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The 10 best engine-building board games

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A 2013 study found that regular board game players were 15% less likely to develop dementia, compared to their non-gaming counterparts. And games that place a high emphasis on strategy, like engine-building games, may provide those benefits while also improving attention span and memory. These games are all about exponentially increasing resources through clever decision-making and strategy, and the best engine-building board games provide multiple different options through which to do so while featuring themes and types of play that you’ll truly enjoy.

However, engine-building board games come in lots of flavors. Some are combat-heavy or call for tense competition between opponents, whether you’re captaining a fleet in a space-themed board game or invading a competing ancient civilization. Others are more about planning and building up an advanced, efficient empire, whether that empire takes the form of an aviary of birds, a medieval kingdom, or a premier winery. Many games take a middle ground, with the goal of building up your empire while crushing your opponent’s. Whatever your preference, look for a game that’s fun to play and replay. Multiple point-scoring options allow you to try out new combinations and strategies keep the gameplay feeling fresh through multiple sessions, while games with lots of expansions allow you to add new possibilities if things start to feel stale.

It’s also vital to think about how many players you’ll want to include and how long you’ll want each game to last. A simple deck-building game, especially a game that’s designed for two players, is ideal for a quick session with a partner. But if you need a game you can pull out when all your friends are over, many are well-suited to accommodating a larger group.

Whatever you’re looking for, this collection of engine-building board games features a diverse range of gameplay styles, complexity levels, and settings.

1. A beginner-friendly engine-building board game

  • Players: 2 to 4
  • Game time: 30 minutes
  • Ages: 10+

With easy-to-learn rules and a lot of potential for adding complexity as your skills level up, Splendor is a great choice for anyone new to engine-building games (or board games in general), or more advanced players who want something they can play with friends operating at any level. As the leader of a merchant guild, each player is tasked with building up a commercial empire by buying mines, sending ships out to find raw materials, and recruiting skilled artisans to join their guild. The concept and the basic rules of the game are easy to grasp, but there’s a lot of room to try out different strategies and approaches for winning within the simple framework. So there’s tons of replay potential here, especially when you add on expansions like Cities of Splendor to refresh the gameplay.

According to one reviewer: “You can put as much or as little thought into each turn as you want, but in the end you are choosing between 3 actions: buying a card, reserving a card, or taking chips. This makes it easy for a new player to get the hang of it. […] It's a numbers game where your choices in the early turns have a noticeable effect on your later game. None of the cards are over-powered, I've seen lots of different strategies earn the win.”

2. A 2-player deck-building game that’s an editor favorite

  • Players: 2 (with additional copies, up to 6)
  • Game time: 20 minutes
  • Ages: 12+

Star Realms is an editor’s pick for being a fast-paced deck-building game that’s designed for just two players. In the game, players are space generals working to build up a powerful fleet of space warships, which they will then unleash on their opponent in a battle for military superiority.

“It’s rare to find a really fun two-player game that doesn’t get stale, but this is truly one of my favorite games,” explains Commerce Editor Kori Perten, who’s a big fan of the game. “The space theme is fun, there are a number of different but satisfying strategies to explore, and it’s easy to toss the whole thing in a bag or pocket to play on the go.” While she is quick to point out that the two-person base game never gets boring, there are also a number of ways to add to the game. You can buy additional copies of the base deck to make it compatible for up to six players, but you can also pick from dozens of expansions like Colony Wars or Scenarios that come with cards to add to the base deck.

According to one reviewer: “It is a great deckbuilder and remarkably easy to play - think Dominion meets Magic the Gathering. Each faction has a flavor, and your strategy must be flexible. Like investments in the real world, you can diversify for a balanced approach or specialize to rack up combos based on using your factions' ally abilities. [...] It is simple to teach and exceptionally well-balanced mechanically. You can tell the designers were veteran MTG players, and this is a great alternative for people (like me) who want a fun deckbuilding experience but who may not have time to keep up with another collectible card game. Finally, the small game's setup is lightning: shuffle the whole deck and deal. That's it. Seriously - this is a fun game, and I highly recommend it.”

3. A beautifully designed engine-building board game

  • Players: 1 to 5
  • Game time: 40 to 70 minutes
  • Ages: 10+

For a game that’s as visually stunning as it is fun to play, you need to check out Wingspan. Each piece of the game itself, from the 3-D bird feeder-shaped dice tower to the 170 uniquely illustrated bird cards, is carefully and beautifully designed — so it’s no surprise the game has maintained a 4.9-star overall rating on Amazon after more than 5,000 reviews.

The concept is deceptively simple. You play as a bird enthusiast on the quest to discover new birds and populate your personal aviary with a diverse range of interesting species. As you work on that collection, however, you need to maximize points by collecting rare or unique species. Plus, you can’t forget to feed them! As straightforward as it sounds, there’s plenty of complexity that allows for strategizing and trying out different approaches each time you play. There are also a couple of expansions, including Oceania, which add new elements and allow you to add additional players to the game.

According to one reviewer: “The construction of the player mats, cards, food tokens, egg tokens, and 3D birdhouse (!) are fantastic looking and high quality […] The game is not very competitive in the sense of interacting with the other players […] I found that even in games where I didn't win, I genuinely felt good about the gameplay and enjoyed trying to create an efficient point-generating flock of birds.”

4. A medieval deck-building board game

  • Players: 2 to 4
  • Game time: 30 minutes
  • Ages: 13+

If you’re trying to fulfill your dream of being a monarch in a medieval kingdom, the well-known engine builder Dominion is the game for you. As a recently crowned monarch, you’ve inherited a kingdom in decline. Your task is to restore it to its former glory by building up infrastructure, restoring rivers and forests, and attracting more people to come live and work in your kingdom. The game is fun to play, and there are a number of different ways to win so you can try out different strategies each time to keep things feeling fresh. The game also has a couple of expansions, like Seaside, to add new territory and complexity to the base game.

According to one reviewer: “I am a moderately serious board gamer and have a monthly group at home (serious) and a weekly lunch group at work (somewhat casual). The first time I played this I immediately purchased a set for myself and have regularly played it. It's pretty easy for new people to pick up, although they're unlikely to win until they've played a few times to understand useful strategies. The ability to pick a set of cards each time you play gives it a really high replay ability, and you can tweak the sets to get your favorite balance. Tons of great expansions. If you pick cards that don't have any inter-player effects you can finish a game in under an hour, which means this is part of the rotation for my lunchtime game group at work. Even with a bigger group and inter-player interaction cards it will definitely finish in under 2 hours; we frequently play two rounds with different sets of cards. It also travels well because you can pick out a set and leave the box at home.”

5. A futuristic engine-building board game set on Mars

  • Players: 1 to 5
  • Game time: 120 minutes
  • Ages: 12+

For a kingdom-building game with a futuristic theme, try Terraforming Mars. As a corporation in the year 2400, each player competes with other corporations to make Mars habitable for humans — and ensure that their corporation controls the most livable land on the new planet while they’re at it. Players need to create breathable air, build oceans, and raise the temperature to a livable level. What separates the game from the pack is that it’s part cooperative, part competitive. On one level, everyone is working together to terraform a planet. But on another level, you’re all strategizing to become the dominant player on Mars when humans start immigrating there.

While the base game offers tons of replay potential on its own, the manufacturer also offers a couple of expansions, including Hellas & Elysium, which add new territories and new ways to win.

According to one reviewer: “This game is can be adapted for beginners, but it is meant for avid table top gamers. My husband and I LOVE this game and have played it a dozen times in the first month. The replayability is awesome!!!!! I love that you can choose different variations the more experienced you get. Definitely a great game to add to your collection if you love more complex games!”

6. A space-themed civilization-building board game

  • Players: 2 to 4
  • Game time: 60 minutes
  • Ages: 12+

In Race for the Galaxy, each player is the leader of their own society. As they work to build their society into the most advanced galactic civilization with the latest technology, players are also competing to expand their territory by conquering new worlds. The key to winning is a balanced strategy of investing in technological and social development at home as well as military and imperial conquest abroad. This framework leaves a lot of room for different strategies and approaches so each play-through feels different. Plus, Rio Grande Games also makes a couple of expansions, like Alien Artifacts, which add depth and expand the total number of players.

According to one reviewer: “Once you have played a few times it goes really quickly and it's constant action--no waiting around for people to get over their analysis paralysis. The mechanics are very slick and there are a number of fun and rich strategies to explore. Because it is quick and action-packed, this is one that makes it to the table frequently.”

7. A highly competitive engine-building game

  • Players: 2 to 6
  • Game time: 90+ minutes
  • Ages: 13+

For game enthusiasts who love good mix of strategy and chance, Power Grid is a fun one to try. As the owner of a power plant in a futuristic world where energy is scarce, you need to build energy infrastructure that powers the most cities in your quest to become the dominant energy provider for the world. The catch: Your opponents are diligently working toward that same goal. This means that the strategy you went into the game with can easily be thwarted by an opponent who, say, moves into the same territory you were working on or takes resources you need. To win, you have to be quick to adapt as the game progresses — and look for opportunities to interfere with your opponents’ strategies while you’re at it.

While this need to pivot as you play keeps the game exciting for many sessions, when you’re ready for a refresh, you can find a couple of expansions, like The Robots, that add new dimensions and sources of competition.

According to one reviewer: “I love this game so much because of the simplicity in how you play it, and yet there is much detail and planning you can go into if you so wish. There are several elements of chance, bargaining and strategy that can have the leaderboard going back and forth all the way through and you never really know who will win until the end.”

8. An alternate-history engine-building game with lots of combat

  • Players: 1 to 5
  • Game time: 90 to 120 minutes
  • Ages: 14+

Game players with a thirst for combat will love Scythe. Set in an alternate, steampunk-inspired version of Europe at the end of World War I, each player starts as the ruler of a desolate fallen nation. As you work to rebuild your empire, you’re also fighting against rival rulers on the quest to expand their empires and rise to the top. With both empire-building and combat components, your challenge is to strike a balance between fighting off attackers, leading your own conquests, and rebuilding your society at home. You can also add on to the game with one of the expansions, like Invaders from Afar which adds two new factions to up the competition.

According to one reviewer: “If you're up for a completely immersive, steampunk-inspired game that values efficient choices and skill above dice rolling (not a die to be found), I highly recommend giving Scythe a try. It is a complex game of beauty that will soon be heralded amongst the best board games ever created.”

9. An engine-building game set in the Tuscan countryside

  • Players: 1 to 6
  • Game time: 45 to 90 minutes
  • Ages: 13+

For a tranquil, rustic escape, check out the vineyard-themed engine-building game Viticulture. Each player inherits a failing vineyard in the heart of Tuscan wine country. To win, they must restore it by planting, harvesting, and producing world-class wine. Despite the pastoral and idyllic setting, gameplay can get very competitive as players compete for limited resources and juggle the different elements of running a successful vineyard. You also have a couple of expansion options, like Visit from the Rhine Valley which adds new cards to the base game.

According to one reviewer: “If you're looking for a pleasant worker placement game [...] in the light-medium weight category, one that features solid mechanics, a strong and convincing theme, wonderful components, and can be played in 60-90 minutes, then Viticulture is a must-buy. It really evokes something of being on a vineyard, growing grapes in a quest to make and sell wine, while at the same time offering a strategic challenge.”

10. An easy-to-learn deck-building game for larger groups

  • Players: 3 to 7
  • Game time: 30 minutes
  • Ages: 10+

When you’ve got a big group for game night, 7 Wonders is ideal, since it can accommodate up to seven players without expansions. Plus, a single game can be finished in about 30 minutes. Although it might take a little longer for larger groups, it’s still a faster-paced game that’s well-suited to game nights where you might not want to spend the entire night playing one game.

To play, each participant acts as the leader of one of the seven greatest ancient cities in the world. To win, they need to develop commercial routes, build up their military strength, and gather resources to fuel production over the course of three rounds, or ages. While victory is by no means a straightforward pursuit, the manufacturer also offers a couple of expansions, like Babel and Cities, that add new elements to the game.

According to one reviewer: “Easy to learn, fast to play with a good amount of decision making. Has a lot of replayability. Ended up getting the Cities expansion for it and will probably buy more expansions. Great game!”

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