Tensions were at their highest when the enemy sub had us cornered along the edge of the map. I wiped the sweat from my brow and stared at the engineer’s console in front of me, desperate for a way to maneuver out of this mess. The captain wanted to head west, but I shouted back that our submarine couldn’t handle the stress. We needed to surface now, or the whole place was going to blow.
And that’s when we heard the captain of the enemy team shout from across the table: "Firing torpedo!"
Right then I knew that Captain Sonar was something special. Located deep in the heart of game publisher Asmodee’s sprawling booth on the Gen Con vendor floor in Indianapolis, a crowd had been growing around us this whole time. Few other games attracted more excitement, or larger groups, during the convention’s opening days. Before the weekend was over, it had sold out.
"When we first got the prototype a few months ago, I got together seven other guys in our lunch area and set up the first game," Asmodee’s Charlie Bates told Polygon. "We had never seen it before, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We started playing it and — just like here at the convention — a crowd of our co-workers showed up wondering what all the yelling was about.
"That went on for a couple of weeks. Somebody was always playing, and there was always a crowd around them."
The two teams directly across from each other, their information hidden from the opposing side. Sadly, uniforms are not included.
Captain Sonar is a submarine duel pitting two teams of up to four players against one another in fast-paced, real-time gameplay. Separated by cardboard screens, each team divides their submarine’s responsibilities into four unique roles: captain, first mate, engineering and radio operator. Each role is tremendously important, and teamwork is required to successfully discover the opposing submarine and destroy it before the game is through.
Think of every position as its own real-time mini-game, with each completely crucial to the team’s survivability.
"As you can expect, it makes for a very chaotic, very exciting and very fun experience as you’re trying to keep track of your job while listening to what the enemy is doing," Bates said. "You hope they don’t catch you when you’re surfacing to repair, or run into one of their mines or anything like that."
The captain is responsible for setting the submarine’s course as well as dictating which of the vessel’s various weapons and surveillance equipment to deploy. They will shout commands and then use a dry erase marker to plot out their course on the map.
After their command is issued, the first mate responds to their charging one of the submarine’s systems each time the ship moves. Mines and torpedos are used to sink the enemy sub, while probes and sonar are useful in pinpointing where your opponent is lurking. The first mate may also choose to engage the stealth drive, allowing her team to make a quick escape when the opposing team has a lock on their location.
If one of the four quadrants on the engineer’s board fills up completely, the submarine suffers one damage. After four points of damage, it’s destroyed.
But every system adds strain to the submarine, and engineers ensure that it doesn’t sustain critical damage. Certain systems need to be disabled to reduce heat so that others can remain active, and communication between the engineer and the captain is vital to ensure that plans are successfully carried out to completion.
And finally, there’s the radio operator, which might be my favorite role in the game. They are responsible for tracking the enemy team’s movements by listening to their table talk. Using a clear plastic sheet and a marker, they try to plot possible locations and avenues for attack. Their contributions to the team are perhaps the most important, as locating the other team’s sub and destroying it is the only way to win.
If the submarine’s systems are too overloaded or there’s nowhere to go, the captain can choose to surface their vessel. While this eliminates all checked boxes on the engineer’s board, it also requires that the captain announce their submarine’s current location to the enemy. There's also a lengthy delay required before the surfaced team can submerge again, granting a clear opportunity of attack to the opposition.
The game also features a turn-based option for playing the game, allowing for a slower and more deliberately-paced hunt. While still fun, Captain Sonar is at its finest when teams are engaged in a chaotic real-time duel to the death.
During my demo session, our crew shouted and screamed with every successful maneuver and impact of a torpedo. As the engineer, I desperately tried to keep vital systems online for our ship to fight back. Crowds of attendees gathered around our eight-player table to catch a glimpse of the action. But like one of my favorite submarine movies, The Hunt for Red October, we had fallen right into our enemy’s lethal trap. Curse you, Sean Connery!
But despite taking on water and losing all hands, I had so much fun that I couldn’t wait to take our little submarine out for another ride.
"We’re really happy about the success of the game," Bates said. "It’s great to see the excitement we felt when we first played it is shared by everybody else."
Captain Sonar will be widely available this September.