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Space Alert vs Captain Sonar: Real-Time Board Games

New mechanics are being invented all the time for this board game renaissance that we are all a part of. Every day more and more games are getting released onto the market, and as such more and more styles of play are being discovered. We have games we never even thought of, and mechanics that make each experience the potential to be a new one. Thus is the case for two games we’re going to take a look at today due to one highly interactive mechanic – the real-time board game.

The real-time game (“realtime game” – one word or two?) is a style of gameplay that has, yes, you guessed it, a real time element to it. What this means is that part of the game takes place in the real world, with no excess time allowed, and it removes being able to take forever thinking about your turn. Instead, these (quite often) chaotic games mean that you have to bounce from turn to turn, going with your gut as well as your head or heart.

There are several different types of realtime experience available on the market and, arguably, two games that stand out – these are Space Alert and Captain Sonar. Today we are going to compare the two, and hopefully you may even decide that you want to play one or the other.

Space Alert vs Captain Sonar: Real-Time vs Real-Time

It’s amazing how much Space Alert and Captain Sonar have in common. Firstly, they are both on ships. Granted Space Alert is in space, and Captain Sonar is in a submarine, but the point still stands. Also, both games are cooperative, with players playing the crews of both boats (okay, neither are boats, but they refer to a ship as a boat in Star Trek so I’m going with it), and both have you elect a Captain who makes the executive decisions.

Captain Sonar Set Up

We’re going to make this comparison as easy as possible without having to draw a table, so we’ll break it down part by part.

Space Alert vs Captain Sonar: Real Time Elements

Space Alert and Captain Sonar are very different. Captain Sonar is a game that is entirely in real time, where the players will play against each other, yelling chaotic orders and firing torpedoes in live play. The only time gameplay is paused is to check if someone gets hit.

Space Alert, on the other hand, is split into two different portions. The first half is real-time, at which point an audio track is played that goes through different scenarios. This lasts around 10 minutes, and players push to plan out a plethora of plays (I’m on a roll, sorry) to punctuate the next period of time. In other words, they use cards in their hand, to plan them out in the order they will be played through. Enemies may appear during this period of time, as well as moments where players can pick up or trade more cards.

Space Alert Set Up

After the live action part, the game switches to a turn by turn version, where it is played out in order. The cards are played, the enemies have turns, and various other things can happen. This means that, after 10 minutes of chaos, you see how it plays out in relative calm.

Captain Sonar is more of a real-time simulator, whereas Space Alert features real-time planning, if that is such a thing.

Team Play vs Team[s] Play

The biggest difference between Space Alert and Captain Sonar is what we could call Team Play vs Teams Play. Namely, in Space Alert everyone is on the same team. That being said, in Captain Sonar, the players are split into two separate teams, in a team vs team giant version of Battleship.

Space Alert vs Captain Sonar - Captain Sonar Tracking

Tracking the opponent in Captain Sonar

The Roles of the Player

The role of the Captain is, in both, to be the key decision maker. In Captain Sonar this is to order the rest of the players around, whilst also deciding when to fire or use tools. In Space Alert however, the Captain has an alternative role where he/she goes first, tells players when to hurry up, and acts as administration for the board. In other words, in Captain Sonar the Captain is a figure of authority in the group, whereas in Space Alert it is as more of a facilitative player.

Space Alert vs Captain Sonar - Space Alert Board

Mid game for Space Alert

The rest of the players are also thought of in both games. In Space Alert, one player becomes the Communications Officer and one the Security Officer. The Communications Officer is responsible for the external threats deck. The Security Officer is responsible for the internal threats deck. In regards to how the game actually plays – all players have very similar experiences, as (in gameplay) every player needs to be able to do everything on the board in order to survive.

In Captain Sonar every player has a role. This includes the Navigator, who is responsible for tracking the opponent’s ship, the Engineer who is in charge of the ship components to make sure they don’t break, and the First Mate who is in charge of ship weapons. These vary in how they play and do offer four different player experiences.

Game Length and Difficulty of Learning

Both Captain Sonar and Space Alert boast a similar play time, but not exactly the same. Captain Sonar takes around 45 minutes to 60 minutes. Space Alert boasts a 30 minute playing time.

That being said, and take it from us, Captain Sonar can be played out of the box. It is relatively simple, and that isn’t a bad thing. It means that, once the players have read how the game is played they can more or less jump in. The instructions are clear and simple to read.

Space Alert vs Captain Sonar - Captain Sonar Map

Captain Sonar Map

Space Alert may have a 30 minute play time, but after picking up the instructions it is probably two hours before you can play the game in full. The instructions are designed to be read out, and as such have a comedic tone of voice. They go through everything in tiny detail, interposed with banter and warm-up scenarios. The introductory scenarios take a good amount of time to go through. They do add character to the game but, if you just want to pick up and play, this is definitely a game that benefits from one person knowing the rules, and then briefing everyone else quickly.

That being said, with two captains who are good at avoiding each other, Captain Sonar can become a bit of a slog. It all depends on the game.

Difficulty of Game

Learning aside, and once in the games: how difficult are they? Well, in Captain Sonar there are several difficulties that arise and each comes from each crew managing their own sector of the submarine. Each role has its difficulties, from hearing the enemy captain, to ensuring systems don’t malfunction. Ultimately, the real difficulty comes from the opposing team. What is it they are like and how are they playing?

In Space Alert however there are different difficulties that present themselves, and these come in the form of coordination. During the realtime elements you, and your team mates, have to coordinate what you are going to do to make the most out of your turn. One foul move and the whole mission can go up in flames. There is an additional difficulty level that comes in the form of enemies, who have their own rules to play by.

Space Alert vs Captain Sonar - Enemy Track

Enemies incoming in Space Alert

Components of Play

There is a massive difference in the components used during both games. For starters, Captain Sonar has two teams sat opposite each other, a divider between them. Each player has a dry erase pen, eraser, and laminate sheet with their role parts on it (so the navigator has a map for instance).

In Space Alert it is more like the traditional board game. There is a board, resource tokens, player miniatures, and cards. There are literally hundreds of little parts to Space Alert whereas there are only a few to Captain Sonar.

How fun are the games? Captain Sonar vs Space Alert –

This is the final component and the one that is arguably the most difficult to define. We could use pure statistics and say that Captain Sonar is ranked 94 in the BGG Top 100. It is ranked 4 in Party Games, and has an average score of 7.8. On the flip side, Space Alert is ranked 138 in total, and has a score of 7.5. Both are very good games, with Space Alert making the top 150, but not quite the top 100.

That being said, if I had to choose to play one then I would probably choose Captain Sonar.


Captain Sonar player screen

Where both games are good, Captain Sonar offers, in my humble opinion (of which I fully accept there are other opinions out there), a smoother game. It offers more of a real-time challenge, as it is not just coordinating your motions, but also ensuring that the other team is within sight the whole time. It has an extra element that makes it a more rounded experience.

Ultimately though, with the choice between the two I think it comes down to whether you want order or chaos. Space Alert, although chaotic at times, is ultimately about creating order. It is about playing cards and creating a sequence that will (hopefully) beat the game between you. Captain Sonar, on the other hand, is about rehabilitating that chaos to further your team as a whole, accepting the chaos and moving with it. It is because of this that it is more fluid, without the need to be split into two rounds. Whichever one you prefer, let me know in the comments below.

Space Alert vs Captain Sonar

Dramatic Space Alert!

This is one of a few comparisons we have looked at recently on this blog, so please let me know what you think. Are these helpful or just faff? Would you prefer more data based analysis or less? Let me know in the comments below.


    • It is more competitive, although in Space Alert you are playing against a kind of in-game/board game AI that controls the bad guys. It’s not entirely non-competitive.

      I do see what you mean though – Captain Sonar has you playing against each others, and playing against players is always hard to beat 🙂


  1. Just how difficult is it too pick up and play with Captain Sonar? Games where everyone had their own roles intimidate me, because I feel like I have to learn everything. Though you said you can just pick up and play…
    The other thing is sonar requires like 8 people right?
    Also is it 45 mins of off and on. I think I’d find it tiresome of it was always on.


    • Yes, that is a difference and, looking at the article, it’s one I should have probably pointed out. Captain Sonar has 2-8 players, whereas Space Alert is 1-5.

      To some degree, I agree with you, if there are only 2 of you playing then you each have 4 roles to play. Whereas, if you have four players per team, so the full 8, then you only have a couple of things to do each. These are:

      1. Captain – Decide where to move, and when to use special systems.
      2. First Mate – Charge special systems and tell the captain when they can be used.
      3. Engineer – Keep a track of systems, when they break, and which movements the Captain can do.
      4. Navigator – Keep track of the opponent’s Captain.

      There is a turn based mode that allows for it to be played as turns, which I imagine is better for smaller groups of players, and people who don’t like real-time games may enjoy that. There is quite a good Reddit feed called “Anyone tried turn-based Captain Sonar?” about it that I would recommend looking up.

      Liked by 1 person

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