The key to a great engine-building game
There are a number of games that rely on engine-building as a core part of the gameplay.
Some of the best-known and most loved engine-building games are Splendor, Century: Spice Road, and Wingspan.
The key to winning (or even just doing well) in these games is to build an engine that will continue to give you the resources you need to gain points and beat your opponents. You do this through purchasing the right cards or cubes and combo-ing them together to pull off bigger gains as the game goes on.
It’s all about strategy and efficiency.
I co-designed an engine-building card game as well called Kingdom’s Candy Monsters (published in 2020), in which you are a villain, hunting monsters that will join you and do your evil bidding by collecting candies.
This started out as more of a party game with elements of surprise but then morphed into a really cool engine-building game with some unique twists. I wanted to share some of the things that I learned while working on this game along with the inspiration I found from other engine-building games.
Let’s look at what you’ll want to include in your engine-building game, and then just as importantly, what you’ll want to avoid.
What to include
A good engine-building game allows you to become more powerful and gain more resources and/or points as you build your engine throughout the game.
You should include multiple ways that players can choose to build their engine and different strategies they can employ or combine together in order to get players wanting to play your game again and again.
In Kingdom’s Candy Monsters, my co-designer and I discussed various ways we could create synergies between monsters as well as between the ability cards. We came up with some interesting systems that allow players to gain other bonuses, such as additional sugar cubes or candies (points), simply by collecting multiple cards of the same type.
We also included some interesting player choices. For example, when a player purchases an ability card, they have the option to tuck it under one of their monsters in order to use this ability repeatedly throughout the game, or they could leave it untucked in order to gain more candies (points) and collect multiple of the same type card types to get additional bonuses.
You want to make sure that players can start to build an engine and see the fruits of their labours fairly quickly.
We also had to get the right balance so that players would gain enough sugar cubes so that they didn’t have to use an action to do so every turn (which we discovered was the least fun action available), but also not gain so many cubes that they couldn’t spend them all. It was a careful balancing act, but when we got it right, the game just clicked.
What to avoid
We went through several iterations of Kingdom’s Candy Monsters, and one of the biggest lessons I learned is that players really dislike losing what they’ve worked so hard to gain.
We had a couple of cards in the deck that would allow players to steal from others, which were not well received. Once these were removed from the deck, players could focus on building their own engine without any worry of being sabotaged. They had control over their own destiny and winning or losing would depend only on how well they played.
There were also events that caused players to have to feed their monsters. These events were interesting but involved two different elements of randomness: (1) players didn’t know exactly when these events would occur, and (2) players didn’t know how many sugar cubes they would need to feed their monsters when these events did occur.
The suggestion was made to allow players to know how many sugar cubes they would have to feed their monsters in advance. This became another piece of information the player would have access to when they hunted for that monster. There already was a cost to hunt the monster and put it under your control, but after receiving this feedback we also added a specific cost to feed each monster when the event occurred.
Now, although players didn’t know exactly when they would need to feed their monsters, they had some idea of when this might occur, as the events would come out at set intervals similar to Pandemic. They also knew exactly what the cost would be to feed each of their monsters, so they could plan ahead for this (or not, as we saw in some playtests – however, this usually only happened once, as players quickly realized it wasn’t the best strategy to lose your monsters when you couldn’t feed them!).
Removing the take-that elements of the game and creating a set cost to feed each monster allowed players to have more control and enjoy the game much more.
This goes to show that making a game better usually involves cutting things out rather than adding more elements, along with allowing players to have more control over their situation.
Simplifying a game can make it so much better.
What are your favorite engine-building games? Why do you enjoy them so much?