Sam “King of the Hilltop”

Last week we discussed our thoughts on a taxonomy of board games and it went way better than we thought it would. People started discussing different terms used and where does the theme go in a taxonomy of board games. It was awesome! Among those voices was an interesting comment about the term, engine builder. At first, I pushed against the idea because I have always been a fan of engine builders. However, after thinking about it, they had a point. What defines an engine builder? In my head it seemed clear but after discussing it out loud with people, I am not so sure anymore. Here are some thoughts as well as something we can learn from engine building.


I have been searching around for a definition of an engine builder and I noticed in the board game mechanics section of Board Game Geek, there isn’t an entry. I thought to myself, that’s fine. Engine building is much broader than that when it comes to mechanics, it’s an over arching idea for a game. So, after more research I found this gem of an article about Engine Building from

Bastiaan describes it as the following, “The basic tenet of engine builders: Get resources, exchange those resources for something that generates more resources. Rinse, wash, repeat. In essence this is a positive feedback loop.”

That’s what an engine builder is, basically a way to show progression and development in a game where previous decisions help future gaining of resources, points, control, etc. There are so many games that fit this description! However, is that a bad thing? No. I don’t think it is. It helps a player to feel progress and advancement in a game. It’s a very positive aspect of a lot of board games.

I think if you are looking for definitions of what people like, don’t like, or defining a game, I don’t think the term engine builder is necessarily a good one. I think being more specific to the mechanical options of deck building, bag building, or tableau building are much better ways to define a game.

What Can We Learn

So, should we get rid of the term engine building completely? No. It’s a wonderful term that helps to describe a sense of progress and development in board games that a lot of people understand and are accustomed to. The idea that engine building brings to board game design is incredibly powerful.

The sense of progression and achievement in games we call “engine builders” can be applied to many games. It helps players feel accomplished. Even when someone loses that’s ok because they were able to pull off a combo, gather more resources than the game before, or got a higher score. These can be elegantly pulled off by the ideas of engine building. It helps players feel like they are progressing throughout a game and they will come back for more. Victory doesn’t have to be the only way to gain satisfaction in playing a game. Building up resources, attempting a strategy, and then failing can be a very rewarding experience for many players.


The term engine builder I think is used too broadly and doesn’t always really convey what a game is about even though it is present in so many board games. We can learn a great deal from the ideas that engine building brings in terms of player progression and achievement.

What do you think? Do you think the term is too broad? Do you think it is perfectly fine? Is the concept of engine building useful for other games?

Engine Builder is Too Broad of a Category

Ed “Duke of BAzlandia”

Recently I have found in discussing board games with fellow enthusiasts that many people have said that engine builders are some of their favorite games. I too was once one among the many who considered engine building to be one of their favorite categories of games. Nothing feels better than when you play a game and your turn is just a machine of effects where one leads right into another into another scoring massive points or just clearing the board. It is truly just an amazing feeling. So first lets define what an engine builder is and then why this is a problem when it comes to classification.

To me an engine builder is a game where as you take turns you can progressively take more or do more with your turn as the game goes on. As an example, when you are playing Splendor you gather resources, and buy cards which permanently add to your resources. As the game progresses you have more and more permanent resources which allow you to buy higher tier cards that cost more without having to wait out turns gathering more resources. Catan is another evergreen game that is a engine builder. You build cities and settlements to not only get victory points but as you build more cities and settlements you potentially gather more resources. Risk is actually an engine builder. As you conquer and hold more territory you gather more troops which allows you to do more on you turns. Magic the Gathering is an engine builder. You lay down mana and build up your mana pool allowing you to do more and more on your turn.

This can get pretty interesting with that basic definition. Tabletop RPG’s are engine builders if you consider your character as an engine. Your character gains experience, levels ups, gains feats, skill proficiencies, abilities, and higher tier magic, allowing you to do more in the game. Deck builders are really engine builders; your engine is your deck. Gloomhaven has a character building similar to a Table Top RPG with the use of decks for each of the characters. Once again it’s a little stretch but that engine building aspect is there.

I am not saying that all games are engine builders because they are not. I am saying however, that as a category it is a little broad and could maybe use some refinement or a more definitive accepted definition. I am not suggesting an answer; I’m not that smart. It is something I am thinking about though.

4 thoughts on “Is ‘Engine Builder’ Too Broad of a Board Game Term?

  1. Matthew Humphriss says:

    I found this quite enlightening to read, thank you.
    After putting some thought into it inspired from these discussions, I suppose, yes, ‘Engine Builder’ as a term for defining a game is incredibly broad and I never realized that until now. However, my mind is putting it towards the category that it’s meant to be broad as it can be so versatile, this category can then be sub-categorized further. For example; resource engines, character engines, worker engines are all basic examples of some form of engine put forward.
    So yes, to put my opinion forward towards one of Sams questions, I believe it to be perfectly fine to be such a broad term and for any developers considering an engine builder within one of their projects to use it’s versatility to enable a narrowing down on what is the specific engine of the project. This is just a complete board games amateur opinion though. X’D
    Again, thank you for the thoughts from reading. =)

  2. Brett Fuller says:

    I wish there was a way to convey the feeling of a mechanic though, to bring it out of the cold and into the warm – something like submechanics? Dominion is a very different game than Aeon’s End but both are deck builders, ZhanGuo is nothing like Everdell but both give you a tableau, and there are countless others. The sharing of a mechanic does nothing to help ensure you will get the same satisfaction from a game.

  3. Harvey says:

    A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you need to write more
    on this subject, it might not be a taboo subject
    but generally people do not discuss these subjects.
    To the next! All the best!!

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