The Mechanics of Play - Engine Building

For those that master the engine building mechanic, it seems almost magical. Have you recently played a game where your turn took 10 seconds or so with little result, and the next player spent nearly the same amount of time but ended their turn with a bounty?! Watching someone turn a perfectly built engine almost seems like sleight-of-hand and is certainly impressive. Let’s pull back the curtain on this useful mechanic.

If this is your first time reading this series of game mechanics, you may be wondering what it’s all about. Think of game mechanics as the backbone of the game, the structure that provides which actions and moves a player takes, to follow the flow of the game. There can be one or many, depending on the style and complexity of the game.

Let’s learn about engine building. Luckily, we’re not talking about car engines, because this would be a very short article (I know nothing about car engines!), but the thought behind it is the same. The definition of an engine is a machine that converts power into motion with moving parts. The idea of building that engine in a board game is intriguing. Let’s take a look.

In a board game, an engine can be anything that makes playing easier, even automatic in some cases. It might make you travel farther, give you more resources, or provide more options. The engine can even help you gather those resources to convert into points.

One of the first examples that come to mind is one of my favorite games - Splendor (pictured left). In Splendor, you’re playing a Renaissance merchant using resources to acquire mines, transportation methods, and artisans who will allow you to turn raw gems into beautiful jewels. During the game, you are trading gem tokens you acquire for development cards that contain points and resources (the cards have permanent gem tokens). Because the gem tokens you spend must be turned in each time you get a card, if you only use gem tokens, it’s going to take you a really long time to get the higher value cards, and in some cases, they are impossible to get. However, as you acquire cards, the permanent gem tokens allow you to spend faster and more efficiently. The more cards you acquire, the more efficient the engine.

Engine building is also known as tableau building and is often found in deck-builders. One of my favorite engine builders is the Heart of Crown series (pictured right). Primarily known as a deck-builder, you can build a pretty efficient engine. The idea behind Heart of Crown is backing a Princess to help get her to the throne. Initially, the players collect lands and special powers, providing the coins to eventually take a Princess Card. Later you’ll purchase Succession Points to earn her the support of influential people and win the game!

During the game, not only do you purchase the ‘coins’ to purchase higher value coins, you also have the opportunity to purchase market cards. Although each hand starts with 5 cards typically, you can chain cards together to draw more cards for more effects and abilities. The engine churns as the cards you purchase allow for acquiring more cards, that allow more abilities. Examples include:

  • an 'acquire' card allows you to take a free card or purchase a card for a lesser value;
  • a ‘draw' card will allow you to take additional cards from your draw pile;
  • a card that allows you to banish negative effect cards
  • discard a card to take coins or another card
  • taking a card from your discard pile to use sooner

Setting up your deck with the right possibilities allows you to make stronger, better purchases in order to be the first to select a Princess and ultimately win the game. I’ve seen skilled players make an impressive engine of cards that look like magic by the time they are done with their turn.

There are plenty of examples of great engine builders. It’s a Wonderful World is expanding an empire that must be built faster and better than your competitors, or you’ll be left in the dust. Terraforming Mars is also one of our favorites and has various ways you can build your engine. You can build cubes for a thriving heat-producing engine that suddenly maxes out half-way through the game, so balancing your engine building card-play is crucial.

I have to admit, this is not an easy mechanic for me. I’m not sure if my brain doesn’t work that way, or it’s just a skill that some are better at than others. To watch a good engine builder in a game can be both impressive and crushing at the same time. But I keep practicing because one day, I’ll build the perfect engine and TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!! Ahem ... okay, maybe just have the most victory points.

See you at the table,


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