My priority for these past few weeks has been to review games a) about which I felt I could say something passably interesting, and b) apt to be of interest to the gaming public–hot new releases and the like. Captain Sonar definitely is of the latter category; I have access to copies; and I’ve played it a few times and my opinion is reasonably solidified.
I’m not going to review it, though, for the simple reason that I don’t think I can say anything useful about it. You see, Captain Sonar divides players into two teams and has each of them fulfill a specific role within that team. And two of those roles–Captain and Radio Operator–are pretty much inaccessible to me as a gamer and as a critic.
Those roles have you do real-time spatial puzzles. The Radio Operator, in particular, gets this ever-expanding set of data they use to narrow down the enemy ship’s location. The data expands in real-time, so they don’t ever have the luxury of pausing the game so they can just work through possibilities in their head.
The thought of being a Radio Operator fills me with a sensation that could perhaps best be called “dread.” I can’t stand many kinds of puzzles. My friends back in Cambridge would do the MIT Mystery Hunt, and I would hear the kinds of things one does in that event, and it struck me as the least fun anyone could have this side of a Tough Mudder Electro-Race (that’s what they’re called, right?). In University, I almost failed symbolic logic because of a certain puzzle-like kind of problem called derivations. Metatheory, which stumped many of my colleagues, was no issue for me–but I could toil away at a derivation for hours and get nowhere. I speak from experience.
To a certain extent, I realize that this puts me in the minority of gamers. Puzzle hunts and related things seem popular with our set, and more power to them. But I want no part of them–I find them frustrating, inscrutable, tedious, and in a real-time team context, inordinately stressful. Quite honestly, the rare times I’ve been caught in competitive challenges of the sort I’m apt to just concede very early and move on with my life… but I wouldn’t have that luxury if a team were depending on me.
Let me say that the puzzle in Captain Sonar seems very nicely done. It certainly has an elegance to how it integrates communication, usable data, unusable noise, and nifty components. But I can’t evaluate it, because it’s categorically Not My Thing.
And I don’t want to make a review where a substantial portion of the analysis can offer no insight past “it’s Not My Thing.” I don’t think anyone with my dislikes could read the rules or consume any news of the game without knowing it’s Not Their Thing, either. So, in short, a review of the game wouldn’t allow any sort of substantive critique or analysis. I couldn’t compare it to other kinds of mechanisms in other games, because I avoid those types of mechanisms like the plague. I couldn’t give you any useful description of what it is like to play the game in those roles, because all I’d be able to offer is “dear Lord make it stop.”
I mean, I could talk about the roles I can do competently (First Mate and Engineer), but that’s just half the game. Less than that, really, since the Engineer is pretty low on agency–which, it is worth noting, is how I most enjoy Captain Sonar. And I do enjoy it in those roles, make no mistake, but really I can’t contribute anything to discourse about the game. Mostly I’d just suggest that people try Space Cadets: Dice Duels, which you really ought to–it is more flexible in player count, if nothing else.
I say all this not because there’s been a groundswell of demand for me to review Captain Sonar–the only one I’ve gotten multiple requests for is Inis, and let me tell you if I could get access to a copy I would indeed review it–but because I hope my decision not to review Captain Sonar illustrates a little of what I’m trying to do and not do in my reviews.