03 August 2019

Board Game Review: Charon Inc.

The cover art for Charon Inc. Slightly simplistic crawing of various sci-fi buildings with different coloured domes for roofs, on the moon Charon, with pipes running along the surface subdividing the surface into areas, with flags of different colours at the junctions of these pipes. There are rocks and crystals in yellow, green, and blue lying on the surface. A rocket ship is seen blasting off in the background and an artificial satellite hovers in the distance.

John recently mentioned to me that he missed having a copy of Charon Inc. by Emanuele Ornella and Fred Binkitani, published by Eagle-Gryphon Games. He had had a copy previously, but had lost it recently. So I felt moved to buy him a copy. He was so excited when I gave it to him that we played it that very night. I'm so glad we did, because I really enjoyed it. Now I will review it for you!

The premise of this game is that players represent CEOs of mega-corporations exploiting Pluto's moon Charon for mineral resources to build various buildings, which score victory points. And with that, let's take a look at the ratings!

Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 5
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Game Play: 60 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Charon Inc.

The game board for Charon Inc. Most of the board is a representation of a small moon, subdivided into twenty-one areas, all but one of which have one, two, or three eight-point star icons. The intersections of the borders have circle icons, and the midpoint of each side of each area also has a circle icon. The left side of the board has a number of other spaces; at the top of this section is the player order, with five numbered spaces. Below that are five spaces for special actions, from top to bottom: stolen intelligence, rare mineral find, engineering advance, synchrotron, and underground warehouse. At the bottom is another track, labelled 'round,' with four numbered spaces.

The game board is a representation of Charon, subdivided into 21 areas. These areas each have between one and three icons to indicate how many gems go in each one. Most of the spaces in the centre get three gems; the ones on the edge get two or one. The gems are distributed at the beginning of each round, such that the colours in each area are the same, but it is random which colour that is.

There are nodes on the borders between the areas, at the corners where four areas meet, and also in the midpoints between two areas.

Along the left side of the board is a track for player order, spaces for the five special actions, and a round tracker. Players each get seven flags in their chosen colour. One flag goes on the table in front of them to denote their colour. One goes on the player order track (chosen randomly at the beginning of the game), and one on each of the special action spaces.

Players receive three building cards, from which they choose one to put in the common building row. You may build any card in your hand, as well as any card in the common building row. When building a card, you pay the listed quantity on that card and place that card in front of you. For example, a card may show icons for two blue and one green gem. Thus, to build that card, you must pay two blue gems and one green gem.

On your turn, you choose one of your flags from one of the special action spaces and place it on one of the nodes on the moon. Alternately, you may place it in a space that contains gems. By removing your flag from the special action spaces, you are choosing not to take that special action. So you must choose carefully on which special action space you want to leave your flag.

A view of the board in the middle of a game. Gems of various colours have been placed in the spaces on the board, and a number of plastic flags in various colours have been placed on the icons on the borders between the spaces. One flag in each colour remains on the special actions spaces, and one flag of each colour occupies the spaces of the player order track in the top left.

Once each player has placed four flags, and thus has one flag remaining on one of the special action spaces, players take those special actions. You may only take a special action if you have a flag on that space, and then only if there are only two or fewer flags total on that space (exactly one flag, in a two- or three-player game). Thus, if you are one of three players that has a flag on a space, then no one gets to take that action. So you must choose carefully on which special action space to leave your flag, so that you don't lose that action entirely. The special actions available are:

  • Stolen Intelligence - You may move any one flag on the map of Charon to any empty, legal position, so long as that position does not border a space with three gems.
  • Rare Mineral Find - You receive a colourless gem, which can be used as a wild gem of any colour.
  • Engineering Advance - You may take a card from the common building row into your hand, denying other players the chance to build that card, or you may take a card from the discard pile into your hand.
  • Synchrotron - You may trade in any number of gems of a single colour for an equal number of gems of any one other colour.
  • Underground Warehouse - If you get this action, you may trade in one fewer gem during trading, and you may keep up to six gems at the end of a round, instead of the normal limit of two.
The next thing you do is to claim gems. Look at each space on the board to see who has the most flags bordering it. The player with the most flags in the icons on the border of the space (or in that space) gains all the gems in the space. If there is a tie, the flags that border fewer spaces break those ties. If there's still a tie, no one gets the gems.

For example, in the photo below, both the white and pale blue players have three flags bordering the space with three blue gems. However, two of blue's flags are on corners and only one is on the midpoint of a side. White has one flag on a corner and two on the midpoints. Thus, white gets the gems, because white's two flags on the midpoint are stronger than blue's one flag on a midpoint.

A closeup view of a space on the board. The space has three blue gems in it. There are white flags on the top and bottom sides of the space, as well as on the upper left corner. There are pale blue flags on the right side and both right corners. A yellow-brown flag is on the lower left corner. The last circle icon, on the left side of the space, is empty.

After all players have claimed their gems, the turn order is altered based on which player has the most gems. Then they may spend those gems to build cards, either from their hand, or from the common row. Finally, the flags are returned to the special action spaces, the board is re-seeded with more gems, the cards remaining in the common row are discarded, and new cards are dealt to each player.

Permutations in Charon Inc.

Although there are no duplicate cards, in the sense of two cards that require the same combination of gems to build, all the cards that have the same victory point total also have the same name and the same base artwork (although with colours changed on the illustration). For example, one Power Plant card requires two black gems and one each of yellow, blue, and purple, whilst another requires two blue gems and one each of purple, green, and black. But both cards are worth seven victory points. Players are not allowed to have more than one copy of a card with a specific name. That is, once you've built a seven-point Power Plant, you're not allowed to build another, even though the others require different gems to build.

At the end of each round, during the reseeding phase, all players must discard all but two of their unspent gems. The exception is if you got the benefit of the Underground Warehouse action, in which case you're allowed to keep up to six of them. 

Winning Charon Inc.

After four rounds, players total up the number of victory points from the cards they have built. The player with the most points from their cards is declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Charon Inc.

This game is super thinky-thinky. Trying to decide where to place your flags to maximize not only your chance of getting the gems you need, but also to prevent getting hosed by other players (and to hose other players yourself!) takes some serious brain power. It's also tricky deciding where to leave your last flag on the action spaces, both in the sense of what action you want to take, and in making sure that there's not too many flags on a space so you don't get denied an action altogether!

This game also contains a sizeable amount of screwage. John and Zeb used to play this game very frequently, and they often referred to it as the 'go f*@% yourself' game because a single well-placed flag can absolutely destroy another player's plans.

But before I get too much further, let's look at the six characteristics of a good game:

  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency. 
  • ❓ It's fun to lose.
I put a question mark by that last one because this is absolutely a game that will not be enjoyable for people that don't like screwage. If you enjoy games where players take actions that are detrimental to other players, then you will think Charon Inc. is fun to lose. If you don't, however...

Anyway. So there you have it. My review of Charon Inc. I personally enjoyed it; thinky-thinky is definitely my gig. And I enjoy games with a certain amount of screwage, and Charon Inc. has just the right amount for me. But you might disagree! That's fine! But whatever you think of it, I hope that you always

Game on!

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