Saturday, September 30, 2017

Board Game Review: Captain Sonar

It's time for another board game review. This week, I've decided to cover Captain Sonar. It's a fun little game that captures the suspense of submarine warfare. We'll start as we always do, with the ratings:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 3
Randomness: 0
Complexity: 3
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful
Average Length of Game Play: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: High
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: High

Four images in a grid. The upper left shows the box cover: a painting of the crew of a submarine working frantically together to find the enemy before being sunk themselves. The upper right shows the Mechanic board: a schematic of icons, some of which have been crossed out. The lower left shows the captain's board: a map of some islands with the submarine's path drawn on it. The lower right shows the first officer's board: a series of gauges for each available system, with the levels marked on some of them to varying levels.
In Captain Sonar, four to eight players sort themselves into two teams of submarine crews. The two teams are attempting to sink each other's vessels. Each team has four positions: captain, first officer, mechanic, and radio officer. The game works best if you have a full complement of eight players, so that each player can take a different role. If there are fewer than eight players available, then someone will have to fill two different roles simultaneously.

The Captain

Here's what's going on: the players are navigating their submarines around a system of islands trying to find and destroy each other. The captain does most of the work of navigating: both captains have maps of the islands around which they are navigating (it's the image in the lower left of the picture above). They mark their ships' courses on their maps, using dry-erase markers. Whenever they think they have an opportunity to shoot at the enemy vessel, the captains announce the co-ordinates they are targeting, and if the enemy vessel is at or adjacent to that position, they take damage. Once a sub takes four points of damage, it sinks, and the opposing team is declared the winner.

The Mechanic

The captains can't just move wherever they like. Each space moved on the map requires the mechanic to cross off one of the icons on the mechanic board. This board is a network of icons connected by paths and divided into four sections. Each section is labelled North, South, East, or West. To move east, the mechanic marks off an icon in the East section, and so forth. Whatever icon is crossed off of the mechanic board indicates that that system (sensors, weapons, or stealth) ceases functioning. These marks can be erased, however, either by marking off all the icons connected by a line, or by surfacing (more on this in a moment).

The captain and the mechanic must communicate effectively; the captain must tell the mechanic which systems are required, and the mechanic must tell the captain which moves are required to erase the marks on the mechanic board. Additionally, the mechanic must inform the captain when it's no longer possible to move a certain direction because all the icons in that section have been crossed off.

The First Officer

In addition to moving around the board, the captain must also request the use of various shipboard systems. The first officer board has gauges for each system. There are two sensors available: sonar and drones. There are two weapons available: torpedoes and mines. There are two possible stealth systems: silence and 'scenario.' The scenario system is only available when playing certain scenarios, and what it does depends on the scenario being played.

Each of these systems has a number of spaces on their gauges which must be filled in before that system can be used. For example, there are three spaces on the torpedo gauge, but six spaces on the silence gauge. Each time the submarine moves a space on the map, the first officer is allowed to fill in any one space on a gauge. Once all the spaces on a gauge have been filled, that system is available to be used. Using a system requires the first officer to erase all the spaces on the gauge for that system, so that it must be recharged before it can be used again.

The systems work as follows:

  • Torpedo: The submarine fires a torpedo up to four spaces away. If the enemy sub is on the space where the torpedo detonates, it takes two damage. If the torpedo detonates adjacent to the enemy sub, it results in one damage.
  • Mine: The submarine drops a mine at its current location. At any point afterwards, the captain may choose to detonate that mine. If the enemy sub is at that location, it takes two damage. If it is adjacent to that location, it takes one damage.
  • Sonar: The enemy captain must choose two of the three location co-ordinates: row, column, or sector (the map is divided into nine square sectors). The captain announces the ship's location in the two chosen co-ordinates (for example, he might say, 'We are in Sector 7, Row 12.') However, one of the pieces of information must be true and the other must be false.
  • Drone: The captain asks if the enemy sub is located in a particular sector (for example, 'Are you in Sector 5?'). The enemy captain must answer truthfully.
  • Silence: The captain moves the sub up to four spaces in any single direction, so long as he does not violate normal movement rules (such as colliding with an island). This movement is not announced aloud as normal movements are. The first officer and mechanic treat this action as a single move.
The first officer and the captain must communicate effectively; the captain must inform the first officer of which systems he expects to need, so that the first officer can concentrate his actions there. The first officer must inform the captain when systems become available, or how many spaces remain on a desired system before it is ready.

The Radio Operator

The final position is the radio operator. In many ways, this job is the most difficult in the game. The radio operator's role is to listen to the enemy captain. As the captain marks the sub's movement around the map, he announces the moves he is making ('One space north!'). The mechanic generally confirms if the ship is able to moved in that direction ('One space north confirmed.') to let the captain know that the mechanic is able to get the ship to actually move in that direction. As the enemy captain calls out these moves, the radio operator listens and plots the movement on a sheet of clear plastic that sits atop a map of the islands. Since the radio operator does not know where the enemy sub began, this plastic sheet can be moved around the map to find where the the enemy sub may be located.

The radio operator and the captain must communicate effectively. The radio operator is tasked with deducing the current location of the enemy sub, which must then be shared with the captain so that the captain can know where to target the torpedoes and mines.

Playing in Real Time

All of this is happening in real time. Although the rules allow for a version which is played turn-by-turn, the real fun comes from players on each team shouting at each other as they try to manoeuvre the sub quickly out of danger but simultaneously into attack range...

When firing a torpedo, detonating a mine, or using either of the sensor systems, the captain calls 'Full stop!' Both teams stop until the current action is resolved, then resume real-time actions. In all other cases, including surfacing, the enemy ship is continually moving, so it does not behoove you be complacent.

Speaking of surfacing, the mechanic may become so distraught keeping all the components in working order that the best option is to simply wipe the board clean of all marks. To do this, the captain must announce that they are surfacing. Once a sub has surfaced, each player must trace a line around the outline of a section of the submarine on the mechanic's board. The enemy mechanic judges if the outline is accurate, or if any line has strayed out of the acceptable drawing area. If the enemy mechanic deems the tracing job acceptable, the mechanic is allowed to erase all marks on the mechanic board. The sub then submerges again and may resume normal operation. Surfacing also allows the captain to erase the path he's taken so far, reopening the map for movement (as a submarine is not allowed to cross, retrace, or double back on its path).

If, however, the enemy mechanic decides that the tracing was not accurate enough, the existing traced lines are erased and the crew must try again.

Since the enemy sub does not cease operations whilst you are surfaced, it is in your best interests to trace the board as quickly as you can.

All of this is going on with a screen running down the centre of the table to hide your player boards from the enemy crew. Once a sub is sunk, the other team is declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Captain Sonar

There is some strategy involved in this game, as you must deduce from the movement of the enemy captain where the enemy sub is currently located. But mostly, it's a frantic race to track down and attack the enemy before they track you down and destroy you. Like Panic on Wall Street, this game is fun because it allows you to be boisterous, rowdy, and loud. If that's not your kind of game, you won't like Captain Sonar. Furthermore, this game requires excellent communication skills (especially in the case of the radio operator, who must have exceptional listening skills). If you do not possess such skills, you probably won't like Captain Sonar.

Needless to say, I liked it. And in terms of the six requirements of a good game:
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It relies on player agency.
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It is not necessarily simple (once you've played it once, it's simple, but explaining the game the first time can take a very long time).
So there you have it. If you haven't tried this game, hopefully I've convinced you that you should. But if you can tell from my description that it's not your sort of game, that's fine too. In either case, I hope you have enjoyed reading this review. Go forth, play more games, and remember to

Game on!



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