Dive, Evade, Scrawl, Erase
There’s something special about real-time games. Whether it’s the team-on-team action of Space Cadets: Dice Duel, the brisk cooperation of Meteor or FUSE, or the nigh-impossible machinations of current reigning champion Space Alert, nothing gets the heart drumming like a game where minutes count. Where seconds count. Stripped out is the freedom to analyze or negotiate or stall. Gone is the mathy higher brain function that dominates so many games. All that remains is panic and reflex.
Captain Sonar grasps what makes real-time games such a thrill. And, calling it right now, it’s not only one of the best real-time games ever made, it’s also one of the best games. Full stop.
Allow me to tell you a tale of the sea.
Our submarine — the HMS Poonanner — had been skirting the edges of the archipelago for years-long minutes, trying to force a confrontation with our opponent on favorable terms. Our enemy had been dubbed the Red Menace by a voice on the other side of the radio. Whether that was their sub’s true name or merely a signal either garbled or misunderstood we could not know. Revolting against the laws of physics as we wove a course between islands, there was no time to think. Not when the enemy’s drones were in the sky and the ping of sonar was surely painting us on their overheads in Christmas lights.
Problem was, our vessel was buckling under the stress. The pressure in the reactor was close to critical, our electrical systems were in danger of declaring themselves our second nemesis, and multiple quadrants were only a few nautical inches from bursting. Which is why, safely tucked beside an island in the northeastern sector of the chain, Captain Chen announced we’d be surfacing for repairs.
Surfaced as we were, the Red Menace would be zeroing in on our position with every passing heartbeat. It was all hands on alert. Even the Radio Operator, straining to hear hints of the enemy’s movements through his headset, was forced to perform double duty for a few precious moments. As the ship’s Engineer, my voice was frantic and my hands trembling. My fingers slipped, forcing me to restart some minor task, something so simple and automatic that in any other situation my mind would hardly realize I was doing it. Next to me, Captain Chen personally aided in the repairs.
It was a torpedo, detonating just south of our position. The sub shuddered, hull whining as the blast rolled over us. We continued working, even faster and less coordinated than before, animal panic beginning to take hold. The First Mate made a slip-up on the bridge, corrected it, slipped up again. Through the Radio Operator’s headset, we could hear the excited chatter aboard the Red Menace. They knew their torpedo had been close.
The second shot was more than close; it was a direct hit. The sub bucked around us. When the room settled, we were alive. Injured but not beaten. Captain Chen was practically hopping up and down. “Dive! Dive dive dive!” We slipped beneath the surface, graceful and quiet even though we were probably also spouting hydraulic fluid into the sea. “Activate silence,” Captain Chen ordered. The First Mate nodded and together they charted a course to the west, evading our enemy. In the engine room, a circuit protested by failing.
Farther west we drove. The Red Menace cast about, a third torpedo echoing through the underwater canyons. They’d guessed our direction incorrectly. For the time being, we were safe.
“West,” Captain Chen said. “West. West.” Bit by bit, the breakers and patched-together circuits in the engine room sprayed sparks. I tried to manage the breakdowns, directing the strain to the reactor, then the sonar, then the propulsion systems.
“Jimmy?” I said to the Captain. “If we go west again, I think we’re going to explode.” When I glanced up, our sub was caught between two islands. Nowhere to go but forward. Not that it mattered. Captain Chen’s mouth was already open to give his next order.
The detonation of our reactor could be heard much farther away than the radio room of the Red Menace. Around us, two small islands were rendered uninhabitable.
Oh well. At least future generations will have one more suitable location for testing nukes.
What makes Captain Sonar so perfect is the way it breeds these Tom Clancy moments of tension and terror, those half-second instants when you realize the enemy knows exactly where you are while you’re still floundering in circles. Every single thing I wrote above is something that happens in the game, from the slow burn of hunting your opponent to the frantic pace of surfacing for repairs. Ship systems break down under repeated use. Sonar clues you into big moving objects, both enemy subs and migrating whales alike. And when the chips are down, crews fall together or fall apart.
It’s also a game where you can lay traps for your unsuspecting enemy. How cool is that?
Here’s the idea. Two teams of four people apiece — and it really should be a full eight players, maybe six if you can’t make two extra friends — each helm their own submarine in a duel to the death. In addition to having your own dry-erase board and markers, everyone has their own role to play. The Captain is the guy whose job it is to steer around the ocean, avoiding collisions with islands and hunting down the enemy sub. The trick is that the Captain is also playing a game of Snakes, unable to cross his own path until the sub surfaces. With every move, the First Mate gets an extra charge to the system of her choice, stuff like torpedoes or sonar pings or silent engines, while the Engineer charts breakdowns and tries to keep the Captain informed about when would be a good time to head a particular direction. And while all of that is happening, the Radio Operator is straining his ears to hear the other team’s chatter, keeping track of their suspected course.
This hums like a real-world nuclear submarine largely because each role is so entirely dependent on what everyone else is doing on your side of the table. The Captain is the dude with the final say about where to move, but he’s got to pay attention to the Engineer or the sub will end up suffering catastrophic damage without the enemy ever getting near you. At the same time, the First Mate might be merrily adding pips to his chart, but without the Captain knowing what’s ready and what’s still juicing up — and often more importantly, without knowing whether the Engineer has the right systems ready to accommodate the dropping of a mine or the launching of a drone — nothing is going to happen once you reach punching distance.
A well-oiled crew will therefore feature a lot of leaning over, whispering in hushed tones, and occasionally belting out faulty information, all while working out the best way to coordinate your movements and systems and all the rest of it. And yet your cleverest plans might come unraveled when the opposing radioman figures out that you’re trying to lure them into that corner where you’ll be undertaking repairs because you laid a mine in that channel fifteen moves ago.
Even the workmanlike act of repairing leaks and short-outs is a stroke of genius. While your vessel scuttles around the seabed, the Engineer is playing a tough-as-nails minigame with the Captain. I mentioned how every move busts something on the ship, but what isn’t immediately apparent is that you can repair those broken connections by matching them together into circuits. Even cooler, once you’ve taken too much damage or backed yourself into a corner navigation-wise, you surface — and announce your sector to the enemy team, which usually means they’ll start beelining to your position — and then everyone on your team begins wildly tracing the sector outlines on the Engineer’s mat. Only once the whole ship is locked down and the opposing engineer confirms your work will you be able to dive into the relative safety of the depths.
From start to finish, Captain Sonar is easily one of the slickest and most wickedly clever real-time games ever devised. It does require a decent number of people to operate, at least unless you’re willing to resort to an obligatory turn-based mode. But that robs this incredible title of precisely what makes it so wonderful: the constant claustrophobic terror of hearing your enemy moving faster than you, smarter than you, and ever closer. There’s hardly room to breathe, let alone think. But if you’ve got a good group of friends who can handle the stress, Captain Sonar is about as close to perfection as a board game gets.