Roberto Fraga has a long history as a game designer, and he’s proven himself to be a bit of a mad scientist. While this works for children’s games, it can be much more difficult to design a game for grown gamers that’s strategic, interesting, but also zany. With the help of co-designer Yohan Lemonnier and publisher Matagot, it seems that Captain Sonar is Roberto’s attempt to do just that.
This is often the part where I talk about opening the box, but here I was surprised by how heavy the box was before I even opened it! The weight is because this game comes with two huge, thick screens that divide the two teams. After that, there’s nothing but player mats and dry-erase markers in the box! This is indeed one strange game: the entire game is played by players hollering at each other while checking boxes off and drawing lines on maps. There are no cards, no dice, and no soundtrack, unlike many real-time board games. The strange components that are included are done really well, with very helpful iconography and beautiful artwork. Before we move on, though, it’s probably best that I just explain how this game works.
The game is primarily for two teams of four to play in real time. Each team is in a submarine, trying to sink the other team’s submarine to win. Each teammate has a different role. The captain uses his sheet to mark a course on the map, with some rules. He can’t run into islands, his own mines, or into his own path. He can restart the path by surfacing (exposing the sub temporarily to the other team). Each time the captain moves, the engineer must break down part of the ship as it takes wear and tear. Parts of the ship can be repaired by moving cleverly, and it can be completely repaired by surfacing. The first mate equips the weapons, sonar, and other equipment by checking boxes that “power up” the equipment each time the captain moves. However, the equipment can only be used if the engineer hasn’t broken it! So you can see how important communication is.
Most unique of all is the radio operator. The last player on each team has the sole job of eavesdropping on the opposing team. There is a transparent sheet the radio operator draws the other team’s path on. He then slides it over the map to figure out where the action is actually taking place, using the movement rules the captains must follow. The radio operator is also assisted by the first mate and captain, who can activate sonar and drones, which require the other team to give hints about their location. This role is perhaps the most important one, since you can’t attack your opponent if you don’t know where they are!
Attacking your opponent is done through torpedoes and mines. Torpedoes can only fire a few spaces away from where you are, so you are somewhat giving up your location by firing. Mines are dropped in your current location and blown up at any later time, although you can’t run into your own mines, or you’ll take damage! Damage can also happen by poor engineering moves, although taking intentional damage to clear the engineering area can be a clever move.
All of this is happening in real-time, meaning there is lots of constant shouting and looking around. It’s easy to cheat by accident (e.g. using a broken weapon), but overall good communication keeps this from happening. It’s an exhausting, stressful game, particularly because it’s longer than most real-time games—about 30 to 45 minutes.
However, it’s an incredibly strategic game, one that feels more like a computer or console game played with headsets than a board game. I suspect that Mr. Fraga’s zaniness (see, e.g., our review of Doctor Panic) was kept in check by his co-designer, although there is one silly aspect of the game. After surfacing, to indicate that the cabin is secure and the submarine can dive again, the players have to trace one of the regions of the ship on the engineer’s sheet, initial it, pass it to the next player, and so on, and then have the opposing engineer confirm that no one drew outside the lines. Yes, it’s a little silly, but it’s somewhat thematic.
In fact, this might be one of the most thematic games I’ve ever played. It really does feel like you’re in the middle of an incredibly intense battle scene from a movie; and it’s done simply with markers and sheets—no fancy miniatures, or soundtracks, or oil paintings on cards. This is one of the most incredible gaming experiences I’ve had, in part because it is so unique. I’m amazed that it works, and works this well—at least with eight players.
The biggest disadvantage that Captain Sonar has is that it really needs the full player count. With fewer than eight players, some players have to do more than one role. With six players, it was incredibly difficult for the Captains to also play as the First Mates. Due to the unique nature of the Radio Operator, one player would do the other three roles in a four-player game, which seems incredibly difficult to do. Admittedly, you can play the game turn-based, but that isn’t nearly as fun. This also means that odd player counts give a major advantage to the team with the extra player. Extra maps and scenarios are included for variety, and I’m incredibly thankful for that, but the game isn’t truly replayable if it can’t ever get to the table. Six is still a lot of fun, but it’s really best with eight. Also, be aware that because the game is so hectic and loud, not everyone is going to like this. It’s definitely not a quiet, thinking game, though it is full of strategy in its own way.
All that being said, if you have a pretty regular, large game group, I can’t recommend Captain Sonar highly enough. It’s unique, it’s thematic, it’s strategic, it’s loud, and it’s incredibly fun.
+ Incredibly innovative, unlike any other game out there
+ Real-time play is very tense and exciting (and stressful)
+ Quality components
+ Art and graphic design are stellar
+ Extra maps and scenarios add variety
- High stress factor means it's not for everyone
- Needs eight experienced players to truly shine, six to even really play
Captain Sonar is incredibly unique, in addition to being a blast to play. If you have a group of 6-8 players who regularly meet, and who like fast, loud, stressful gameplay, this should be a huge hit, but that's a lot of qualifiers, unfortunately.