I find engine builders to be very satisfying games. In an engine builder, each player will typically start with the same very simple ability or abilities. Then over the course of the game, they can add to or modify their abilities to create a unique set of powers that will hopefully play off of each other.
Another hallmark of an engine builder is the game ramping up in pace. Typically, on turn one you might only be doing one simple action, but by the end of the game you can have a variety of different actions all bouncing off one another. Here are a few of the Zatu blogging team's favourite engine builder games.
Thom Newton - Oh My Goods!
Oh My Goods may not be the biggest game with the highest production values, but what designer Alexander Pfister has managed to pull off with a deck of cards is quite impressive! In Oh My Goods! players will be taking the role of craftspeople who are trying to complete as many high-quality goods as possible.
Players will start off with just one simple building that produces charcoal, but can expand their workshop with more complex production buildings that can take on one of many raw materials to process them into more valuable goods. Then these processed goods may be able to be improved further into more valuable fine goods.
The way in which you go about running these buildings is quite interesting too. A row of raw materials is placed out for use by all of the players. The number of cards that are played out varies though. You keep going until you draw a second sun symbol. After you see the first row of materials, you choose which building you will try and produce at and, crucially, whether you will produce well or sloppily. Producing well nets you two goods, but you need all of the raw materials to be available to produce anything at all. If you decide to produce sloppily you only produce one good, but you can also omit any one resource you need. It is an interesting decision.
Any building you produce at can then chain up with any goods left in your production buildings to produce even more refined goods. If you play it right, you can end up with an explosion of goods being produced!
You can also hire apprentices to allow you to run more than one building a turn and then on the last turn every building you own can be run at once! It really gives you that good feeling you get from an engine builder where you start the game producing one or two goods and then by the end of the game, you’re producing swathes of goods thanks to the engine you have built.
Carl Yaxley - Puerto Rico
My choice is the 2002 release: Puerto Rico, from designer Andreas Seyfarth. A long time favourite, and at one time, the top ranked game on boardgamegeek. Puerto Rico is a 3-5 player economic/city-building game. Your goal is to develop a colony, with the aim of producing and selling goods to amass victory points.
Over a number of rounds you will need to bring in colonists, expand plantations, and construct buildings. In doing so, you will be building an economic engine that generates the goods and gold you need to score points. The player with the most victory points at the end of the game wins.
Gameplay revolves around the use of seven role tiles. Each role grants a unique action, which all players will take, and a privilege. The privilege is a bonus for the player holding the tile.
Each round, beginning with the governor (the start player), every player will select a role from a shared pool. The player holding the role tile will gain the privilege and then take the action. Each other player will then take the action, in clockwise order. Players must take the action if possible.
Once all players have taken a role, a doubloon is added to the unused roles. All other roles are returned to the pool, and the governor tile is passed to the next player. A new round will then commence. Play continues until the end game condition is met.
This marriage of action drafting, variable phase order, and follow mechanics makes for some really interesting gameplay. You will need to prioritise your needs and keep a careful eye on what your opponents are doing. Your success (or lack thereof) will ultimately arise from how you utilise the roles!
Jim Cohen - Century Spice Road
When you first start trying to get good cards in Century: Spice Road, you feel lost. They feel so far away and unattainable. But as you build up your engine, your powers increase and you feel unstoppable! This is usually the point at which I lose, and my wife gets the final card! But it still feels good to develop your powers in the game and end in a better place than you started.
I suppose this is what an engine builder is all about. Feeling a sense of progression and feeling the benefit from that with more powerful turns as the game progresses. Century: Spice Road is very much like this and builds the engine much in the way Splendor does. As such, I would rank it alongside Splendor as a very good gateway engine builder game. It is a better game overall than Splendor in my opinion, but perhaps not as accessible. But certainly not far off.
In truth, Century: Spice Road is as much a deck builder as it is an engine builder. As you gain more cards into your hand, your engine builds with it. And cascading moves that can happen from this are very satisfying. You will be looking at trying to get a certain top scoring card that requires a certain collection of spices that your hand cannot immediately acquire. But within three turns, using the cards you have collected, you can turn yellow to red, then reds to green and then get the card you want. This is a highly gratifying and rewarding experience, built by your fully functioning engine.
But in truth, the above also highlights the one key issue with the game. The theme is somewhat pasted on, and with the cubes being as they are, I never say the right spice names. I just call them coloured cubes. So, if you want a very good abstract card/engine building gateway game, this is for you!
Callum Price - Gizmos
Engine builders are a personal favourite of mine, as it's a game that develops at your pace. You aren't given 30 choices from the off, you earn them... bit by bit! But what's wonderful is how you get to choose them through your actions - you make stuff to build stuff to make stuff. And Gizmos by CMON is a game all about that! You need to build gizmos to enable you to collect resources to build more gizmos. It's for 2-4 players and usually takes about 45 minutes to play.
Gizmos starts slow, with everyone having the opportunity to collect energy spheres (coloured marbles). These in turn can be spent on new gizmos or corresponding costs. All players get a dashboard to work with which dictates the actions they can take and modifiers they can have. Upgrades change your current energy stock size and storage area for filed cards. Converters allow you to change energy from one colour to another. Files allow you to take actions when you file a card. Pick bonuses give bonuses for taking specific spheres, and build bonuses do likewise. Whoever has accumulated the most VP by game end, both in token and earned through gizmos, wins!
What's wonderful about Gizmos is that you can see the chain reaction you'll trigger when you do something. It makes taking unwanted spheres valuable as you’ll get more options because of it! Taking a red energy sphere may trigger you to take two from the holder. Nice and simple right? Now tie that into a chain... Building a blue gizmo may trigger you to gain VP, be able to file something, and take from the line of visible energy, which then may trigger more effects. I won't lie, it can become chaotic! But, so long as you remember you can only trigger each gizmo once per turn, you can't get into a loop!
Gizmos is undeniably on the more anarchic side of engine builders, but is beautiful in the respect that you're actually building an engine. You put stuff in, you get stuff out, you build stuff. And you'll get into the swing of it in no time with no issues! Excellent fun and highly recommended!
Joe Packham - Space Base
Space Base may not be the best game in the world; it may not even be the best engine builder in the world. But it is one of the most fun! In Space Base, you have a main console with 12 spaces containing star ships. These ships are your on-turn engine. That’s right, you have 2 related but distinct engines in this game. So when YOU roll the dice you can activate either the 2 separate values ships or combine them to activate the ship in the combined value slot. Activating a ship means either using its ability if it has one or collecting the resources shown on it.
There are 3 resources in Space Base: money, production and points. With money you can buy new and better spaceships to upgrade your on-turn engine. When you do, instead of discarding the old card, it gets flipped and placed under its slot with only its bottom red bar showing. These flipped cards become your off-turn engine. These cards can stack as you do multiple upgrades and activate when your OPPONENTS roll that number.
When you spend money to upgrade a ship, you spend all your money regardless of the price. Your money slides down to your current production rate. This makes money and production super important in the early game. At some point though you’ll notice an opponent's got quite a lot of points and suddenly your engine building focus will shift from money to points. It’s a testament to how fun these engines are to build that I’m always a little disappointed when I have to stop building my money engine to focus on points. Space Base can be a slow starter but personally I like engine builders with a nice arc from slow to epic! It certainly gets epic, and with its on and off turn actions Space Base is a non stop rollercoaster of fun.
Engine Builders: Honourable Mentions
So there we go! Five excellent choices for an engine building game! We’ll finish up with a few honourable mentions. Fantastic Factories is a brilliant game about making a dice powered factory. Terraforming Mars is a big engine builder where players will be building up an engine to transform the surface of Mars. And lastly, 2019's bird-based darling, Wingspan, is a solid engine builder with an unusual theme!