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Captain Sonar» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Fantastic game that's not completely watertight rss

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Scott Fischbein
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I've had a chance to play this game 7-8 times over the course of three different sessions, so I figured I'd share my opinions in the form of my first official review for BGG.

Gameplay

Captain Sonar is a turn-based or real-time game where two teams of 2-8 players face off as the crews of opposing submarines and try to hunt each other down in a game that feels a bit like a grown-up, sophisticated version of Battleship (I kept wanting to say "You sunk my submarine...") Each team has four roles: the Captain, First Mate, Engineer and Radio Operator, so with a full player count of 8, each player takes one role, and with fewer players, players will double up (Captain/First Mate are combined at 6, which is the smallest number of players suggested for "real-time" mode.)

The Captains job is to plot the course of the sub on a map while announcing the moves out loud with a commanding "Head north!" (or east, west, south). The map consists of a grid with dots at small (~.5 cm) intervals which the sub moves between, and also subdivided into 9-12 larger sections. The Engineer tracks the status of the various systems in the sub (Weapons, Sensors and "Silent Running", as well as an additional, optional "Scenario" system). The First Mate tracks the damage done to the sub, as well as the readiness of the systems mentioned above, which are further divided into Mines/Torpedoes, Sonar/Drones and Silence/Scenario. Finally, the Radio Operator must listen carefully to the announcements of the other team's Captain, and try to discover their position.

The Radio Operator has the same map as the captain, and also a piece of acetate to place over it, and so is tracing the moves that the Captain announces, and moving the acetate around over the map to try to figure out where that pattern of moves fits into the spaces on the map, based on the movement constraints, which are: no retracing/crossing your path, no running into islands, no going through your own mines). The sensor systems help the radio operator to narrow down the enemy position (for example, the drone allows the Captain to ask the enemy team "Are you in Sector 4?" and the enemy Captain must truthfully answer "Yes" or "No").

If the Radio Operator thinks she has a fix on the enemy sub, the Captain can order a torpedo launched (or drop and later detonate a mine) and either land a direct hit for two damage if the enemy ship is in that exact location, or an indirect hit for 1 damage if they're in an adjacent space. Once a sub takes four total damage, it sinks and that team loses.

There are a few other details I won't go over that flesh out the experience and provide for a nice thematic feel (surfacing to clear damage, tracking/damaging different systems, etc.)

As mentioned, the game can be played turn-based, where each team announces their actions and then the next team takes theirs, and so on, or in "real-time" - where each team is simultaneously executing actions, pausing only for actions which involve direct interaction/responses from the other team (launching drones/sonar, firing weapons, surfacing, etc.)

My Thoughts


The short version is that I greatly enjoyed all three sessions (each involving 3-4 games) of Captain Sonar. In the first session, which took place at a neighborhood pub, we played one "practice" game in turn-based mode so people could learn their roles, and then played three more games in real-time. We had six players, 4 of whom were "serious gamers" and two who were more casual. Everyone enjoyed the game, but we did encounter some issues.

First of all, this game really needs to be played in Real-Time - I'm sure there's someone out there who might enjoy the turn-based version, but it's definitely not me! The tension and excitement is cranked up to 11 in the real-time mode, and the turn-based mode really only serves as a way to learn the roles and the game. I suppose if you played with two players and each player played all the roles, it might be interesting to play turn-based (and certainly necessary), but that seems to miss the point of the game.

All of the "issues" with the game come from this reliance on the real-time mode. First of all, communication is of course paramount - so playing in a public space, which in some ways this game is ideal for (it's a lot easier to find 8 players at a game night meetup, etc.), can be challenging. In one of our games, the Radio Operator was having a really hard time hearing the enemy Captain, and found it very frustrating, despite requests for her to speak up, etc... Of course this can be mitigated by choosing a different spot, picking a Captain with a loud, commanding voice, etc... but it does create some limitations on what is already going to be a somewhat challenging game to get to the table due to the player count requirement.

But the even bigger issue with the game is that once you start playing, everyone is pretty much on their own to do their roles, without any handholding or oversight. This is probably fine for experienced, competent gamers, but the potential issue is compounded by the fact that any mistakes made by any roles other than the Radio Operator do not hurt that players team, but instead hurt the OTHER team. For instance, if the Captain says "Head East" but accidentally marks West (not THAT hard to do in the excitement of the moment, esp. for someone directionally challenged), the only penalty is to the other team's Radio Operator, who will now be pulling their hair out in frustration exclaiming "WTF?? That's IMPOSSIBLE... I really thought I knew where they were", etc... And since the whole game relies on this challenge for the Radio Operator to be able to listen to and record the other Captains moves, they will never know if they just missed a move, or if the Captain made a mistake, etc.

And of course, if you're playing with new players, or inexperienced gamers, it's very hard to manage this during the game (which is why a first turn-based playthrough is recommended).

My second and third sessions were played during lunch at work, in a quiet conference room, and things went much more smoothly. We had a few times when the Radio Operator thought the other Captain made a mistake based on the supposed "impossibility" of the route they were tracing, but again - who knows? Maybe the Captain did make a mistake, maybe the Radio Operator did...

If you think you're the type of person that will really get bothered by the answer to that question, you might not enjoy this game as much. Also, the pressure and tension of the real time mode are what makes the game thrilling and fun, so if that's not your cup of tea, maybe find a game that offers for a more relaxing pleasure cruise instead of a nail-biting fight to the finish...

For everyone else - the game is fantastic. All of the people I've played with loved it: we all had a great time and didn't really mind the minor (possible) mistakes, etc. We just enjoyed the game for what it is: a tense, exciting, thought-provoking and unique experience.

As for player count - I have played with a four-player team and three-player team and I think both are great (ie: seven or eight total players). Personally, when I play the Captain, I like to play the First Mate as well, since I find this easier and more enjoyable than communicating with the Engineer through the First Mate, and I think it's quite manageable to play both of those roles. However, two of the other players I played with did not enjoy playing both roles as much as playing just one (but managed it just fine anyway).

One of the other things I really like about the game is how different the roles feel - in our first game, the players who played the Engineer and Radio Operator for the first time did a GREAT job (I was Captain/First Mate) and we won very quickly. For the second game, those two switched roles and had a really hard time with their new roles, and we just kind of floundered around for most of the game - the Radio Operator, which in some ways is probably the "technically" easiest role (ie: least to explain/understand) is also probably the most crucial - if they don't do their job well, there's really not much to do except cruise around and see the sights, and there's not much to see down there!

Conclusion

I strongly recommend this game for anyone who can find a good group of 6-8 people to play it with, and who enjoys an action-packed, tense and exciting 20-30 minute game without too much complexity, and doesn't mind being somewhat relaxed about potential mistakes, mis-plays, etc... It's unique, fun and highly enjoyable!

Scott

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Brad Keusch
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Nice review, and I definitely agree that it's an awesome, unique experience.
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Mathue Faulkner
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I mostly play 2p games, sometimes 4p....once in awhile more. I'm going to buy this game anyway. It just seems to awesome to pass up even if it takes me 5 years to get to the table!
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Jody Simpson
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Took me half way through the review to realize I was involved in it. I did not pay attention to the post author.

I agree with your assessment of the game completely. It is a fun and unique experience for just about every role but it can be challenging to play well as a team.
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Leon Stansfield
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I agree with you completely.

This game is a blast! It combines the best ingredients and the unique essence of both „Space Cadets: Dice Duel“ and „They Come Unseen“ – two blazing bright highlights in this genre - and creates an innovative and very refreshing new game idea.

Fast pace and pure fun in real time-mode with 6 or 8 players and a completely different experience with 4 players and turn by turn-mode. Depending on the number of players and the selected mode it differs from a light, fun and chaotic to a tense and nail-biting board game. Also the flow of the game is strongly influenced by the personalities of the players involved (and this is why "Captain Sonar" is also well suited for 4 players!).
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Jerrod Warr
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mfaulk80 wrote:
I mostly play 2p games, sometimes 4p....once in awhile more. I'm going to buy this game anyway. It just seems to awesome to pass up even if it takes me 5 years to get to the table!


This game is still fun as a two player in turn-by-turn mode, so buy it without hesitation!
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Frank Branham
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I so want to like the game, but I don't really think it works well.

The Captain->Radio Operator communications link is so fragile, that it fails for us perhaps 20-30% of the time. Either the Radio Operator is distracted, someone else calls out a confirmation which sounds like a direction or.....

The real time element seems to falter as well. Right as you get to the part where the game is most exciting as both subs are closing on each other is also RIGHT where there are a wave of STOP calls.

STOP: Sonar. STOP: Mine. STOP: Torpedo.....

Turn by Turn does work, but it does feel a bit like an unfufilled promise.
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Michael Sturdivant
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fbranham wrote:

The Captain->Radio Operator communications link is so fragile, that it fails for us perhaps 20-30% of the time. Either the Radio Operator is distracted, someone else calls out a confirmation which sounds like a direction or.....


How is that the fault of game design? That is part of the fun for me; figuring out better ways to communicate.

Also with the stop calls, why dont you surface earlier to rest them?
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Scott Fischbein
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fbranham wrote:
I so want to like the game, but I don't really think it works well.

The Captain->Radio Operator communications link is so fragile, that it fails for us perhaps 20-30% of the time. Either the Radio Operator is distracted, someone else calls out a confirmation which sounds like a direction or.....



Thanks for sharing your experience with the game, Frank.

Personally, I didn't find that to be a problem - that's part of the point - the Radio Communicator CAN'T get distracted, and has to carefully focus in on hearing the OTHER team say "HEAD NORTH", and filter that out from their own team's communication. It's the main challenge to that role, which is otherwise pretty easy.

We did find it important to enforce the rule in the manual that you must specifically say "HEAD NORTH" (or whatever direction) to avoid confusion with inter-team communication when mentioning directions. With that rule in place, it seems to work fine, and if the Radio Operator can't concentrate, focus, etc. - best to pick a new one! (Of course, this is all assuming there isn't extraneous interference, etc.)

We also didn't tend to have a problem with too many back-to-back "STOP"s - I could see that happening occasionally, but it's all part of the fun: "STOP - we're firing at you" "MISS!" "STOP - We're firing back" "HIT!" etc...
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Leon Stansfield
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fbranham wrote:
I so want to like the game, but I don't really think it works well.

I can see your concerns with the real-time-mode. It’s clearly not for everyone. Some of my friends – although very experienced board gamers – are not able to stay calm enough to enjoy the hectic and chaotic world of games such as „Captain Sonar“, „Space Cadet: Dice Duel“ or „Escape: The Curse of the Temple“.

But: The game provides a turn-by-turn-mode! In this mode the game offers a completely different challenge. The pure fun is lost for a greater focus on tactics and strategy. In a strange way the change of those two modes transform the players from playful children to strategically minded adults and vice versa. There are not many games out there which offer such an alternative. I’m quite happy with that .
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Greg
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Sounds like having the first mate just glance over when the captain calls the direction and compare to what he's marking? Haven't played, but seems the First Mate is the least distracted and conveniently sits next to the captain.
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Mike W.
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Exactly... to avoid direction/ marking issues, we played the First Mate to glance over the Captain's markings after he announced the direction. Additionally, when surfacing, the radio operator handed out his acetate to the enemy capatin laying it over his map and quckly comparing the lines. Worked pretty well for us. But I agree that experience is really heplful in this game, give it a few attempts. And definitely introduce new players turn-by-turn. Doesn't necessarily need to be a full game, but a few turns depending on the newbies skill. Real-Time-Rule-questions really destroy the tension. Very unique experience and tons of fun.
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Mindy Basi
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I want to chime in here...I played it last week and I have to say I had a terrible time.

Not the game's fault, but we didn't have enough people and I had to play both the captain and the engineer for my first play. The rules were explained very quickly -- just suffice it to say that it's not my favorite game. My opposing person who was listening to what I said kept complaining he couldn't hear me, so he had no idea where we were. I was speaking in a normal voice, but it was a loud crowded room, so...I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be crossing off on my sheet when I changed direction, it seemed there should be some strategy to that but I never had a chance to figure it out because it was real time and I couldn't think about it. The first mate was far away from me and we didn't communicate.

Quote:
the radio operator handed out his acetate to the enemy capatin laying it over his map and quckly comparing the lines.


Okay we must have been playing this completely wrong -- we were told to draw a neat box around all the parts of the ship and initial it and then hold it up over the screen so the other team could see it, if we didn't draw it correctly we had to do it over again. When would you do the above mentioned step and why?

No one knew what they were doing and it was in my opinion a disaster.

So it's not the game for everyone. I don't like real time games in general, so this was much pressure when you aren't sure of the rules to begin with. Just to be clear, my team won but the other team said it wasn't fair that we did.
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Scott Fischbein
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Hi Mindy - thanks for your reply. Sounds like you had a crappy experience with the game - playing the captain and engineer at the same time would be really hard. The suggested combo when doubling up is for the Captain to also play the First Mate, which is not nearly as challenging. And also, as I mentioned, playing in a crowded, noisy environment is even more of a challenge.

The procedure you mentioned with drawing the lines is the correct procedure after you surface. The other poster that mentioned overlaying the acetate was referring to a post-game check to see if the two matched up, not part of the actual game.

Incidentally, I had a chance to watch a group playing this at a con this weekend, and it was really interesting to be able to watch both sides at the same time - one team's captain was very loud and clear and always said "HEAD NORTH", etc. The other teams captain was not speaking nearly as loudly, and would often say "GO NORTH", and then sometimes "HEAD NORTH" or just "NORTH" and for some reason the other radio operator didn't ask them to be clearer or more consistent and was therefore almost never writing down the right moves, while the other radio operator (on the opposing team from the loud/clear captain) was getting all the moves right.

In spite of all these hiccups though, everyone was having a BLAST! They played 3-4 games in a row and just kept asking for more...

So yeah, certainly not a game for everyone (is there such a game?) but for the right crowd in the right situation with the right attitude it's a great game! Sorry you didn't enjoy it, but if you have a chance to play in a quieter setting, you might want to give it another go and see if your experience improves...

Scott
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Alvin
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I got to play this turn based with 8 players at PAX this weekend, and did not enjoy it whatsoever. Some of the people were so bored with their role they mostly zoned out (and one person just left). I love Space Cadets Dice Duel, so I'm definitely glad to hear it gets way better in real time.
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Christopher Lawrence
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fbranham wrote:

The Captain->Radio Operator communications link is so fragile, that it fails for us perhaps 20-30% of the time. Either the Radio Operator is distracted, someone else calls out a confirmation which sounds like a direction or.....


I can see where that would be frustrating, but happily that wasn't our experience.

Our radio operator was amazing - had the enemy sub tracked with a great deal of precision in our three games. Also played "in character" the whole time, which was fun. What was really great was that she was a first-timer at my monthly games day, and had never played anything outside the Monopoly-Pictionary realm!
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Matt Schoonmaker-Gates
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Thanks for sharing the well written review!

I played this several times recently. We had either 7 or 8 players for all games. We started with a turn-based game to learn the rules, and then switched to real-time.

We switched up the teams and roles every time.

I'm surprised people are saying that the radio operator is an easy role. I agree that explaining what they do is easy, but we found that role the most challenging to play. You are drawing a map of the enemy submarine's route, and then getting clues at certain points from sonar and drone on possible places they could be. Trying to draw the map and make use of the information you get in real-time can be very tricky. Plus it's arguably the most important job.

I'd say Captain is the next most important/challenging roles.

I didn't play the first-mate, but that seemed the easiest by far. Every time you move, you just check a box towards an action. That's why it is the first role to double up with the Captain if you have fewer than 8 players.

The Engineer was interesting to play, but not as good as I'd hoped. You're sort of at the whim of the Captain, since you're trying to keep different systems operational, but to do that you need to know which directions the Captain is heading in. It was an interesting role, and a little challenging.

My favorite role was the radio operator. Definitely an interesting challenge.
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Chris Tock
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I'm usually pretty good with my N S E W, but under pressure I did find myself almost making mistakes. It also doesn't help that the compass rose is located on the bottom right of the player board, meaning it's easily obscured by the hand for right handed folks. I haven't tried this, but maybe marking each side of the map with the appropriate n e s w might help.
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EGG Head
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We had 8 players all new for 2 games tonight. I think everyone had a good time, I know I did. It is easy to miss an occasional direction as the Radio Operator but you have to treat it as if they did a "silence" move and try and infer where they are with the directions they are giving until the next surfacing. Definitely looking forward to playing it at the next game day. Seems like First Mate would also be fairly easy to pair with Engineer so the Captain can concentrate on giving good directions.
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Aaron Waters
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Tock wrote:
I'm usually pretty good with my N S E W, but under pressure I did find myself almost making mistakes. It also doesn't help that the compass rose is located on the bottom right of the player board, meaning it's easily obscured by the hand for right handed folks. I haven't tried this, but maybe marking each side of the map with the appropriate n e s w might help.


You could always use the compass rose that was printed on the original game boards for Police Precinct. It looked a bit like this.

 N
E+W
 S

blush
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Pablo G.F.
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scottf2 wrote:


We did find it important to enforce the rule in the manual that you must specifically say "HEAD NORTH" (or whatever direction) to avoid confusion with inter-team communication when mentioning directions. With that rule in place, it seems to work fine, and if the Radio Operator can't concentrate, focus, etc. - best to pick a new one! (Of course, this is all assuming there isn't extraneous interference, etc.)



THIS, so much.

In my gaming group we are spanish-speaking gamers, so we go with "DIRECCIÓN NORTE!" instead of "head north!". First time I played we werent paying attention to that rule and just went "NORTE, ESTE, ESTE, SUR arrrh " and radio operators in both teams were having trouble, or were somewhat unconfortable. Then, we were checking the rulebook in case we were doing things wrong and we noticed that, started to play it by that rule and the game got SO much better.
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Pablo G.F.
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CraftyShafty wrote:
fbranham wrote:

The Captain->Radio Operator communications link is so fragile, that it fails for us perhaps 20-30% of the time. Either the Radio Operator is distracted, someone else calls out a confirmation which sounds like a direction or.....


I can see where that would be frustrating, but happily that wasn't our experience.

Our radio operator was amazing - had the enemy sub tracked with a great deal of precision in our three games. Also played "in character" the whole time, which was fun. What was really great was that she was a first-timer at my monthly games day, and had never played anything outside the Monopoly-Pictionary realm!


Wow that has to be something to behold
"Let´s see this boardgaming thing everyone is talking about... ok, I will play that Captain Sonar game with you, sure"

Getting from Monopoly to Radio-operating a sub in Captain Sonar, and doing it well, I cant imagine how she felt. I been playing games for a decade, and Im mind-blown about how fun it is to play as the radio operator, it must be freaking-mind-blowing to have it as a first time experience with modern board games wow
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Dylan Thurston
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fbranham wrote:
The real time element seems to falter as well. Right as you get to the part where the game is most exciting as both subs are closing on each other is also RIGHT where there are a wave of STOP calls.

STOP: Sonar. STOP: Mine. STOP: Torpedo.....

Turn by Turn does work, but it does feel a bit like an unfufilled promise.
Just a check here: Did you notice the rule that a submarine has to move between activations? That is, you can't activate sonar then torpedo; you have to activate the sonar, then head north, then activate the torpedo.

(I'm not positive that rule is in all versions of the game.)
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Three Headed Monkey
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Kwill2 wrote:
I want to chime in here...I played it last week and I have to say I had a terrible time.

Not the game's fault, but we didn't have enough people and I had to play both the captain and the engineer for my first play. The rules were explained very quickly -- just suffice it to say that it's not my favorite game. My opposing person who was listening to what I said kept complaining he couldn't hear me, so he had no idea where we were. I was speaking in a normal voice, but it was a loud crowded room,

Well there's the problem. When announcing a move order you need to say it much louder than your normal speaking voice and makes sure you say "Head <direction>!". It needs to be completely clear to everyone that this is a move order and volume is the best way to do this.

Kwill2 wrote:
The first mate was far away from me and we didn't communicate.

If you were the captain engineer the first mate should be right next to you.
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Three Headed Monkey
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fbranham wrote:
I so want to like the game, but I don't really think it works well.

The Captain->Radio Operator communications link is so fragile, that it fails for us perhaps 20-30% of the time. Either the Radio Operator is distracted, someone else calls out a confirmation which sounds like a direction or.....

It really sounds like you were not playing properly. The captain needs to be very clear when giving a move order. It must be far louder than his normal voice and the direction must be prefaced with "head". 20%-30% fail rate is way too high and I usually find it's because the captains are not being clear. Now, I know it can be hard as the captain is usually thinking hard and can forget to do it, but it is so important to the integrity of the game to be as clear as possible with your movement orders. Everything else can be a whisper, movement orders need to be loud.

We make sure the stress this to every new captain.

Also you must know what order you are going to give and if it is possible before you say "Stop!" to activate a system.

fbranham wrote:
The real time element seems to falter as well. Right as you get to the part where the game is most exciting as both subs are closing on each other is also RIGHT where there are a wave of STOP calls.

STOP: Sonar. STOP: Mine. STOP: Torpedo.....

Turn by Turn does work, but it does feel a bit like an unfufilled promise.

If you've taken an action to activate a system you must move at least once before you can activate another.

Keep these suggestions in mind and give it another go.
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