In many aspects of life, we benefit less from being the one to act the fastest, and more from being the one who prepares the best. This applies to construction, gardening, sports, and tabletop games. Beginning with Chess and other strategic games, engine building has been used in games to help players feel a sense of influence, control, and increasing momentum as they move towards the end of the game.
In this week’s article we’ll take an in-depth look at engine building and how we can identify opportunities to use it in the games we design and play.
Overview of Engine Building
First, an overview. In board and card games, engine building consists of progressively collecting components or abilities to create new abilities and enhance future gameplay. This is often a cumulative approach that results in a simpler early game and a more complex and involved middle and late game.
One benefit of this mechanism is that it invites players to feel a growing sense of momentum throughout the game, and keeps them involved by helping them feel like they have new and unique decisions that improve as the game progresses.
Engine building can be as simple as players gaining access to components and actions throughout the game or as complex as building a whole economy or ecosystem of components and options that works together to make each turn more and more impactful.
Important Considerations with Engine Building
Engine building can include card, dice, and bag building, where players build up a physical stockpile or collection of components that increase their strength and options later in the game. Players might draft components, then draft actions from or with those components throughout the game.
Engine building might also be simply increasing options on the board as the game progresses. However engine building looks in your game, it probably should include at least some component of agency—of players consciously taking actions that affect the game for them either immediately or down the road.
To start adding an aspect of engine building to your game, ask yourself what actions and decisions can affect later parts of the game, and start considering how you can link current actions and components to future ones. Here are some examples of engine building in games that might help you get started:
- Alhambra and Trekking the National Parks both have a simple engine building mechanism of collecting components (tiles, cards, or stones) that together score points later into the game. In a similar kind of way, in Azul players build component collections that later become accessible to use to score points. Kingdomino takes another spin on this, allowing players to collect both tiles that score points and tiles that increase the number of points each tile can score.
- Bruxelles 1897 offers multiple paths to victory, several of which include engine building as players upgrade their positions on the nobility, prestige, and building tracks. Moving up on these tracks increases options, abilities, and strength later in the game.
- Dominion is a great intuitive example of engine building! Players use cards to draft actions that enable them to use and purchase more cards, and eventually lands and victory points. Throughout the game, players’ collections of cards (their engines) become both more formidable and more powerful, and they are able to accomplish more each turn.
- 7 Wonders and Sushi Go! each let players draft and play cards that work together throughout three rounds to both score points and affect the effects of other cards. 7 Wonders uses more complicated and varied action cards to create a more involved board game, while Sushi Go! uses simpler cards with the same concept to create a card game that is simpler and easier to teach and play.
However you choose to include engine building in your game, consider ways that it can make the game more engaging for players. You might also consider starting the game with players’ engines partially built in some way to help move speed up the start of the game and give players something to build off of. Partially building engines before the game starts also offers some great opportunities for a balanced asymmetry that can be a fun option for some games. Let me know how you have used asymmetry in engine building to help games be more engaging in a balanced way!
Cautions and Tips for Using Engine Building
One downside to engine building is that it can sometimes make the starting turns of a game feel slow and uneventful. This can be helped by starting with asymmetry or partially built engines, as mentioned in the section above, but make sure to watch for this and carefully test your game to make sure that you don’t lose players right at the beginning of the game.
Also, as important as a game’s beginning is, we can’t forget the endgame, which is probably one of the most important parts of gameplay as it in large part determines whether players will want to come back to the game, As we have seen and experienced, watching the effects of engine building multiply throughout a game can be great, but as a designer, take care to make sure that the size or content of players’ engines don’t drag out the endgame longer than it should go. Adding effects and abilities throughout the game can easily extend time between later turns, and care should be taken to keep all players engaged in the game from the very beginning to the very end.
What are some interesting ways you have seen engine building be used as a part of a game? How else can it be used to enhance tabletop games? Please comment below with your thoughts!
Engine building in games consists of progressively collecting components or abilities to create new options and enhance future gameplay. This is often a cumulative approach that results in a simpler early game and a more complex and involved middle and late game.
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Other Tabletop Game Mechanics to Explore
- Action Drafting Mechanic
- Alliances Mechanic
- Auctioning Mechanic (Part 1/2)
- Auctioning Mechanic (Part 2/2)
- Bluffing Mechanic
- Board Game Mechanics: An Overview
- Component Drafting Mechanic
- Cooperation Mechanic
- Dice Rolling Mechanic
- Direct Conflict Mechanic
- Elimination Mechanic
- Engine Building Mechanic
- Finance Mechanic
- Irregular Turn Order Mechanic
- Memory Mechanic
- Negotiation Mechanic
- Random Selection
- Social Deduction Mechanic
- Tile Placement Mechanic
- Unique Abilities Mechanic
- Worker Placement Mechanic
Are there other game mechanics or topics that you would like to see explored further? Please comment below with any requests!