This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
Even though gaming is an essentially social hobby, most board games do not really allow for team-based play. The number of games that are designed to allow shared victories (outside of ties) is comparatively small. Yet with cooperative games first making a bigger splash some years back, followed by social deduction games gaining a bigger presence in the hobby… the idea of team-based play seems to have slowly become more palatable to the hobby at large.
As such a game like Captain Sonar isn’t quite the oddity, it would have been 10 years ago. While the theme itself – submarines engaged in a cat-and-mouse style conflict – is hardly ground-breaking, the core concepts of the game are worthy of at least a passing mention: two teams of up to 4 players each engage in the time-honoured tradition of killing each other under water for sport. Or country. Or whatever.
To do so, each player takes on pivotal roles of the submarine’s crew: ranging from the Captain, First Mate, Chief Engineer, Radio Operator, the Skipper, the movie star, the millionaire & his wife and the Professor (citation needed). In a particularly inspired bit of game design, the basic actions of moving around the map in secret both helps and hinders you in achieving your objective. It allows you to load up special actions (like firing torpedoes, using the Sonar, etc.) which you need to find and damage your opponent’s ship. But it also threatens to damage your own ship unless you resurface eventually, and therefore broadcast your location to the other team. Thereby making yourself an all-too-easy to shoot target. It is this balance of necessary action and involuntarily imposed limits on said actions, that drives the tension in Captain Sonar. You need to move and prepare your attack, but at the same time you need to choose whether to mount an offensive or defensive maneuver. Hiding from the other team, or charging them with fully loaded torpedoes. Provided your Radio Operator has pinned down their location, by eavesdropping on their Captain’s every order. All this happens in real-time, i.e. a virtual time limit driven by the other team’s decision to either hurry through the game or pacing themselves deliberately.
By now the obvious game to compare Captain Sonar to is Space Cadets Dice Duel. They are both team-vs-team; they are played in real time (although CS provides a turn-by-turn variant as well). But once you look closer you’ll note that the experence itself differs fundamentally. Captain Sonar is a comparitively cerebral affair, and that is not least in part due to the gaming relying heavily on coordination among team mates. In play it has more in common with Space Alert, than with Dice Duel. Whereas Space Alert simulates the existence of an opponent by randomly throwing monkey wrenches into your well-oiled machinery… Captain Sonar pits an actual team of players against you.
You scramble around in your stations, constantly checking and rechecking with your team mates which options are available to you. Whether a torpedo can be fired or should be fired. Whether you can run silently to throw the opposing radio operator off your scent. Or whether you need to resurface to allow your systems to cool down, and unlocking the special actions of your ship.
All while your very own Ulrich Mühe sits across from you, carefully listening to every word you say, piecing together your plans… and most of all your hiding place. Getting ready to inform their Captain when to strike that devastating blow against you. If that sounds tense, that’s because it is. But this tension never seems in danger of turning sour, of fueling resentment amongst players the way that many other tense games never fail to do in their passive-aggressive furor.
What Captain Sonar succeeds in, is forging bonds between your team mates as you learn the ropes and face off against the other submarine. You learn to make gut choices based on your radio operator’s incomplete intel. You learn to anticipate your captain’s choices so as to keep the systems operational long enough for them to trigger a special action. You learn to coordinate the flow of information from one station to another and assissting the captain in making the best possible choice. And most of all you taste the addictive mead of leadership, when you alone are responsible for making sure that your team’s efforts pay off in victory.
Captain Sonar is a rush. As you continue playing you become experts in playing off of each other, experts in assissting and supporting each other’s stations.
In my review of Space Cadets, I argued that the game succeeds because it lets people contribute individually for the good of the group (typical socialist blather). Captain Sonar does something similar, but produces this effect by interlocking every player’s actions with those of another. Every action a player takes immediately affects somebody else’s options. The game never seems to wind down until it is suddenly over.
As a final consideration, many people seem to suggest that Captain Sonar is only a sound investment, if you can regularly get 8 people to the table. I’d argue that almost any number is fun, but I will concede that with a full complement, the game becomes truly unique and the strengths mentioned above really come through. With six players it retains much – albeit not all – of its feel. But with five or less, you get a decidedly different, but no less engaging game. But to be fair, the market for games covering 2-5 players is hardly lacking. There is a very high chance, you have enough games to choose from if you have less than six players. A game of “Advanced Battleship” might not have quite the same appeal.