GTM #224 - Cogs and Commisars
by Matt Haga


In 2014 my wife, friends, and I were bitten by the growing and evolving tabletop game hobby, and immediately fell in love. Previously, our social gaming engagements were spotty at best, and involved bumpy Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, expensive Magic: The Gathering battles, or even nostalgic retro video gaming sessions on the sofa in front of the television. These were certainly fun and had their moments, and many memories were created, but as soon as we dipped our feet into the newer, growing, and even more diverse world of modern  tabletop games, everything changed for the better. 

Playing Magic or D&D had restrictions. Our friends couldn’t just come over and have a good time without meeting specific requirements. They may have needed to buy cards and build decks, or buy particular rule books. Or attendance may have been required by everyone lest the whole evening fall apart. Sometimes, especially with the retro video games, everyone just simply wasn’t into it all of the time, and even those of us who were weren’t always in the mood. If the thing that we were there to do wasn’t quite doing it, there were not a lot of other options to fall back on.

The switch to board games solved a lot of problems and added a ton of benefits. There was something for everyone and anyone could participate. We no longer needed guaranteed attendance for the D&D campaigns, or required anyone to build an expensive MTG deck. Anyone who wanted to come and play could, and all they had to do was show up! it promoted creativity and strategic thinking, the experience was highly social and interactive, and everyone just seemed generally happy about the change. It even allowed us to open the doors to new players who may have been intimidated (or geeked out) by our previous engagements.


As we tried new games and zeroed in on our favorites, I took meticulous mental notes on what the group tended to lean towards. Since I was the host, I wanted to keep my eyes open for anything I thought would be fitting for their tastes. Eventually, we were running out of new things to try for the size of our average group, so I decided to start designing a game myself.

My first attempt at designing a game was more for myself and the general experience than anything else. It was a skeleton-themed war game (because skeletons > zombies) that worked out a lot better in my head than it did when it eventually hit the table. We truly slogged through our first game, I revised it, and then we slogged through it again, but in a different way. I didn’t pressure anyone to play it again, and won’t until it eventually gets rebuilt it from the ground up. There were elements of the game that were really cool and everyone enjoyed, but at the end of the day, it just took way too long and was far too complex.

After testing the skeleton game, I decided to go with a much cleaner and simpler approach. I wanted to try something that didn’t require twenty-five pages of rules, 100 dice, and enough moving parts to make a Swiss watchmaker blush. This is when Cogs and Commissars was born. I tend to come up with themes and then build games around them, rather than come up with games and then slap themes onto them. There is nothing wrong with the latter, but I feel that building around a theme encourages the design of unique mechanisms. For Cogs and Commissars, the idea of creating and taking robot citizens, propagandizing citizens you
don’t control, and the general flavor of most of the cards in the game were all born out of the theme I came up with — communist robot regimes fighting for control of the citizens. 

When it first hit the table, the difference in my friends’ reception of Cogs and Commissars over the skeleton game was immediately evident. The earliest alpha build of the game tested very smoothly and no one had an issue with walking through the game a second or third time. I knew right away that the game was going to be worth fleshing out and improving upon.

I’ve always been interested in history, the footprint of communism, George Orwell’s 1984, Soviet-era and wartime propaganda, the World Wars in general, and of course robots. I wanted to make something that took major elements from these things and highlighted them,
while maintaining a humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone. The general idea for the game really just kind of came to me in one of my typical, “sitting in traffic and dreaming of anything else”
brainstorm sessions, and it was pretty easy to start building off of it once I realized it worked. Coming up with the actions that a totalitarian robot regime might take against its rivals was
certainly an entertaining, albeit grim process.

Once the idea was firmly established in my head, the construction of the first prototype began. In other words, I sloppily wrote words on hand-cut printer paper, shoved the paper into card sleeves backed with basic lands, grabbed a handful of coins to use as tokens, and asked my wife if she’d try it out with me.

Cogs and Commissars is a take-that card game where players take on the role of a propaganda minister in a fully-robotic communist regime. Each player gets a deck that may either be pre-built, drafted, or completely random (aside from a core of cards that all decks share). The cards are used to create new robotic citizens, propagandize other robot citizens into following you, send citizens guilty of wrongthink to the Gulag, or other things which will work to your benefit or the detriment of your opponents. The point of the game is to build up a large enough following of citizens to incite a revolution. There is one Revolution card in each deck, and the trick of the game is knowing when to play it. A player may want to try their luck and play Revolution with no protections in place, or they may want to discard it early in the game so that they have more room in their hand to build up their citizens. All hands and cards can be cycled through relatively quickly, so it is likely that the cards in your deck will be seen more than once if you pitch your Revolution card. The game ends when a player successfully plays their Revolution.

 Our first run went pretty smooth, but it was clear to see where the holes were, so I made a ton of revisions. We tried it again, and again revisions were made. Next I tried it with a group of four friends, and then went about scribbling down what did, or did not work. Once I was happy enough with the changes, I decided to go ahead and start designing the cards myself to be printed at The Game Crafter. My intention was to make a professional-looking game, designed by me, and tailored to the needs of our game group. I never intended to try to get the game published, but after a few fun game sessions and some urging from friends, I decided to suck it up and see what the world thought of my game.

Luckily for me, Atlas Games is awesome and now you’ll be able to try it for yourself.