A BUILDER game is simple to explain: It’s a game where you build something. That makes it sound silly to describe, but it’s a place to start. Most games can qualify as builder games. Dungeons and Dragons has you build a character, Betrayal at House on the Hill has you build a house, and Fiasco has you build tension. But those aren’t really games that fit the term ‘builder,’ because ‘builder’ is really a term about how the game feels.
Builder games are games where your primary focus is on building things, and those games tend to be games with a sense of material to them. You’re building a thing that you can look at and watch grow, and the feeling of that thing growing is meant to feel rewarding. In Betrayal At House On The Hank Hill, there’s no personal connection to the growth of the house, and in Dungeons and Dragons the building of a character is of a slightly immaterial thing. Magic: The Gathering requires you to build a deck to play, but unless you’re drafting, you’re not building the deck on the spot.
Builder games are games with a lot of inherently obvious value to them. Making things is very satisfying. You can use building to be part of the challenge of a game, as with Junk Art or you can use it to be the reward for playing, like in Dominion.
There are a lot of things you can use Building for, representing a whole host of different themes. It’s almost too broad a term, but I want to put it in this little dictionary of terms because when I refer to a builder, or refer to builder mechanics, I want it eaisly conveyed I mean a game where making something tangible is core to the experience.
The biggest limitation of builders is that the bigger the thing you build, the more difficult it is to easily mentally parse it. Builder games often inherently increase in complexity! If the building components don’t increase in complexity it can be unsatisfying to watch the builded thing grow!
Games with good ‘building’ feels to them are often deck builders, like Thunderstone, Star Realms or Dominion, or they’re about building up a thing in an empty space. Some games like Dream Home have an element of builder to them, but that’s filling out slots on your board, and may feel less rewarding. Some games like Barenpark have that same effect, but the process of building is more difficult and may feel more rewarding. Same to with Galaxy Trucker, where you’re building within a box. A game that has more of an open builder feel might be something like 51st State or Imperial Settlers or Seven Wonders.