Fantastic Factories is a quick-playing engine builder that’s great for fans of Gizmos who also like a little bit of dice-rolling (and dice-drafting) in their gaming experience. Originally self-published in 2019, the game received a bigger release this past winter from Deep Water Games, who’ve brought it to a much wider audience and published one major expansion already.
Fantastic Factories keeps things very simple: You gather two resources, energy and metal, and score points in two ways, by building cards or producing goods with those cards. Turns have just two phases, a market phase and a work phase, with players doing their work phases simultaneously, which keeps the game moving briskly. And there are only two types of cards in the game, the blueprint cards you’ll collect and build as well as contractor cards you can use once for an immediate benefit.
The game’s market comprises two rows of four cards each, one of contractor cards and one of blueprint cards. In the market phase of your turn, you may take one face-up blueprint card for free, or you may discard one blueprint card to use a visible contractor card. To do the latter, you must discard a blueprint card with a tool symbol that matches the one above the contractor card, after which you take the action shown on the latter. (Some contractor cards also require extra energy as a cost.) That may get you bonus resources, or extra dice for the work phase, or the right to gain an extra die and set its value, but they’re all good for you.
In the work phase, all players roll their four dice, and then set about taking all of the actions they can. That includes activating any of the buildings that they’re able to, one time per work phase; placing dice on certain buildings or on their manufacturing boards; and building cards from their hands. Most buildings in the game have an action shown in a box on the lower third of the card, allowing you to exchange resources/use dice to get different resources or dice or cards or—and these are especially valuable—goods, which are worth one prestige point each at game-end. Energy is the easiest resource to gather, metal the hardest, while blueprint cards can also function as resources for these actions. Again, the actions always leave you better off than before, but one of the keys to the game is building cards that work together so you can chain your actions together—an engine, in board gaming jargon.
Your dice are your factory workers, and you can use them in a bunch of ways—getting more blueprint cards, getting energy, getting metal, or placing them on building cards to satisfy action requirements. One neat feature is that if you use two dice with the same value on your manufacturing board to get energy/cards/metal, you get an extra resource. If you do it with three dice, you get two extra resources. The game is determined to give you things, but it is up to you to take advantage.
Building blueprint cards requires payment of energy and/or metal, usually one to four of each, and you must also discard a different blueprint from your hand with the same tool symbol as the one you’re building. Thus collecting blueprint cards is critical—the game limits you to 10 hand cards at the end of your turn, but there’s almost no way that’s going to happen. You should always build something, and you should always be able to build something. (There’s definitely value to knowing the blueprint cards, which you’ll learn a bit through repeat plays, especially since you can only play one copy of any non-Monument blueprint card.)
The fun of this game is chaining together all your actions to make stuff, and the challenge of finding the best combination of actions given what you have. It’s common to get partway into a turn and realize you had a better option once you take an action that returns something you can then use to execute another action that wasn’t available before. It’s a very fast-moving game thanks to the simultaneous actions, and the icons are actually very easy to understand, but the amount of information you’re juggling in your head during work phases in the latter half of the game is substantial. It’s a high cognitive load for a game that’s otherwise pretty light and fun, although I think that’s a huge part of its appeal.
Fantastic Factories doesn’t offer much player interaction; you might take a card someone else wants, and some contractors allow you to give resources from the supply to an opponent when you get some yourself, but otherwise it’s a competitive solo exercise—not dissimilar to Gizmos, which had to have inspired this game at some level. There is an expansion called Subterfuge that adds a take-that mechanic to the game, with contractor cards that let you steal resources and a sabotage mechanic that lets you disable an opponent’s factory (one blueprint card) for a single round, so there is an option to make the game more interactive—and to let you try to slow an opponent who’s doing too well—but it’s not in the base game, and I haven’t played with the expansion yet.
The game ends when one player builds their tenth building or produces their twelfth good, after which you complete the round and then play one more full round before tallying up your points. The simultaneous play during work phases keeps game times under an hour, which I assume involves a little social pressure on that one player who just can’t make a decision when everyone else has finished their moves. The game plays two to five players and has rules for a solo mode that goes very quickly because of how fast the Machine opponent racks up goods. The box recommends the game for ages 14+; I think a 10-year-old who regularly plays games could handle this, and the only gating factor is the complexity of the engines you build. It’s quite possible to keep your engine simple and still play a competitive game, so you can try it with younger/less experienced players. The comparison to Gizmos is unavoidable, and I think Gizmos is easier to learn and play without losing any of the challenge, but Fantastic Factories takes some of the best parts of Gizmos and changes it up to make something new and still fun, adding dice for people who really enjoy that particular mechanic and the randomness they can add to game play.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.