“There can be economy only where there is efficiency.”— Benjamin Disraeli
Engine-building board games offer players the opportunity to not only strategize but to create as well.
🏆 Our Top Picks
In a hurry? Check out our favorites below.
Before we go further, let’s answer the question, “What is an engine-building board game?”
In certain games, players will build their own “engine” throughout the course of the game. Players typically start out from scratch and build up the engine by adding different combinations or add ons to the “engine”.
What does the engine do, though?
It’s like building an economy. The engine starts out small and becomes a resource generator by the end of the game. It could be any resource, victory points, or materials. You’re really only limited by the game.
It’s similar to an incremental game like a civilization builder. First, you’ll manually gather some wood and then you’ll build a logging camp with that wood. Your logging camp then gathers wood for you. That wood can then be used to make more logging camps or other buildings.
This continues forever until you’re not really doing anything but watching your glorious resource engine spit out stuff for you to turn into other stuff.
The fun comes with perfecting your engine, making it as efficient and useful as possible.
#1 Terraforming Mars
You better believe that terraforming an entire planet requires an engine.
Terraforming Mars takes my top spot for an engine-building board game, due to its awesome mechanics.
Each player takes on the role of a corporation tasked with terraforming Mars. It’s a great small group game, working best with 3+ players.
Each player’s corporation is represented by their own player board and as the game progresses, they’ll build up the infrastructure necessary to change the Red Planet into a much more livable green and blue one.
The early stages of the game can be difficult, especially for new players that won’t understand the upgrades and bonus synergies, but they’ve built a pretty incredible starter scenario that helps jump-start play. You’ll also be struggling to play a few cards at the beginning stages, but once the engine is built, you’ll be powering through high-powered cards and abilities.
Terraforming Mars is a bit fiddly with rules and components, but for a solid sci-fi, engine-building game, it’s damn hard to beat.
- Compete for different milestones and awards worth many VPS
- Over 200 different projects to complete
- 1 to 5 players ages 12 and up
#2 Caverna: The Cave Farmers
Caverna is the spiritual successor to Agricola. Instead of the traditional farmstead, players will instead set up in a cave, taking on the role of a happy dwarf family.
Designer Uwe Rosenburg took the lessons learned from Agricola and basically made a 2.0 version of Agricola.
The rules are easier to manage and the complexity of the game gets amped up. There’s a lot of new things to do and even to explore in Caverna.
The engine portion comes in the form of your personal homestead/cave. Each building produces something or upgrades your abilities.
Each player will start out with the same generic cave with a needlepoint “Cave Sweet Cave” hanging over the doorway, but that’s where the similarities end. How far you expand, what resources you try and monopolize, and how you convert your rooms to make your cave/homestead create a completely customized resource engine by the end of the game.
It’s one of the finest examples of eurogames you can find and for that, Caverna sits high up on our list today.
#3 Race for the Galaxy
Oh galactic conquest, my old friend.
In Race for the Galaxy, players will attempt to out-colonize and out-expand their opponents. Players all simultaneously choose a card/action to perform on their turn. The tricky part is that whatever action you choose, it can be duplicated by an opponent.
If one player colonizes a planet, all other players will have the opportunity to follow suit and colonize. The original player will get the bonuses, but you could also inadvertently give an opponent a solid advantage.
As players expand outward throughout the galaxy, they’ll have access to more planets, building economic infrastructure, and military might.
If you haven’t played Race for the Galaxy, you’re seriously missing out on one of the best engine-builders, and also one of the best card games.
- For 2-4 players
- 60 minute playing time
- Check out all the great expansions to Race for the Galaxy
#4 Power Grid
After living in Vietnam for a few years and experiencing many a blackout, I’ve come to appreciate the efficiency of power companies and their power grids.
In Power Grid, players will be competing to power the most cities. It’s a euro-style board game in which players participate in an auction to receive new resources and materials necessary to power them.
The engine-building portion of Power Grid comes in the form of the power plants and the grid itself. Each power plant built provides income, which in turn, allows you to buy more plants and materials to run them.
This inherently creates some questions as to whether or not this is an actual engine-building board game. The power plants require constant upkeep in the form of materials to keep producing, unlike other games that require no input to create resources.
For a German-designed eurogame, the engine isn’t all that efficient. It requires constant upkeep, sorta like an American car…
Either way, Power Grid still hits the top of this list, simply because it’s fantastic and does provide that satisfying feeling when you see your well-crafted power grid.
#5 Dominion (Second Edition)
I love Dominion.
Deck-building and engine-building basically go hand-in-hand, so most deck-builders will have some elements of engine-building built into the mechanics.
The original deck-builder is no exception.
As players buy more valuable cards and add them to their deck, they’ll be able to purchase bigger cards and perform more actions.
This is especially true after you start to add the Dominion Expansions to the mix. Kendra’s mom actually refuses to play with certain cards with me because my turns can last several minutes with multiple “+1 Card, +1 Action” or “Rats”.
- 2nd Edition features updated cards, artwork and streamlined rules
- Tactical game for 2-4 Players
- 30 minute playing time
#6 Star Realms
Star Realms is one of my favorite 2-player games.
It’s perfectly sized for travel and it’s an awesome dueling card game, all in one tiny box.
It’s incredibly easy to set up and start playing right away. As with all deck-builders, there’s an inherent engine built into the rules. Players will start with the same setup of generic cards in their hands and purchase more powerful cards as the game goes on.
By the end of the game, players will have space stations built in orbit, specialized cards for multiple factions, and a ton of different ships in their deck.
- Fun Amazingly rich yet easy to learn game play
- Portable The whole game comes in a deck box that can fit in...
- Expandable One copy supports 2 players Add additional copies...
Set in a futuristic alternate history of the 1920s, Scythe does a little bit of everything. Most impressive, however, is that Scythe does a little bit of everything extremely well.
There’s warfare, politics, backstabbing, area control, economy/engine-building, and, of course, giant friggin’ robots.
Scythe is pretty open-world about how players can go about winning and every faction starts slightly predisposed toward a certain aspect. It’s extremely well-balanced, however. Players can build their economy and focus mainly on trying to get their giant robots back online for conquest, or they could hide in the corner farming while winning the hearts and minds of the people.
It’s an incredible achievement to see a game offer so much variety like Scythe, while still being a cohesive overall game.
- A board game set in an alternate history 1920s period
- It is a time of farming and war, broken hearts and rusted gears,...
- 1 to 5 Players
#8 Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
Through the Ages is one of the quintessential civilization-builder board games.
Players start out with just a handful of workers in their pool and manifest destiny in their hearts.
Throughout the three ages (phases) of the game, players will build up their civilization with resources, technology, and troops.
Is your empire lacking some necessities?
Build up a few quarries to gather more resources.
Is your neighbor researching gunpowder?
It may be time to upgrade your science output to keep up with the arms race.
It’s incredibly rewarding to watch your civilization grow from nothing to a full-fledged empire.
- The classic civilization-building game is now even better
- In addition to outstanding new art, this version includes subtle...
- 2-4 players
# 9 Great Western Trail
Most games set in the “Wild West” are gunslinger extravaganzas that would probably be right at home in a gift shop in Tombstone, Arizona.
The Great Western Trail takes a different and very refreshing approach to the Old West.
Players will don their cowboy hats and take the term, “cowboy” literally by creating an economic engine based on the cattle trade.
You’ll have to hire work hands, invest in your ranch, and even improve the rail lines, all with the end goal of selling the highest quality cattle stock.
It’s a refreshing theme in a world of gunfights and banditos, and not only that but the engine elements all fit together to make a compelling and thoughtful game.
#10 A Feast for Odin
Yet another Uwe Rosenberg board game makes it on our list of best engine-building games and for good reason.
Experience the Viking way of life: exploring, raiding, and providing for your warband in this engine-building, worker placement, epic saga. Your goal is to collect the largest and most valuable horde of goods and treasure by using your Viking workers as efficiently as possible.
To emerge victorious you must achieve balance in this game. Vikings can’t raid, build, or pillage on an empty stomach, can they? Use your resources wisely to make sure your clan is fed and cared for in order to complete your ultimate objective: hoarding more shiny stuff than your opponents.
Blending tile-placement, puzzle elements, and worker placement mechanics, this one is sure to be an epic story for the ages.
- Innovative home board mechanic.
- Fun and fair dice-managed actions.
- Over 200 occupation cards.
#11 Terra Mystica
Terra Mystica is a beautiful full-information game.
In this fantasy-themed board game, there’s a war for control of the land, but there won’t be a single shot fired. Players will control one of fourteen different fantasy races and attempt to terraform the landscape into one more suitable for their kind.
As players build up their territory and upgrade their settlements, they’ll gain access to each race’s special abilities. Players need to be efficient when settling territory because terraforming a desert wasteland into a region of lakes takes a lot of effort (and a lot of money).
With the entire world at your fingertips, you’ll need to make smart strategic decisions if you want your race to come out on top.
- Fun strategy game with a simple game principle and very little...
- Govern one of 14 factions trying to transform the landscape on...
- Large number of possible games keeps it entertaining every time
Wingspan was super hyped-up when it was first announced. It also won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award (complex or connoisseur game of the year).
In a world where every other board game promises a host of intricate miniatures, monsters, and wars on an epic scale comes… a game about bird watching.
Okay, so Wingspan isn’t the typical theme you’ll see in a board game, and that may have been why it was so well-received when it was first announced. Being different, especially in board games, is a good thing.
In Wingspan, players will act as bird watchers but the birds are cards that can be placed on a player board. The further along the player board you go, the more actions and resources (bird eggs & bird food) you’ll be able to receive on your turn.
On top of that, each bird played will have a different ability.
Everything about Wingspan is fantastic. The artwork is gorgeous, the components are high quality, and most importantly, the ruleset is SOLID with fun gameplay.
Honestly, the only thing keeping it low on the list is that the engine-building mechanics are light. Either way, Wingspan flew into the board game scene riding atop a great golden eagle and you really can’t go wrong by checking it out.
- For 1-5 players. Ages 10+
- 40-70 minute playing time
- A competitive bird-collection, engine-building Game
Let’s take a trip back to the Roman Empire. Unlike most other games, however, you won’t find any legions here.
Concordia is a complete economic game set in the Roman Empire. Players’ engines will come in the form of economy-building.
Each player starts out with the same number of resources but that quickly changes as everyone spreads out to every corner of the empire, building trade routes and making sacrifices to appease the gods.
There’s a lot of commercial expansion in Concordia and it’s rather refreshing to see the Roman Empire represented as a flourishing part of history, instead of just focusing on its military prowess.
Travel through time to save the world!
Anachrony is a unique worker placement board game that has one of the more interesting time travel mechanics that I’ve seen.
After the world was devastated by a cataclysmic event that ripped holes in the very fabric of time, the world is splintered and humanity’s last bastion is struggling to survive. Through the time rift, however, a message manages to come through.
There is a worse calamity coming. Be prepared…
You’ll need to rebuild your faction’s economy following the wake of the first calamity, but you’re not alone. Future you is there to help.
As you progress into the later parts of the game, your resource engine will produce more goods than when you first started. You may even have a surplus. You could always potentially send them back in time to yourself at the beginning of the game where they would be much more useful.
Seriously, time travel is a crazy beast.
#15 San Juan
San Juan is the card game successor to Puerto Rico. Both games put players into the role of governor of this tropical territory.
Each round, players will take charge as governor and determine what actions happen during the round. Everyone will benefit from the action, such as building or producing, but as with all governments, the one in charge gets a bonus.
If you’ve played Puerto Rico, you’ll be familiar with a lot of the themes of San Juan, but pleasantly surprised at the portability of the card game and the depth of strategy involved.
San Juan has been a must-have on many a gamer’s shelves for years, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
- What you get - San Juan comes with 143 playing cards, 6 role...
- Fun play experience - you can play a game in 45 minutes, and it's...
- Easy to understand instructions - high quality, Easy to...
Everdell is one of the newer games to explode onto the board game scene in 2018 and it’s kept pace with its own hype.
Players will manage a group of adorable woodland critters, getting ready to expand their realm outward into the valley of Everdell.
This is quite possibly one of the prettiest games I’ve ever seen with incredible production value.
Players will need to manage their critter tribes by building up new facilities and hosting events for other animals.
Will the sun shine brightest on your city before the winter moon rises?
It has an adorable theme that holds up to scrutiny when you take a look below the surface at the drafting, worker placement mechanics, and engine-building elements of the game.
- A BOARD GAME FOR 1-4 PLAYERS: Only 20 minutes per player. (40 -...
- STUNNING ARTWORK: A detailed world realized through stunning...
- SIMPLE TO LEARN: A streamlined experience that is easy to learn...
#17 Le Havre
Next, let’s head to the French port city of Le Havre.
Players will need to flex some nautical knowledge muscles to successfully run their own shipping business dockside.
Le Havre packs a lot of strategy with its management style. Players can commission their own buildings and receive rents from other players that use them or use them to produce goods. It’s not all profit, however. Players will need to ensure their engine is efficient because they’ll need to feed all their workers.
It’s a simple theme, but it’s also one of my favorite worker placement games.
#18 Imperial Settlers
Imperial Settlers is a civilization-builder with adorable artwork, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot of strategy and city razing to be had here.
Players will take control of one of four factions. Every building they add to their civilization grants different bonuses but just like in real life, real estate is a very limited resource. You may find that a civilization’s initial buildings just aren’t producing efficiently enough.
There’s an easy fix to that. Burn the whole thing to the ground and start over.
Players will have a limited set of actions and will need to build an efficient civilization if they want to come out on top.
#19 The Manhattan Project
In The Manhattan Project, players will be in control of their own government-funded project to create the biggest and baddest bomb that they possibly can.
For a game about the A-bomb, there’s actually no nuke flinging going on here. Players will build up their facilities and resources to outperform each other in a nuclear arms race.
There’s a lot of strategy involved with creating an atomic bomb. Where do you spend your limited resources (workers & money)? What facilities do you build? Do you devote time to sabotage or espionage?
The choices and consequences are yours.
Splendor is probably going to be most player’s starting point.
It’s extremely accessible and very easy to learn, making it an awesome gateway game.
In Splendor, players control every aspect of the gem industry from sourcing to transportation and artisanal processing.
Players will draft different gem tokens of 6 colors from a common pool and use them to purchase cards on three different tiers. Each card purchased counts as a permanent gem to add to your stockpile.
In the beginning, you’ll only be able to afford cards from the lowest tier that aren’t really worth any points, but by the end of the game, you’ll have a massive fortune in gems stockpiled.
It’s a nice lightweight game that I play a lot with family and friends (especially non-gamers) and everyone really seems to enjoy it.
The problem that many “serious” gamers run into is the lightweight nature of the game. The theme itself is basically nonexistent and distracts you with pretty pictures and nice production value.
It’s not a hardcore game, but it’s an excellent gateway game or family-friendly game.
Engine-building games are incredibly satisfying. To see something you created and built churn out an endless amount of resources is a huge aesthetic/confidence boost for me.
To quote Hannibal from the A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Did we miss any of your favorite engine-building board games? We’d love to hear what you think. Drop a comment below and join the conversation!