Avast! Hoist the mainsails! Pin the starboard tack!
Wait, what’s that you say? There are no mainsails? We’re under…. under the water?
This is a submarine?
Well, why didn’t you say so! In that case, head east! Load up those torpedoes, and lets keep our engines running. Enemy in sight!
Welcome to the frantic sub-to-sub combat game that is Captain Sonar.
How It Plays
Captain Sonar is a team versus team game of submarine warfare. Each player fills the role of a crewmember aboard a sub, and the goal is to find and destroy your opponent.
The game can be played turn by turn or in real time, but we’ll focus on the real time version here. That’s really the intended style of gameplay, anyway.
Each submarine has four roles: Captain, First Mate, Engineer, and Radio Operator.
The Captain is responsible for the direction of the ship – literally. She marks the direction her sub moves each time she travels, and announces the direction. She’s also responsible for coordinating with the others and determining when to activate the various systems and where.
The First Mate charges up all the systems for use – each time the sub moves, he can mark off a box on any system he chooses. Systems can only be used once fully charged.
The Engineer keeps the sub running and all systems active, if possible. Each time the sub moves, the engineer has to mark off an icon – if any icon corresponding to a particular system is marked, that system can’t be used. Certain combinations of marks will automatically repair, but if the sub has taken too much system damage it might take a hit directly. Fortunately, the sub can surface for repairs.
The Radio Operator has to listen in to the other team, primarily the other team’s captain. Every move they make, the Radio Operator marks on her own map. The hook? She has a transparency, so she can move her markings around the map to figure out where they best fit, since submarines can’t travel across islands.
Together, the crew must find the enemy sub, target it, and destroy it without getting blown to bits themselves. Torpedoes and Mines can be used to attack the enemy; Drones and Sonar assist in locating their position. Silence provides a bit of secret movement to aid in escaping. A sixth system depends on the scenario being played.
To play, there are both real time and turn-based options. With turn based, each team simply alternates – the captain gives an order, the first mate and engineer make their marks, and any systems can be activated. Then it’s the other team’s turn.
In real-time, you don’t have to wait for the other team – you can move as quickly or as slowly as you choose. The Captain only needs to wait until her First Mate and Engineer have made their marks and shouted “Okay!” to acknowledge the completion of their actions. The game only pauses when a system is activated, and only until it is resolved.
The game is played until 1 submarine has taken 4 damage, at which point it is destroyed.
Givin’ It All She’s Got, Captain!
The genre of team-based strategy games is far under-explored, and I think the excitement of Captain Sonar proves this. Most team games in the boardgaming realm involve secrets, lies, and betrayal. The Resistances or Two-Rooms-And-A-Booms certainly have their place, and there are plenty of combat games where alliances can be formed, but not everyone gets into deception, and alliances are easily broken. Few games put you on a team you know you can trust and rely on, and pit you against another team of human players instead of a game A.I.
That’s really too bad, because there’s something entirely enjoyable about being part of a team, but still getting a solid sense of competition that pure cooperative games don’t give you.
Now we’ve got Captain Sonar, and it’s a start. But it’s not the end.
Captain Sonar is what happens if you take Battleship and make it something a whole lot more than a guessing game, and add in some social interaction and team camaraderie.
The most convenient thing about this game is how easy it is to teach. That’s pretty darn important when you’ve got a game that essentially relies on the full player count – 8 players total – because it’s not always easy to get a full group of experienced players together. With Sonar, it’s okay if you have new players, because you can place them in one of the simpler roles to learn the flow of the game without worrying how it all comes together. Once they see it, it makes a lot of sense, but in the meantime you can still jump right into a game.
(For what it’s worth – the game works fine with 6 or 7 players – the First Mate combines easily with another role. Going to 5 or less starts to defeat the purpose of why you play this game in the first place.)
And the game can be pretty thrilling from start to finish. You get the initial burst of speed as teams try to get their systems charged up and start to narrow their opponent’s location. You’ve got to worry about your systems breaking while you get to where you need to go, and in the chaos of real time your Radio Operator might make a mistake and lose the enemy sub. That first strike is a euphoric moment, especially if you’re the one striking. You know where they are! Then you circle around again, hoping to get your systems back up so you can shoot again before they hit back hard.
Each role is significant, separate, and ret inter-reliant. You’re part of the team no matter what you’re doing, and your efforts will help the team achieve victory. Yet nothing is overcomplicated. After half a game, most players will stop thinking about the mechanisms – “what do I do each turn?” “How do I repair the sub?” – and focus only on hunting down the enemy. You get immersed in the theme and the action, and that’s fun.
The first time I brought this game to the table, players were eager to experiment, to try new roles, to play again and again. Each game lasts only ten or twenty minutes, and component setup is minimal, so it doesn’t take much to play a few games in a row. There’s plenty of shouting and laughing and trying to figure out how the heck your enemy did that move if they are where you thought they were supposed to be. Everyone’s on a team. Team games are fun, and exciting, and they bring people together.
Some players are more reticent to play the Captain role – that’s a lot of responsibility, or at least it seems like it. But the mechanics are simple, and I encourage people to give it a try. It’s not as bad as you think, and again – you’re working with a team. Your teammates can pitch in. There’s plenty of strategy to explore – I’ve played more than anyone I know as the Captain, and I’m still figuring out the best way to move, to find the enemy, to stay hidden. It hasn’t become an automated exercise; if anything, I keep learning new ways to put things together.
There’s no luck, either, other than a lucky guess from a Captain, and yet I still lose sometimes. I’ve never felt gypped out of a win – just outplayed. I make mistakes, or miscalculate, or my ship is broken at just the wrong time. It’s all part of the fun, and I’ve never felt backed in a corner where I couldn’t possibly win. There’s always a chance.
And games are short, anyway. If I really screw up, I just want to try again. Team games lend themselves to challenges and replays, because you’re not just winning ‘the game.’ You’re beating the other team.
But I do have to admit, as much as I can rave about the game, the excitement does wear off after some time. The first few games are a thrill ride, but that glow fades. Aside from the Captain, the roles are pretty straightforward, and there’s not as much to explore as far as strategy goes. The First Mate pretty much does what the Captain tells them to do. The Engineer has a bit of a mini-game, but it’s not particularly deep. The Radio Operator has a unique challenge, but they’re almost off playing their own game. The more you play, the more the simplicity of these roles reveal themselves.
I hope to see expansions for this game that add new maps and new challenges. Maybe a few extra tasks for each role for experienced players. The base game includes 5 maps. 3 of those maps simply decrease the number of islands (Adding to the difficulty of narrowing down a sub location). Two of them add special features – ice, which limits where you can surface, and Remote Mines which uses the 6th “Scenario” system to detonate pre-placed mines. These are a start, but they’re not enough to truly mix up the game.
You might get more mileage with your own house rules – say, forcing people to change up their roles in the middle of a game, or adding other weird restrictions or challenges.
Captain Sonar rides a difficult line– it wants to be simple enough for anyone to play, but by nature that prevents it from staying as interesting and exciting as the first play. Expansions could help with this – hopefully cheap ones, small map packs and the like.
But there’s a deeper sign here; the world needs more team-based games. Captain Sonar is a good start. It’s not the only team-based game like this (see Space Cadets: Dice Duels for a similar, but more chaotic and more difficult to teach game) but it should be one of many. In Captain Sonar I love working with my team to overcome the enemy that is another team. I’d love to do it in a myriad of ways – real time, economic, militaristic, seriously, goofily, and whatever other category you might come up with. Team games don’t have to be deception-based, and they don’t have to be trivia or word-guessing party games.
I’ll be waiting; in the meantime, I’ll be enjoying Captain Sonar whenever I can.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Captain Sonar.