The excellence of engine builders

“Engine building” as a mechanic or game trait is sort of a tough thing to pin down; it’s the basis of some smaller, lighter games like Race for the Galaxy, but it also plays a part in sprawling, heavy titles like Through the Ages. I’ll leave defining the mechanic for another post (or someone who’s spent more time thinking about it), but I want to take a moment to talk about why it can be such an engaging and fun thing to do in games.

51st-state-master-set-play

While building an engine (usually in the form of a tableau) can be thought of as a rather solitary activity—which might be why the mechanic is sometimes looked down upon—it can actually be one of the best ways to build tension in a game, especially when player interaction is handled well. And there’s something deeply satisfying about nailing awesome combos. But let’s backtrack for a second.

Building the 51st State

America is gone. In its place is a post-nuclear wasteland, the remnants of a cybernetic revolt and subsequent man-machine war. The landscape is filled with rubble, the air with noxious poisons. Roving gangs control small swaths of land by force, leveraging what weapons they’ve been able to salvage in a quest for day-to-day survival.

But four growing actions—New York, the Appalachian Federation, the Merchants’ Guild, and the Mutants’ Union—have arisen and are vying for control of the wasteland. They strive to build their empires by annexing, negotiating with, intimidating, and outright laying waste to the small colonies that have sprung up in the wastes. Who will seize control? Who will establish the 51st State? That’s what designer Igancy Trzewiczek’s 51st State, published by Portal Games, lets you decide.

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Last week, my friend Mark taught me to play 51st State using the new Master Set. The game originally came out in 2010, but it had a number of problems: esoteric and overly busy cards, a bad rulebook, and some weird expansion compatibility. But earlier this year, Portal Games re-released it in the Master Set with redesigned cards from the base set as well as the Winter and Ruins expansions. The entire experience is streamlined without losing the great sense of theme or the fast, frenzied mechanics.

I’m very partial to post-apocalyptic games, so 51st State caught my attention immediately. The art, first of all, is amazing. Children in gas masks, decrepit and looming machinery, ever-present rubble, cobbled-together war machines . . . it’s basically Fury Road: The Game.

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And it’s a card game, which I absolutely cannot resist. Players use cards to pick through the rubble, recruit allies, raze enemy locations, accrue resources, and score points. It’s an engine builder in the purest sense: the more cards you get down, the more points you’ll score as the game goes on.

And like most good engine-building games, the more combos you can score, the better. Gathering production locations that give you a lot of brick, for example, lets you score points with brick-consuming action locations, and the same goes for the other resources; the more good combos you can set up, the better your point-scoring machine will perform.

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As with many games of this type, the player interaction is fairly indirect; by watching what your opponent is collecting, you can try to disrupt their strategy by taking cards they need in the draft phase, for example. You can also raze their locations, though the reward for doing this aren’t quite as significant as you might imagine.

Everything in the game meshes perfectly with the theme, from the art to the actual card actions and resources. Combining that theme with a fun, fast-paced engine builder makes for a really great game.

(You should definitely pick up a copy of 51st State: Master Set on Amazon for $42—you won’t regret it! If you don’t like the post-apocalyptic theme, check out Imperial Settlers, which uses the same mechanics and a more family-friendly theme.)

Engine building and accomplishment

The idea that engine builders aren’t quite as strategically demanding as other games is understandable; there’s often a “multiplayer solitaire”-sort-of feel to many of them. But the best of these games provide not only interaction, but a great feeling of tension, too. Even beyond that, though, the act of engine building is somehow intrinsically rewarding.

The best engine builders get around the “multiplayer solitaire” feel in a number of ways; Puerto Rico makes you choose roles each round, creating some really tense moments when you will your opponent to not choose the role you need . . . and then they do. Through the Ages allows you to attack other players directly through Aggression and War cards. Le Havre and Ora et Labora require that you pay your opponent to use their buildings.

Even games that seem like they have no interaction at all, like Race for the Galaxy, can get you thinking about your opponent by trying to predict what they’re going to do next so you can most fully take advantage of it.

But that’s not what we’re focusing on here — it’s that intrinsically rewarding side of engine building that has intrigued me since I played 51st State. I thought it might have something to do with the inherent human proclivity for collecting, or maybe some appreciation of watching something building up momentum . . . but in the end, the idea that resonated with me the most is what I call the “look at this!” factor.

51st-state-master-set-tableau

If you’ve played Through the Ages, you definitely know what I’m talking about. You finish the game, whether you won or lost, you lean back, survey your civilization, and say “look at this!” Although to a lesser degree, games like Puerto Rico and 51st State cause a similar reaction (though I believe the latter has an especially strong thematic inclination to induce this effect). There’s a sense of pride in the civilization—the engine, the tableau—that you’ve created.

Maybe it shares something with the feeling of pride that we get when we build something with our hands. You put forth a strong effort, from the planning stage through the finishing touches, and at the end, you have something that stands and functions on its own, completely independently of you. Of course, you still need to put in additional effort to keep it running smoothly and effectively. But you made something. It’s a pretty unique and gratifying feeling.

The more complex the game, the more significant this feeling at the end—I don’t tend to feel a huge sense of accomplishment at the end of Race for the Galaxy, for example. But after Through the Ages, it’s worth spending a few minutes marveling at what you’ve created. And at the end of 51st State, you can tell an entire story based on the tableau you’ve built.

Obviously there’s a significant sense of accomplishment in non-engine-building games, too. Winning the strategic battle of a heavy game like Three Kingdoms Redux is not an easy feat. But there’s something about the more visually accumulating nature of engine builders that’s fundamentally  different, and satisfying in its own way.

That’s what I think, anyway. I’m finding it a little hard to pin it down, so if you have any thoughts on what makes engine builders so great, I’d love to hear them! Leave a comment down below or give a shout on Twitter.

Also, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the 51st State master set. Even if you’re not usually into engine builders, or you’re not so sure about card games, check it out. It’s a blast.

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