There’s nothing quite like building a functional and efficient system from scratch. This sentiment might sound familiar to you coders and PC gamers out there — isn’t it satisfying to sit back and watch all of your hard work run smoothly?
My fiancé is a long-time fan of construction simulators and deck-building games — even in games where efficiency isn’t a primary focus, he’s always looking for a way to connect the dots and automate some of the more tedious elements of gameplay. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that some of our first ventures into modern board games were engine-building games.
Engine-building games reward careful foresight and dedicated strategy with beautifully efficient gameplay that compounds your rewards over time. Whether you prefer steady, linear improvement that’s easy to build on or flashy, late-game turnabouts that rely on lucky plays, there’s a little something for everyone.
If you’re looking to try out a new board game genre (or if you’re like me and are looking for a few more recommendations to add to your collection), feel free to read on for our list of the best engine-building board games!
What Are Engine-Building Board Games?
Before we get into our recommendations, let’s discuss what engine-building games actually are. To keep it simple, engines are designed to perform tasks automatically with little to no manual input. Engine-building games, by extension, are board games designed around automating gameplay — you set up actions to perform themselves in the background so that you can accomplish more in a single turn. Strategies usually involve designing an “engine” that becomes more powerful and effective as the game progresses, earning you the most points for the least effort.
Engine-building games typically make use of one or more of the following mechanics:
- Drafting: pulling items (cards, tiles, dice, etc.) from a shared pool
- End Game Bonuses: earning/losing additional points at the end of the game
- Hand Management: earning rewards for playing cards in a particular order
- Income: gaining resources at set times during the game
- Set Collection: valuing items as a set, rather than individually
- Tile Placement: placing physical components or resources on the board
- Worker Placement: choosing from a specific set of actions to complete on a given turn
Finally, engine-building games can come in a few different forms. Tableau-building games generally involve a personal array that you manage separately from the game board and/or shared pieces. These arrays help you track and shape your strategy — depending on how your array is set up, it’ll determine which actions you can take on a turn and how effective those turns will be.
Deck-building games involve drawing from a deck of cards and building a strategy from the cards in your hand. Note that this is different than collectible card games (CCGs) — rather than building your deck independently and facing off against opponents and their decks, you and the other players will build your strategies and pull cards from the same draw pile.
10 Best Engine-Building Board Games
All of this may sound complicated, but gameplay is often simple and streamlined enough that it’s easy to learn as you go. With all of this in mind, let’s get into our recommendations for the ten best engine-building simulation games!
The best thematic engine-building board game
Designer: James A. Wilson | Players: 1–4 | Duration: 40–80min | Difficulty: 3/5
In Everdell, you’re in charge of a little community of forest creatures who must prepare for the upcoming winter. Your goal is to build a functional city that offers its residents enough resources to survive. Place workers, collect cards and resources, and earn points throughout the in-game seasons to build up your city before winter approaches. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins!
Most of the game’s engine-building elements exist in the cards you draw. There are several different card types — Destination, Governance, Production, Prosperity, and Travelers — that dictate what actions are available to you in a given turn. Using your cards strategically helps you make the most out of your turn and improve the quality of your city!
Everdell is a fun game of moderate difficulty, but its art is what really stands out. The game board and art look like they belong in a storybook, and there’s a little pop-up tree in the corner!
2. Star Realms
The best combat in an engine-building board game
Designer: Robert Dougherty, Darwin Kastle | Players: 2 | Duration: 20min | Difficulty: 2/5
Next on our list of best engine-building board games is Star Realms.
In Star Realms, you play a space general working to build a space army from the forces of several different space factions. Earn benefits as you build your army, gaining Authority from your growing factions and by promoting trade. When you have enough military prowess, attack your opponents to reduce their Authority. The last player standing wins!
Star Realms is a deck-building game that involves clever hand management to get ahead. We’ve named it the engine-building game with the best combat because eliminating other players is more hands-on than it is with other games on this list. The boons you get from each of the available factions help to dictate your strategy, so it’s important to know where you’re going to focus your attention and how that plays into taking down your opponents.
The most replayable engine-building board game
Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 30min | Difficulty: 2/5
Dominion is a lot like Star Realms, though the setting is more medieval than futuristic. Starting from a hand of ten cards — three estates and seven copper — build your dominion by building your deck, claiming new land for your kingdom and earning enough points to name you the ultimate victor.
We’ve ranked Dominion as one of the best engine-building board games for replayability due to its many expansions. While deck-building games have a lot of replayability out of the box, the introduction of additional cards and their effects add a lot of gameplay variety that’s sure to keep you on your toes time and time again.
4. Fantastic Factories
The best engine-building board game for beginners
Designer: Joseph Z Chen, Justin Faulkner | Players: 1–5 | Duration: 45–60min | Difficulty: 2/5
Fantastic Factories is about efficiency, though there’s a bit more to it than that. You’re in charge of building your factory from the ground up — purchase blueprints, hit contractors, and construct buildings during your turn to maximize your rewards. At the end of the game, the player with the most points (earned from both the buildings you construct and the goods you produce) wins!
As with most engine-building games, there’s a limit to the number of actions you can take on a given turn. You’ll want to develop a strategy that nets you a lot of resources that you can spend to upgrade your factory on later turns, compounding your rewards over time until you have the best factory possible. The game includes a wide variety of building and contractor types, so there are many different strategies to explore, but the rules are simple enough that it’s still a very beginner-friendly engine-building game!
5. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
The best engine-building board game for advanced players
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 120min | Difficulty: 4/5
Through the Ages is an advanced civilization-building game in which players attempt to build a flourishing civilization through card drafting and resource management. Build up your prowess and trigger events that allow you to get ahead, earning points as you go. The player with the most “culture” points at the end wins the game!
Be wary — Through the Ages is undoubtedly the most challenging game on this list. There are a lot of different elements to track, and the number of different card types and potential actions to take can make it pretty unfriendly for beginners. We’ve recommended the newer edition, as it cleans up some of the mechanics and makes the game a little more accessible as a whole, but it’s still a bit of a challenge. This one is a good choice for players who are experienced with engine-builders and Eurogames in general!
6. Power Grid
The best engine-building board game for large groups
Designer: Friedemann Friese | Players: 2–6 | Duration: 120min | Difficulty: 3/5
Power Grid is set in a future where electricity has grown scarce, and your job is to supply power to as many cities as possible. Connect routes between cities and generate enough electricity to power them, manage your resources, and upgrade your plants for greater efficiency. At the end of the game, the player with the most powered cities wins!
It’s not enough simply to claim the most cities — much of Power Grid’s strategy lies in balancing the size of your network with the power you have available. Whether this looks like buying up as many plants as possible or slowly upgrading your network to provide more energy with fewer resources is up to you!
The best engine-building board game for mid-size groups
Designer: Marc André | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 30min | Difficulty: 2/5
Splendor is a great casual game that takes little time to play and even less time to learn. You and the other players are wealthy merchants attempting to grow your wealth and influence. During your turn, collect gems and use them to either reserve or purchase property (represented by cards). Over time, you can purchase more valuable land for greater prestige, perhaps even earning a Noble card and the added prestige that comes with it. At the end of the game, the player with the most Prestige points wins.
The engine-building elements of this game are arguably pretty light compared to the rest of this list. The primary goal is to manage your hand in such a way that you get improved returns with time, all while being limited by the number of tokens you can hold onto.
8. Race for the Galaxy
The best engine-building board game for small groups
Designer: Thomas Lehmann | Players: 2–4 | Duration: 30–60min | Difficulty: 3/5
In Race for the Galaxy, Earth’s colonizing forces (you and your fellow players) strive to become the most powerful space empire. Spend your turns exploring, building, or consuming/producing goods — all players get to benefit from the game’s various phases, so strategy is key if you want to stay ahead. The game is over when someone plays their twelfth card, or the final victory point is claimed, and whoever has the most points is the winner.
Race for the Galaxy is reportedly pretty hard to learn, as there’s a lot of decision-making in a pretty small package. That said, the gameplay is simple enough (thanks in part to really informative cards) that once you pick it up, you won’t want to put it down!
9. Terraforming Mars
The best engine-building board game runner-up
Designer: Jacob Fryxelius | Players: 1–5 | Duration: 120min | Difficulty: 3/5
We’ve discussed Terraforming Mars before, but it’s a good enough game that it deserves another recommendation. You play as a corporation setting out to terraform Mars (shocking, I know) and ensure that your company is the most successful by the time the planet is habitable. You and the other players will spend resources to develop the planet, making it more viable until all of the global parameters have been met. The player with the highest Terraform Rating and the most victory points at the end of the game wins!
Terraforming Mars has a lot of engine-building elements to it, but it makes the most use of worker placement. There are a number of actions you can take during a given turn that will give you an advantage while actively improving the planet’s Terraform Rating, and the key lies in balancing your resources enough that you stay ahead of your opponents as the planet develops.
The best engine-building board game overall
Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave | Players: 1–5 | Duration: 40–70min | Difficulty: 2/5
Our pick for the best engine-building game overall is Wingspan, a game all about collecting birds. Throughout the game, you and the other players will draw unique bird cards (all of which depict actual birds!) with special effects — playing those cards allows you to gain those effects and earn more resources down the line. You earn points for each of the birds you collect and the resources you have available, as well as through fulfilling specific parameters outlined by goal tokens and special cards. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins!
Wingspan is a tableau-building game that encourages you to think ahead. The order in which you play your bird cards and the places you play them dictate how efficient you’ll be in a given round. You’ll want to ensure that you always have enough resources to purchase more birds, and that the birds you have in play allow you to make the most of each round (some birds give you added benefits on other players’ turns!).
On a personal note, I find it to be an exceptionally beautiful game. The artwork is stunning — even when I’m not doing very well, I love drawing new cards just to see the art and the fun facts included about each bird!
High Ground View
That’s it for our roundup of the ten best engine-building board games!
If you have recommendations of your own or any suggestions for future genres you’d like us to cover, please let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to subscribe to our email list for more content like this!
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Also, we’d like to extend a special thanks to Yoppy for the featured image. You can explore their Flickr page right here.