The 10 Best Engine Building Board Games of 2020
Best High End
Best Mid Range
Last Updated: 22nd Jun, 2020
Engine Building games - what on Earth is that? As a genre, it is open to interpretation. So we will define our criteria for this article, knowing and respecting that others might have their own definition.
An engine-building game relies on a mechanic that allows players to build up, or increase, the power of their actions as the game progresses. This constant attention to 'build your engine' is essential for victory - the actions played at the end of a game will be significantly different than at the start of the game.
Engine building games tend to be tactical and reward foresight, with a degree of open-play choices to consider on the path to victory.
So with our definition out of the way, here is our list of the best engine building board games to play in 2020.
- Players: 1-5
- Playing time: 40-70 mins
- Age: 10+
- Game type: cards, competitive, dice, tokens
- Price: around $135
Why we love this game: This is one of those games that comes out every couple of years that everyone seems to love.
It's refreshing to play such a fantastic game that is not about zombies, space ships, and axe-wielding dungeoneers (though this IS fun). Theme aside, Wingspan is a super game to play, and this is probably bound to be one of those games that makes many peoples' best games lists.
Gameplay: Each player is a bird enthusiast whose job is to attract birds to their aviary.
There are one-hundred and seventy-five individual bird cards, each one with unique and beautiful artwork.
Gathering birds is the aim of the game - players have four rounds to do this.
Each round, players take turns and may play one of four actions. They may place a bird from their hand and put it in their aviary's forest, grassland, or wetland. The aviary is depicted on a beautifully rendered board, and placing a bird here costs some food resources, represented by cute little worm, fish, mouse, seed, feather, or berry tokens.
Some birds have special rules when played, like the Carolina Wren, which draws more bird cards, as they attract more birds.
Playing birds in the same area, like the forest, become more expensive but allows you to generate more food and points while activating other bird cards already placed, making it easier to win - hence the engine-building component.
Other actions include gaining food, which can help increase extra food resources; laying eggs, which generate egg tokens, used to play more powerful cards; and drawing bird cards.
At the end of each round are four goals, generated at random at the game's beginning that adds a variation in each game in which you play. Points accrue each round, and the player with the most points wins.
Verdict: Wingspan is not just one of the newest and best engine-building games out there; it is one of the best games out there right now. This game is beautiful, well-made, and suitable for all ages and experiences.
2. Terraforming Mars
- Players: 1-5
- Playing time: 120 mins
- Age: 12+
- Game type: competitive, cards, board
- Price: under $45
Why we love this game: In Terraforming Mars, players represent a corporation whose job is to (you guessed it) terraform Mars to make it habitable for human settlement. This is one of those cool sci-fi games that are closer to reality than fiction compared to many others - the game designers got feedback from a scientist on what terraforming Mars might look like. We love this game for its reality-basis and the strong engine-building component.
Gameplay: Players compete but in a co-operative manner - players are all terraforming Mars together, but the corporation (player) who gains the most victory points by the game's end wins.
The game board is, unsurprisingly, a map of Mars. Corporations accrue resources - titanium, credits, steel, plants, energy, and heat - to generate trees, oceans, and cities on the Mars board.
Once Mars is terraformed, that is, it has enough oxygen, water, and average temperature to support human life, the game ends, and the player with the most victory points wins.
To terraform Mars, players in their turn play cards using their resources. Players buy these cards in a buying phase. Some of these cards have lasting effects, some award victory points, some accumulate resources, and there are over three hundred different cards like this, so the game is not short of variety!
As the game progresses, players can focus on one aspect of terraforming, and the more they build up their resources, the more their effects accumulate. Herein lies the strong engine-building element - if you do this, you'll snowball your power and dominate later in the game.
Here's an in-depth review with playing instructions:
Verdict: Terraforming Mars is simple yet sophisticated - the rules are easy to pick up, but the strategy involved can be very immersive. We recommend the game for perhaps the intermediate gaming crowd to the advanced group.
- Players: 1-5
- Playing time: 90-115 mins
- Age: 14+
- Game type: board, cards, competitive
- Price: around $80
Why we love this game: Scythe is made with engine-building in mind. It is aesthetically beautiful and also very well thought-out in terms of game mechanics. The alternative-reality 1920s Europe makes for a pleasing theme and a break from ancient civilizations or space settings that are common to engine-builders.
Gameplay: Scythe plays on an alternative-reality map of 1920s Eastern Europe.
Players represent one of four factions, vying to build their settlement up and survive under the shadow of a mysterious city-corporation known as The Factory.
The player that has accumulated the most wealth at the game's end is the winner.
To end the game, players earn stars for achieving objectives, like winning combats or building structures. Once a player has earned six stars, the game ends.
In their turn, a player performs actions on their player board, like allowing them to move their mechs (warriors and transport units), workers, or their character avatar. Moving can pick up resources for use to build later on, or initiate combat with an opposing player, to deny them resources.
Moving to The Factory in the board center with your player avatar provides additional actions to play, making you more powerful.
Every step of this game requires a plan and a strategy, leaving very little room for chance. This mechanic is as-intended, rewarding the careful construction of resources, wealth, and power to win, making this an extreme engine-building game indeed.
Verdict: Beautiful artwork combined with strategic engine-building gameplay makes Scythe a top pick on this list and also a great game in general. We recommend this game for the more intermediate leaning to -advanced gaming group.
4. Terra Mystica
- Players: 2-5
- Playing time: 60-150 mins
- Age: 12+
- Game type: board, competitive
- Price: around $65
Why we love this game: Terra Mystica does not seem like much on the surface, with slightly goofy artwork and an absolutely massive box - it seems like there are better choices out there. But you'd be wrong. Inside this box lies the beating heart of an addictive engine-building fantasy game, which will keep you coming back for more.
Gameplay: Players choose one of fourteen different races, with unique abilities, like Dwarves, Giants, Chaos Magicians, Mermaids, Witches, and more.
The aim is to rule the greatest area on the board by the end of the game, which is six rounds long.
The board consists of hexagonal spaces representing mountains, plains, rivers, deserts, swamps, and wastelands. Depending on your faction, you can only build on specific tiles (like mermaids may only build on the water tiles).
The trick is that players may terraform tiles to expand their territory. To continue the mermaid example, they may more easily terraform waste and forest tiles than, say, a desert tile, which will cost more resources. This resource cost means tactical planning for expanding your Empire is essential.
The engine-building element steps in where terraforming is concerned. Send some builders to collect resources, and you will make it cheaper to terraform overall.
Players then claim territory by building on their land. Buildings upgrade to accrue more resources, making the player more powerful as the game progresses. Building near other players is cheaper but allows them to use your resources, so there is a tactical consideration and tradeoff to make.
All these tactics, rules (and there are many more) rely on engine-building to win you the game. It is dense stuff but immensely fun.
Verdict: Engine building abounds in Terra Mystica. Choose this if you like very tactical games, and beating your opponents with skill and consideration, as opposed to chance. Terra Mytica is recommended more for the intermediate-advanced crowd.
5. 7 Wonders Duel
- Players: 2
- Playing time: 30 mins
- Age: 10+
- Game type: cards, competitive
- Price: around $35
Why we love this game: 7 Wonders Duel is a neat little engine-building game for two players. It's great if you're stuck with one other person and looking for something to do, even if that person has never really played many games before.
Gameplay: Like its big daddy, 7 Wonders, Duel is a game of civilization-building. Players mete it out to create the largest civilization. The largest nation is the one that has accumulated the most victory points, collected throughout the game (alternatively, be the first to conquer your opponent's capital through military conquest or win through a science victory).
Engine-building works marvelously with a civ-building game; as time progresses, civilizations grow in scientific advancement, military might, and architectural prowess.
There are three Ages in Duel, beginning with the first Age, players progress through to the last.
Each Age, players choose cards to construct buildings, which in turn produce empire effects, like the lumber yard creating wood. Wood and other resources let you build more complicated structures later, which have even more significant impacts on your Empire.
A player may also build Wonders in the game, with massive bonuses. The downside? They are expensive to produce, and there can only be 7 Wonders (the name gave it away, didn't it).
Gameplay-wise, 7 Wonders Duel has a nice flow to it that is intuitive and quick to grasp, so it has a great pace.
Verdict: Duel is the perfect engine-building game for two players. It is a fantastic game to play if you are short on time or want to cram several games into a longer gaming night. The easy-to-pick-up rules and pace of the game make it suitable for intermediate players, leaning towards beginners. Also, if you want to try this game with more players, the original and excellent 7 Wonders is made for 3-7 players.
- Players: 2-4 players
- Playing time: 90 mins
- Age: 12+
- Game type: board, competitive
- Price: under $50
Why we love this game: Orléans is set in... Orléans, France, in the Medieval period. There's a depth of play in Orléans that allows multiple ways of achieving victory, which ensures each game has countless possibilities and is never quite the same.
Gameplay: The board represents Orléans in Medieval times; there's also a track for each player to measure their growing influence throughout the region.
Players must build their influence, wealth, and resources to dominate the province of Loire in France.
The player with the most points will achieve victory, and they get these points from traveling the rivers and roads, gathering resources like cloth and cheese (very French), building trading houses, obtaining citizens in your region through performing 'Good Deeds,' or for hoarding gold.
Every turn, there are random events that occur, which may throw a spanner in the works of your carefully planned engine-building strategy!
In your turn, you put workers out into your towns, where they perform tasks like training soldiers. You may also research technology, making it easier to generate resources in the game, by needing fewer workers to make them; or you may build more buildings, adding extra benefits to your growing sphere of influence.
The game mechanics allows many options - do you build wealth up and focus there, or collect as many citizens as possible, or build your military, or build religion up, or maybe all of these together? This diversity of paths creates a unique experience for each game.
Here's an in-depth review of the game:
Verdict: Orléans rewards open play, planning, and careful strategy. The unique worker system adds a twist to the engine-building game syle in that you build your worker base, but draw them from a bag each turn. This bag adds an element of chance to the game, which can add a degree of tension and uncertainty to even the best-laid plans.
We recommend for more advanced gamers due to the complexity of the rules, but Orléans certainly deserves a place in our list.
Why we love this game: Splendor plays simply yet effectively. It is a less dense game than many on this list, but by no means less fun. Splendor is a welcoming game for gaming groups involving people who are getting into more complex games for the first time - it is an excellent addition to a gaming collection.
Gameplay: Become the most prestigious merchant in the Renaissance! That's the aim in Splendor, and the player to achieve 15 prestige points first wins.
Players collect gems; with these, they may build developments. Keep making these and players can produce even better developments and attract the attention of powerful nobles - all these aspects add to your prestige. The cumulative effect adds up your influence in the game to dominate the others, but your opponents aren't just watching you, they're doing the same!
This system relies on cards laid out in three simple rows and counters representing gems. From these rows, players collect gems and purchase developments, so it's straightforward to pick up and learn by playing.
A player takes one action each turn, meaning there's a tactical consideration to make - take more gems to buy developments, build a development to produce more resources and prestige; or reserve a development you can't afford for later purchase.
Verdict: Splendor is a great family engine-building game for all ages and experience types. It is also an excellent, clean, straightforward design and not expensive. The time to play is not long, so it is suitable for short bursts of gaming or playing a few rounds in a more extended session.
8. Imperial Settlers
- Players: 1-4
- Playing time: 45-90 mins
- Age: 10+
- Game type: cards, competitive, board
- Price: under $40
Why we love this game: Imperial Settlers is another civ-style engine-builder, but unlike some others, it doesn't take itself as seriously, with lighter artwork and style. This theme makes a nice change of pace if you're looking for a good game with less heaviness.
Gameplay: Players choose one of four empires - Romans, Barbarians, Japanese, or Egyptians. These four civilizations are attempting to settle a new land, and they don't want to share!
The Empire that collects the most victory points by the game's end will win.
Imperial Settlers plays in five rounds - unlike many engine-building or civ style games, which tend to be open-ended affairs. This turn limit creates pressure from the outset, but also allows for certainty in planning moves, knowing there are only five turns.
Like many civ games we have looked at, players gather resources and people to build their Empire, which is always a clean mechanic for game flow and theme.
Each turn has four phases, so it's neatly divided up. In the lookout phase, players draw cards to play.
A production phase follows, where resources accumulate, followed by the action phase.
The action phase probably takes the most substantial portion of each turn - players build their structures, like Roman Administration buildings, which provide extra gold. These buildings play to the theme of the Empire.
Other actions may be to activate buildings already in play, like a mine, to gain more resources. Often, structures stack with other buildings with a simple color theme, like wood buildings, that have a brown color band on the card.
Finally, players might make a deal as an action or razing. Razing is fun, as you steal resources from other Empires, and hinder their plans.
The turn sequence means all players stay continuously involved, so there's little downtime and chance for boredom.
Verdict: Nicely priced for a game that will keep you entertained well into the evening. Imperial Settler's theme makes this a good game for family nights and a lighter round of Empire-style builders.
9. Race for the Galaxy
- Players: 2-4
- Playing time: 30-60 mins
- Age: 12+
- Game type: cards, competitive
- Price: under $30
Why we love this game: In Race for the Galaxy, players vie to build the most mighty space empire of all. It's age-old cliche, but sometimes you just want to play the straightforward cliche. There's no bells and whistles with this theme, but the game is complex and immersive.
Gameplay: Race for the Galaxy is a card game, pure and simple. The aim is to win with the most victory points.
The game can go on until a player takes the last victory point (represented by tokens), or places their twelfth card down for their Empire.
Unlike other engine-builders, there is no money in the game - playing a card requires payment by sacrificing other cards in your hand. So it makes it hard to play something if you have a killer hand of cards and you don't want to lose any! But this sacrifice element makes for an exciting twist.
In their turn, a player builds one of two cards - a world, or a development. Worlds gain resources for obtaining more cards later, and development cards give you an edge against your opponents. Both types of cards will net you victory points.
Five phases divide a turn for Race for the Galaxy - Explore, Develop, Settle, Consume and Produce.
Playing phases provides a unique aspect of this game. In a turn, each player secretly selects the phase card they want to play and reveals them at the same time. All players get to take the phases laid out, but the ones who chose the phase receives a bonus. The secret selection of phases certainly ups the stakes in Race for the Galaxy.
Verdict: Race for the Galaxy is reasonably priced and light on components, so if you want a game that doesn't break the budget, or you don't want a game with thousands of pieces, this is for you. Race for the Galaxy is just a good all-round engine builder card game.
- Players: 2-6
- Playing time: 60-120 mins
- Age: 12+
- Game type: competitive, tokens, modular board
- Price: under $45
Why we love this game: Keyflower has a cutesy design and theme - build a village over the game, as the good ship Keyflower drops new villagers off each turn. Seasons represent turns and have in-game effects depending on Summer, Spring, Winter, or Fall. The artwork is sweet and pleasant, and the game itself represents a solid engine-builder.
Gameplay: Players begin with eight secretly drawn workers, hidden behind your cute little village screen.
There are four turns in Keyflower, represented by the seasons.
Victory, once again, is represented by accumulating points. After the four seasons, whoever has the highest points, wins!
Each season, players enter an auction to bid for land or tiles. Tiles provide resources and may upgrade, once owned, to give additional bonuses and victory points.
Workers may work the tiles not yet owned by players, or they may work an owned tile. The tiles not yet held may be worked by multiple players, but the workers must be of the same color (red, yellow, or blue) as other players' pieces already there.
The strategy here is do decide whether to work tiles relentlessly or bid and own them, but this costs time. The auction element adds a unique twist to the engine-building genre and is what makes Keyflower a worthy addition to this list.
Verdict: Keyflower is a reliable family game choice, but it's higher complexity makes it better for families with older kids. Keyflower is not just a family game, however - the gameplay is worthy of the most experienced board gamers as well.
Let's Wrap Things Up:
So, there you have it - our top 10 favorite engine building board games. We sincerely hope you liked our recommendations, and if we missed any, please feel free to comment below.
And be sure to check out our board game reviews:
Till then, Happy gaming!