This past week on our podcast we tackled a question about engine building games.
Fan of the show Roger Meloche was starting to think that all board games are in some way engine building games and we discussed why we don’t think this is the case. We also listed off what we think are some of the best engine building board games.
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Wait, aren’t all board games engine building games?
I am enjoying your show, especially when I can catch it live. I have a question about Engine Building games. What exactly is an engine-building game?
I hear of games like Wingspan, “Race for the Galaxy” and “Steam Time” being described as Engine Builders. This makes sense because you gradually build up your tableau or player board and the results accelerate through the synergies developed between the components as the game progresses.
But this could be said for most games. Monopoly behaves this way, as do most games classified as Economic games like “Crude” or ‘Acquire”. Rail builders like “Chicago Express” and “Martian Rails” can also build up an economic engine as the game progresses.
How do you and Sean define an engine builder? What are some of your favorites?
We first mentioned Engine Building in our Giant List of Tabletop Game Mechanics.
During last week’s Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast Episode 120, Sean and I had a good forty minute or so discussion on what we mean when we talk about engine building board games and pointed out a number of games that are most definitely not engine builders and many games that have some engine building elements but that we don’t consider to be engine building games.
In the end, we determined that engine building isn’t really a board game mechanic but rather a style of game that comes out of a combination of other mechanics. Some key elements of true engine building games are a progression of starting off small and building up to something big, the idea of permanence where what you build stays in place and where things you do early in the game are cashed in on later in the game, requiring some knowledge of what is to come later in the game so you can plan for that and the concept of converting one thing to another often over multiple steps.
If you are at all interested in this topic, I suggest you check out the Ask the Bellhop segment from that episode where we define Engine Building in board games.
What follows in this article is a list of our top eleven engine building games as well as five honourable mentions, that didn’t make the main list due to us not having enough experience with them.
What are the best engine building board games?
While not my favourite game, Splendor is a perfect example of an abstract gateway engine building game. In this game, players use gems to buy cards. These cards give you free gems that let you buy more cards. Those cards then give you more free gems that let you buy better cards that give even more gems as well as points. Eventually, you may also complete a set of cards and get to claim some bonus points with nobles.
This is the epitome of starting with nothing and building up an engine to get something.
Gizmos is a great game that I like to use to show off the engine building mechanic because that’s all it really is. Players are trying to build a science fair project piece by piece in a very Rube Goldberg like style that they hope will eventually become a great engine to build them points.
You try to make it so that each piece you add to your growing gizmo becomes part of a chain reaction. You try to set up combos, such as “Because I grabbed yellow energy from the energy dispenser I get to pick another energy and I use that to pick red energy. Then due to another card, because I picked red I can build a red card for free. Plus when I build a red card I get to file away another card and when I file a card I get some points.”
To me, Gizmos is the perfect game for introducing people to engine building as a mechanic as the theme of the game ties directly to those engine building mechanics.
If you have tried and liked Gizmos, Steam Works is a great next step. It’s almost like an advanced version of Gizmos. This is another pure engine building game where you are literally building an engine out of different component tiles in order to generate resources and score points in the game.
Every round of Steam Works, players collect power plants and components from the central market and use them to build machines in their own tableau. Each machine becomes a new worker placement spot that can be used by players on future turns. Round after round your machines grow and do more and more things. It’s the very definition of engine building both mechanically and physically.
The game I have played the most in the last couple of years is Terraforming Mars. It has been one of the most popular games locally and gets played regularly at local public gaming events.
While you can play Terraforming Mars without any regard to building an engine, just buying whatever cards you happen to have on hand, the key to playing well is to find the synergies between the various project cards and build a successful engine out of them. Where Terraforming Mars really shines is in the variety and number of these potential engines.
Are you going to collect microbes and animals? Or perhaps work on generating the most plants and foresting the planet? Or is it all about getting the Terraforming Ratings up as quick as possible so you can build those big point cards with ease later in the game? All of these are valid options and there are a ton more than this.
While Terraforming Mars may be my most played game in recent years, my most played game of all time is Race for the Galaxy. Similar to Terraforming Mars, in Race for the Galaxy engine building isn’t a requirement but building some form of engine is pretty much required to win. This engine could be to slowly build up military strength allowing you to conquer bigger and bigger planets, or it could be collecting luxury good planets and setting up an engine to both produce, sell and/or consume those goods.
While not having nearly as many options as Terraforming Mars, one of the best parts about Race for the Galaxy is the number of different engines you could try to build. All of this is combined with one of the best action selection mechanisms in board gaming.
Fleet is an engine building game about building a fishing fleet. You start off with just one simple boat and a contract to catch one type of fish but, by the end of the game, you will have an entire fleet of ships and a number of contracts.
There are some great decision points in Fleet over which contracts to take, whether to specialize or diversify and which ships to sail. The game is designed around multi-use cards, so you will have to decide whether to use your cards for ships, for fish or as money for paying for other ships and contracts. The first time I played Fleet I was blown away and bought it on the spot. While I realize the theme may be a hard sell for some, this is a great game.
This game has a slow ramp-up from start to finish as you work to build your version of the Russian city of Saint Petersburg. You start with one or two workers who generate you some money, you then use that money to buy buildings, hire nobles, set up trade networks and hire more workers. By the end of a game of Saint Petersburg, you have a table filled with workers, a city’s worth of buildings and a full house of aristocracy, hopefully all working together to generate you a ton of points.
One of the things I like most in this game is that you generally have to shift your engine mid-game from generating income so that you can afford more stuff to generating points so that you can snatch the win. There are some really great drafting, upgrading and set collection elements that make this one of my favourite Euro games of all time.
While Keyflower features a number of integrated and interlocking mechanics, including worker placement, auctions, drafting, and tile laying, one of the most important things in the game is figuring out an engine that lets you upgrade the tiles you’ve drafted and an engine to get the right resources to those upgraded tiles.
One issue with this game is that this requirement to build these engines isn’t obvious during your first play. It is very easy to get distracted, just trying to collect the most tiles or to have the most meeple and not notice where the actual end game points will be coming from. What I do like, that offsets this a bit, is the slow progression of complexity, with things starting off small and growing as the game goes on. Player options are limited at the beginning, which, as I talked about in my article about ways game designers can make games more accessible, makes the game easier to learn.
There are a few different engine-building aspects to Pulsar 2849. The most obvious is the claiming, building, and spinning up, of gyrodines around pulsars which generate points each round. Another aspect is using the randomized technology tree and the individual player boards to create other scoring systems. An example of this would be using technologies which increase your scout ship movement and using the HQ board to unlock gate scoring opportunities. Then there’s the entire array system which can be used to generate points as well or could be used as a technology cube engine or as a way to get bonus dice and thus more actions.
Like other games on this list, the best part about Pulsar 2849 is that none of these individual systems is objectively better than any other and there are always lots of options for players to go with.
What is a better theme for engine building than building engines, specifically railroad engines, and the tracks they run on?
This abstract game is probably my favourite pure engine-building game, a game where you start off with little and end with a lot. This is a game where in turn one you are lucky to be scoring eight victory points, yet by the last round, I’ve seen people score over two-hundred points in one turn.
Russian Railroads is all about upgrading your stuff. You upgrade your rail routes, your track types, your engines and your factories to increase your score output each round. Of all the games on this list, I find this one has the most satisfying feeling of building something. My only complaint is that this is one of those engine building games where everyone wants just one more turn, though I think that if you did go one more round it would ruin the balance in the game, but you can’t help but want to run that engine just one more time at the end of a game of Russian Railroads.
Arkwright is by far the heaviest game on this list and is a great example of the fact that you can find engine building games at all complexity and weight scales, from simple games like Splendor all the way up to this very heavy economic game.
In Arkwright, players start off with one warehouse, one machine, and a couple of workers and use that to build a manufacturing empire. There are a ton of hard decisions to make in this game ranging from whether to stick to only a couple of warehouses and goods types or to diversify, how many workers to hire and how many goods to produce each round. You want enough goods to meet demand but you don’t want to make more than that and have goods go to waste. Do you replace your workers with automation at a high cost, hoping to make that money back on wages, or are workers cheap due to so many currently out of work due to other players automating early?
I would say that Arkwright can be a bit of a beast but, in my opinion, it’s worth learning, if you are into heavier fair.
Honourable Mentions: More Great Engine Builders
I can’t have a list of Engine Building games without mentioning the big hit of 2019, Wingspan. This doesn’t make the main list because I don’t own it, nor have I even gotten a chance to play it. Before lockdown, it was impossible to find a copy of Wingspan at a reasonable price. Now that it’s readily available I still want to try it before I buy it. I hear the game is quite light, so I worry it would be just another Splendor for me. A.K.A., a game I only play when I bring it out to public events. I can’t deny the popularity of this game though.
Everdell is another huge hit that I’ve yet to get to try. Based on everything I’ve read, I’m pretty much certain I will love it. It also looks great, with some great table presence. As a tableau builder, I’m sure it’s got lots of engine building aspects. I also noticed this one comes up on many other people’s engine building hotlists. Based on all of this, I don’t think you can go wrong picking up a copy of Everdell.
I’ve mentioned Underwater Cities before as a game people claim “kills” Terraforming Mars. While I love Terraforming Mars, I’m eager to try a game that people say is even better. From what I understand the engine building aspect is even stronger in Underwater Cities than it is in Terraforming Mars. Last time I was game shopping, this game was in-between printings but it does look like it’s back on the market now.
I added Fantastic Factories to the list due to the hype and buzz around it. Fantastic Factories was one of Tom Vassals best games of 2019 and seems to be a rather pure engine builder about building factories. Reading up on it, I found the game sounds like a lighter, much more accessible, Arkwright. This is one I would love to try.
One of the biggest aspects of engine building is taking something and turning it into something else and there’s no other game that exemplifies this better than the Uwe Rosenberg classic Le Havre. This game is still considered by many to be Uwe’s best game. I did manage to get a copy of this game during a math trade last year and I’m looking forward to sitting down and discovering it for myself. I fully expect it to live up to all of the hype.
There you have eleven of my favourite engine building games, plus five more great sounding engine builders I haven’t had the pleasure of playing yet. What are your favourite engine building games? Let us know in the comments!