Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger: Or Designing the Ultimate Engine Builder – YOU


You’re there… in the jungle. You’ve got so many ideas.  This week, Steve guides along the path of one game design mechanism: the engine builder. No experience with cars or tools necessary. 

There are many different indigenous creatures that you’ll encounter in the Indie Jungle. One of the most fascinating has to be “the Engine Builder.” Once rare in these parts but now thriving in large numbers, this clever little beastie is a satisfying game design element that you’ll find in many of the industry’s most popular games.


What exactly is an “Engine Builder?” Simply, it means that a game is structured to reward you over time for producing more resources or goods as the game goes on. The more efficient your engine can become, the more production value you’ll gain with each turn and the more prosperous you will grow.

Some of the most famous engine building games include “Agricola,” “Puerto Rico” and “Splendor”. I myself have even taken on the challenge of designing an engine builder with my game “Reign Makers” (scheduled for Kickstarter in 2017 through Escape Velocity Games).

In “Reign Makers,” each player begins with one lowly hamlet and a coin purse containing just a few coins. Over the course of the game, players will recruit troops and specialists, purchase fields, pastures, forests, mines and buildings, and improve their annual income to stoke the fires of their individual engine – a growing kingdom with a thirst to become the largest.

“Reign Makers” Land Cards

The core of my engine building game is a resource track that appears on each of many land cards. The track shows resources required to upgrade from a hamlet to a village, then a town and finally a city. Each upgrade requires specific resources, some of which overlap or reappear from one upgrade to another. With some clever planning you can customize your engine to maximize your potential.

The engine works through renewable resources – wheat, sheep, timber and ore – and recurring skills that, from game round to round, allow you to do more. It’s a snowball effect that is fueled by your own actions and decisions.

It occurred to me that the concept of Engine Building is not limited to games. In fact, one of the most intriguing engines of all is the one staring back at you in the mirror. Yes, YOU are your own greatest Engine Builder.

Any new designer starts with very few tools to draw from. Think of your design “knowledge base” as the start of a new game. You almost certainly begin with very few resources – usually just enough to cobble together a crude, poorly constructed game. But with time you will gain experience, contacts, assets and skills that will allow you to create better games.

So, how exactly do you build your personal engine? Here are a few tips that may help get your gears turning:

Develop a Strategy – A good engine builder allows you to thrive when you nurture a strategy with a singular vision. Designing games should be no different. My personal strategy involves “stages”; I like to bounce around from design to design at each stage in a game’s life cycle.

  • Concept Stage – This is “doodle in your notebook” stage. This is “play it in your head” stage. This is “design it in the shower” stage. The great thing about this stage is you can explore, trash and rethink quickly. I currently have four games in this stage: “The Hills Have Orcs” (you are trying to build a town during the day while pesky orcs come down during the night to raid you); “Beasts of Burden” (in this one you use your donkeys, oxen and such to develop your land and deliver goods around the village), “Kelp Forest” (you’re trying to grow the most impressive kelp forest while marine grazers like urchins and fish try to consume it) and “Monster Cab” (you operate a taxi picking up fares, racing around the city to earn as much money as possible and tricking out your ride to accommodate new monsters). Will any of these games make it further? Only time will tell!
  • Early Prototype Stage – If you think you’ve got an idea with some meat on the bone, dig in and start prototyping! Your prototype doesn’t have to be pretty, just functional enough to determine if it’s worth pursuing further. I have two games in this stage: “Boomtowners” (a western worker placement where you customize your pool of townsfolk to earn the most influence) and “Grindworks” (you are a dystopian overlord in this twisted worker placement inspired by “Soylent Green”).
  • Tight Prototype Stage – This is the stage where you give some love to your prototype by making it user-friendly for others to play, including clean design, good iconography and fully fleshed out rules. I have three games in this stage: “Pharaoh’s Pyramid” (players work together to build a pyramid that appeases the Pharaoh’s demands), “Blocks & Banners” (collect sets of blocks to build castles that match castle plans and earn the most gold), and “Bomber Boys” (a solo dice allocation game where you’re trying to make it through the bomb run deck to bomb the target and complete your mission).

    Blocks & Banners Prototype
    “Blocks & Banners” Prototype
  • Development Stage – In this stage, you’ve got a fairly polished game that just needs further developing. Most likely you already have a publisher that is leading the development or you’re ready to seek out a publisher. I have four games in this stage: “Reign Makers” (you are building up your civilization through conquest and production); “Barker’s Row” (you are a carnival barker trying to lure the crowd to your sideshow tent and attractions); “Circle the Wagons” (you are drafting cards around a circle and building them into your town to maximize points) and “Iceland” (you are trying to escape the Land of Fire and Ice as the volcano erupts).
  • Back Shelf Stage – These are games that you’ve probably spent a great deal of time designing, but something just wasn’t clicking. Rather than throw your hard work in the dumpster and light it on fire, I would suggest you throw it on your back shelf instead. Odds are you’ll revisit it someday and either resurrect it or pillage some ideas to use in a new, even better game. (You don’t even want to know how many games are on my back shelf!)

Your strategy is the driving force that keeps you moving forward. For me, it’s obviously switching gears from project to project so I don’t feel stagnated at any one stage. It should be noted that some designers use a different “stage” system made up of greek letters – alpha, beta and gamma – to represent internal testing, external/public testing and release testing. Other designers immerse themselves wholly into one project from start to finish before shifting concentration to the next game. Some might work in spurts, making progress whenever inspiration strikes and taking a break when it doesn’t. Still others collaborate with a design partner, tackling a project for a while and then handing it off to their co-designer. Whatever strategy works for you, be committed and you’ll start to see the fruits of your labor.

Gather Your Resources – Just like an engine builder that rewards you for buying resources to build production buildings so you can produce your own resources, so too will your design skills improve and grow more efficient over time. Here are a few things you might consider:

  • Prototype materials – If you don’t have them already, you need the basic essentials to build prototypes quickly and easily: paper (I use #110 pound stock paper that I get from Staples), paper cutters (scissors, X-acto knife, rotary cutter, guillotine, whatever you find easiest), colored pencils or pens, stickers, spray mount and a good printer.
  • Shortcut tools – These are little tricks to save you time: card sleeves (sleeving allows for easy updating and you can even save your old card versions behind the new ones; they also sell colored card sleeves for instantly creating different suits for your deck), pre-cut “blanks” (“blanks” are white game pieces that help you skip the chore of cutting and can be found at The Game Crafter, among a few other sources. From cards to player mats to dials to hex tiles to spinners, they’ve got just about everything ready for you to customize). You may even want to borrow components from a game in your personal library. One ideal game for this is “Coloretto,” a card game containing 63 colorful cards (9 cards each in 7 colors) that are perfect for repurposing for all types of prototyping needs, especially related to games where set collection is a primary mechanism!
  • Game Bits – Invest in game bits so you have an arsenal at your disposal,
    “Rattlebones” Prototyping Dice, BoardGameGeek Store

    no matter what type of game you’re working on. I have meeples, wooden cubes, discs, pawns, you name it. Be sure to have ample components in multiple colors so you can simulate multiple players. If you like dice games, consider investing in Rattlebones” Prototyping Dice, which allow you to customize each die thanks to removable and interchangeable faces!

  • Artwork – There are plenty of free artwork sources online that are ideal for helping streamline your designer engine. For free icons, try The Noun Project. For public domain artwork, try Some designers have even contributed publically available icons and themed card templates just to help out their fellow designers, including Daniel Solis and Fairway 3 Games.
  • Design Programs – At some point, you’ll need to go beyond scrawling your ideas on cards with a pencil and dive into an actual design program. Whether its Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign or any number of other programs, make sure you’re comfortable with navigating the tools and editing capabilities of each. If you aren’t comfortable with any of these, perhaps it’s best to start with Microsoft Word or Pages, which have some basic design tools to get you going, or consider taking a design class or tutorial to learn one of the more advanced programs.

Soon enough, your engine will begin taking shape, and with each new design you’ll find that your productivity increases as your game experience grows, transforming that lowly hamlet of an idea into a thriving metropolis of creativity.

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