If you have heard the term “engine-building board game” and scratched your head in curiosity, let us help you. An engine is any collection of pieces that each have a job/role working together to handle some process from start to finish. A movie studio is a movie making engine. Someone has a script, finance raises money, producers then make the film, then the marketing team promotes it, distribution pushes it out into the world, money comes in, development finds more scripts, the process starts again. An engine-building board game is something that takes this core and gives you lots of options to make it bigger and stronger than your opponent.
Engine-Building falls very squarely in the broader strategy group. These are fun because you typically have all the options in the world. It is up to you to choose the right path to victory. This doesn’t have to be the only game mechanic in a game. An engine can be both major and subtle, but it is never half-assed. A good engine takes lots of intricate pieces working together masterfully. If it is not well put together it will fall apart, no matter how big or how small. It is always working towards a greater goal as well, like a big victory.
Engine-Building Board Game – Major Examples
Terraforming Mars – This is a long game where players are corporations battling to make money off of mars. You build it up and the game ends when oxygen, water and temperature has been raised to the required level. In the meantime, you are building up a stable of resource production including mega credits, steel, titanium, plants, energy and heat. Using your credits, your entire turn is about focusing on which areas of your empire you are going to build up. Do you want to focus on energy to power some cards or get up the temperature or do you want to push for more titanium to build those epic space buildings? This game is 100% engine-building.
Splendor – It is not on the epic scale of colonizing mars, that is not what we mean by “Major”. Major in terms of how key it is to the game and Splendor falls in that category. In Splendor, you are a trader in the renaissance working with five types of jewels. You want to trade up for bigger and better things like mines, transportation and tools. Each turn you have very few options like taking a few different combinations of gems or buying one thing. You buy with the gems and those things you buy give you gem bonuses each turn. You start with nothing and turn by turn you crawl your way to a bigger and bigger “engine”. It is so simple, but again, you have all the options in the world to find the most strategic path to victory.
All Deck Building Games (Dominion, etc) – The very idea of a deck-building game is that you are building a powerful engine and that engine is your deck. You are making investments in different cards so that those cards can eventually work for you and make something great. Having combos is a result of you strategically bringing those cards together. And there are little things as satisfying as when a combo goes off.
Engine-Building Board Game – Minor Examples
Settlers of Catan – Catan is a strategic gem that has a lot going on. One of those things is an engine. It may not seem like it on the surface, but the purchase of roads to get to settlements and settlements into cities is engine-building. You are putting resources into something because you are taking that chance that your infrastructure investment is going to pay off. Getting bonuses from development cards is not an engine because it is a one and done. You pay a cost and you get a random card, there is no investment there.
Azul – The great puzzle great game is a fantastic example of a minor because the scoring relies on engine building, but the gameplay does not. In Azul, you are designing a chapel with Portuguese titles and you are fighting with other players to get the right mix of what is available. You get points by having finished clusters next to one another (engine-building). The way you get there is by strategically picking the right colors and quantities to fill up different spaces and not screw yourself (not engine-building) This shows you how engine-building can be wrapped in many different things.
If you are an entrepreneurial or tycoon person, the engine-building board game mechanic is for you. It gives you all the tools and freedom in the universe to create something great from nothing. Most strategy games use this in some way because it is how you lay the foundation for something long term. Without it, you would just have immediate cause and effect which is pretty limited.