The year is 2048. In the confined and claustrophobic battle bridge of a next-gen submarine, the captain calls "All hands, stand-by!" The first mate relays the order to the engineer in the bowels of the boat. Then, a moment of deafening silence before the radio operator shrieks "Enemy contact Captain!" The Captain, steely eyed, gathers his wits, throws his fist in the air and gives the order. "DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!!"
With that, the game begins. Captain Sonar is a team based, head to head, submarine duel game designed by Roberto Fraga and Yohan Lemonnier, released by Matagot Games. It is played out in real-time (Or turn-by-turn if you like, but…why?) until one team's submarine has been destroyed. It supports 2-8 players with games of two or three players, using the turn-by-turn mode which, to be fair, my gaming group has never played.
The rule book does say you can play turn-by-turn if it’s your first game or if you’re in a noisy environment but the real-time game “…will guarantee that you get the stress and adrenaline rush of a real submarine duel!” We just jumped straight in.
There are four roles to choose from on each sub, with each being occupied by one player on each side in an eight player game or players sharing roles in a smaller player count.
- Names the sub (very important).
- Chooses a starting position on the map.
- Announces the subs course (every time he wants to move).
- Draws the route on his sheet and must never cross, or even touch, his previous route.
- Attempts to coordinate his crew.
The First Mate
- Advances the gauges on her sheet to charge those systems.
- Informs the captain when the submarine’s systems are online
- Keeps the submarine's systems functioning.
- Must cross out a symbol on her sheet every time the captain announces a course, on the control panel corresponding to that direction.
The Radio Operator
- Listens intently to the enemy captain and marks their course on a transparent sheet placed over his map.
- Keeps the captain updated on the enemy sub’s suspected location.
One does not simply perform actions as dictated by the rule book; players must assess the situation and tailor the actions they take according to the ‘board state’. The fact that each role is so dynamic means players must try to keep their cool and make the right decisions at the right time, which turns a game about duelling submarines into a chaotic and hugely thematic event.
Playing Captain Sonar
As soon as the captains give the order to dive, the table erupts with overlapping cries of “NORTH” “EAST” “READY CAPTAIN” “*whispers* work on sonar” “NORTH” “NORTH” “SONAR!!” Suddenly, the difficulty of the radio operators’ job becomes apparent. The action continues until a captain gives the order to activate a system, such as “DRONE” or “FIRE TORPEDO” - you get the idea.
When that happens, all hands must stop what they’re doing while the effect of the activated system has been resolved. Only three of the systems require the action to stop i.e. firing torpedoes, launching a drone and activating sonar. Four if you are using Echo Map (the site of a past undersea battle complete with leftover mines), which utilises the “Scenario System.”
It seems a bit strange to include a system that is redundant unless you’re playing on one particular map out of the five, but its function on said map is quite powerful. It’s possible future utility is what I find intriguing. It certainly teases an expansion or two. The other systems, dropping a mine and silence (or as we call it ‘Silent Running’), do not halt the action, the captain needs only to announce it. I could go into exactly how each system works but I’m going to give you the abridged version in the form of this handy list:
- Torpedoes – Self-explanatory, right? Fire a torpedo and announce the impact coordinates.
- Mines – Drop a mine at adjacent coordinates to detonate later.
- Sonar – The enemy captain must declare two of three pieces of information about their whereabouts (X, Y or sector number), one of which must be true, the other false.
- Drone – Declare a sector. The enemy captain must confirm or deny if their sub is in that sector.
- Silence – Move up to four spaces in a straight line without announcing the direction (other rules for movement still apply).
- Scenario – Activate a scenario specific system.
You can find a more in depth rundown of how they work on the Asmodee website.
Okay, that’s enough of how it works. How does it feel Ross? I’ll tell you! From the outset, Captain Sonar has a distinctly Battleships vibe about it. In fact, the popular phase “It’s like battleships, but AWESOME!!” is hard to argue with. It presents each player with a specific challenge, which, although it may take a little time for everyone to get acquainted with how everything works, each player having distinctive mechanisms to tackle makes for a far more rewarding and immersive experience.
The best moment in Captain Sonar is that instant of pure tension as a torpedo’s impact coordinates are announced. Your crew waits with baited breath as you watch the enemy captain check the coordinates, then you see anguish befall his face as he utters the words ‘direct hit’. Usually followed by an uproar reminiscent of that scene in every war movie, where everyone in the room gets out of their seats to cheer and throw piles of, presumably, very important paperwork into the air.
For me, the role of Captain presents the most interesting challenge, in that your job is to coordinate your crew and make sure you don’t get blown out of the water (no easy feat). Communication is key in this role; you need to make sure the first mate is charging the systems you want to use, plan your movements in accordance with what the engineer says is possible (which inevitably leads to your engineer barking “I CAN’T DO IT, CAPTAIN” and “I’M GIVING HER ALL SHE’S GOT!” among other Scotty references), and of course you need information from your radio operator on the enemy’s suspected location so you can, in turn make informed decisions about which systems to charge and which movements to make.
That being said, each role offers an interesting mini-game that works in conjunction with the other three to create a real sense of teamwork and camaraderie in the crew. Once you see how the roles interact, you can’t help but recognise how clever Captain S.O.N.A.R. actually is. S.O.N.A.R. by the way stands for Synchronise. Organise. Navigate. Attack. Repair. I admit, I haven’t always found this to be in the right order but Captain A.R.S.O.N. doesn’t quite have the same hook…
Captain Sonar seats eight players, but the sweet spot has to be six. The main reason being that the role of First Mate can feel a little limited, and the Engineer or Captain can easily fulfil it. In fact in the six-player game, the absence of a First Mate makes communication and coordination between the Captain and Engineer a lot easier, faster and actually makes for tighter gameplay.
The production quality of the game is stellar, with the exception of the dry erase markers which are a little on the budget side. Granted, it's a very small niggle considering you can buy a pack of them for pennies. Maybe we've just played it too much...
The length of a game can vary wildly from anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour (the box says 45 minutes, not far off) depending on the map (of which there are five to choose from), players and strategies. This essentially means that you’ll never play the same game twice. Its variability is one of its biggest selling points in my opinion, especially when you consider the price point, which is usually upwards of £35.
Overall, Captain Sonar is an excellent addition to any collection, offering a unique set of challenges both to the individual player and to the group. It’s tense, thematic, beautifully presented and best of all, fun. On a personal note, I love this game so much, that if we have six players on any game night, I’ll almost always suggest it. Especially with people new to the hobby or even the group, it’s easy to learn (and teach) the individual roles and it serves as a great icebreaker.
Zatu Rating - 95 out of 100
- Excellent team game.
- Fills an 8-player niche.
- Mechanically sound.
- Quality components.
- Immersive experience.
- The dry-erase markers need to be replaced at some point.