Captain SONAR

“Argh, you torpedoed our submarine!”

Think back to when you were a kid. Some time or another, there was a moment where you played Battleship. It was a simple game that you played on a rainy day, or when you were forced to have an indoor recess at school (I say this because we’ve had a few of these this week), or when you were just genuinely bored.  The premise was easy: put your ships secretly on the board and using a coordinate system of letters and numbers, determine the location of your opponent’s ships before your opponent does. The game was easy to play and quick to pick up. For me, it will always bring up feelings of nostalgia when played.

But let’s be honest here. I feel that as we are amid a board game revolution, games like Battleship are so simplistic and trivial, that the only reasons why a person would play Battleship is either because they want to feel that nostalgia once more, or perhaps share this game with their own children because of how easy it is to explain. It’s definitely a game I see taken often at Pips, perhaps because when given the choice to pick a board game among the many on the shelf, you tend to go to something that you feel comfortable in playing, even if the game is boring.

So how do you take a classic game such as Battleship and make it more advanced and competitive? Roberto Fraga and Yohan Lemmonier have found a way.

Captain SONAR is a two team cooperative game created by Fraga and Lemmonier. Captain SONAR is to simulate a real-time  submarine battle. Each player takes on the roles of either a captain, radio technician, first mate, or engineer and working together, have to maneuver a submarine through a set of islands, identify the location of their opponent, and essentially torpedo and mine them into submission. The first team to blow up their opponent’s sub wins.

To set up the game, place the extremely long screen divider in the centre of table. Have your group of friends split into two teams and decide the roles among these teams. Choose one of the five scenarios provided by the game and give the corresponding maps to both the captains and radio technicians. The first mates and engineers will take their respective sheets. The radio technicians will also take a transparent sheet. Hand out a dry erase marker to every player and the Captain will mark on the board where the submarine is going to start. After that, you’re ready to begin.  

In this game each teammate has a very specific role to play:

  • The captain is the leader of the team. This person will steer the submarine throughout the map by drawing lines on their own board and calling out which direction they are going.
  • The radio technician records the movements that the opposing captain is saying on their transparent sheet. As the game progresses, the radio technician will move the transparent sheet and fit it on the map in such a way that it doesn’t hit any islands. It is how the team will identify where the opponent’s submarine is
  • The first mate manages the gauges that determine if the submarine’s systems are working. This is done by colouring in the gauge indicator of their choice after the captain makes his command. Once the gauge is full, they will let the captain know that the system is available for use. These include the weapons, the detection system, or the special systems that help elude players from finding them.
  • The engineer tracks breakdowns that occur as the captain is steering the submarine. This person will cross off a symbol on their board when the captain makes a command. These symbols correspond to the systems that the first mate monitors. If any of these symbols are crossed off, the first mate and captain will not be able to use that particular system. However, this can be cleared up if certain symbols are crossed off, or if they surface to the top.

As the game advances, teams will eventually identify where their opponents are and if the systems are available, they can launch mines and torpedoes at them by calling out a coordinate when the game is paused.  Just like Battleship, the captain will call out a coordinate and if the opponent’s submarine is within range, they will take one to two damage points. To win the game, a team must deal four damage to their opposition.

If a team has no idea where their opponents are, they can use the detection systems to help locate them. The drone allows a team to ask the opposing captain if they are in a certain sector of the board, while the sonar forces the other team to give two pieces of information about their location, with one piece being true while the other piece being false.

If a team is being bombarded by torpedoes, a captain can also use their silence ability provided the system is available. If a team uses silence, the captain can move the ship one to four spaces in a straight line on the board, and not have to call out the direction in which they are going.

Finally, if a team has too much back up in the systems or cannot navigate further, they can resurface and clear the boards too. However, they have to tell the opposing team what section they are in. In order to dive again, each member of the team has to outline and initial a part of the submarine found on the engineer’s board. Once all the players have outlined and initialed the submarine, they pass this board to the engineer of the opposing team, and this engineer must approve of the outlining before they can continue.

One feature I enjoyed with Captain SONAR is the use of logic to identify where players are. Depending on the mission you are playing, the route that the Captain gives can only fit on the board a certain way. The transparent sheet lets the radio technician maneuver the route around and eventually see where their opponents are headed. The game then becomes a race of quickly figuring out where your opponent’s submarine is, and bombing them before they get you. I find this part of the game to be very innovative; I haven’t seen anything like that before in a board game.

What has been at the point of controversy involving this game among my friends is the chaotic nature Captain SONAR provides. Since Captain SONAR is a real-time board game, both teams will be giving commands at the exact same time. Theoretically, the order of events that occur in the game is as follows:
1) The captain makes a command, for example “head north” and writes this on their respective board.
2) The radio technician of the other team records this movement on their transparent sheet.
3) The first mate and engineer cross off the symbols and gauges on their board and inform the captain of what systems are available and not available.
4) Repeat the steps until your team’s radio technician can identify where the opponent’s submarine is so that the Captain can steer into that direction and start bombing the opposing team provided the systems are available.

With the few times I’ve played this, there always seems to be this moment of being lost in translation due to the eight voices that are vying for attention at the same time. The game halts temporarily to regather all the commands in order to ensure that both radio technicians are writing down the correct route. Some players say that this is their fault for not paying attention and so we shouldn’t be pausing for this. Other players say that because of the frantic and constant communication, we should get moments to pause to ensure the routes are the same on the board.

The frenzied gameplay of Captain SONAR has generally given me two responses from people. Those who love it say its because of the calculated and unique gameplay. People are working together trying to blow up their opponent’s submarine while avoiding being spotted. If done properly, the game is fun and highly interactive. Those who hate it say its because of its hectic and chaotic nature . With that many voices going off at once, it is hard to understand where your opponent is going, and thus becomes an absolutely frustrating experience.

Personally for me, I highly enjoy Captain SONAR provided that your group of friends establish a sense of order and guidelines within the game. When I teach this game, I start by playing in a turn-by-turn basis, and when I feel that the game is understood, we take the training wheels off, and play the game in real-time. We also ensure that if any captain stops gameplay, everybody stops whatever they are doing and let the captain perform their actions. And I always highly recommend being lenient when it comes to the resurfacing of the sub, although the times I’ve played, the engineers were extremely strict about the outlining.

One issue I see in this game is its scaling. Captain SONAR is recommended for eight players.  The whole point of this game is to test your ability to communicate with your team of friends by simulating a submarine duel. Playing with two players makes no sense because you have no teammates to communicate with, and even if you decide to play it out with another person on a one-on-one basis, I foresee many difficulties playing this game at real-time and you’re forced to play on a turn-by-turn basis. Also, assuming if we are playing with any number other than eight, it means that a person will have to do two of the jobs. The tasks are fairly simple, but if you combine some of them together, the game becomes difficult to juggle.

Overall, Captain SONAR is pretty fun to play given that you have a group of people that can handle high stress situations. The frenetic gameplay forces players to communicate effectively in order to beat their opponents. This is a great party game for casual gamers who want to try something new and unique. This is also awesome for avid gamers under the condition that they are not being too competitive. Captain SONAR, I feel, is meant to be a lighthearted game even though it puts players in a highly pressurized environment. One thing’s for sure, Captain SONAR definitely blows Battleship out of the water, pun intended.

One of the coolest setups I’ve seen in a board game
– Easy to get into once you are able to explain the roles
– Elevates the mechanics of Battleship to a whole new level.
– Awesome game to play with if you have eight people.
– Provides a turn-by-turn version of the game for those who want to take it easy.

Scaling is awful. It is highly recommended you play this with eight people
– Not recommended for players who are nitpicky about every single detail and have difficulties dealing with stressful situations.


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