‘Captain Sonar’ Is an Exhilarating Game of Cat and Mouse

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Think about how strategic submarine warfare might be–just you and your fellow officers making decisions that will mean life or death for your crew. With no outside help, you silently navigate trenches and islands, searching for your prey in a game of hunter and hunted. Think about being chased “in a can,” like in the movies Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October and all the sweat-inducing anxiety when months of boredom are punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Now imagine it’s happening at your kitchen table.

Not possible, you say? But I’m here to tell you it’s true. Captain Sonar, a new game from Asmodee and Matagot, does an absolutely amazing job of creating a stressful submarine adventure that will have you shouting at your teammates in a last ditch effort to strike at your opponent before you sink and lose the game. What’s more, it’s so wonderfully fun, that you’ll want to play again, as soon as it’s over.

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What Is It?

The story in the rulebook is this:

The year is 2048. A new economic war is raging. Rare earth has become a key element in the construction of advanced new machinery, and a major economic force around the world.

Private companies are arming the latest prototype submarines to dive into the world’s depths in search of rare earth. Under the peaceful surface of the sea, a silent war is being fought with new and unstable technology.  You are part of a team of elite officers in command of a state-of-the-art submarine. To beat the enemy, you must cooperate with your teammates. Only the team who best communicates and works together will survive the encounter.

Captain Sonar is a submarine-themed deduction game for 2-8 players, ages 14 and up, that plays in 45 heart-pounding minutes.

Components

The game ships in a normal sized box and it’s heavier than you’d think, mainly because there are two jumbo-sized screens to block one side of the table from the other. They are printed on both sides, so each team gets a little mood setting as images of submarine crews panic as they maneuver beneath the waves. The screens are heavy cardboard and scored twice, so it will take a lot to get them to fall down, and measure approximately 11 inches tall by 45 inches long, which means you’ll have no problem covering the length of a seven-foot table.

Each team has four responsibilities. A couple of those are responsible for multiple scenarios, so, all told, there are two dozen laminated sheets for tracking all kinds of data and movement. Additionally, there are two larger sheets of transparent plastic for tracking your opponent. Finally, there are erasable markers (with erasers and a few extra erasers) for marking on the sheets. Each sheet is laid out well and, when necessary, includes iconography as reminders of responsibilities or functions.

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How Do You Play

After placing the screen across the length of the table, teams sit facing each other. From one end of the table, players sit in the following order and facing their counterpart: Radio Operator, Captain, First Mate, and Engineer. Each player takes their corresponding sheet and the Radio Operator and Captain take sheets for the corresponding scenario being played (there are five). Additionally, the Radio Operator takes a sheet of transparent plastic. Everyone gets a marker and gameplay is ready to begin.

Note: This rules explanation is for the real-time version of the game. There is also a turn-by-turn option, which functions mostly the same, with a few minor changes. The version you play dictates what side of the sheet you use.

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The Captain looks at his map, chooses a coordinate to begin from, marks it with an X, and announces “DIVE!” It is the Captain’s responsibility to chart the course of his ship with just two rules: he cannot cross into any coordinate where he has already been or across his previous route. He cannot move across an island or his own mine. He can, however, completely erase his route by surfacing. If the Captain determines he can’t move because of his previous course, a mine, or an island, he must surface. After the Captain announces course, he must wait until his Radio Operator and Engineer have completed their tasks, which is done by signaling to the captain in some way, an “OK,” thumbs up, or other form of verification.

The Radio Operator’s responsibility is to listen to the opposing Captain’s directional announcement. When the Captain announces a direction, the Radio Operator marks that movement on her transparent sheet. By marking on the transparent sheet, she can move the opposing team’s course freely over her map (which is identical to the Captain’s) and try to guess where the opposing team is on the map. Islands and edges of the map will rule out certain sectors and the more the game goes on, the easier it will be to deduce their location.

CptSonar_RO

The First Mate manages the ship’s gauges. Every time the Captain announces a directional movement, the First Mate makes a mark on one of the ship’s systems. For example, there are three spaces next to the mine’s gauge. If the First Mate uses the allotted marks from three movements, he can fill the mine’s gauge and then announce “MINE READY.” The First Mate also tracks the ship’s damage.

Finally, the Engineer has a challenging task. She has to mark off a symbol in her sheet, corresponding to each movement. That is, if the Captain says “WEST,” she must mark off a symbol in the box marked “W.” Symbols have icons that denote systems and anytime a symbol is marked off, those systems can’t be used until the ship has been repaired. It’s incredibly challenging (and frustrating) and a game can be won or lost depending on their engineer.

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Systems can be repaired in a few ways. First, if all of the radiation symbols are crossed out, the ship suffers a radiation breakdown. The ship takes one damage and all systems are reset–the Engineer wipes her sheet clean. Another, similar, way is if all symbols in a directional box are crossed out, the ship takes one damage and systems are reset. The systems can self-repair if every symbol on its circuit–joined symbols–is crossed out, that circuit is said to be repaired and the symbols only on that circuit are reset. Finally, the Captain can surface.

When the Captain raises his fist and announces “SURFACE,” the game becomes a bit more chaotic. The surfacing ship’s Captain must announce his sector to the opposing team. The Engineer then begins a process of outlining a portion of their submarine on her sheet. She must stay within the lines and then initial inside the section. She then passes her sheet among her teammates, each outlining a portion of the sub and initialing their work. When all sections are done, the Engineer must show her counterpart, who verifies that all sections are done correctly, at which point the ship can dive again. The Captain erases his entire route (saving mines) and dives from his current point. The most important thing to point out is that, while the surfaced sub is completing these tasks, the other team is feverishly moving toward them, hoping to catch them on the surface.

CptSonar_Eng

Teams have systems to help them in this battle, each of three systems has two parts. First, are weapons. Once these systems are ready, only the Captain can launch them. A torpedo can move one to four spaces away and can move orthogonally. The Captain dictates a point of detonation within that range and anything on that spot takes 2 damage. Anything adjacent to that spot (including the firing sub) takes 1 damage. Any mines in that range are destroyed.

When the Captain announces “MINE DROPPED,” he marks on his map where the mine was placed. It can go any spot adjacent to his current position, except on his route. Mines can damage the ship that placed them. At any time (except when surfaced), the Captain can announce “MINE TRIGGERED AT” and then give the coordinate. Like the torpedo, a direct hit damages 2, any adjacent spot deals one damage.

The Captain or the First Mate can trigger the next two systems, Drones and Sonar. When launching a drone, the team that launches asks the opposing team “ARE YOU IN SECTOR” and then give the sector. The opposing Captain must answer, truthfully, “yes” or “no.” Sonar also helps locate, but works a bit differently. (Bonus points for telling your First Mate to get the machine that goes “ping!”) When a team announces “ACTIVATING SONAR,” the opposing Captain must provide two pieces of information–sector, row, or column. However, one must be true, the other must be false.

Finally, only the Captain has the ability to activate Silence mode. When he does, he can move one to four spaces vertically or horizontally, causing the opposing Radio Operator to scratch her head about where he went. There is a sixth system, one called Scenario, but it only applies to certain maps. In this base game, only one of the five maps has a scenario attached to it.

In all cases, once a system is activated, the First Mate erases the marks applied to that system and building up the system begins again. Before any system is activated, the Engineer must confirm that the system is able to activate. Prior to activating a system, the Captain (or First Mate) must hold up a fist and announce “STOP,” and announce the activated system. Both teams deal with any repercussions and then play resumes. The game continues until one ship sustains four damage (ONLY FOUR DAMAGE!!) and loses. The other team wipes their brows and declares victory at sea!

Verdict

I’ll begin by saying that there are additional rules for turn-by-turn play. There’s a second side to all of the sheets, a side just for turn-by-turn players. I ignored these because they fundamentally change the game. It’s not nearly as fun. Play this way and the game can become unmanageable, depending on your players. If you apply enough time and brainpower to Captain Sonar, it’s pretty easy to figure out your opponent’s path. The first time we played, we played turn-by-turn. Our opponents were taking upwards of 10 minutes per turn (sometimes more) to analyze all parts of their strategy, despite razzing and cajoling and urges to FINISH YOUR TURN. It was horrible and it was not fun in any way and “analysis paralysis” at its worst. If you insist on playing turn-by-turn, make sure you bring an egg timer.

Luckily, I don’t think the game is meant to be played turn-by-turn. It’s at its absolute best when everything is happening in real-time. It’s chaos and confusion and it is absolutely glorious. It is in this real-time format that Captain Sonar becomes one of the best times I’ve had gaming this year. I love the theme and the game is so well thought out–it is pretty simple to grasp and learn, but there are just enough processes to juggle that what appeared to be a simple route to victory can quickly fall out of reach because engineering wasn’t managed properly or movement points were spent in the wrong places.

It should be pointed out that the “Sonar” in the title is actually an acronym. It stands for Synchronize, Organize, Navigate, Attack, and Repair. It’s not something you notice right away, it’s really only mentioned if you examine the logo. However, I think it’s a really neat way of looking at the game because it points out all the tasks your team must be successful in to win. And you must play as a team to come out on top. People who don’t work well together are going to have a bad time with this. But those who communicate well, who listen and work well together will be victorious. For that reason, I can absolutely see teams banding together and competing against each other at cons and game stores. This is a game that rewards team play more than anything I have seen in a long time. Teamwork will win this game and teams that play together longer will have a distinct advantage in Captain Sonar.

Your first game will run long, which is no surprise, and I suggest playing the first round or two on a turn-by-turn basis if players are new to the game, but then move to real-time. It’s so much more enjoyable. The game is for 2-8 and it’s great with eight. It still works really, really well with 6; the First Mate’s responsibilities can be absorbed by another player pretty easily. For real-time, 2 or 4 are a bit difficult, but could easily be done turn-by-turn (and with a timer).

Captain Sonar is an amazing game. I can’t overemphasize what a great gaming experience it is, with great theme, unique components, and really enjoyable play. Couple that with the fact that, mechanically, it is an extraordinarily well thought out game. It all just works together. The game releases this week. Put Captain Sonar in your radar (tell your Radio Operator) or come join us for a game at Gen Con this week.

Disclosure: GeekDad was sent a sample of this game for review purposes. 

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