The idea of being trapped inside an armoured tube beneath the ocean has never seemed hugely appealing to me. Yet, Roberto Fraga and Yohan Lemonnier of Matagot seem set to change that with their exciting game of duelling submersibles, Sonar! This recent, paired down version of the 2016 game Captain Sonar takes the ideas of its older sibling and condenses them into its purest and simplest form.
Now comfortably catering for two to four players as opposed to its predecessor's unwieldy eight, Sonar offers brave submariners the opportunity to hunt each other down in the dark depths of the ocean. So, let’s dive in!
So, What’s it About?
Sonar simulates the tense and sneaky underwater warfare of submarine combat. Two opposing teams will each control a submarine, manoeuvring around one of four maps trying to hunt down their opponent. Each sub is comprised of two roles; Captain and Radio Operator. These can be handled as team of two or as a single player assuming both roles.
Each player’s submarine will navigate around the map, occasionally utilising technologies such as sonar or silence in an attempt to get the upper hand on their enemies. Through wit and deduction, players will gradually determine their opponent’s location and unleash their torpedoes through the murky depths.
The aim is simple; destroy the opposing submarine!
How Does it Play?
Sonar plays out a bit like the classic game Battleship but deeper, both thematically and mechanically. Opposing teams will stare each other down across the game’s attractive divider which conceals their location, until one team is destroyed.
Whether you’re playing in teams of two or as solitary submariners facing off against one another, gameplay remains the same. Captains will take turns announcing their actions out loud to the opposing team, with that team’s Radio Operator listening intently for reasons made clear later…
Usually these actions will involve moving their sub one space and marking the route on their map with dry-erase pens. Players can move either North, South, East, or West, but never in a way which positions their sub on an island, off the map, or crossing a previously travelled path. Once the Captain has announced the direction taken and marked it on their map, the opposing Radio Operator leaps into action.
Each Radio Operator possesses the same map as their Captain and the opposing team. Additionally, they also have access to a crucial piece of technology. A clear perspex sheet. Upon hearing their enemy’s directions over the airwaves they will frantically set about mapping that same route on their perspex sheet. You may not know the starting location of the opposing sub but you do know their every move since then. The Radio Operator’s job is to then layer this route over their map, shifting it around to discern their opponent’s whereabouts. At the start of the game this is nigh on impossible, but over time you will be able to determine why certain movements were taken based on things such as the positioning of islands, and ultimately, exactly where those movements led to.
But, the ocean is a mysterious and unpredictable place, and thanks to the wonders of military technology, you can never be quite sure if your opponent is going to suddenly descend into the darkness undetected, or promptly blow you out of the water.
This brings us to the other actions available to the captain. Actions are taken by spending the energy points acquired with each movement taken. Each team can have a maximum of four energy, with the energy from any further movement being wasted.
For the low cost of two energy, your captain can choose not to move, and instead declare that they are activating their sonar. Upon issuing this order, the opposing team must then announce what number or letter they currently lie across on the map’s grid reference, effectively giving away half of their location.
This is useful information for the Radio Operator, who will excitedly drag their perspex sheet along the spaces of that letter or number and get ever closer to pinpointing their enemy’s exact location.
If you want to get a bit sneaky, you can spend three energy to activate silence. This is a dreaded word in the world of Sonar, as it lets the player take a movement action without declaring the direction. The opposing Radio Operator’s head will sink, often accompanied by expletives, as they map out all the potential routes the enemy may have taken.
If you find yourself unavoidably running back on yourself or off the map then you can take the free surface action. Surfacing will reveal your exact location to your opponent, but it allows you to rub out the entirety of your route so far. Whilst it won’t be necessary for most games and is certainly an undesirable move, it gives the Captain a fresh start.
The aim of the game is to destroy the opposing submarine with your torpedoes. It only takes two shots to take out a sub but each one will cost four energy, giving your opponent a window of opportunity to either escape or retaliate after that first strike. Of course, you need to have made effective use of the previous actions to ensure you’re well positioned and hitting the right spot as torpedoes can only be fired at coordinates within your current quadrant.
Why Should I Play It?
Sonar surprised me with its strategic depth despite its minimal rules. This dilution of Captain Sonar’s more complex gameplay still offers an extraordinary amount of excitement and tension, as well as retaining the rewarding payoff for strategic planning. Unsurprisingly, the game caters well to both seasoned and casual gamers, and even young kids. I played with my young nephews and they destroyed me!
This isn’t an indication that Sonar is dependant on luck, in fact the more strategic and careful player will most likely win. It comes down to a tense balancing of planning, intuition, and timing. A good player will make use of the space around them when executing a silence order, ensuring that each subsequent movement makes spacial sense in the majority of directions their opponent will be tracking. If you keep the opposing Radio Operator tracking two viable routes for several turns before activating another silence then you’re at a good advantage!
But, as i’ve suggested, this is dependant on careful planning, timing, and an awareness of the map. If you’ve set yourself on course towards a cluster of islands, your own path, or the edge of the map then your options are limited. Silence or not, your opponent is likely to snuff you out.
Good players will also demonstrate balance with their choice of actions. Silence is expensive and won’t keep you hidden forever. Furthermore, you’re not necessarily closer to finding your opponent. Balancing your silence actions and your sonar are crucial. Sonar will help narrow your search, but again should not be overused. Often it’s better to save your energy and head towards the quadrant you’ve gradually narrowed down. This will ensure that you have the energy needed to react to your opponent’s mistakes or quickly slink back to silence if they’ve made a pot-shot at you.
Final Thoughts on Sonar
Despite its minimal rules and components, Sonar succeeds at providing a thoroughly involved, exciting, and immersive game experience. Furthermore, aside from its predecessor, Sonar is refreshingly unique.
Games of hidden movement and deduction such as Fury of Dracula have often been long winded affairs, with complex turn structures. Sonar subverts this, with its fast pace darting turns back and forth between the players without losing any sense of tension. Similarly unique is how Sonar has both sides simultaneously hunting and hiding, unlike the more asymmetric approach taken by other movement based deduction games like Whitechapel.
The good pacing also helps keep players involved. There’s a sense of closeness and intensity to the gameplay of Sonar, with players leaning in plotting their moves, suspiciously eyeing each other across the game’s nicely thematic divider. The pen-to-paper tactility is also incredibly immersive and has an almost child-like familiarity to it which helps draw in players perhaps unfamiliar with modern gaming.
Overall, this accessibility leads to a genuinely exciting game perfect for casual game nights and even parties. Even onlookers will find entertainment with Sonar, hopefully intrigued enough by its simplicity and an underlying sense of familiarity, to dive in themselves. And believe me, it’s definitely worth a try.