28 August 2018
Is the submarine party game lost at sea without its Captain?
Captain Sonar was a fantastic party game twist on Battleship with one major flaw: much like the submarines that two teams piloted around the grid maps in hope of blowing their opponents out of the water, you needed a full crew for everything to feel shipshape. Any fewer than eight (six at a push) and the madcap juggling of moving, repairing systems, preparing and firing weapons, and tracking the enemy vessel in real-time began to sink under its own weight.
In steps Sonar, an effort to make the brilliant central gameplay of Captain Sonar more likely to surface with smaller groups of two to four. In short, it’s a simple case of half the name, half the game; the controlling role of captain has been combined with the weapon management of the first mate, while the engineer and the need to fix weapons by moving in certain directions have been thrown overboard completely, leaving the radio operator (the most exciting role to begin with) to do their thing just as before.
There are some changes to the way things work outside of the sub, too. Torpedoes no longer cause reduced splash damage, meaning only a direct hit counts, but they can fire anywhere within each quarter-section of the four smaller maps in the box, so range is never really a problem. There’s a smaller selection of abilities, with those left having a weaker effect and now drawing from a shared pool of energy, charged by a block each time the vessel moves. There’s also no real-time mode anymore, with players taking turns regardless of whether they’re a lone sailor or crews of two.
The result is a game that still looks and feels like Captain Sonar to some degree, but lacks some of what made its bigger sibling so enjoyable in the first place. With essentially unlimited time to plot your next move, the hectic fun of trying to work with your crew to outpace the enemy is gone, leaving an arguably more strategic and thinky experience. Or at least, that would be the case if most of the options hadn’t been taken away, leaving a tighter but more repetitive loop of moving, scanning and firing – no dropping mines to try and lay an ambush, no bluffing about your position when a sonar is deployed, no exciting cat-and-mouse chase when the enemy captain calls ‘near miss’ after a torpedo explodes.
Even with the restriction to alternating turns, matches wrap up quicker, but they lack a lot of the tension and punch-the-air joy that make the longer game worth spending the extra time on. Captain Sonar can still be technically be played with two people in turns, so there’s not a whole lot of reason to pick up this box unless you know you’ll never play with more than four people or you really can’t deal with managing the extra roles and want a drastically simplified version – the lack of options might be a plus for families.
There’s enough of Captain Sonar left here to provide more than half an hour of fun, and some of the changes smartly overcome the need to gather a boatload of people together every time you want to play. But what’s missing is enough to leave the game feeling like it’s sprung a leak and is operating at half capacity, rather than sleekly cruising beneath the waves seeking out its next target. Not quite a miss, but not a direct hit either.
For those struggling to get a full crew together for Captain Sonar, its compact alternative offers up some interesting changes that make it a bit more manageable. Unfortunately, they also detract from some of the best parts of the original, leaving a game that feels like half the experience in almost every way.
Designer: Roberto Fraga, Yohan Lemonnier
Artist: Ervin Tobal, Sabrina Tobal
Time: 30 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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