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In board gaming, a player’s ‘engine’ is her set of accumulated cards or resources. An engine-building game warms up slowly. It often takes many turns to gather a few resources. Cards are acquired that may have no immediate effect but could be a great benefit later on. At the start, victory points are hard to come by, but at some point, the engine kicks in and you are able to use your resources to help you take more powerful actions. Certain cards you already own help you to maximise the potential of other new ones.

Many engine-building games allow players to form sequences of actions, where one action triggers another and another and another. Players are rewarded for the time they’ve spent in developing their engines so the component parts work well together later in the game. Most games of this type allow players to keep acquiring new cards or resources – you don’t lose them when you use them. They continue to be part of the engine. So it feels worthwhile gathering expensive but powerful cards as you can potentially use them multiple times.

I find engine-building games particularly satisfying. It’s the pleasure of building something… choosing the direction that you want to specialise in and then making decisions to maximise that strategy. It’s so lovely when you achieve a combination of resources that work really well together. I love the moment when the engine kicks in and your strategy comes into fruition. I love the feeling of suddenly being able to acquire expensive resources and gain victory points because of the decisions I’ve previously made. I love the fact that most people are so focused on their own engines that they forget to keep an eye on yours!

Here’s a few engine builders that I’d recommend:

  • Splendor: On your turn either take gem tokens or acquire cards using gems. Cards you acquire have permanent gems on them that you can use again and again. More expensive cards (which require lots of gems to acquire) give you victory points. Gain 15 victory points to win. Keep a very close eye on your opponents in this game. Some cards have 5 victory points on them and players can almost come out of nowhere and steal the game in 2 turns. Splendor plays very quickly so it’s a good one to choose if you’re short on time. Or play multiple rounds in order to crown an ultimate gem-master.
  • Gizmos: Pick energy balls in four different colours (marbles) from a runner coming out of a large cardboard container. Keep your energy balls in your personal energy ring and then spend the balls to acquire cards that form part of your engine. Players are allowed to take one base action per turn. But the cards, placed in your own personal tableau, enable you to string actions together. You may, for example, have a card that enables you to build a red card if you pick a blue energy ball. You may also have a card that allows you to build a yellow card if you build a red one. You may have multiple cards that reward the same basic action with extra actions. The trick is to string them together to acquire the best upgrades, the best supply of energy balls and hence acquire cards with the most victory points. This one is really fun.
  • Dominion: The classic deck-building game. You start off with a deck of 10 cards – 7 coppers and 3 victory points. Other cards – action cards, victory cards and treasure (money) cards – are available for purchase on your turn. Each turn you draw a hand of five cards from your personal deck. You may play an action if you can, perform the effects and then use any treasure you have to acquire more cards. Cards you use are always returned to your discard pile to be shuffled and recycled when your deck is empty. With 25 different cards in the box (from which you select 10 each time), every game feels different. This game has had more table time than any other in our house.
  • Race for the Galaxy: (Nominally) the aim is to build galactic civilisations by playing new world or technological development cards. Play is simultaneous. Each player can select a phase of the round where they’d like to receive a special bonus, but all players can take part in all phases of each round, if their cards allow them to do so. Cards that players have previously placed within their tableaux will give additional bonuses. The trick is to be very strict about the cards you acquire. It’s easy to get side-tracked by interesting cards coming your way, but success usually relies on a dogged pursuit of a single chosen strategy – and remembering that the ultimate aim of the game is to get victory points, not to place ever more challenging cards.
  • Wingspan: A calmer game, in theme and pace, in Wingspan players select different birds to place within three different habitats on their personal board. Each (beautiful) bird card gives players victory points at the end of the game and benefits during the game. Players choose between four actions to play each turn – 1) play a bird, 2) get some food, 3) lay some eggs or 4) take some more cards. When any of the last three actions are taken, the actions of all the birds in one single habitat are triggered. The actions will usually give you extra food, draw you extra cards, lay you extra eggs or give you victory points. There is tension between taking different actions and there never seems to be enough available actions to do what you want. The trick is to choose your birds wisely and then make sure you activate them as much as possible. Get your engine revving!

Which is your favourite of these engine builders? And which others do you like? Post your comments below.