Review: Captain Sonar

All crew – man your battlestations! There’s a unidentified object inbound, and it’s coming in hot. Deploy countermeasures — begin evasive maneuvers — brace for impact! Captain Sonar is about to enter the BGG Top 100!

A bit dramatic perhaps? I’ll give you that. But it’s hard to overstate how fun, fast-paced, and exciting this real-time submarine battle simulator can be.

Basic Training

In Captain Sonar, players take the role of two rival submarine crews engaged in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. It’s like designers Roberto Fraga and Yohan Lemonnier did a high-end renovation of Battleship. I’m not talking about a cheap flip here; this was a full gut job, done with remarkable vision and creativity, expert craftsmanship, and the utmost care.

Instead of making you guess blindly at the locations of a bunch of stationary flotsam, Captain Sonar invites two teams of players to take full control of their submarine, each steering around the map to find and destroy their opponent. Each team features four distinct roles.

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At the helm, the Captain calls out directions to move the sub across the grid, coordinates with his team, and deploys systems such as torpedoes, mines, and sonar. The Radio Operator, meanwhile, tracks the opposing Captain’s movements and attempts to identify the location of the enemy sub through careful deduction. The First Mate powers up the various weapons and tactical systems as the ship moves. Once fully powered up, these systems can be used to pinpoint and destroy the opponent- but only if they’re fully functional. The Engineer is tasked with channeling and repairing the inevitable damage to systems caused by the wear and tear of submerged movement. 

Repairing damaged systems forms a key part of the strategy of Captain Sonar. Without getting into a full rules explanation here, the designers have come up with a very interesting set of options to repair damaged systems. There’s a safe way, but it limits your flexibility as you must move in specific directions to take advantage of this option. There’s a fast and less restrictive way, but it causes your ship to take damage, bringing you closer to sinking and losing the game. And lastly, there’s surfacing.

Surfacing is one of the most exciting (and stressful) parts of Captain Sonar!

In some ways, surfacing is an attractive option because it allows you to repair all systems and erase your ship’s prior path (helpful since you can’t cross over your path, like an aquatic game of Snake). However, there’s a bit of a catch. When surfacing, the Captain must announce the ship’s quadrant, and the ship cannot move until all players have completed an Operation-like exercise of tracing the outline of the submarine while staying within the lines. It’s okay… no rush… don’t even worry about that enemy ship readying its torpedoes as it barrels towards you. Did I forget to mention that all of the actions and decisions in Captain Sonar happen in real time?

A direct hit with a mine or torpedo causes two damage, while an indirect hit causes one. After four damage, it’s time to start running for those life preservers, as the sound of the alarm begins to drown out your enemy’s raucous celebration crackling over the radio.

Direct Hit!

First things first – let’s get the negatives out of the way. Perhaps the biggest problem I’ve witnessed players having with this game involves the role of the Radio Operator. It can be hard at times to properly track the orders given by the opposing Captain, and all it takes is one misstep to completely throw off the Radio Operator’s mapping.

To some extent, mapping errors can be the fault of the Radio Operator, but sometimes they’re unfairly penalized by an opposing Captain who isn’t loud or clear enough. In the games I’ve played, we generally allow the Radio Operator to pause the game and ask for clarification on the last three orders if they’re unsure. That has worked well for us, but each group may have different preferences in this area.

On to the positives. The two best things I can say about Captain Sonar are these: It is completely unlike any other game I’ve played; and it is FUN.

I don’t mean to imply that I don’t also enjoy games that offer a quieter, calmer type of fun. I love puzzling through a heavy worker placement game and then dissecting the strategies with my friends. It’s very satisfying and feels like good exercise for my brain. But if Euro games were like composing music, Captain Sonar would be playing an improvised part in a live orchestra.


The fact that all of the actions happen in real time — each team can move at their desired pace, irrespective of their opponent — is what takes Captain Sonar from good to great. There are other real time games out there too, but Captain Sonar does it best. In other real time games, you generally want to move as quickly as you are able, and the fastest player often wins.

Captain Sonar is much more balanced than other real time games, as there is a trade-off associated with speed. Sure, you can cover more distance and power up your systems more quickly, but your systems are also receiving damage at a higher rate and you’re giving your opponent more clues as to your location. With a couple of games under your belt, you’ll develop a feel for the ebb and flow, when to lie in wait and when to strike. When the changes in tempo string together like a symphony… it’s board gaming perfection, my friends.

If you want a calmer experience as you first learn, or if you have less than 8 players, Captain Sonar can accommodate those needs. There’s a turn based version of the game, and players can take on multiple roles at once. I’ve tried a turn based game with two players, and it was enjoyable. But you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t try Captain Sonar with a full contingent of 8 players, all acting and reacting in real time. It is a true work of art.


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