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Board Game Mechanics – Engine Building

Engine building games
Engine building games

For the next blog in his series of features covering some of the mechanics at work in the games we play, Nathan is lifting the bonnet on “engine building”. These come in a variety of guises. At their heart is a competition to develop a system that will allow your game strategy to flourish. So, let us check the oil, pump the tyres, and take a spin in the old jalopy. With a little care and attention, you could even develop a vehicle that goes like a Lamborghini out of parts from a wrecked Ford Focus!

Engine builder games are primarily competitive games. Each player will start with a meagre set of parts. These might be resources or specific actions. With each turn, a player can use these actions to acquire new skills or efficiencies. Choose wisely and the new technologies or goods might prime your existing skill and help you to do better. To continue the motoring analogy, here’s a thought.

One weekend (after lockdown) you have the choice to either-

  •  Fill up with petrol
  • Drive to Halfords to get some seat covers (other stores are also available)
  • visit a Breakers yard to get a new fuel injection system

Getting your seat covers might earn you and your car a few looks around town but not get you very far. More fuel will enable you to travel farther next weekend in the hope of snagging some new car parts. Alternatively getting a new fuel system will make your car go faster. This means you might beat the other “petrol-heads” to the car-parts auction in the coming week, but you might run out of fuel in the process. What do you do?

So you feel the need for speed and get your car’s fuel system upgraded. Now, by driving faster, you can quickly get a new and bigger fuel tank, or perhaps later take a detour for the fluffy dice.

Any engine builder played well is a very rewarding, positive feedback loop. Very few of these exist in the natural world, but when you have pump-primed your system it runs so sweetly. It feels like a silky V12 engine in a Mercedes as opposed to a rattling four-cylinder diesel in a taxi. There is tremendous satisfaction to the player when an engine building series comes together well. One small resource might enable two actions, and then these will then lead to some expansion inability or perhaps more resources to be created for subsequent turns.

If this idea of efficiency leading to game domination appeals, then read on for a few well-known examples of games with this mechanic. Everyone knows a Ferrari can accelerate quickly but not everyone knows why. So let’s overlook the sleek aerodynamic lines of these games, pop the bonnet catch and get our fingers dirty as we talk about the gaming equivalent of piston arrangements!


There are a number of Splendor games. The most recent being Splendor: Marvel. However, all require a player to gain sufficient prestige (or infinity stones). The game is a series of three rows of cards, each of different jewels that vary in cost and value. These may be purchased by paying with gemstones (in the original Splendor). Players may choose to “start” their engines by claiming up to three different gem tokens. Alternatively, in a turn, they could pay the required number of gems to purchase a specific card. Each card will then count as a gemstone. As you collect your gemstone cards so the true cost of future purchases will drop.

You can then acquire more valuable stones without the need to “waste time” with the gem tokens. After a number of rounds, you will have acquired a significant number of gem cards in your hands. The value has grown to such an extent that even the higher value gem cards can now be taken.

Ultimately this is a race. You are trying to buy sufficient cards of value to gain the attention of Noble patrons. Other players will be using the same tactics, but if you can keep your nose in front then you can claim cards quickly. This prevents others from “building up a head of steam”.

With an efficient system in place, the cards (and prestige), claimed each turn seems to increase exponentially. From a slow and gentle start, acceleration suddenly becomes breakneck. Splendor is powering to the finish line with the pedal to the metal.

The game does start slowly. Collecting gem token seems laborious. The wheels spin as your car tries to gain traction. Soon you can use your cards to claim new cards. This game doesn’t feel quite so slow now. Then the tyre rubber “bites” and with a cloud of smoke, the game is catapulted towards the finish line. Splendour does feel like watching a drag race. As soon as everything is in place you will be forced into your seat with the acceleration. Blink and the quarter-mile marker flag has gone by and you need to be reaching for the brake parachute.


This Stonemaier classic is all about birds, right? Yes and no. The beautiful artwork and slick play is just another feature to draw you in. Wingspan has a number of mechanics including hand management, but to do well players need to collect groups and types of birds in a certain order and play them well. This is the engine builder.

The key is aiming to place birds that when activated enable other actions. Some birds will allow you to gain extra food from the feeder. This will reduce your reliance on the randomness of the food dice. I like to build a group of cards that enable me to gain resources when others perform an action. This means that I can plan to play other birds onto my grid more quickly. One or two bird cards will allow you to acquire eggs every time another player takes this action. These eggs can either go towards your final score or can be used to gain more resources or lay more cards.

In Wingspan you use your “engine” to piggy-back an action on the side of another’s moves. In racing terms, this would be like Lewis Hamilton being given a free tank of fuel every time Sebastian Vettel comes into the pits, just because Lewis has a silver car! It may not seem fair but that is the rules!

Oh My Goods

This is a clever card game by lookout spiel. The expansion, Expedition to Newdale takes this little classic to another level. Although this is just a card game, Oh My Goods needs to be laid out on a table. Players are thrown back into mediaeval times and take on the role of a craftsman. They have the chance to make charcoal. However, they have aspirations of grander things. They want to make more valuable commodities.

From basic resources such as wood or grain, they will be able to produce more valuable items. For example, once you have your mill working properly, a bag of grain can be made from wheat and wool. If you already have some wheat to one side you can make the extra grain more efficiently. Your production chain efficiencies then passed down the supply. At the bakery, the bread you can make using your grain is twice as valuable. If you manage to build a food factory you could use your baked products to make even more valuable items.

Oh My Goods requires a player to have sufficient basic resources and then use them properly to generate more valuable items.

Just like modern car manufacturing today, companies can ask for premium prices for leather seats, but they have to have the supply chain to get the leather in the first place. If you don’t have a relationship with the farmers, you cannot get the cows. If the farmers cannot get there grain they cannot feed the cattle. No grain means no cows, means no leather, means no luxury cars!

7 Wonders Duel

This is a popular head-to-head adaption of the full-size tableau builder, 7 Wonders. The arrangement of the cards means that, to a degree, players know what might be available as they build their city. The engine building element occurs across the three ages of the game. Resources are certainly needed (clay, would, stone etc). As players build a stock, this will allow other more useful cards to be acquired. These might enable more goods to be used and make the development of the city easier.

There are a number of “chains” of cards. This is where the acquisition of a building card in one age allows the development of an associated building at a later age entirely for free. My daughter often builds a nice little system for acquiring the science (green) cards in 7 Wonders Duel as these will also give additional bonuses when science buildings with pairs of symbols are gained.

I think of 7 Wonders Duel as a series of systems, each of which needs to be tuned and integrated in some way. This is like the electrical, fuel and transmission system or needing to work well for a car to move.

With a little gaming experience and an eye for detail, these “engines” can be seen to crop up in all sorts of places. They come in different shapes and sizes. However, they are what actually move the game along and with a little fuel they can really get you motoring.