What is Engine Building in Games?

13 March 2024
Remember those times when you notice something you’ve never seen before and then see it everywhere for the next few weeks, like it’s haunting you? Prepare to be haunted by engine building, one of the dullest sounding, but fundamentally brilliant mechanics of board games.

Written by Emma Garrett

Definition: A game mechanic where what you play in one turn increases your available actions in future turns.

How can you tell an Engine Building game?

A telling sign that your game includes engine building is that it starts off slow. Before you’ve built your engine, you’re just milling around. You have a limited array of actions. Turns can be over quickly. Not much is going on. You’re not too interested in victory points just yet. You’ll sacrifice these, and resources, to invest in the future. You may choose to use cards as improvements early on, so their benefits occur more often. At this stage in the game, it’s about choosing a strategy, both from looking at the options available to you, and the goals you’re aiming towards. You want to try to match together cards or tiles that complement each other, without narrowing your options so much that you’re lost if the final piece you want doesn’t turn up.

Later in the game, as things progress, turns take much longer. The basic actions have been built upon and things can now escalate. When selected, other moves are opened, allowed, and triggered, and there are an increasing number of choices to be made. If played in certain ways, combinations build up, one action can be taken which triggers another and another, and if you’re lucky a chain reaction of events. The engine starts ticking over and victory points start rolling in. In these later turns, investments are worth less as they have less time to pay off. When everything comes together, it can be incredibly satisfying to see a choice you made early in the game really paying off.

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Advice for Engine Building in Games

You’ve got to be on the ball when you’re engine building. Keep track of the benefits you’ve bought for yourself. You’ve put the work in to build the engine, now see where it will take you. Your opponent may or may not remember all of their own actions, but they’re incredibly unlikely to remind you of yours! 

Examples of Engine Building Games


Life is a little bit what you know and a little bit who you know. CV is a game of building your life card by card. It’s excellent as an engine builder because when you purchase a card, you choose whether to play it on top of that section of your CV, adding its ability to your options for future turns, or store it behind so as not to lose the previous card’s benefit.

Splendor Duel

In your first goes, you can only use your limited tokens to buy cards. Each card you do buy, gives you a permanent discount on future cards. Build up enough parts to get your engine ticking over, and move up through the gears as things that were behind your reach are now close to free for you. But don’t get left behind, engine building encourages the rich getting richer.

Related Article: Read our review of Splendor


Teaching Wingspan to new players is satisfying. Note the confused look when they see the basic options afforded by their first few action cubes. Cut to the start of round three, as they choose an action and work through a catalogue of bird powers. When the right cards come up, you can build perfect engines where bird powers in the same row complement each other, sending your points soaring!

Related Article: An interview with Elizabeth Hargraves, designer of Wingspan


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