Monday, 26 December 2016

Captain Sonar

Plays: 7Px1, 8Px2.

The Game

Captain Sonar was the only game from the 2016 Essen batch that got me excited enough to order without trying. I watched a video review from Shut Up & Sit Down before the Essen game fair, and I decided then and there I must play this game.

Captain Sonar is a team game for eight players, with four to a team. You are a crew member of a submarine. Your objective is to find and destroy the enemy submarine. This is a real-time game. Although it comes with turn-based rules, it is designed as a real-time game so I have no interest in trying out the turn-based version.

The game box is rather heavy, and the heaviest component is this very long screen. It consists of two pieces. During play, it separates the two teams so that they cannot see the player boards of their opponents. They can only hear what their opponents say.

The four crew members of a submarine have different roles to play - captain, first mate, radio operator and engineer. If you don't have eight players, some will need to play two or more roles.

This is the captain's player board. This map is your battleground. It is divided into nine sectors. Every row and every column is labeled. The islands are impassable. The captain's job is to set the course for the submarine, and to trigger the use of equipment aboard the submarine. At the start of the game you mark a starting point for your team (X marks the spot). As you steer the submarine, you draw your path on the map. Your path must not overlap itself, so the longer you move, the fewer options you will have. Spots marked with an M are mines you have dropped.

This is the radio operator's player board and transparent plastic sheet. Captains must announce the direction every time they move their submarines. The radio operator's job is to listen to the directions given by the enemy captain. You plot the path on the plastic sheet, and try to fit it on the map, in order to pinpoint the location of the enemy submarine. Notice that the path drawn in this photo is the same as the one in the previous photo, which means the radio operator has been doing his job well, tracking the opponent's every move. However there are still many possible positions for this path on the map, so the radio operator cannot be sure yet where the opponent submarine is.

This is the engineer's player board. Every time the captain moves the submarine, something has to break. The engineer's job is to decide what breaks. All these circles are components which can break. They are grouped into four, one group for each direction in which the captain can move the submarine. Whenever the captain moves in a certain direction, the engineer must pick a component in the corresponding group to break - crossing out that component. When a component is crossed out, the equipment type it represents is out of order and cannot be used. In this photo all three equipment type - yellow, red and green - have crosses on them, so none of them can be used for now. When too many components break and are not repaired in time, the submarine suffers permanent damage. If all six components in a group break, an explosion occurs and the submarine takes one point of permanent damage. All six components are then reset - the crosses are erased. Among the bottom row of components, there are six representing the nuclear reactor. They normally don't cause trouble when crossed out, but when all six are crossed out, an explosion occurs causing one point of permanent damage. They too are reset after the explosion. The submarine is destroyed upon the 4th point of permanent damage, which can be self inflicted as above, or can be due to enemy attack.

Some components are linked by coloured lines. These represent auto-repair circuits. Whenever all four components in a linked group are broken, they all reset. E.g. the yellow group in the photo. The engineer may now erase all crosses in the yellow group. The engineer needs to utilise this auto-repair mechanism as much as possible to keep the submarine in good condition and to keep the equipment functioning. You must advise the captain which directions to move in and which directions to avoid. You need to know what equipment the captain intends to use, so that you can avoid breaking any components of that equipment type.

This is the first mate's player board. His job is the simplest, and it is like charging up batteries. He prepares equipment for use. Each time the captain moves, you charge one equipment by one step. When an equipment is fully charged, it is ready for use. In this photo, the torpedo (bottom left) and sonar (bottom centre) are both ready. The drone (top centre) is one step away from being ready. The first mate needs to know what the captain plans to do next, so that he can prepare the corresponding equipment. He is also responsible for recording any permanent damage to the submarine at the top right corner.

There are five basic equipment available to the players. To use an equipment, the captain announces so, and everyone from both teams drops whatever he is doing. The equipment use must be resolved before the game resumes. There are two conditions for using an equipment. Firstly, it must be fully charged. Secondly, there must be no damage to any of its components on the engineer's board. I'll briefly describe each equipment. When using the drone, you try to guess which sector the enemy submarine is in. The enemy captain must truthfully answer whether your guess is correct. When using sonar, the enemy captain must tell you two pieces of information, out of three options - the sector he is in, the row he is in and the column he is in. One piece of information must be true, and the other must be false. When using a mine, you plant a mine on the map and may later detonate it. A submarine at the location of the mine takes two damage. A submarine next to it takes one damage. When using a torpedo, the captain shoots up to four steps away. The damage done is similar to that of the mine. When using silence, you get to move up to four steps in any direction without needing to announce it to the opposing team. The purpose is evasion. So, you have equipment that helps you detect your enemy, equipment that allows you to attack them, and equipment to help you avoid being hunted down.

One other important element in the game is surfacing. This is an important action, but it comes with risks. When the captain decides to surface, two good things happen to you. First, the captain gets to erase the route drawn on his map. This means you are again free to move anywhere you want without being constrained by your previous path. Second, the engineer repairs all temporarily damaged components. You basically start with a clean slate. The danger though, is the captain must announce the current sector of the submarine. This means you let your opponent narrow down the search area. When you surface, everyone on your team needs to complete a maintenance procedure. This is an exercise that ties you down for a period of time, making you vulnerable. See the photo below.

This is part of the engineer's player board. When you surface, everyone on your team takes turns drawing lines around these four sections of your submarine. You must draw carefully and not touch the edges. You also need to write your initials. This must be done one by one, and once all four sections are completed, the engineer shows this to the enemy engineer for verification. Only when the enemy engineer confirms that the maintenance has been done properly can you dive and resume play. While you are doing maintenance, the enemy takes actions as normal and will be trying to find you and attack you. Or at least they will use the time to escape and hide.

The game ends once one submarine is destroyed. The other submarine wins.

The Play

So far I have played captain and engineer, and they are very very different. When I was captain, my approach was to find then destroy. In the early game I tried to use the green (detection) equipment often so that my radio operator could locate the enemy. Edwind was my first mate, and Edmond my engineer. I watched their boards closely, telling them what equipment I intended to use, so that they could align their actions with mine. My radio operator was Tyle. He got close to a mental breakdown due to the tension. He had a tough time trying to track down the enemy submarine. There were quite a few times I turned to him asking him where the enemy was, and he had nothing for me. Sometimes I saw that he had taken lots of notes and plotted a long convoluted route on his sheet, but just a moment later when I was ready to fire the torpedo, I turned to him only to see that he had just erased everything and had to start taking notes again. My heart sank and I mentally screamed what the hell man what are you doing? Or perhaps that wasn't purely mental. Once when I pressed him for the enemy position, he shushed me, telling me to keep quiet so that he could listen properly to the enemy captain. What?! How dare you shush your captain, sergeant?! He was really stressed out. Actually this was Benz's fault. He was the enemy captain, and he didn't announce his movements clearly enough. They had only three in their team, which was easier than having four in a team. Benz played both captain and first mate. He only needed to discuss with Xiao Zhu, his engineer, when planning his movement. They discussed quietly, and Benz announced his directions quietly too, so Tyle often got confused which directions were part of the discussion and which were the eventual decisions. In contrast, Ruby, the enemy radio operator, had an easy time tracking our moves. As captain, I announced my every move loudly and clearly. Benz didn't bother with detection equipment, he just wanted to arm and attack. Xiao Zhu understood it, and made sure he kept the weapons systems online. Ruby located us easily, and they even managed to score a direct hit. I knew then we were screwed, because a direct hit meant they knew our exact location. I had my Silence fully charged, and I knew I needed to use it ASAP. However at the time I was in a narrow strait. I needed to exit the strait in order to have more escape paths to pick from. I managed to exit the strait, but just as I was about to scream "Stop" to activate my Silence, Benz yelled "Stop". They took another shot, which scored an indirect hit, and sank our submarine. Game over.

The second time I played, I did two full 8-player games back-to-back. I was engineer this time. Tyle was captain, Jeixel radio operator and Zhi Nin first mate. On the opposing team we had Edwind as captain, Moe as radio operator, Li Li as first mate and Yee Wern as engineer. As engineer, I needed to remind my captain which systems were down, and which directions to move in order to trigger auto-repair. I needed to ask him what he intended to use, so that I could avoid bringing those systems down. There was once I became careless, and didn't alert Tyle that another move North would cause an explosion. We suffered self-inflicted damage. Sorry...

Benz didn't play this time. He wanted to watch us play so that he could feel the game from a bystander's perspective. He said it was nerve-racking. He could see that both our radio operators managed to track the enemy submarine very accurately, and it became a matter of who struck first. This time round I emphasised the importance of the captain announcing his moves clearly, so both the radio operators had an easier time. In the first game, my submarine was sunk by two direct hits.

In the second game that day, Moe and Edwind switched roles and Moe tried out playing captain. At one critical moment he made a bold move, detonating a mine when his submarine was right next to it. He knew he would take damage, but it wouldn't sink him yet. However if he guessed right that we were next to or at the same location as the mine, the detonation would kill us. It turned out that he was right, and he sent us to our watery graves. Our submarines were only two steps apart!

Playing Captain Sonar is a nail-biting experience. I think it is most stressful playing as captain and radio operator. The captain has the full picture and knows best how precarious a situation the team is in. The radio operator needs to pay close attention to the enemy captain, and needs to communicate with his own captain too. When sonar or the drone is used, he needs to digest and process any new information that is gained. The engineer's job is an evolving puzzle. He is constantly making judgement calls on how best to break things. The first mate's job is simpler than the rest, so this is a role suitable for a new player, or the late arrival whom you want to squeeze into a game without repeating the full rules explanation that he has just missed. A simple role doesn't mean it is a meaningless role. Its very existence increases the challenge in communicating effectively, which is a big part of what Captain Sonar is. It is the chaos and the teamwork under time pressure which makes the game so exciting. It is what makes scoring a hit so exhilarating.

I have lost all three of the games I played. However the utter joy that I see on the faces of the victors is unforgettable. After a prolonged period of stress, that final victory is not only an achievement, it is also a huge relief.

The seating positions are fixed. Those two closest to the camera are the radio operators (Moe and Jeixel). Next are the captains (Edwind and Tyle). Then the first mates (Li Li and Zhi Nin), and finally the engineers (Yee Wern and I). Captains need to sit near the middle because they need to stay in close touch with every teammate. The radio operators need to sit near the enemy captains, because they need to listen to their announcements.

We all look so serious and tense.

The Thoughts

Captain Sonar is a tense real-time team game. The rules are quite straight-forward, so this is a game you can teach both gamers and non-gamers. I think it is best to play with eight. It can be a challenge gathering enough players. I brought the game to the office so that I could recruit enough players. Since this is a team game, you get that kind of satisfaction when everyone does his part, and together you achieve something greater than the sum of its parts. A submarine hunt is suspenseful, because initially you don't know where the enemy is. The tension escalates as both teams get closer and closer to locating each other, and as torpedoes are launched and mines detonated. Although this is a real-time game, it is not necessarily a speed game. If fact if you move about too much and too hastily, you are helping the enemy radio operator track you down. Of course there are times when you need to be quick, e.g. when the enemy locks on to you and you need to run and hide.

I have played three games so far. I can't say I have explored all the strategies. However given the game mechanisms I have seen, I don't think this is a strategically deep game. I can imagine a few strategies. E.g. you may want to plant many mines, then lure your opponent into your minefield to die. You can even use surfacing to lure your opponent into the minefield. Or if you know their position precisely, surfacing can tempt them to come near you. You can dive again quickly to shoot at them as they come near, having your torpedo ready beforehand. There are only that many levers in the game, so don't expect anything too deep. However this is not an issue. This is a real-time game. The fun of it is in scrambling to put together coherent actions without blowing yourselves up. It is about chaos and communications, confusion and trying hard to focus on your tasks. The pleasure of playing this game is in the execution, not in the strategic planning. Too complex a strategy will not be feasible in such a game format.

The friends who played Captain Sonar with me enjoyed it immensely, and discussed it enthusiastically afterwards. It does have an uncommon game format. It feels weird to open up a game box to see no cards and no dice. Captain Sonar sounds gimmicky. It is certainly novel. However I think the underlying idea is materialised well. It has a sound design. This game is great fun!

The game comes with five different maps. Some have additional rules. Some of the more advanced maps have fewer islands than the introductory map, giving captains more freedom of movement, and making finding the opponent submarine harder.


Tường Nguyễn said...

this blog is so helpful. Boardgame is relatively new here in Danang

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Glad you find it helpful. Happy gaming!