I love games where I build up a bit of a snowball effect, where my turns become more powerful and more powerful as the game progresses. It’s that feeling of satisfaction you get when you see what you have built humming and improving each turn that I get a buzz out of. This sort of gameplay has a name (unsurprisingly) and it’s called engine building.
If you are still a little confused about what I am talking about and want a fuller explanation you can check out our engine building explainer. But I suspect since you are here you have probably had a taste of engine building board games and are hungry to try more. Well, if you want some great options this article has the very best engine building games I have tried so far. I thought I would do something a little different with this list, some of these games are great for families and some are better for more experienced gamers, so I split my list into two to cater for both audiences.
Now deck building games are also a type of engine builder, but my list doesn’t really include deck building games (there is one exception). That’s because for deck building fans I have an article dedicated to the best deck building games I have tried. So, if that sounds like what you’re after, you should probably read that. Otherwise sit back, relax, and read on. If there are any amazing engine building games you have tried that aren’t on my list, let me know with a comment, I am always keen to hear about awesome games I haven’t tried yet.
What You Will Find in Our Best Engine Building Board Games Article
- 8.Jump Drive
- 7.Fantastic Factories
- 5.Space Base
- 4.Res Arcana
- 3.Race for the Galaxy
- 2.It’s a Wonderful World
- 1.Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
Best Engine Building Games for Families
Here are my top 5 engine building games for families. These games should be simple enough to accommodate younger players but still provide enough gameplay to keep older members of the family interested too.
5. Century Spice Road
Play Time: 30-45 Min / Players: 2-5 / Complexity: Low / Age: 8+ / Publisher: Plan B Games / Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
- Easy to learn
- Very simple and streamlined gameplay with little down time
- Some good depth and interesting decisions involved in optimising your merchant deck
- The components look great.
- Some younger players may find this frustrating at higher player counts as attaining point cards becomes very competitive at 4 or 5 players.
The first game on our best engine building games list for families is Century Spice Road. In Century Spice Road your goal is to grow your wealth by gaining precious spice and using it to buy lucrative trading contracts. The contracts will grant you the points you need for victory.
If you love trading style games, then Century Spice Road is for you. There are four types of spice, and each contract requires a different combination of spice to allow you to purchase it. Players will be competing for merchant cards at the outset of the game that they can use to generate, upgrade and trade spice. You will find that trading spice efficiently and with a well-built deck is key to being successful here which adds some nice strategy. If you do happen to like Century Spice Road, there are two other games in the series that can be combined or played by themselves which is a great way to add more replay value to the base game.
Check out our full Century Spice Road review.
Play Time: 40-50 Min / Players: 2-4 / Complexity: Low / Age: 14+ we think 8+ / Publisher: CMON / Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
- Simple rules
- Nice toy factor with the marble dispenser
- Satisfying gameplay with lots of gizmo combinations to explore
- The combos in the late game can be very impressive.
- The first few turns feel a bit constrained as it takes a while to build up your engine
- Not a lot of player interaction.
In Gizmos your job is to build more and more gizmos each turn in your tableau. To buy gizmos you need marbles of certain colours and to collect marbles you need to activate gizmos. Aside from allowing you to collect marbles gizmos can do a variety of things, they can allow you to store more marbles, draw more gizmo cards from the pile when researching, score points and more. Ultimately the points are what matters here to get the win.
Gizmos is a game I discovered this year and immediately loved. The sense of progression you get here is really satisfying and there is a fair amount of strategy here in getting gizmos that synergise well to pull off nice chain reactions in the late game. If you want a great engine building game with some toy factor, then Gizmos is definitely worth checking out.
3. Project L
Play Time: 20 – 40 Min / Players: 1-4 / Complexity: Low / Age: 8+ / Publisher: Boardcubator / Designer: Michal Mikeš, Jan Soukal, Adam Spanel
- Easy to learn
- Plays quickly
- Fun puzzly feel which is satisfying as you get frequent rewards
- Interesting decisions and some nice depth for such a simple game
- Gameplay is smooth with little down time
- Components are great, especially the recessed puzzle tiles.
- No theme
- Not much player interaction.
I loved Tetris when I was growing up. For those that don’t know the video game, it was an exercise in arranging falling polyomino blocks to form solid lines that would then disappear, until you couldn’t keep up and the game ended. Yes, that was my idea of fun. I have fond memories of Tetris and they came flooding back when I tried Project L. It somehow manages to trigger the same parts of my brain that got so addicted to Tetris all those years ago.
Project L doesn’t really have any theme but it’s easy to learn, lots of fun and has plenty of interesting decisions. In Project L you use polyomino tile pieces to complete puzzles and earn points. The more puzzles you complete the more pieces you get and the more effective your puzzle building engine becomes. It’s so satisfying building your pool of pieces and completing multiple puzzles in a turn once you get going. A fantastic game for families and a great engine builder.
Check out our full Project L review.
2. Machi Koro 2
Play Time: 45 Min / Players: 2-5 / Complexity: Low / Age: 10+ we think 7+ / Publisher: Pandasaurus Games / Designer: Masao Suganuma
- Very easy to learn
- Little down time as dice rolls could affect all players
- Cute theme that kids will enjoy
- Players get resources every turn so there aren’t many wasted turns
- Randomised card lay out leads to more replay value
- The synergies between buildings offer some nice strategic choices.
- Random market introduces some luck for card availability.
If you love the thrill of chucking dice and earning cash, then Machi Koro 2 might be for you. Machi Koro 2 is essentially a large deck of cards, dice, and coins. Very simple to learn and plays quickly so it’s ideal for families.
In Machi Koro 2 you are creating a city full of buildings that will generate the money you need to build prestigious landmarks. The first player to construct three landmarks in their city wins!
As you buy bakeries, cafes, shopping centres and other buildings to expand your city you will be able to gain income from the relevant dice rolls. Each building will trigger on a certain dice roll and grant you a benefit, sometimes this means taking money from your opponent, sometimes from the bank. The strategy here is all about deciding which numbers you want to target and using building synergies effectively to get your income engine humming. The game play here is refined and improved from Machi Koro making it the version to get if you’re keen to get a copy.
Check out our full Machi Koro 2 review.
Play Time: 30 Min / Players:2-4 / Complexity: Low / Age: 10+ we think 7+ / Publisher: Space Cowboys / Designer: Marc Andre
- Gems look beautiful and will appeal to younger players
- Simple but very addictive gameplay
- Great family game suitable for wide age range, our whole family loves this game
- Feels relaxing and enjoyable to play
- Great gateway game for beginners but enough strategy for experience gamers.
- Hard core gamers may find Splendor a little too simple.
We bought Splendor for our youngest daughter, who loved the thought of a board game based on collecting gems. Boy were our expectations exceeded! Splendor is a hit with our whole family, we just love it. It is such a simple engine builder but there is some nice depth and strategy here.
In Splendor you are a rich merchant during the Renaissance, you must use your resources wisely to expand your production of gems. To win you must be the first merchant to gain 15 points. Points can be gained by acquiring development cards or securing visits from nobles who are suitably impressed by your exploits. As your tableau of cards grows your purchasing power increases and you can buy more expensive gems worth more points improving your gem discount engine.
This game has so much going for it for families. It is incredibly easy to learn, the art is gorgeous, and kids just love the thick poker chip style gems that come with the game. You can still be a bit mean in Splendor and interfere with your opponent’s plans, but it somehow doesn’t create as much ill will.
This is one of our favourite family games and comes out regularly. In fact, we love it so much that we seldom finish a game when we reach 15 points, our girls demand we play until all the cards run out!
Check out our full Splendor review.
Best Engine Building Games for Experienced Gamers
If you happen to be looking for an engine building game for more experienced gamers, here is my list. These games are a step up or two in complexity compared to the family friendly engine builders in the list above.
8. Jump Drive
Play Time: 10-30 Min / Players: 2-4 / Complexity: Medium / Age: 13+ / Publisher: Rio Grande Games / Designer: Thomas Lehmann
- Overall gameplay is easy to learn
- Plays very quickly
- Nice stepping stone to the more complex Race for the Galaxy
- The game design allows you to ramp up your income and points generation rapidly which is satisfying.
- Because it’s so short you don’t have long to build and enjoy your engine
- Not much player interaction.
I have a few games from designer Thomas Lehmann on this list, as it turns out I really like his brand of engine building in games. So, it seems fitting that I should start this section of the list with one of his games. Jump Drive is a quick and simple space empire themed engine builder. It is essentially a trimmed down and simplified version of the highly regarded Race for the Galaxy. Both games share similar iconography, but Jump Drive is a good stepping stone to the more complex Race for the Galaxy.
The thing I love about Jump Drive is that it ramps up so quickly. Every turn counts here as you may only have 6 or 7 turns before the game ends and someone wins. The aim here is to play cards that ramp up your points and card generating engine as quickly as possible. Cards are essentially your currency for playing other cards and points are needed for the win. You can’t neglect either and finding the quickest pathway to the 50 points required for a win is the crux of the game. Simple, satisfying and super quick to play, this is a great option for anyone wanting a great engine builder they can cram into a short timeframe.
7. Fantastic Factories
Play Time: 45-60 Mins / Players: 1-5 / Complexity: Medium / Age: 14+ / Publisher: Metafactory Games and Deep Water Games / Designer: Joseph Z Chen, Justin Faulkner
- Simultaneous play minimises down time
- Plenty of replay value due to wide variety of cards available
- Plenty of satisfying combos especially in the late game
- Works well at different player counts.
- Not much player interaction.
Fantastic Factories is about building the most efficient set of factories and generating the most points. You will start with a modest factory to begin with and a few resources. Over time you will add more factories to generate metals, energy, more cards, and goods for victory points.
Much like Gizmos, Fantastic Factories has this vibe of building an ever more complex and capable machine. You can see it growing in front of you as you continue to add components to your tableau. The variety of components and what they do, provides plenty of pathways to explore. I also like that no one can mess with what you have built, you don’t have to worry about other players interfering other than maybe drafting a card you want. Overall, a great theme and a great engine builder, especially if you enjoy a game like Gizmos.
Play Time: 40 – 70 Min / Players: 1-5 / Complexity: Low / Age: 10+ / Publisher: Stonemaier Games / Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave
- Great theme that’s well implemented
- Educational and fun
- Wide variety of unique bird cards and abilities provides plenty of replay value
- Plenty of different strategies to explore
- Nice variety of personal objectives
- The linkage between gaining food, playing birds, generating eggs and bird cards works beautifully.
- Can seem a little complicated at first.
If you have tried Wingspan before it will be no surprise that it’s on this list. It is very highly regarded and justifiably so. The thing I love most about Wingspan is how unique the theme is and how well the concepts just work together. The three rows where you can settle birds offer benefits to either your ability to gather bird cards, generate eggs required for settling birds or gathering food for placing birds. It all just works nicely together.
The challenge is in trying to balance achieving your personal objective, with the public objectives everyone must compete for and establishing an engine that will get you ahead. All of this must be achieved by carefully selecting birds that will synergise nicely and achieve your goals. But there are so many birds! All provide a unique benefit and there are so many strategies and pathways to explore. The theme in Wingspan will likely appeal to nature lovers, but the gameplay is solid enough that anyone who enjoys engine building games should give this game a try.
5. Space Base
Play Time: 60 Min / Players: 2-5 / Complexity: Medium / Age: 14+ we think 12+ / Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) / Designer: John D Clair
- Large number of fleet cards add a lot of variety to the game and increase replay value
- Lots of different strategies on offer due the variety of interesting card abilities
- Great idea to be able to use the total of both dice rolled or use each individually, subtle but interesting element
- There are cards that allow you to manipulate die rolls and mitigate luck somewhat
- There is a decent amount of time to develop your engine in this game and see it in action.
- At higher player counts play time extends a bit, if you have players who like to analyse this can lead to a little down time
- The beginning of the game can feel very slow with little purchasing power. The light-speed variant improves this a bit, but would not recommend this variant for new players
- Due to the wide variety of cards and card abilities it can be a little overwhelming at first for new players.
In Space Base you take charge of a small fleet of ships that must be deployed wisely to various sectors to engage in trade, improve your income and spread influence. Your goal is to snag that promotion to admiral by gaining 40 points before the other competing commodores. Each player has ships in 12 sectors and each ship will grant benefits when it is triggered by a dice roll. Roll dice, get a pay-out, buy cards, repeat its that simple. The trick is deploying your ships wisely to set up some nice combos and taking advantage of their special abilities to set up some big windfalls of points or credits.
Space Base has that same dice chucking income generating feeling that Machi Koro 2 provides but with a longer and deeper game. There is a lot more time here to see your engine evolve and hum. There are also a lot more cards on offer and a far wider range of abilities which give Space Base a lot more strategic depth than Machi Koro 2.
Check out our full Space Base review.
4. Res Arcana
Play Time: 30-60 Min / Players: 2-4 / Complexity: Medium / Age: 12+ / Publisher: Sand Castle Games / Designer: Thomas Lehmann
- Simple design but plenty of depth
- Plenty of strategies and card synergies to explore
- Lots of replay value
- Plays well at different player counts.
- Some of the symbols on the cards can be challenging to understand at first but doesn’t take long to get used to.
Res Arcana is another game on this list by designer Thomas Lehmann. He seems to have a knack for being able to pack an amazing engine building experience into a short play time and Res Arcana is no exception. Games can last as little as 4 or 5 rounds especially with experienced players. But what you get for your short time investment is an amazingly satisfying experience with plenty of depth to explore game after game.
In Res Arcana you take on the role of a mage building up their power and abilities by acquiring artefacts, gaining control of places of power or monuments. Essence is the key currency of the game and players will have to use it efficiently to win. Over the course of the game, you will increase your tableau of cards by spending essence to place new cards. Each card will enable you to generate more essence, earn more points or gain some other benefit. The key is finding synergies between these cards to efficiently get to 10 points and the win.
One of my favourite parts about this game is how carefully you need to plan your strategy. You need to be as efficient as possible and often this means exercising restraint by not over investing in cards. Knowing when you should spend resources on placing a card and when you should simply discard it for the reward of more essence is important. I still feel like I have plenty to explore with Res Arcana and it may well climb up the rankings on this list in the future.
3. Race for the Galaxy
Play Time: 30-60 Min / Players: 2-4 / Complexity: High / Age: 12+ / Publisher: Rio Grande Games / Designer: Thomas Lehmann
- Diverse range of strategies available
- Plenty of depth in a game that can be played in as little as 30 minutes
- Simple set up means you can start playing in minutes
- Works well at all player counts
- Action selection mechanism adds an interesting layer to decisions and works well.
- Steep learning curve makes this a challenging game for new players
- Games can be very one sided if there is a disparity in experience between players.
This is where my list got tough, of all the engine builders I have tried my top 3 are consistently the ones that I like the best but ranking them is challenging. In the end I decided to start my top 3 with another gem from designer Thomas Lehmann called Race for the Galaxy. Race for the Galaxy is a great example of a snappy, deep, and satisfying engine builder.
In Race for the Galaxy, you build a space empire using essentially a deck of cards. You expand your empire by building a tableau of planets and developments that ultimately will gain you victory points and provide other benefits. The word ‘Race’ in the title is there for a reason, games are often quick and so you must be efficient with your actions. The use of phase selection to determine what players do adds a nice element of trying to predict your opponent’s plans to optimise your choice of phase. This is a mechanic that is stripped out of Jump Drive.
The thing I love about Race for the Galaxy is how much depth and strategy there is to explore in such a short game. It is very quick to set up and everything you need is pretty much contained in a deck of cards; it is a masterclass in efficient use of components. I am coming up to about 150 plays of Race for the Galaxy and I still love it!
Although I don’t own the solo expansion, there are some fantastic fan made solo options which I really enjoy as well. The only thing to watch out for here is that this game has a pretty steep learning curve and that can be a put off for new players. If you can be patient with the iconography though the rest of the game is pretty easy to get to grips with and it’s worth it. Although I enjoy Jump Drive, I prefer Race for the Galaxy a lot more.
Check out our full Race for the Galaxy review.
2. It’s a Wonderful World
Play Time: 30-60 Min / Players: 1-5 / Complexity: Medium / Age: 14+ we think 10+ / Publisher: La Boite de Jeu and Lucky Duck Games / Designer: Frederic Guerard
- Very simple to learn
- Plenty of depth for such a simple rule set
- Can be played quickly
- Components and in particular card quality are excellent
- Scales well at all player counts with little down time
- Plenty of replay value
- Excellent solo mode, with fun scenarios to tackle.
- Not particularly thematic
- Luck of the card draw can have an impact on your strategy at times.
It’s a Wonderful World is another amazing engine builder/tableau builder combo you can play in under 30 minutes. It kind of feels like Splendor evolved to the next level. It is still a very simple card driven engine builder but there is a bit more to it that makes it amazing. In It’s a Wonderful World you have four rounds to generate as many points as possible. To do this you will draft cards into your hand, slate some for production and others to be recycled for resources. The more cards you build the more resources and points you will generate. There are also financiers and generals you can accumulate that give you a nice points boost.
It’s a Wonderful World was a bit of a hidden gem for me. It doesn’t seem to have had a lot of hype and I am not sure why that is. I love how simple the ruleset is here, you can teach it in a few minutes. The part I like the most though, is the ability to set up some very satisfying combos due to the way production is staggered in the game. Because each resource is produced in a sequence, it allows you to use resources earlier in the sequence to build cards just in time to have them produce resources that come later in the sequence. There is a huge variety of cards here and plenty of avenues to explore to get your engine humming. It also scales incredibly well at high player counts and has an amazing solo mode.
Check out our full It’s a Wonderful World review.
1. Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition
Play Time: 60 Min / Players: 1-4 / Complexity: Medium / Age: 14+ / Publisher: Fryx Games and Stronghold Games / Designer: Sydney Engelstein, Jacob Fryxelius and Nick Little
- Little down time as much of the actions are simultaneous
- Exceptional solo mode
- Works well at any player count
- Feels more streamlined and plays quicker than the original Terraforming Mars
- Components are good quality and come with fantastic game trays for easy set up
- Dual layer player boards work so well to protect against unintended knocks
- A large variety of project cards and corporations provide lots of replay value.
- Start can feel a bit slow until you get your engine humming
- Board presence is not as impressive as original Terraforming Mars
- Ocean tiles are crammed too closely together and are fiddly.
Our top spot on my best engine building games list goes to Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition. This is kind of like a trimmed down version of the very popular Terraforming Mars game but with Race for the Galaxy style action selection blended in. Much like the original game, players will take charge of a corporation doing their bit to terraform the red planet so that humanity can safely colonise. Over the course of the game players will play project cards that will make them more effective at generating the resources they need to terraform Mars more effectively and ultimately make their shareholders happy.
I really like Terraforming Mars but I found it was too lengthy a game to justify owning it, I just didn’t think it would get played much. But when I found out about the trimmed down Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition, I was keen to get a copy. I am so glad I did. It gives me that great engine building card play from the original, but it can be played in less than an hour and it also has a great solo mode.
Check out our full Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition review.
We hope you enjoyed my perspective on the Best Engine Building Games in this article. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below in the comments section or get in touch through our contact us page.
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