specify exactly which resources were used to construct the buildings. For example, the Pumpkin Market shown here is made from a big pumpkin, coal, and metal.

There are exactly 12 of each resource. From a publishing perspective, it’s a big precarious to have such a specific number, because it means if a copy of Charterstone is packed incorrectly, we’ll need to send a replacement part. But we found that playtesters very rarely exhausted any of the resource piles—there’s no advantage to stockpiling them during a game instead of actively spending them. So even if you have 11 grain tokens and 13 metal, it’s not going to make a difference.

It’s also no coincidence that many of these resources match our existing realistic resource tokens—if people already have those tokens, they can easily add them to Charterstone; if they don’t have them and want to enhance their game, the option is available. Pumpkin is the one new token we designed for Charterstone (and for other games that use pumpkins).

If you want the realistic resource set (or pumpkins) for Charterstone, you can order them from Top Shelf Gamer or any retailer worldwide who buys from Top Shelf.

***

May 17

In the legacy games I’ve played, while I’ve enjoyed the ability to name places and characters, sometimes I’ve wilted under the pressure of coming up with a clever name on the spot. A permanent name, no less. So I really liked the note in Seafall’s rules that basically says, “Hey, no pressure. Name stuff if you want to, when you want to, or not at all.”

When I originally started sharing Charterstone with developers (specifically, JR Honeycutt), there wasn’t much to name: Just the charters and the main personas. But JR had some excellent feedback about the power of naming: It creates ownership and investment in your creation.

So I looked over all of the content in Charterstone and found a few dozen places to add the ability to name things (to avoid spoilers, I won’t discuss what those things are). I took the Seafall no-pressure approach, though: The ability to name things is an option, not a mandate.

Just to give you one tangible example, the very first thing you can name in the game is your persona. I’ve attached two of them here (these are the artist versions from Mr. Cuddington, hence the redundant card numbers, which are different in the final version). You’ll write the name you choose on the blank banner on the card.

***

May 10

Back in December, I received a sample set of Meeplesource’s premium silkscreen-printed Scythe workers. I was amazed by the quality and attention to detail, so I reached out to Cynthia to see if she would be interested in making meeples for Charterstone too.

In Charterstone, each player is represented by a specific “persona”. There’s grey, blue, green, red, yellow, and purple. Thematically, you’re a group of strangers who arrive together at a mostly empty patch of land, and it‘s there that each of you will construct and populate a portion of the village (your “charter”).

I really wanted each player to feel like they are personally walking around the village as they gather resources and visit various buildings. Your worker meeple is you. Yes, there are other meeples in the game, but they are secondary to the one meeple that represents you (there are spoilery reasons why they won’t have Meeplesource versions).

That’s why I thought each player’s persona meeple deserved the premium Meeplesource treatment (for those who want to enhance their game). So I sent Cynthia the art files for each of the characters, and her graphic designer beautifully replicated them in both color and shape. Cynthia herself later served as a blind playtester for Charterstone, so she knows firsthand exactly how the worker meeples are used.

Meeplesource currently has a Kickstarter campaign for these meeples (and tokens for other games). As with our arrangements with all third-party accessory companies, Stonemaier doesn’t profit at all from these meeples–I just like to see great people make cool stuff for our amazing customers.

***

May 5

Ora et Labora

The top 3 inspirations for Charterstone all have something in common: In these games, you can construct buildings that become action spaces for any player to use. I’ve posted images of those games here (Lords of Waterdeep, Ora et Labora, and Caylus).

The major difference between those games–and any other village-building game–is that the buildings in Charterstone are permanent. Thematically, it made sense that when you construct a building, it’s going to be there tomorrow–it isn’t just going to disappear. Hence why you’re removing a sticker from a card and permanently placing it on the board in your charter.

Caylus

So in Charterstone, I needed to encourage players to construct buildings, but not make construction so important or easy that they filled their charters in Game 1. This is a huge contrast between Charterstone (construct 1-2 buildings per game) and other village-building games (construct 6-12 buildings per game).

The focus of each individual game of Charterstone is not on constructing a lot of buildings–it’s on a variety of things worker-placement opportunities. This was both important for the campaign and for post-campaign play when players will eventually run out of buildings to construct.

Lords of Waterdeep

One solution I tested was to limit players to constructing 1 building per game. It worked pretty well. I was surprised to find that players actually enjoyed the restriction (previously, players had been frustrated that they ran out of space for buildings, after Game 2 or 3, even though it was entirely within their control).

However, I’m not a fan of arbitrary limitations, so eventually I pivoted to a more organic approach that strongly encourages players to only construct 1 building in their charter each game. It involves something called “influence tokens,” an invaluable and limited commodity in Charterstone. Constructing a building costs 3 influence tokens (among other resource costs), which is 25% of your entire supply of influence tokens, which are begging to be spent in a number of other ways too. This method worked much better. (Note: There are other barriers that prevent players from constructing so much, such as actually having building cards in hand–they’re not plentiful early on in the campaign.)

***

April 28

One of the pivotal moments in Charterstone’s design happened about a year ago. It’s about a shape.

Up until that point, the plots in the village–and the buildings to be constructed on those plots–were square. The square shape seemed to fit well for the information I wanted each building to convey: name in the upper left, cost to use the building in the bottom left, benefit in the upper right, art in the middle.

However, something wasn’t working. A key element of Charterstone is that players are building and occupying a shared village. That is, even though you alone have control over what you construct in your charter, you’re free to place workers on buildings in any charter. The square plots weren’t doing the job of making players feel like they were participating in a shared village.

Two other limiting factors were (a) there’s a shared area containing a few pre-constructed buildings in the middle of the board called The Commons and (b) none of the plots should fall on the fold lines of the board.

So I turned to David and Lina at Mr.Cuddington to see if they had any ideas. Sure enough, after testing some options, they realized that a better shape for each of the plots/buildings was a hex. They created concept art for the board to illustrate this point, and I agreed with their assessment.

It’s an odd and somewhat nebulous thing, to have a single shape impact the design so much, but once I had that concept art, it really helped me start to capture the intended feeling of Charterstone in the buildings, charters, and the village as a whole. A ton of design and development happened after that, but without that step, I honestly don’t know what Charterstone would be today!

The images heredepict the evolution of the square plots to the hexagonal concept to the final rendering of the purple charter.

***

April 20

It finally happened! A few minutes ago I sent all prototype and art files to my graphic designer for layout/typesetting. After working on Charterstone’s design, playtesting, and development for the last 16 months, this feels GREAT!

To celebrate the occasion, I wanted to share with you the image we’re using for the box bottom. It features the 6 characters in Charterstone, 1 of whom you will embody as you arrive in the outskirts of Greengully to start a new village. The illustrators (Mr. Cuddington) and I sought to feature a variety of genders, races, and ages in creating these characters.

As usual, I may not be able to answer your questions due to spoilers, but feel free to ask. If you’re curious about what the schedule looks like, there’s still a lot that needs to happen between now and when we go to print: In addition to the layout/typesetting, there’s the Automa portion of the game, refined prototype review and translations from our international partners, and more proofreading. I think the best-case scenario is an October release.

***

April 13

I’ve been talking with my manufacturer, Panda, about Charterstone for over a year now. There have been a few times where we’ve had to dismiss an idea due to the expense or other logistical issues involved in the precarious nature of packaging a legacy game. But there have been far more times when we’ve added something awesome to enhance the experience, even if it costs extra. That’s why there are 36 thick metal coins in every copy of Charterstone.

That’s why there’s a special component found only in one other board game. And that’s why, based on a conversation I just had with Panda, we’re now upgrading another component in a way that adds a little spark of magic (figurative magic) every time you unlock a new card. I’m really excited about this upgrade, and I look forward to sharing it with you later this year!

***

March 22

Biddy convinced me that it’s time to reveal the Charterstone board! There’s still some work to be done on it, but here’s a sneak preview of the completely unobstructed prototype.

© 2017 Stonemaier Games