Swabber Sonar

"Which way? Left?" / "Right!" / "Right?" / "Scout's Honor!"

There were precisely two problems with last year’s firecracker-in-a-tin-can Captain Sonar. One, it benefited from a crew of at least six people to staff its dueling submarines, and was further improved by a full complement of eight. And two, it was the direct opposite of a good meditation session. It could get so hairy it was almost a cure for balding.

Sonar — sans the Captain — is Matagot’s gesture of reconciliation toward those who suffered post-traumatic stress as a result of their time at the scope, helm, engine room, and torpedo tube. In theory, it’s the same grand sub-hunting action, but for two or four players and at a much more relaxed pace. The question, then, is whether Sonar represents a dry-erase The Hunt for Red October — or is it more akin to Down Periscope?

He always goes starboard in the bottom half of the hour.

Ah yes, hunting for a sub that’s recently gone silent.

For veterans of Captain Sonar, this will be easier if you set aside everything you know. The multiple stations with their interlocking demands, the sense of suffocating panic as your reactor started melting down, even the terror of staying surfaced too long. All gone.

Sonar is still about dueling submarines. Both sides are still divided by a pleasantly expansive screen, and everyone will be making dry-erase marks on dry-erase mats. And killing your opponent is still as simple as blasting them with a torpedo. This is simpler than ever, actually, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

There are two stations per side in Sonar, and careful coordination between both is instrumental to any submarine’s continued survival. The captain’s task is to steer the thing, avoiding islands and trying to confuse their pursuer. Every move will charge up a pip of energy, which can eventually be spent to do something with your turn other than steering around the depths. Launching a torpedo, for instance, costs all four pips, while sonar — which forces the enemy sub to announce either their row or column — costs two, and silence charges three for the honor of moving a single space without announcing it out loud.

Ah yes, that bit. Out loud. While both captains are steering their underwater boats, the radio operator is charting their rival’s moves on a sheet of plastic and sliding it back and forth across their map of the ocean in order to hone in on a target. When the captain decides it’s time to do something other than tootle along from one reef to another, they will consult the radio operator’s chart, make some tutting noises, and then do what they feel is best anyway, since they’re the ones managing the energy and the sub’s position and, well, everything really.

It’s a tad ironic that these roles should feel so unequal, especially since one of the most-repeated criticisms of Captain Sonar was that its four stations were vastly different in terms of responsibility and pressure. Being the captain was tougher than being the engineer, which was orders of magnitude harder than being the guy who charged up the weapons and reconnaissance systems. Not that this was ever actually a flaw in Captain Sonar’s design. If anything, it allowed those with nervous constitutions to adopt a less significant role, or let players swap between the dizzying demands of captaincy and the beachside vacation of filling the first mate’s galoshes.

In Sonar, the captain’s role is one of navigation, resource management, and timing. While the game is no longer played in real-time, there’s still some tension to determining the right moment to slip into an adjacent sea zone or to use a particular power. By contrast, the radio operator is playing a game of mild deduction, especially once their prey deploys their silent engines. Tight coordination is essential.

They call themselves Beardy & Baldy, attorneys at law.

Team Odd Couple.

But while many of Captain Sonar’s rivets have been more or less faithfully rendered, a few too many concessions have been made in simplicity’s name.

Nowhere is this illustrated more fully than by the way torpedoes operate. In Captain Sonar, they could be fired at targets only a handful of spaces away, and depending on whether you’d sussed out your opponent’s coordinates might either hit them directly or bounce them around with a shockwave, dealing less damage but providing some margin for error. Firing a torpedo was a bold act, undertaken only when you’d prowled within punching distance of your foe. It broadly signaled your position, and might even damage your own sub if you happened to be too close to your enemy.

In Sonar, each map is divided into four zones, and a torpedo may be launched at any space within your zone. It might seem like a small thing, but it effectively robs Sonar of everything that made its big brother so interesting — the knife-fight ranges, the blind terror of fleeing from an unseen enemy who’s got you in their sights — and instead makes Sonar into a game about slipping from one sea zone to another in order to stay out of reach until you’ve charged up your torpedoes. It’s no surprise that subs often find themselves lingering on the edges between zones, since these painfully artificial boundaries are the difference between fiery destruction and evading an enemy who’s sitting twenty nautical inches to starboard.

Many of Captain Sonar’s other elements have been similarly stripped down to the hull. Your silent engines move you a single space rather than up to three, so any halfway decent radio operator will sniff out your trail like a bloodhound trying to locate a meat packing factory. Surfacing doesn’t represent another opportunity to panic, with the enemy sub beelining toward your position — it’s a one-turn jaunt to air out all those canned farts. Since your enemy probably already knows your position, even telling them where you are hardly feels like a penalty.

That there are classically-defined "actions" at all is sort of a stinker compared to Cap Sonar. Arguing about who screamed STOP! first was part of the charm.

The actions, energy, and damage that indicate the state of your sub.

The reason I’m being so hard on Sonar is because its predecessor wasn’t a game about resource management and navigational deduction, even though it contained both. And it certainly wasn’t about lurking alongside arbitrary zone lines. Rather, it was one of those rare games that evoked its setting with naval exactness — but rather than leaning toward simulation by making you memorize bomber outlines or fiddle with pressure gauges, it was about evoking a particular set of emotions. Claustrophobia. Paranoia. That tingle on the back of your neck when you’re waiting for someone to jab their finger into your ribs. The constant oppressive certainty that you’re the weakest link that will cause your crew to die from inhaling too much water. Was it stressful? Hell yes. Some days, it wasn’t a game I wanted to play.

But it was also special, and a dynamite way to get eight people hollering at each other to (das) boot. It was far more than the sum of its parts. It was a real-time game in the same red-faced category as Space Alert, but one packing the brass to pit you against thinking human beings rather than a deck of cards.

Sonar works as a sort of Lieutenant Sonar. Maybe Deck-Swabber Sonar. It’s pleasant enough, and although that very word — pleasant — is like spittle on Captain Sonar’s deck, it still retains some of its appeal. Just not enough to make its nuclear reactor truly hum.

Posted on November 1, 2017, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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