Engine building, is it a mechanic?

Of course it is you dummy(7 votes) 58%
No it isn't(5 votes) 42%

12 votes

So, this is a little bit in response to the recent post by , lauding the joys of engine building. And, to be clear, I am not knocking that post..... I think it was a good post, and I believe that it fits well into this weeks challange. But, my question this morning is, Is engine building a mechanic/mechanism?

BGG famously does not have engine building as a mechanism. This outraged many people, including myself, upon discovering that fact. I considered it almost a criminal omision. However, as time has gone on, I have gradually come around to not having it as a mechanism. This is why I didn't include it in my list of favorite mechanisms here.Otherwise it would have been my favorite mechanism.

I have not read the "official" encyclopedia that defines all the mechanisms. And, I have not really studied why Geoff Englestien has declined to list it as a mechanism. The following thoughts are purely my own.

I think that the problem with having engine building as a mechanic is that it generally going to be another mechanism. For instance. I would argue that currently the vast majority, or maybe all, tableau builders are engine builders. In fact, if you go the bgg page for tableau building this is what it says:

"In Tableau Building games, each player has a visible personal array or tableau of components (cards, tiles, player boards, etc.) which they purposefully build or manipulate throughout the game by spending actions and/or resources (including opportunity costs) and which determines the quality, quantity, and/or variety of actions to which they have access throughout the game.

The array is not merely a place to store resources, to plan out actions, to store a puzzle which must be manipulated, or something that impacts VP's. It impacts the quality, quantity, and/or variety of actions which are accessible to a player. This means that some games may include an array or a tableau but not really be a tableau building game."

This really does sound like it is describing a engine builder, especially where it mentions, "the quantity, quality, and/or variety of actions."

If we consider the games that are popularly considered engine builders, including the ones mentioned in the recent post by we discover that they engine building parts of them are tableau builders/manipulaters. This even includes games like #Scythe. In scythe your tableau is your player board, and you are manipulating it to change the "quantity, quality, and/or variety of actions."

I don't think that most deck builders are engine builders, but, if they are than that compounds the problem. If all deck builders are encapsulated in some form or other of tablaeu building/manipulating, you could perhaps argue that engine building is a subset of that. But, if deck building, or other mechanisms, also have engine building, then it quickly feels like the mechanism is too big. For a the breakdown of mechanisms to be helpful it must be discreet enough to be helpful, it has to be broken down to a the smallest common denominator. If this is a mechanism that spans other mechanisms, it goes from a game mechanism to a game type. By game type I am refering to how we refer to the boxes we put games in, I am refering to terms like "confrontational" or "multi-player solitaire" or "euro" or "ameritrash."

So, in my way of thinking, either engine building is tableau building, in which case, that terminology is actually a little more helpful than engine building. Or, the term engine building is to big to be used as a mechanism. And should be used as a box like any of the multitudes of other terms we use.

Also, to be clear, I do think that engine building exists. I even think it is a helpful term. I just don't think it should be defined as a mechanism.

So, what do you think. Do you think is mechanism? Or, do you think that it isn't?

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10 months ago

This is a great conversation starter! Great idea for an article. I think while a lot of it is just definitions I would call engine-building a mechanic purely because while it is probably almost an umbrella term for a lot of other mechanics I don't think that is always true. As such I would think of it more like a venn-diagram where there is a tonne of overlap between 'Engine-Builder', 'Deck-Builder', 'Tableau Builder', 'Bag Builder', 'Player board unlocks' etc none of them fully overlap so it is worth having all the terms. And yes, any given Engine-builder will likely be made up of a number of other mechanics that is true of many mechanics.

Supporter10 months ago

PS.  It's your fault I had to call you a dummy, not mine, haha!

Supporter10 months ago

No worries....LOL

10 months ago

     I think it is a mechanic, but a mechanic made up of other mechanics. Here is why I believe this. Can something (engine building) that is constructed entirely from a single building block (mechanics) not in itself be a mechanic. Another way to look at this is that most gamers would consider "card play" as a mechanic. To get to the mechanic of card play, a player has to obtain these cards. Gaining cards through mechanics such as drafting, auction, or bidding, is what builds a player's hand. These initial mechanics are necessary to get to the secondary mechanic.

     In engine building, all engines consist of things gained through using mechanics. Gamers after they build their engine talk about "running" their engine. Running the engine needs the components to have it run. I equate the process of running the engine, a mechanic that is in the game but needs construction through other mechanics. This running of the engine can itself lead to more mechanics such as set collection, or worker placement (your engine allows you to generate more of these).

     If my first statement holds, then engine building is, in my opinion, a mechanic. It could be that we need to consider it as a secondary mechanic and begin to think of mechanics on a deeper level as games get more and more complex, and as designers find new and exciting ways to make games better. 


Supporter10 months ago

Thanks for these thoughts. And, yes, I do have a certain amount of respect for the whole idea of secondary mechanisms. However, with your example of card play, I would say that that is something that happens at a specific time. It is true, that you, probably, needed an other mechanic to get the card, but the actual playing of the card is something that happens at a specific moment. Building an engine is not a single action. It is a process. It is something that takes time. This is one of the reasons I consider it not to be a mechanic. Again, I believe that we are probably arguing about semantics, and I am sure we won't change each others opinions. Indeed, This post was designed to give us a chance to defend our opions to each other, and not to convince each other.

I do make a a difference between engine building and mechanics that contain building as part of their definition. In tableau building, as soon as you place the first card, or tile, you have a tablaue. This in my mind makes it a mechanic, the rest of your time with that tableau you are changing and refining it. The same can be said for route buiding games, or deck building, or bag building. In all the mechanics that are X building, X happens at a distinct time. In engine building the engine is built over many turns, and it isn't built until it is built. I think for a mechanism to be a mechanism it has to occur in the space of a single action. This action may be repeated ad infinitum, as in deck building, but it has to be able to happen in a single action. For that reason, I would still be more likely to consider "engine running" as a mechanic than "engine building."

Premium User10 months ago

To avoid confusion, let me specify how I define engine building: it's a mechanism which allows you to improve basic actions you can take in the game to make them more beneficial as the game goes along. From that definition, you can probably gather I consider it to be a mechanism that's separate from tableau building. 


For example, #Hansa Teutonica is an engine building game without tableau building. Over the course of the game you can choose to upgrade your base actions without adding anything to a tableau, you're actually removing elements (cubes and disks) from your player board. 

It isn't difficult to imagine the opposite case, where you build up your tableau by adding cards or tiles but none of them upgrades the efficiency of the basic actions but maybe instead gives you access to new actions.

I admit the two mechanisms work great together which is why they so frequently coexist in the wild but they can be separated and as such, need to be treated separately. 

10 months ago

I think I have stronger feelings towards this than I initially thought. 

I have a guy in our group that consistently compares each game to Terraforming Mars which is an engine builder in genre, but could be considered a tableau builder in mechanic. Anyways, any time we play a game that does not have the same type of ramp up, he says "I just wish I got my engine going a little more". To me this is more of a mindset issue than a game issue. In a game like #Brass: Birmingham you get a tiny engine going in the sense that you have an income that builds and grows but that is small compared to the rest of the game. The goal of the game is to build, build, build, sell, sell, sell. I never thought to myself, "I am building and engine and I need to make this efficient". It is more of a struggle and battle to come out on top. All that to say I do not think that engine builder is a mechanic but a mindset built around a mechanic or mechanics. 

Owner10 months ago

Great discussions so far. Now, for a future post: "Is a board game considered a form of art?"

Supporter10 months ago

I trust you will write a post about that......

Supporter10 months ago

Ok, so I looked up a defintion for Game Mechanics last night which defines it as follows

In tabletop games and video games, game mechanics are the rules that guide the player's moves or actions, as well as the game's response to them.  A game's mechanics thus effectively specifies how the game will work for the people who play it. (EMPHASIS MINE)
In my opion this last line shows Engine Building as being a mechanic.  When you play an engine building game even remotely correctly then that is how the game will work for the people who play it.

Supporter10 months ago

I read this last night as well, I assume this is from this wikipedia article. And, actually, I think that a quote later on in the article actually explains the confusion over this, as well as other questions, in regards to mechanics in gameplay. The quote is as follows.....

Gameplay could be defined as the combination and interaction of many elements of a game. However, there is some confusion as to the difference between game mechanics and gameplay. For some, gameplay is nothing more than a set of game mechanics. For others, gameplay—especially when referenced in the term of "basic gameplay"—refers to certain core game mechanics which determine the overall characteristics of the game itself.

Herein I believe we find our difference. And, we will doubtless continue to think of this differently which is fine with me. But I very much see engine building a an interaction of mechanisms. Perhaps this lends credence to questions about primary and secondary mechanisms. I am still not sure how I think about those definitions, I do know that if I were to adopt them, engine building would be a secondary mechanism. Whereas I believe that you would fit in the camp that tends to see gameplay more as a sum of mechanical elements.

Further, I think that my opinion of engine building not being best understood as a game mechanism does not do any violence to the quote you shared. And the reason I believe that is that I believe that I see the term "work" differently than I do. I think I look more at the basic gears and what they do when I am considering mechanisms. I don't consider what they do as a mechanism. I believe that you are also considering some of the secondary "outputs" as mechanisms as well. Please let me know if I am completely missing your point.

Also, I want to emphasize that I am holding this point as "my opinion" I don't believe that this is a inmutable truth...... And, If I am becoming too strident, let me know and I will happily shut up.

Premium User10 months ago

I was shooting from the hip and never looked at that wikipedia article.  I think I agree with the "gameplay" definition and see it as a "sum of the combination and interactions between many elements in a game".  

I would definitely see engine building as a secondary mechanism but I do see the argument there for it not being a mechanism unto itself at all.  I think there may be room for defining different types of engines or perhaps even a better word for engine...something like "action enhancement".  

I do feel my opinion is only informed by colloquial evidence from playing games rather than reading anything on solid game theory and having a decent background to source from.  It is thought provoking and I will have to consider some of these nuances when explaining games.  

Good fun!

Supporter10 months ago

I appreciate all the discussion that has arisen around this post. I was hoping to spark some discussion and am pleased with the result. Obviously we have some disagreements about this issue in this group. I believe and trust that these disagreements are not anything that could drive a wedge in the good conversations we have on these forums.

I think much of the confusion around this point is centered on different definitions of what constitutes a game mechanism. I think that a game mechanism is the smallest, most discreet parts of the game. They are the components without which you cannot play the game without breaking the rules. For instance, in a game with worker placement, you will place workers if you are playing according to the rules. If you are playing a game that has a deck building mechanism, you will work at changing your deck, that is part of the game.

For all the engine building games I have played, building the engine was not strictly necessary. You can play most, if not all, "engine builders" without building an engine, and you can do so without doing violence to the rules. This is usually not a good strategy. And, it certainly does feel like it doesn't do the spirit of the game justice. BUT you can do it, it is not something that is inherant in the rule of play like placing a worker is in a worker placement game.

Owner10 months ago

Interesting, I'll need to take some time tonight to read over all of the comments!

I've personally always thought of it as engine-building encompassing all types of games where players start with a small, rather inefficient engine that pumps out Y when you put in X, and then getting to a point where putting in X gives you ASKDJFLKDSFJDS (either that, or figuring out the puzzle of where the inefficiency lies.) And I've always thought of tableau-builders, deck-builders, bag-builders, etc as a subset of engine-building but with different flavor. So I think that it's a rather convenient description of games that follow this strategy if it doesn't fall under a specific subset. For example, as mentioned, #Viticulture: Essential Edition is very much an engine building game, but just by looking at the list of mechanics on BGG, I can't tell that the game will have engine-building-like elements (it's also not included on BGA's game page but you can add it if you want.) I feel that it's a nice distinction to have when there will be other games that will share the same mechanics but doesn't include the kind of puzzle that engine-building offers.

Premium User10 months ago

I don't think it is. To me, engine building is something that happens over the course of a game as a result of taking your turn and "turning the mechanisms of the game," if that makes any sense. The term "engine building" describes the strategy more than it describes what it is you're actually doing in the game. Terms like "deck building," "tile-laying," or "worker placement" actually tell you what your actions in the game are. "Engine building" does not, as it is a result of the other mechanics in the game. It's strategy - make your turns as efficient and effective as possible (increasingly so as the game progresses) - it doesn't say how. If I said "X is an engine building game," that would tell people very little of how the game actually works.

Would like to hear thoughts on my thoughts from those who disagree

Premium User10 months ago

lol perfect

Supporter10 months ago

Sorry I responded earlier without cosely reading that you said you don't think it is.  I still think it's a mechanic and I use it to describe games... for instance I always tell people that Viticulture is an engine building game because you need to build your engine to successfully win, I would argue that even with the original cards that may give you random VP's you need to still build a moderate engine to win.  Just like you need to place workers to win (Worker Place Mechanic) you need to build your engine to win (Engine Building Mechanic).  I think the strategies you take in that game go toward building the engine of a well running winery.

Supporter10 months ago

Your argument is valid, however, I think it applies equally to the more general boxes we put games in. I remain unconvinced that it is a discreet enough unit to be considered a mechanism.

I think we come semantics. What is a game mechanism? This is the real question right now. I do think that engine building does describe how a game may feel to play. It may describe the general course you may wish to take as a player. And, as such, I find the term quite helpful. However, I do believe that the action of engine building is built of other, smaller mechanisms. You can play a game of #Race for the Galaxy without really building an engine. However you cannont play a game of #Agricola without placing workers. I haven't played #Viticulture, but I was under the impression that you could play it, according to the rules, without building an engine???? Is this right?

So, I come around to my original point. I believe that engine builder is a useful and enlightening term describing a type of game. I believe this for the same reason I find terms like "point salad," "euro," or "ameritrash" supremely helpful. But, when you use it as a mechanism I feel like you are not defining mechanism as narrowly enough to be really helpful.

P.S. Props to . I had started typing this reply, when I was called in for supper. I returned after supper, and finished it before I had noticed that I was only echoing his better written sentiments.

Supporter10 months ago


I think you would have to actively try to not build an engine in Viticulture.  You may not build a strong or effecient engine but you will have to build one.  If we narrow a mechanic down to the thing you have to do then I would argue that Viticulture is only a Worker Placement game with no other way to define it.  Which is why I think of the term Mechanic differently.  I think the Mechanics are the things that define the way the game is to be played, not just the things you have to do. 

I'm going to use Scythe as another example (though not as an Engine Builder).  If we were to define mechanics in a game to the things you have to do, then the only thing you "have" to do in Scythe is Area Control (because you start with area) and Action Selection.  You could (although it wouldn't be fun) technically never manage resources and still play Scythe, but avoiding those Action Selection spots.  So if you can play a game without doing something does that mean the mechanic isn't a mechanic?

I hope this all makes sense.  At the end of the day, I think we have different definitions of a mechanic.  If I invite someone over to play a game and I just say, hey it's a Worker Placement game, they are going to ask what else do you do.  If you do something in my opinion it's a mechanic.

Premium User10 months ago

See I still disagree. I think you're describing strategy, or even game "arc", more than you're describing the mechanisms of the game. You literally need to place workers to actually play the game, otherwise you're not playing the game.

Your strategy should be to build an engine that can crank out more points than other players, but you can easily not build an engine. The building of this "engine" is not specified in any of the rules (of any engine builder), but the other mechanism, such as placing a worker or bluffing or adding a card to your deck or what-have-you, are specified in the rules.

That's why I think it's only marginally helpful to describe a game as an engine builder - it doesn't really tell you what kind of game it is. It tells you how it might feel to play, or what the lines of strategy might look like, but not at all what you're doing. You could pretty well some up Viticulture by saying it's an engine-building, worker placement game about making and selling wine. So that gives you the theme, the main mechanism, and how it might feel to play, but if you leave out "worker placement," you could literally be doing anything to build your engine.

Dang the more I think about this, the more strongly I am convinced of it, haha.

Premium User10 months ago

I think I would always describe #Viticulture: Essential Edition as a worker placement game and never as an engine builder.  The winery to me seems more like a tableau as in #Everdell rather than a developing engine.  I can see point though and there's maybe some room for calling the building of structures a sort of engine...but in only makes certain worker placement actions (mechanisms if you will) more efficient or in some cases possible at all.  I think I'd call that something like "action development" using worker placement.  Largely because the actions themselves don't really connect.  I would say #Paladins of the West Kingdom uses worker placement to develop an engine because it causes an action from a placed worker to trigger a completely different thing (gain a worker, gain a coin, et cetera) and not just more of that same action.  


10 months ago

While the building of an engine might not be specified I think it is a good decription of what you are physically doing, many games don't force you to do certain things (you could play risk without ever having a fight) but dice-rolling is a mechanic described in the rules and it is clearly a war-game. Similarly 'worker placement' doesn't necessarily tell you anything that useful about the game as worker placement is as varied as anything else. The act of building a engine is so central to so many games. Yes, someone might (and probably should) ask the specifics of that engine building but they will ask the specifics of lots of mechanics that you woudn't question. 

While I still think this is mostly just semantics about definitions. I mostly just think that 'Engine builder' is less specific than some things and also has wider implications for a game. It descibes both the a broad mechanic and a central pillar of the game (although engine building can play a very small part in a game too). Similar to how worker placement is significantly encapsulated by 'aciton selection' but just gives more specifics i.e. how you select actions but that doesn't mean games with a less specific action slection mechanic don't have that mechanic or that describing a worker placement as an action selection game is factually wrong it's just the term 'worker placement' is so well know that it can be used to communicate a more nuanced idea clearly.

Supporter10 months ago

Edited to tag . This is also partly in response to his thoughts.

I agree that you this is question of semantics. And, I would be curious to know how our varied backgrounds in language affect how we look at this question.I, for example, while born and (mostly) raised in the US, I speak English as my second language. That will affect how I look at English and definitions of English. I know that the English have very subtle differences in how they view certain words. This is painting in broad strokes, but on a more individual front, we each hail from different backgrounds, and appreciate different nuances in words.

I do continue to maintain, without hope or expectation of converting you or anybody else, that a game mechanism is one of the games smallest consituent parts. I do also wish to state that for most people, maybe even most gamers, talking about mechanisms is not all that helpful in describing a game. Let me give an example. For mechanics of #The Castles of Burgundy, BGG has listed the following mechanics: Dice rolling, Grid coverage, Hexagon Grid, Set collection, Tile Placement, Turn order: Stat-based, Worker placement with dice workers. These are all correct, but give me much less of a sense of the feel of the game, than if somebody were to tell me that it is a, "multi-player solitaire, point salad, euro game."

My stance of course begs the question, what is the good of mechanics then?

They are good because we are nerds and like talking about them. They are also good because as we get deeper in the hobby we can identify the feelings that certain mixtures of mechanics will give. We can, to a certain extent, tell a little bit of the "taste" of the game by reading its recipe.


Premium User10 months ago

What is your first language, out of curiosity? Based on your current location I'm just going to guess Spanish

Supporter10 months ago

It is a very distinct dialect of German that they speak in the schwaben (swabia) district of Germany.

Premium User10 months ago

Color me surprised!

Supporter10 months ago

My ancestors on both sides of my family originally came frome there shortly before the civil war in the US. Both sides of my family immigrated at a time that a flood of immigrants came from that general neck of the woods. But, both sides of my family tended to church with people who continued speaking that species of german at home. So, while they lived in different parts of the US, both sides of my family continued, through the generations, speaking that german dialect at home. Since my parents both knew it when they married, they continued that tradition. I feel blessed in automatically getting an another language for "free" it is a privilage most of my friends have not had.

Premium User10 months ago

Dang, yeah that is cool