Captain Sonar is a board game about submarines, but it’s also so much more than that.
There are boards (several, in fact), and rules and competition and cooperation, but to call Captain Sonar a board game would be to massively undersell the experience.
It’s a crucible for friendships. It’s a drunk gamer’s worst nightmare. It’s ridiculously simple while also being insanely complex. It’s Battleship with theatre.
The game involves splitting your mates into two teams (ideally 2-4 each side), sitting those teams down across either side of a big cardboard divide, putting each team in charge of a nuclear submarine then asking them to blow the other side out of the water.
This is done by assigning each member of a submarine a specific role. The Captain is ultimately in charge of everything, but is also chiefly responsible for plotting the course their sub takes by shouting out a direction (NORTH, SOUTH, EAST or WEST) then drawing a little line on a map in front of them indicating where they’ve gone.
The First Mate is in charge of the sub’s systems. Each time the Captain decides to move, the FM is allowed to charge up a weapon (like a torpedo or mine) or tool (sonar, drones, etc). After enough moves these devices become ready to use, and the FM can let the Captain know.
The Radio Operator has maybe the coolest job. They’re tasked with listening to the verbal commands made by the opposing Captain, and on a map of their own plotting out possible courses. The catch here is that, without knowing where the other team started from, tracking them down involves a combination of making sure they follow directions exactly, while at the same time comparing the route they’ve plotted against the game’s map.
The Engineer is the fourth and final job, and...we’ll get to the Engineer later.
You can play Captain Sonar two ways. The first, and most chaotic, is to let things unfold in realtime, each side allowed to move as fast and as far as they like provided they stick to some basic courtesies (like always being clear when calling out directions, so the enemy Radio Operator can keep up).
The other is to hit the brakes and turn it into a turn-based experience, each side taking turns to move and use systems. This is easily the best way for beginners to tackle how everything works, and given the only times I’ve played this game I’ve been drinking, it’s also the most accommodating depending on the kind of party Captain Sonar is gracing.
Captain Sonar is made fun (and difficult, depending on your crewmates) because it forces everyone to not just work together, but to work together competently. Think of it as a group project, only instead of delivering a talk on something boring, you’re trying to blow your friends up.
There’s no room for freeloaders here. While some jobs require more work than others, everyone has to do them in order to win. If one person fucks up, the other roles can’t function, and the entire team will suffer.
Which sounds stressful, and it is! This is a tense game, particularly if you’re performing the two main roles of Captain (where it’s easy to be overwhelmed by information, especially in realtime) or Radio Operator (where a single second’s inattention can be the difference between victory defeat).
But it’s a good stress. All the fighting, all the communications breakdowns, all the hard work, it’s all worth it for the beautiful moments when the planets align and a plan comes together. The satisfaction of working as a team to accomplish your goal here is immense, and in my life Ican only compare it to the feeling of winning a big team sports game.
That’s down to the teamwork required, of course, but it’s also down to the kind of teamwork Captain Sonar requires. There’s a hint of LARP to the game, maybe even a dash of D&D, because your interactions as crewmates isn’t at the normal board game level of “hushed chatter over a drink and some cardboard”.
This game is played with AYE CAPTAINS and TORPEDO READY shouted across a table, the tension reflected in the volume and urgency of everyone’s voices, and the way this raises people’s blood pressure also helps deliver a bigger emotional payoff at he end of each game.
Especially when, as I quickly found, you just stick this on repeat in the background the entire time you play:
Captain Sonar scales pretty well depending on the size of your table/friendship group. Smaller maps give way to bigger, more difficult ones as you get more comfortable with the game, and switching between real-time and turn-based mode is as easy as flipping over those maps. Jobs can also be cut or doubled up, so even if there are only two people on a team then responsibilities can be split between them.
Which brings me to the role of the Engineer. The first three jobs I described in more detail above are all decent approximations of actual submarine duties. The Engineer, on the other hand, is the representation of the fact this is a board game, and is a job that means every action a boat takes is balanced by something breaking, which they’re responsible for mitigating and assigning.
I can see why this job was introduced, and even why some people dig it, but I hate it. Captain Sonar is a much more open and free-flowing game without the Engineer’s constant handbraking, so if you’ve got the numbers to compensate, I recommend playing with the job left vacant.
As you’ve probably picked up by now, the game is utterly reliant on having a bunch of friends over. I wouldn’t play this with small groups unless you’re absolutely committed (or at least incredibly experienced), as the human heart can only take so much stress before exploding like a claret-stained depth charge.
But if you can get a decent number of mates around then oh boy. Captain Sonar is an almost peerless example of the medium, its interaction, teamwork and conflict creating an experience that marries board games and role-playing and turns them into something new and loud and stressful and so much fun.