The Board Games of the Year – Captain Sonar

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Submarine films bank on the tension of two ships chasing each other in the murky ocean. The best ones offer cat-and-mouse pursuits full of clever maneuvers, the power of technology and heroes with nerves of steel. The quiet chess match of the deep seems like unlikely inspiration for a raucous party game meant to be played with drinks on the table, but a game sailed into our hearts this year with a mix of real-time game play, cooperative camaraderie and competitive thrill. Prepare for a deep dive into one of our Games of the Year with Captain Sonar.

The simple pitch for this game is a team version of Battleship in real time. A giant screen splits the table between two sub crew. The game ends when one sub is at the bottom of the ocean. The crew stations are laminated for use with dry erase markers that you can easily mark and unmark because you’ll be doing that — a lot. Captain Sonar can be played two ways. As a turn-based game, there’s a blend of strategy and deduction that makes it an excellent, tense puzzle game. As a real time game, the ticking clock of the other team’s movement puts the pressure on to stay sharp, keep moving, and communicate well. And by communicate, we mean “there’s going to be a lot of yelling and frantic cross talk.”

Two teams of up to four players each take on a duty as a crew member of a submarine. The Captain plots the course, balancing maneuvering his or her sub into a firing position while avoiding becoming a target for the other player. The First Officer charges the important systems like weapons and sonar every time the ship moves and informs the Captain when they are available for use. Unfortunately, the motion of the ship also requires the Engineer to mark a system breaking down and their job is to prioritize what needs to be fixed and when the ship must surface, leaving the sub vulnerable to attack. Finally, the Radio Operator pays attention to the chatter of the other team and plots out the location of the opposing sub based on the info that floats over the screen. The importance of these roles changes slightly whether the game is played over turns or in real time, but the sub that works better as a team has the better chance of sailing home in one piece.

The game also offers additional options beyond the timing of turns. Multiple maps change the strategy of maneuvering, where to drop equipment and mines and how easily the Radio Operator can piece together the other sub’s location. Scenarios offer unique bits of technology that change rules of the game if the crew can keep them in working order.

This is a game where you have to keep an eye on your job at all times. The first mate checks off the engineer who’s watching to see which directions are left for the captain to move before the tin can springs a leak. And as you’re arguing over why left or right won’t send you to Davy Jones’ Locker, there’s someone else listening on the other side trying to figure out where it all fits. Everyone gets a different puzzle to solve, but you have the same goal, to survive. It’s rare to find that game that work so smoothly with so many people.

Captain Sonar seats between 2 to 8 players, with smaller groups handling multiple crew roles in a game. It’s an excellent game to bust out at a party or a board game night at a bar. Even watching a game becomes a dramatic experience in seeing the teams puzzle out the situation and watching a kill shot get lined up. Captain Sonar offers a great experience that can be shared with a large group of friends that doesn’t require rules explanations or heavy set-up. In a matter of minutes, the shouts of “DIVE!” and “FIRE TORPEDO!” will rise above the rest of the party chatter.

Image provided by Asmodee NA

What is your favorite Captain Sonar story? Let us know in the comments.

Rob Wieland is an author, game designer and professional nerd. He writes about kaiju, Jedi, gangsters, elves, Vulcans and sometimes all of them at the same time. His blog is here, his Twitter is here and his meat body can be found in scenic Milwaukee, WI.

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