Board Game Review: Captain Sonar

It’s taken a while to get this review done, but that’s because it really needs 8 players to be at its best, and getting 8 players together at the same time isn’t an easy task. Manage it though, and you’re in for a hell of a treat, because while Captain Sonar is one of the hardest games to actually get played, it’s one of the best around once you manage it.

The idea here then is for two teams to each run their own submarine, trying to attack and destroy the other team’s sub. Each team has 4 job roles to take on, sittingĀ in a lineĀ in a specific order on the table, with the other team sitting opposite them. A screen is put up between the two teams to prevent them from seeing what the other team are doing, and the four jobs – Captain, First Mate, Engineer and Radio Operator – are given out to players. Each job has its own level of importance, and if even one of these areas aren’t played well the whole ship’s operation can fall apart, leading to a sudden and embarrassing demolition from the other side.

Both Captains and Radio Operators will have an identical map in front of them, but the way they’re used is different. While the Captain will be navigating the sub around, avoiding islands and trying to sneak up on the other team to attack them, the Radio Operator has an altogether different task: working out where the other team are. As each Captain makes their move they shout out the direction they want to travel, loud enough for the other team to hear as well as their own crew. As a result the Radio Operator can plot a route that the other team have taken, and relay that information to others on the team once they’ve worked out where the other sub is hiding. Easy? Well, no. You don’t know where the other team started. As such the operator is making all of these direction marks on a clear sheet of plastic which they can overlay on the map to work out where the other team are. They can’t go through obstacles, and can’t cross the path they’ve made (think of Snake from the late 90s mobiles) and can’t go off the map… an operator with a keen ear and keener eye will give their team a huge boost, as long as they don’t give it away when they’ve figured out the enemy’s position.

So you’ve got the Captain shouting stuff, and the Radio Operator trying to relay the other team’s position on the quiet without the others realising they’ve been rumbled. But that’s only the start. There’s an engineer breaking the submarine bit by bit, needing to give the Captain the all clear before they can move the sub again. This player has a diagram of the submarine, and will cross off a bonus in each move, such as the ability to charge a torpedo or arm a mine. They’re basically an anti-engineer, slowly reducing the sub to a pile of rusting metal bit by bit. Crossing off certain patterns on the diagram means wiping the markings off and opening up more options again, while crossing them all off or eliminating the nuclear symbols leads to your sub getting damaged, something very easy to do if you’re not negotiating with the Captain properly. There’s also a First Officer, who has the awesome job of charging up one of the sub’s weapon or defence systems and deciding, along with the rest of the team, when best to deploy them. Between mines, torpedoes, drones and a couple of other options there’s a fair bit of strategy involved; if you’re worried you’re being chased down you can drop a mine and detonate it later when the other team are nearby. You can have a torpedo armed and ready just in case you find yourself within a few spaces of the enemy and can fire one off to cause pretty major damage, or launch a drone to narrow down your search by revealing which of the 9 segments the enemy are in. This decision making can’t take forever – the ship can’t move again until the First Officer has decided what’ll be primed next.

Written down it sounds horrifically complicated, but it’s absolutely not, and the main reason for that is that everyone is so focused on their own job you don’t need to worry about 4 sets of rules, you just need to know what you’ve got to do, and how the others will interact with you. As such by the 2nd game you’re starting to feel really comfortable in your role, and as the teamwork starts to click the strange combined feeling of urgency and care come together to hike the tension up to a blistering degree, leaving your pulse sitting far higher than it should while sat down and the cat cowering nervously in the corner in case something goes wrong and they have a nearby coaster flung at them in frustration.

What is most definitely impossible to get through in a written review though is just how insanely good this is when you’ve got a big group. It’s actually possible to play this with less players – in the case of having 4 or more but below the golden 8 you split the jobs between you; less than 4 and it becomes a turn based game and, frankly, loses everything that makes Captain Sonar so brilliant. Getting eight players together for any game is a special moment, but when all 8 players are doing something different, working with their team while trying to listen in on the others, trying to urgently but almost silently communicate along a line of people in a way that won’t let on to the opposition team that they’re about to be blown out of the water… it’s magical. And that moment when your enemy is creaking at the seams, a sneeze away from their sub totally falling apart, and your Radio Op realises you’re practically on top of them… and the Engineer confirms that it’s ok to use a torpedo… and the First Mate nods eagerly to show that the tactics of storing up a torpedo have paid off… and the Captain fires at a specific location, the exact location where the enemy sub is desperately trying to hide… and the silence while you wait for the enemy Captain to confirm the direct hit…

The goosebumps are back, just thinking about it.

If you can get together 7 friends, or can make some new friends especially, you need this in your life. It’s not the same game with less, and the lower player count turn based game has none of the magic, but for a big crowd to get engrossed in this is a work of art.

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