Saturday, 18 March 2017

Beyond the Veil - House Always Wins

This is a series of articles looking at the individual scenarios of Arkham Horror, starting with the Dunwich Legacy expansion. These will be my impressions after playing through the scenario at least once and will be focusing on the mechanics and how those reinforce the story elements of a given scenario. These articles will contain extensive spoilers and assume a familiarity with the terms and mechanics of the game. Please do not read on if you have not played the scenario in the title yet.

Still here? Excellent let's go.

The Setup
The Dunwich legacy kicks off with your old friend Professor Armitage asking you to investigate the disappearance of two of his colleagues. Professor Warren Rice was last seen in the humanities department of Miskatonic University and Dr. Francis Morgan is a gambler last seen at the Clover Club speakeasy downtown.

As I covered in this previous article, you can start the Dunwich Legacy off by tackling either of the scenarios first and which one you take on will affect how the other plays out.  Very nice touch right from the off.

In this case, let’s go gambling!

So it begins
Turning up at 'La Bella Luna' you are told from the off that Dr. Morgan is probably in the VIP areas of the club. As you set off you are immediately presented with some interesting information. Agenda 1 tells you that all enemies with the 'Criminal' keyword are Aloof meaning they won't engage with you. The initial setup which includes the entrance to the club and three locations inside also spawns the Pit Boss, who is probably the most beautifully thematic enemy yet.

You see the Pit Boss hunts the person with the highest lore i.e. the player probably doing the most Investigating. Since he is aloof at Act 1 he won't actually engage, unless you go looking for clues. So basically this guy follows you around looking suspiciously at you whilst you poke around the club and will jump on you the moment you actually find something. Beautifully designed with a minimum number of mechanics, that's elegance.

Act 1 requires 4 clues per investigator to advance and frankly there are not a lot lying around to grab. This means you have to go and hob nob around the club at either the Lounge, Bar or Cardroom. Of course since this is a gambling establishment a lot of these involve taking a chance: do you have a 'drink' in the hope that nothing bad happens, do you place a bet and hope it comes off well, wasting an action if it doesn't or cheat off the Act card hoping that a shortcut now will not come back to bite you. I absolutely love the theme of these locations, draining your resources away as any good gambling establishment should.

It's worth mentioning the scenario card here as I am not sure whether this is deliberate or not. The variance in the modifiers you can get from the special tokens is less than on some others meaning it is a little easier to hedge your bets i.e. you can easily make sure you pass a test, barring the ever present tentacle, by putting at least 3 points over the difficulty you are aiming for. Alternatively you can pay off the failures with resources meaning there is a lovely choice of whether or not to go in heavy, or suck up the potential failure with your resources.

Looking at Agenda 1 again, we can see that it doesn't take long for it tick over. When it does there might be mobsters everywhere and they all suddenly leap into action as Agenda 2 comes around and they all lose the Aloof keyword. When it does tick over there are a couple of possibilities. If you have been spending you time on Campus you leap to 2b, whereas if the Club is the first place you have ventured to then you just suddenly have a mob problem, proceeding to Agenda 2 as normal.

Once you have wandered round, socialised, got blind drunk or however you have chosen to get your information you find your way into the Darkened Hall at the back of the club. You might be able to get there before the Criminal enemies lose Aloof but you know they are about to jump you, especially since one of them spawns in the Hall! Off the Hall lie 3 doors, maybe the good Doctor is behind one of them?

Searching through all the doors you find the VIP room, a back door to the Casino and an Art Gallery. Depending on what order you have done things in Act 2, you will move to one of 2 different acts. If you have been bumming around Campus then the Doctor is nowhere to be found but the Owner of the club looks like he could do with a hand. If the Casino is the first port of call then the Doctor is found in a bad way and you need to rouse him and get him the hell out of dodge.

As the doom ticks on and you hit Agenda 3, the horrible gribblies from beyond turn up and make their presence known. In another beautiful mechanic the gribblies are not only after you, they are after the gangsters as well so that if there are Criminals in the same location as an Abomination those creatures have themselves a tasty Mob sized snack, discarding all Criminals at the same location. Not only is this a lovely thematic mechanic, but it is something the players can use to get themselves out of some sticky situations.

During the the advancing of the Agendas, the front door to the club has disappeared and you need another way out. Thankfully behind one of the doors is an exit that you can escape through, hopefully with the Doctor or the owner of the club in tow!

Once the dust settles you look to your resolution only to find that anyone who cheated off the first act has made things harder in the long run. You add a new token to the chaos bag, something that is bound to hurt you down the line. Hopefully you found the Doctor or at least made a friend in the Owner, but it is equally likely that the place was destroyed by beings from Beyond Space and Time. The multiple possible outcomes once again make this a very replayable scenario and I was delighted when I found that the order I did the scenarios in made such a large difference, even more so than in Extracurricular Activity.

Strange Encounters
So let's have a look at how the Encounter deck works in this particular scenario.

The encounter deck you start out with in this location consists of some scenario specific cards, a heavily randomised encounter set called Bad Luck as well as some Mobsters and the ever present Rats.

Cheating in Act 1, affects the Chaos Bag for subsequent adventures, but if you have been at the Saloon buying drinks to gather information it won't be long before 'Something in the Drinks' comes to ruin your day. The fact this card can be drawn up to 4 times in the scenario, as the discard gets shuffled back in, can really hurt you and it is absolutely possible to draw 2 in a turn, leaving you with 1 action as you stumble around.

The Bad Luck cards play on the theme of the casino forcing you to pull a token to decide your fate or reducing the probability of you succeeding on a test until you clear the effect.

The encounter deck starts out pretty small, but when the gribblies turn up it gets the Striking Fear set from the core and the Hideous Abominations that are intent on tearing the place apart. The Conglomeration of Spheres are an interesting monster, in that they have a lot of health but are really easy to hit, the downside being that it will literally consume any Melee weapon you hit it with. Sure you can punch it slowly, but shooting it is probably the best way to go. I have sacrificed a Fire Axe or two in a desperate moment.

The Encounter deck for this one isn't quite as focused on one particular mechanic, milling in the case of Extra-Curricular activity, but that is fine. It actually works quite well that early on the encounters are all to do with Mobsters and chance and then once the gribblies turn up the deck gets diluted with more supernatural threats. Subtle, but neat.

The Team behind Arkham continue to demonstrate a real understanding of their own design space and a willingness to play within it. Will they keep up this incredible pace throughout the Dunwich cycle? I don't know, but for now I am impressed and I can tell you at the very least that I enjoyed Miskatonic Museum, a Behind the Veil look at that is coming soon!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Beyond the Veil - Extracurricular Activity

This is the first of a series of articles looking at the individual scenarios of Arkham Horror, starting with the Dunwich Legacy expansion. These will be my impressions after playing through the scenario at least once and will be focusing on the mechanics and how those reinforce the story elements of a given scenario. These articles will contain extensive spoilers and assume a familiarity with the terms and mechanics of the game. Please do not read on if you have not played the scenario in the title yet.

Still here? Excellent let's go.

The Setup
The Dunwich legacy kicks off with your old friend Professor Armitage asking you to investigate the disappearance of two of his colleagues. Professor Warren Rice was last seen in the humanities department of Miskatonic University and Dr. Francis Morgan is a gambler last seen at the Clover Club speakeasy downtown.
The first clever bit begins before you even start your game with these scenarios. You can do these scenarios in either order and the order will change how each scenario plays out. In the case of doing Extra- Curricular activity first you use the 'Faculty office -The Night is Still Young’ card. That can't be good. I’ll cover the difference that makes later but for now let's go to school!

So it begins
Starting at the Quad you have a choice of places to head to: Library, Humanities Building, Science building, Administration building and the Student Union. Your Agenda will tick over at 7 doom and your act at 3 clues per Investigator. Both push you towards finding the professor and remind you that he was last seen at the Humanities Building. There are lots of nice little touches to the locations as you move around: the Library is harder to investigate, the Science Building is full of dangerous things that can hurt you. Subtle mechanics that reinforce the flavour of the location, excellent work.

Once you've nosed about a bit, it becomes clear that there are more buildings to search: the Science Building, Student Union and Humanities Building revealing an Alchemy Lab, Dormitory and Faculty Office attached to each respectively. However, you can't get into these secondary locations, as each one tells you you cannot enter it: “The door leading into the (location name) is locked. You cannot move into the (location name). The resolution of the first act has the students telling you to seek out Jazz, the Janitor, who has keys. You shuffle this gentleman into the encounter deck along with all the encounter cards discarded so far.

Act 2 gives you the ability to spend a clue and discard encounter cards and Jazz has a revelation ability that fires if he gets discarded, popping into play to be brought into your team. This is a fantastic little mechanic and really feels like you are frantically searching for the guy as the Agenda ticks up! (Hint: he is always at the bottom of the deck!) Once you have him alongside you 'Ignore the text on each unrevealed Miskatonic location' meaning that those locations that were locked earlier, are now accessible! Lovely flavour from a very simple idea.

By the time you have found Jazz it's likely that there has been a commotion from the Science buildings and 'something' is on the loose terrorising the campus. This big hulking monster called 'The Experiment' is on the loose and you have limited time as it makes it's way towards where all the delicious students are hiding.

The order you have done the scenarios in also affects the way the Agenda deck advances. If you are doing Extra-Curricular Activity first, then you advance to Agenda 2 as normal. However if you have visited the Clover Club first then you go straight to Agenda 2b which is the back of Agenda 2, something I hadn’t realised at first. This means that you shoot through 2 Agendas at once and move straight to Agenda 3! This gives a great feeling of time passing for the world you are in, making it feel like a living, breathing story.

Once you have Jazz, act 2 advances and the Alchemy labs reveals itself if it had not done so already and the Experiment makes himself known if not already out and about thinking about tasty student kibble. As for Agenda 2, the order you have done things in matters here, with an extra piece of assistance in the form of an ‘Alchemical Concoction’ appearing in the labs if you have been to the Clover Club first. This can be used to hurt 'The Experiment' if you can sneak past it and grab it!

The movement of 'The Experiment' is nicely represented by the mechanics on the Agenda 3 card, shambling it's way one location towards the Dormitories whenever the doom on the Agenda hits 2 and then advancing the Agenda if it ever enters the Dormitories. A nicely represented, lumbering horror!

The final Act instructs you to achieve an objective on one of the other cards in play, but what could this mean? Heading to the locked buildings you find two objectives: one on the Faculty offices, if the Night is Young, and one on the Dormitories both of which will give you a resolution. You could try and tackle the beast as well and all three give a different outcome. However the important thing here is, and I am so glad they are doing this sort of storytelling, is you can't do it all. You have to make a choice and there will be consequences. Great stuff.

On top of this difficult choice, that you don’t really realise is difficult until the Resolution is reached, you will find yourself with only one real choice if you headed to find the degenerate gambler professor first. If ‘The Hour is Late’ version of the Faculty Offices is in play then you are simply too late to help Professor Rice and you will have to see if you can help out those poor students instead (you could just run away and leave them to their fate!).

I find these ‘point of no return’ design choices really interesting as in a lot of computer games I find them kind of annoying, if inevitable if the designer is trying to tell a story. However I rarely play computer games like that more than once whereas here it won’t take long to play through the scenario again to try a different path. Baked in replayability like this is one of the reasons I have come to really admire this design!

Strange Encounters
I thought with each of these breakdowns I would look at the Encounter deck separately. There is a lot of room to play with the possible encounters in a scenario and Dunwich shows straight out of the gate how much they are willing to change things up.

Throughout the core set the designers didn't really play with the encounter deck very much, with the horrors inside being the sort of thing you might expect from dabbling in strange cults and things that go bump in the night. With Dunwich they have really rolled out the red carpet and shown how clever they can be.
When I first started playing this scenario we got hit but a couple of cards that 'milled', or discarded, cards from our player decks. Not so bad I thought. When we turned over the first Agenda we found we took some horror depending on the number of cards we had discarded, but we could take it!
However, as the scenario progressed we saw the 'Beyond the Veil' card and suddenly it dawned on us just how devastating this could get. Sure there were some monsters to deal with but the real harm came from losing all our useful cards and having the threat of exploding when we ran out of cards. Most characters will not be in a situation to be able to suck up 10 damage at once, so this puts a real feeling of a timer on the game, on top of the already ticking Doom counter. Nicely done gents.

On top of the new encounter sets used in this scenario I was heartened to see them reusing the core sets as well, showing a willingness to mix and match different sets to create a unique encounter. I look forward to them really playing with this as the game expands, thought it might mean an individual scenario becomes a little hard to setup as you have to search through for the various sets that make it up.

There we have it, my first behind the scenes look at the scenarios of Arkham Horror. I remain incredibly impressed by the design team on this one, they are showing a real elegance in their choices that I don't often see from FFG. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Blades in the Dark - Breaks on a Train

It's been a little while since I gave you an update as to what is going on with my scoundrels in Doksvol, the city at the heart of Blades in the Dark.

Since that last adventure they have gotten themselves in deeper with Bazso of the Lamblacks and gotten themselves into a situation where they are coming into conflict with the Red Sashes and Ulf, who you might remember they totally failed to assassinate last time. Since that failed assassination attempt they have been on jobs in high society to poison a Magister, eyed up an opportunity to move their headquarters somewhere a bit plusher and crossed into the Ghost Field to disrupt a very high stakes poker game and meet a rather odd individual.

This session was going to see the group finally rack up enough reputation, I hoped, to get a strong hold on their territory. I have been retrofitting the newer version of the rules as well and it is great to see Blades in it's final form! They had now touched on the occult side of the game and had a 'job' from a stranger they had met in the Ghost Field. Baz wants to double down on the hurt the Red Sashes are feeling by getting them to hit a shipment coming in that he believes is important to them. The courier is coming in from Whitehollow so it's time to get on a train and head out into the wastes.

Arriving at Whitehollow the day before the courier was due to leave they quickly spotted him, surrounded by 4 large bodyguards. Noticing that the package is cuffed to his wrists they went about taking up Baz on his offer to sneak one of them onto the train as staff. The engagement roll didn't look good for them, and I kept my plans for disruption quiet for now! Reprising their posh people role from an earlier session, Hallam and Una got onto the train and had a cabin just a little down from the target.

A couple of hours into the trip their target heads to the restaurant car for some food, sans package, which they assumed was now locked to one of the lackies. A plan to poison the target with sleeping powder goes a bit wrong when the Lurk, who is undercover in the kitchen, screws it up spreading it over several people's food. He is powerless to  stop the affected food entering the restaurant car and it doesn't take long for the target to succumb. A call for a Doctor sees Una trying to bluff it out as more bodies fall around them. Hallam, faking being blind, gets himself led out by the Lurk to his cabin in order to infiltrate whilst Una's bluff is called and a commotion ensues in the cabin. Luckily Una has a small explosive on her, nothing could possibly go wrong?

In the corridor the team of the Idrim and Hallam take on the guard outside the cabin, only to be interrupted by an explosion behind them and another team entering the carriage apparently after the same thing. Hallam uses the interruption to whip out his sniper rifle, a compact pre-cataclysm artifact recently stolen, and shoots the guard outside the carriage clean between the eyes. Idrim tackles the approaching gang whilst Una joins Hallam in getting into the compartment holding their target. A broken nose and a some stress taken, they burst in to find the last two guards and swiftly take them out. Left with an unconscious meat lock, Hallam whips out a saw 
whilst his dog takes care of the other arm.

The chaos on the train causes it to stop at a small fishing village where the crew makes it off the train and onto a boat. Baz is delighted with their find and they also fess up to being asked by an enemy of Idrim, a high society lady called Kellis, to spy on what Baz is up to. In return for this info. Baz agrees to help them get their new HQ off the Fog Hounds who where the other crew on the train. This started a new clock that I added two segments to of 'Establish new HQ'. The Fog Hounds are bound to take exception to that!

Still loving the open world nature of the game, but it still feels focused despite being open ended. I think the nature of the crew helps a lot with that, front loading the GM with the expectations the players have of the kind of jobs they are going to be doing. In exciting news I am going to be starting another monthly game with an online group, this time focused on a Cult. Really looking forward to seeing what that brings to the setting as both crews are going to be operating in the same version of Doskvol!

Monday, 27 February 2017

Edinburgh Playtest Group - February Report

The 19th of Feb saw my local playtest group roll around once more and I was expecting quite a small turnout due to a few folks being away. Happily this was not the case and we managed to get a couple of tables going as well as meeting a new designer and a new playtester, signs of growth!

I didn't see one of the games being tested, which looked like an amazing cube fest of Euro gamey goodness, but I can report on what I did get to play. This was the first session where my new designer priority list was in place and as such the newest addition to our group Sonny was first up!

That's a lot of cubes!
Sonny had brought along a game called Look Out Bandits, which had a post apocalyptic feel to it and was ostensibly about meeting the demands of Bandits coming to raid your outpost whilst also storing supplies for your own selfish means. Honestly I didn't take to this one much at the moment though I could see the potential of the idea. As the game stands there was very little in the way of decision making on my turn and, due to the card distribution, I only really had one of those. 

Getting ready to play.

The whole group played this one so it was a good way to get things kicked off and got everyone chatting about what they liked and didn't like about it. There was a general feeling that it needed some major tweaking to make sure everyone has two or three goes and some changes to the demands deck did start to make things feel better. I look forward to seeing the game evolve.

Next up was a 4x game from Steve. Steve had playtested last time, but was top of the pile in terms of people who where around this time so he was up next. This was part of a modular system he was designing and it felt pretty neat on it's own. Placing diamond shape pieces to make up eventually hexes and then claiming those in a variety of ways felt really interesting. 

Really liked the diamonds making hexes mechanic.

We could claim areas of the same resource type giving us more borders, tiles or settlements to claim even more area with. A tile and a settlement meant you could claim a whole he's at once as long as you had the borders to pay for it and the player with the most area claimed at the end won.

There were plenty of interesting decisions to make and felt very solid apart from the player interaction side of things. It would have been possible for us to all go our separate ways and not really interact with each other at all, something Steve was keen to get round. We had a chat about various ways around the problem and I look forward to giving it another shot when he thinks he has a solution to the problem.

My turn was up next and I cracked out Upstart once more, having taken it completely back to the drawing board. The game already felt more dynamic with cards being used to show stock market fluctuations on the companies, and there being more benefit to shorting to bring it in line with investing. We played a couple of rounds and then I had a good chat with the folks playing to get feedback and see where I could push the idea next. It's not ready yet by any means but this version was a step in the right direction. Investing vs. shorting still needs a lot of work and there may be an issue with the way I am keeping score as it takes some cards out of the game, and I am working with a limited pool. Something to think on.

All in all it was a great playtest and our newest designer Sonny is already looking at setting up another playtest session during the week. This is great news as I look to grow the group, and hopefully we will see our first playtest track at a larger boardgame meetup in the next couple of months.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

I'm not Dunwich you yet

A little while ago I reviewed the Arkham Horror: LCG from Fantasy Flight Games and was immensely impressed by the design space of the game and the clever tricks the developers were already playing with.  As with my previous Arkham review I will not be spoiling the scenarios, though I may talk about some of the new player cards. Please try and play through the scenarios without spoiling them for yourselves, you will find them much more rewarding that way.

As with any LCG you are buying into a bit of a long term commitment and it hasn't taken long for the first two expansions to hit UK stores: The Dunwich Legacy and Curse of the Rougarou. Let's talk about the format these expansions will take first of all.

The Dunwich Legacy is the start of a cycle of expansions all with interconnecting stories. This big box expansion has two scenarios in it leading into the stories that the Mythos Packs, which will come about once a month or so, will bring. 6 Mythos packs brings us to the end of the cycle with a massive 8 scenario campaign. That's a lot of squibbly horrors to face!

The 'Curse of the Rougarou' is something quite different, and I am really glad to see them doing this kind of content for the game. This is a completely standalone scenario that you can choose to do at any point between chapters of a campaign. Yeah, that's right it's a side quest, and what a fun one it is! There is another of these side quests on the way already 'Carenvale of Horrors' and I am really looking forward to seeing what they do with this format as the game progresses.

Anyway back to the Dunwich Legacy. Not only does this expansion herald the start of a new campaign, it introduces a whole lot of new player cards and 5 new investigators with a new set of deckbuilding restrictions. One of the many excellent design decisions in Arkham is that each investigator comes with their own set of restrictions, leading to new and interesting decks coming around with every investigator released. My own personal favourite out of Dunwich has been Ashcan Pete, who comes with his own brave companion, Duke the Dog. You can see my take on an Ashcan deck, here:

Some of the new investigators are really interesting, Zoey being a damage focused guardian who is on a mission from God, Rex a clue hungry seeker with a drinking problem, Ashcan we have already covered, Jenny a rich girl with a missing sister and a soulful Jazz musician by the name of Jim who might just play a song that ends the world . This is the thing about the way Arkham is designed, each of the Investigators, or Gators as they are being called for some unfathomable reason by the wider community, has flaws and those things will affect how your story plays out. I love that. 

The new player cards introduce a proper taunt, an amazing survivor ally who can reassure you that everything is ok, a risky green card that might save you in a tight spot and a total troll of a card in the form of a mysterious liquid. That last one is worth talking about a little more as once again it shows how much fun the designers are having with this game.  It takes up a slot in your deck so it's a choice to put it in, but who knows when that solution might prove useful. the fact it can be put in any deck means it is not tied to one campaign either so may crop up in any scenario, are you going to take the risk of not having it in, maybe you are?

Dunwich is an amazingly strong first expansion and really gives me hope for the game. The designers are obviously having a blast and are being exceptionally good at releasing FAQ and answering questions, a trend I hope they keep up as the game progresses. I've played through the Dunwich Scenarios 3 times now and they have turned out a bit different each time. This game just keeps pulling me back in with it's elegant design, emergent story and interesting, but not overly complex, deck building. Long may it continue! 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Mine your own business - Ore-some Kickstarter Preview

Disclaimer: I have playtested Ore-some over it's early design period. I have not played the game for several months and this review is based on a pre-kickstarter prototype. I played with the designer Sarah.

I've often said that charm is one of the most underrated parts of games design, and one often ignored by many designers. As such it's always nice to come across a game that oozes that rarest of commodities such as Ore-Some from local games outfit One Free Elephant.

Ore-Some is a game of rushing around a mine, digging for various ores and trying to make as much money as you can, all whilst avoiding the machinations of the other dastardly prospectors who are down here with you. Equipped with only a cart, a hand of cards and a dice you will snake your way round a mine, avoiding cave-ins, explosions and hopefully picking yourself up a lovely doggy companion!
Love the characters. The art is excellent throughout.

Hi Lewis! Isn't the cart ace!
Once you have chosen the character you are going to play, and kudos to Sarah for including such a diverse range of characters, you grab a cart and a dice as well as a couple of contracts and some action cards. Starting out with just the corners of the mine you then set about laying out the board a tile at a time, with the added complication of getting to place a special tile for your opponent somewhere in the mine.
Ready to Go! I have placed Sarah's purple tile just near me.
Running round the rails is fairly straight forward. Roll a dice, move that many spaces, following the rails of course, stop and dig up some ore.  Cards can allow you to change direction, find some oil to move even faster, bring down some beams to block off your opponents paths etc. Once you get to the digging phase, you dive into a bag of cubes and pull out a couple, 4 if you are on the special tile of your own colour. More is better right? Well sort of.

Careful now!
The thing is that cart isn't hollowed out for no reason. When you dig the ore goes in your cart, meaning that as you accumulate more of it you have to be very careful moving it around the board. Any ore that falls out, has fallen out and remains where it lays for others to swoop in and grab. You can of course swoop round and pick up your own ore, but it's not always the most efficient thing to do. I really love this aspect of Ore-some, and it's been one of my favourite elements since it's early inception.

Once you have your ore in your cart, if one of the contract meeples is nearby, you can hand one in, trading the ore in your cart for a card in your hand that gives you sweet, sweet money. You can also trade in all your ore at the end of the game but the contracts are always better value.  The person with the most money at the end of the game is the winner.

At the end of your turn you refill your hand up to 5 cards and there is a nice bit of hand management to play with here. The action cards and the contract cards both contribute towards your hand size, so you need to decide whether to grab for contracts or take cards to help you get in the right position to optimise your digging.

Let's talk about the dog. One of the cards you can get is a dog who protects your cart from those who might steal it. This guy is a little addition to your cart you can slide over the side and it's so adorable. Of course someone else might steal him away with their Baconator, but that's the way the doggy goes.

I really like Ore-some and Sarah has done a great job in creating a snappy, charming and engaging family game that has just enough tactical bite to feel satisfying. The kickstarter will be launching in February and I'll post on my twitter account and facebook page when it is live.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Under the Sea - Captain Sonar Review

Under the sea, under the sea, Darling it's it's not, the Engines are exploding our Sonar isn't up and.... OH MY GOD THE ENEMY HAS LAUNCHED A TORPEDO!

Such is the way with the latest release from Matagot Editions the team game Captain Sonar which is basically Battleships turned up to 11. All the way up.

Captain Sonar is a deceptively simple box filled hiding a tense, hilarious and incredibly fun team experience. With just some thick cardboard screens, some dry wipe sheets depicting different stations and a bunch of dry erase pens you and up to 7 friends will man submarines and attempt to blow each other out of the water. Ready to sign up? Let's see what role you are best suited for:

Captain: In front of you is a map made up of 4 or more sectors and rows and columns, much like in Battleship. You will tell the rest of you team which direction you are heading in. You will mark you direction on the map. When you want you can launch torpedos, mines, sonar, drones and run silent. Simple right.

Captain and Radio operator Station
Radio Operator: You have a map just like the Captain, but you also have an acetate sheet to put over it. You are going to listen to the other Captain give directions to his sub and draw the path they are taking. Move that path around the map underneath and work out where the other team is. Easy peasy.

First Mate: As the Captain's right hand you will be getting the ship's systems ready for use. As the sub moves you can prepare whatever system you want, coordinate with the Captain to make sure it is the right one at the right time. Nice and relaxed.

Weapons, Detection and Run Silent. The scenario one is only used in certain maps.
Engineer: As Engineer you are going to be attending to the various systems on the ship and trying to make sure the systems the First Mate is preparing are ready when the Captain wants them and the Radio Operator let's you know you are in position. Yes you can pretend to be Scotty.

Engineering Station. Orange, yellow and grey circuits visible. 
The 4 stations from top to bottom: Radio Operator, Captain, First Mate and Engineer
The various systems that the First Mate activates and the Engineer tries to make ready are where the mechanics of the game really lie. Two weapons systems, mines and torpedos, two detection systems, sonar and drone and a 'get out of dodge' system called Silent Running.

The first two do damage much as you would expect though you can plant multiple mines then activate them later. The detection systems are really smart. Drone allows you to ask which Sector the other team is in and they must answer truthfully. The Sonar forces the other team to give you two bits of information: column, row or sector. However, one is true and the other is false. Yes you can use both systems to really narrow things down but making sure both are up and ready at the same time is pretty hard. The last system, Silent Running, allows you to move up to 4 spaces in a direction without announcing the move, essential for getting away at the last moment.

The Engineer meanwhile is crossing out a circle in the sector of their control panel that relates to the direction the Captain has just announced. Too much movement in one direction and the section gets wiped but the ship takes a damage. You also have circuits of systems meaning that if you can move in just the right way the ship will self heal without taking any damage.

So that sounds all pretty simple doesn't it. Positively relaxed. The first go through you even play it at a fairly relaxed pace, each captain taking it turn about to give an order, wait for their Engineer and First Mate to give the OK then passing to the other team. Easy.

However, the full game is played in real time. Now where you were taking your time to coordinate all the parts of the ship in a dignified and orderly manner the following is happening:

Captain: WEST
Engineer: Ok! No! Your other west. She Cannae take it Captain! 
First Mate: Ok! Sonar ready!
Captain: STOP! Activate Sonar!
Engineer: You just broke the Sonar!
Captain: Oh (expletive deleted)
Opposing Radio Operator: Did he say East?

And so on. Realtime is where the game really shines as both teams frantically try and track down the opposition on a variety of different maps. The first map you play on is full of Islands making tracking down the opposition a little easier. However the Bravo map is much more open and it is on this one where we had our most intense games. Moving as fast as we could, each team was working out where the others were, surfacing to repair damage as quick as they could, I won't spoil how that works, and lining up all the systems for the killing blow.

Captain Sonar finds a place in my collection and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for an amazing team game.  It is a tense, funny and engaging experience with some beautifully subtle design elements making it really shine and I look forward to the recently announced expansion coming later this year!