I’m a bit of a jaded gamer. I look at a lot of games and I have been playing games since the nineteen eighties and usually I’m seeing a game with similar mechanics to hundreds of other games just with a different coat of paint. If you’ve been a tabletop gamer for awhile, you’ll know what I mean.
Then along comes a game like Captain Sonar that blows me out of the water! See what I did there?…
It is the odd occasion I walk away from a game and think about it for days afterwards. It’s also quite rare for me to be immersed in the atmosphere of a game usually being taken out of the experience because of components, clunky rulesets, or something else. Not since Twilight Struggle have I felt so ‘in the moment’ during a game. So it was to my great surprise how immersed and reflective I was upon playing Captain Sonar by Matagot games. I’ve never heard of this company before, but man what a surprise!
Captain Sonar is an intense, competitive experience where two teams face off against one another in unstable, prototype submarines. The flavour text tells you something about militarised corporations fighting over rare earth materials, blah blah.
The rulebook itself is a little bit of a strange beast. At first I looked at it and thought this isn’t very linear. It seems I have to learn four games in one. The role of the radio operator, engineer, first mate and of course the captain. Additionally, I’ll have the dreaded responsibility of having to teach others but then I read the rulebook and realised it was one of the best written and illustrated rule books I’ve come across in a long time.
I don’t do lengthy rules explanations. I like to get to the point and that’s what this rulebook does. You will quickly find out that there are four roles for you to play as above and that you can play either in turn order or real time, both having their pros and cons.
The captain really does have to know all the roles and carefully co-ordinate with his or her crew. The radio operator has the rather tense task of finding where the enemy submarine is on the map. The first mate has to record systems as they come online and are used and has some autonomy to engage drones and sonar, which are vital to finding your enemy submarine. And of course there is the beleaguered engineer. A funny thing about this particular title is that they have chosen to model damage in these prototype submarines by having the engineer pick which system he will take out and then which system he will try to get back online. He does this by coordinating with the captain and advising him what direction the submarine should go in.
It’s a little clunky and counter-intuitive but on the scale of it all it is only a minor criticism. It does the job of representing an unstable prototype submarine quite well. You are not just taking damage from the enemy submarine you are battling with a new computer, weapons and engine system. Likely the submarine was built by a company that also came well under the required budget and I would say that is not too much of a stretch given that the world you are fighting in seems to have been taken over by capitalists.
Boring ideology aside, this game shines in so many ways. It is an over-simplification to call it ‘battleships on steroids’ but in so many ways it is. Yes there are a lot more bells and whistles and yes there are a lot more things to learn about. But it is worth it and it develops such a deep competitive game that I’m longing to get it back on the table already. That’s actually quite rare. At least for this jaded seadog!
I will also have to say that as it is a team game played with up to 8 people, the fun factor will also be determined by the quality of the players. In fact, it is possible to play this game without having a traditionally good time. It could be rewarding enough for you to have a quiet intense battle of minds: one captain versus another! Can anyone say Das Boot?!
In our first game we saw people who had never played a board game before struggle with some of the new ideas and struggle with the idea of having to work as a team. The rule book itself does not talk about protocols that clearly and we were struggling for a little while about who gets to do what and when particularly during a real-time game. It would take very little to clarify this with some basic house rules. Essentially a little bit of submarine etiquette would have gone a long way in the rules book.
People like structure. They can also feel a bit stupid when they have to pump their fist in the air to call the stop even though they secret and desperately want to get into their role. It’s just the nature of humans particularly wallflowers and we did play with people who weren’t that extroverted, which presented some communication challenges. But that is the beauty of team games. Just as in a submarine (I’m guessing!) the captain is dealing with varied crew members and he or she must be able to balance their performance in an effort to identify the location of and destroy the enemy
And atmosphere! Did I happen to mention the atmosphere of this game! We ramped things up to 11! We played with some wonderful submarine sounds off YouTube that just added to a game that already drips with atmosphere.
Few games will grip your attention and immerse you so fully in their universe. As I mentioned, Twilight Struggle was certainly such a game but they are far and few between.
We can not give a better recommendation for you to go out and buy this game. As long as you are prepared for the dynamics of team gaming we have very little doubt that you will enjoy this title.
Well done Matagot!