Captain Sonar Board Game Review (Asmodee)


Captain Sonar is intense, real-time, team-based battleship game, and though we've wanted to play it for a while, we've never had the exact eight players needed to properly play it. But in addition to being a real-time strategy game, Captain Sonar is also an exploration of who people are. This is not a serious strategy game: it's just free-for-all of nonsense that happens within a very tight, tense space. And that's what you'll either love or hate about it.

Captain Sonar Game Details

Players: 2 to 8

Game Time: 30 Minutes

Age: 10+

Genre: Real-Time / Strategy

How is Captain Sonar Played?

To be clear: Captain Sonar is a 2 to 8 player game. You don't need eight players to play it. You just need eight players to play it well. There are two teams in Captain Sonar and four essential roles; if you're playing with fewer than four people on each side, people have to double up on roles. This is very difficult because it's already a challenging game to win. In fact, it may be so challenging that it verges on being random.

Captain Sonar initially looks complex, but everyone is actually responsible for only a few very minor actions.

The four roles are:

  • The captain, who tells the ship where to go.
  • The engineer, who manages systems as they are disabled.
  • The first mate, who readies systems for deployment.
  • The navigator, who tracks the other team's movements.

You don't know where the other team started, but you can hear them shouting commands to go north, south, east, or west. Meanwhile, your captain is moving the ship. As the ship moves, it disables certain systems and powers up other systems. You can yell "STOP" when these systems are deployed to use them (assuming that they aren't disabled). Systems include:

  • Torpedos, which shoot in a straight line.
  • Mines, which can be detonated later.
  • Sonar and drones, used to figure out where the other team is.
  • Silence, which is used to move silently in direction.

During the game, you're shouting in real time, trying to figure out where the other team is. You're also trying to balance your systems, so the right systems are powered up and available. The captain has to move the ship in a "snake" pattern and they also need to move the ship in certain directions to get systems back up after they go down. All of this happens while the other team is also trying to locate you and hunt you down.

What Captain Sonar Tells You About Yourself as a Person

Despite everyone else I know absolutely loving Captain Sonar, my group absolutely hated this game. It's always really interesting to me when my players hate a game that's resoundingly popular; among other games they hated were T.I.M.E. Stories and Terraforming Mars, two very different games. It was equally interesting for me to listen to the reasons why.

  • One player said it is impossible to know if you were making mistakes in a real time game, and that stressed him out unnecessarily. I pointed out that we played Century: Spice Road and The Mind incorrectly for weeks, but he didn't seem swayed. Instead, he pointed out that real time games are the only ones in which you can play incorrectly and never be corrected by other players. Several other players agreed -- it was hectic enough that it was a free-for-all. 
  • Two players said it was just too intense, and that intensity and stress made it less fun. They said the turn-based, easy version of the game might be okay, but that it wasn't an enjoyable experience having to make decisions that quickly, and to always feel as though you might be doing the wrong thing.
  • Other players said it made it too easy for the other team to cheat, and it wasn't fun because of that; they couldn't tell whether players were talking about moves in advance because they were calculating their own moves, which meant they couldn't police the other team. They felt as though they were being treated unfairly but had no way to prove it.

So an interesting part of this was that all of the reasons they had for disliking the game was actually because they took the game seriously. They were very focused on winning the game, but they also hated being focused on winning the game. And it should be noted just before this, they had played another timed real-time game, Ugg-Tect, which is one of their favorite games.

Moreover, it seemed most of their concerns were about not being able to play the game correctly, or about other people playing the game correctly. They were so fixated on the fact that rules could be bent or skirted by in the heat of the moment, that the entire game became an exercise in frustration. 

A giant divider separates you from the other team during Captain Sonar.

For what it's worth, I'm not a fan of the game either, but for a different reason: it's not really a board game. It's a multiplayer mobile game brought to the table. It doesn't add anything by being a board game, because you aren't allowed to actually function as a team: you're limited regarding what you can say to your team members enough that it doesn't feel like you have any synergy.

You also don't interact with each other's "screens" at all, which makes it feel even more like a video game. The only time you interact with a screen is a segment in which you may need to all draw on the same board: a segment which feels asinine and pointless, since all it does is waste everyone's time. 

If I had been asked to guess whether my group would enjoy this game, I would have guessed that they would -- they play a lot of light-hearted party games that can't be taken seriously. But what I suspect is that because Captain Sonar is dressed up like an actual strategy game, what happened was they tried to approach a party game like a strategy game, which led to their frustration. Make no mistake, Captain Sonar could very well be an actual strategy game, but only in the event that you have perfect players.

For players who want to do well in a game and play a game right, Captain Sonar becomes frustrating because the gameplay is so nebulous. If someone "cheats" in the first round, no one else will ever know -- and if that matters to you, then the rest of the game won't be fun.

Captain Sonar Board Game Review
  • PRO: A real-time strategy game that makes everyone scramble -- and somehow makes Battleship seem new again. 
  • CON: It's hard to see the value in the way the game is structured vs. a mobile game, compared to something like Space Alert which makes better use of the format.