How Battleship Works


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"You sunk my Battleship!" It's a refrain from many a childhood, and one that attests to the power of marketing. Scores of people who saw the TV commercials for the game Battleship from the 1960s to the 1980s have uttered the catchphrase -- whether they were actually playing the game or not.

A classic, two-player game purportedly for players ages 7 and older, the object of Battleship is to sink an opponent's ships before he sinks yours by guessing where on a 10-by-10 grid his ships are located. Although the concept is a simple one, the game can be full of suspense as players attempt to guess their opponent's ship positions while hopefully concealing their own amidst imaginary rolling seas and explosions.

Battleship has experienced a number of incarnations through the years, but it began as a pencil and paper game first played around the turn of the 20th century. It was reportedly invented by Clifford von Wickler, and became popular with French and Russian soldiers during World War I. The game was similar to other popular games of the era, including Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman. While some players may have called it Battleship, dozens of other names were used by enthusiasts around the world, such as Sea Battle, L'Aero Naval, Normandie, Seeschlacht and Affonda la Flotta.

By 1931, a commercially manufactured game consisting of papers with printed grids depicting land and sea were being sold by Starex Novelty Co. under the name Salvo, a moniker that referred to the simultaneous firing of bombs or firearms. Two years later, a competitor released Combat, the Battleship Game, and by 1943, board game powerhouse Milton Bradley had taken notice. Even so, Milton Bradley's debut battleship-style game, Broadsides, the Game of Naval Strategy, was a pencil-and-paper version. It wasn't until 1967 that the company released its iconic Battleship game, forgoing paper for plastic grids and ships, with colored pegs to record hits and misses [source: Board Game Geek].

Since then, Battleship has undergone a number of updates and revisions. Hasbro, the game's current manufacturer, offers a suite of Battleship options that range from card games to iPad and online versions. As of 2012, there's even a Battleship-branded movie that stars Liam Neeson and depicts a fleet of ships that, not surprisingly, battle an enemy armada.

How to Play Battleship

Part of the bottom half of a Battleship board, with one ship already sunk.
Part of the bottom half of a Battleship board, with one ship already sunk.
Hemera/Thinkstock

For much of its life, Battleship was a traditional board game played without electronic bells and whistles, and the only sophisticated graphics happened in players' imaginations.

Even now, the board game version of Battleship isn't that much different from one that would have been played 30 years ago. The box includes two self-contained plastic game boards in which the game pieces -- five ships, 42 red "hit" pegs and 84 white "miss" pegs each -- are stored. To begin the game, players sit across from each other; this allows your ships' positions and strategy to remain covert.

When opened, each game board will reveal a lower grid with coordinates that are identified by the numbers 1 through 10 horizontally and the letters A through I vertically. Players strategically place their ships on this grid, hoping to avoid enemy fire. The ships each require a set number of hits before they will sink:

  • Carrier, five hits
  • Battleship, four hits
  • Destroyer, three hits
  • Submarine, three hits
  • Patrol boat, two hits

When you are on the defensive and an opponent calls out a coordinate that results in a direct hit to one of your ships, you mark the hit by inserting a red peg into the corresponding spot on your ship on the lower grid. (Take care not to say which ship was hit or you'll give your opponent an unfair advantage.) If it is a miss, you simply say, "miss," and the next turn begins.

Each game board also has an identical upper grid. Players take turns firing at their opponents' ships by calling out coordinates and tracking their hits or misses on the upper grid. For example, if you are on the offensive and you call out A-6, your opponent will say "hit" if your shot struck one of his ships. You'd then put a red peg in the corresponding coordinate on your upper grid. If it is a miss, then you will place a white peg in the corresponding coordinate. If you sink all your opponent's vessels before he sinks yours, you win the game.

If you're a more advanced player and ready for faster game play, consider opting out of the traditional "one turn, one shot" rule. The official Battleship rulebook also contains instructions for a salvo version of the game, in which each player is able to fire as many shots during his turn as the number of ships he has afloat. For example, if you have three ships still in play, you can fire three shots at the enemy during your turn.

Battleship Tips and Strategy

Battleship is a game of both luck and strategy. To tip the scales toward strategy, it helps to play an offensive game.

You can increase your odds by firing with purpose, even when you're firing blindly (which is the vast majority of the time). Select a pattern to consistently follow on the grid, either aiming at every other space horizontally, vertically or diagonally. This allows you to cover the most ground across your opponent's board, and you're bound to hit a ship sooner or later. Once you do, you can fire at the coordinates immediately adjacent to your original hit until you get another hit and see a pattern emerge.

And, because each ship takes up a specific number of spaces, you can begin to narrow down what ships remain as the game progresses. For example, if you've already sunk your opponent's patrol boat, carrier, destroyer and submarine, scan your board's top grid for four-space openings in which a battleship could fit -- and aim there.

Most opponents will expect you to place your ships in a variety of horizontal or vertical positions. Occasionally, if you place all your ships in the same direction -- vertically, for example -- you'll leave your opponent guessing because he's likely to assume that they're in both positions. This also means he'll need to fire more shots to actually hit them.

And, although it may seem counterintuitive to group two or three of your ships close together rather than spreading them out across the grid, it's an unusual move that could throw off an opponent. Most players will assume that your ships will be spread throughout the board, so after hitting and sinking one ship, they'll begin calling out coordinates in other regions of the grid. This could give you valuable time to call out a hit or two of your own.

Alternatively, it can help to insulate the battleships on your own board by keeping at least one empty space all around them -- that way, your opponent will have more spaces to guess after getting the first hit on each ship. If you place a ship along the edge of the grid, you're giving your opponent a better chance of taking your ship down quickly.

Electronic Versions of Battleship

"Battleship" director Peter Berg (left) with actors Taylor Kitsch (right) and Alexander Skarsgard (center) and the Deluxe Battleship Movie Edition game at Hasbro’s American International Toy Fair showroom in New York, February 13, 2012.
"Battleship" director Peter Berg (left) with actors Taylor Kitsch (right) and Alexander Skarsgard (center) and the Deluxe Battleship Movie Edition game at Hasbro’s American International Toy Fair showroom in New York, February 13, 2012.
Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage for Hasbro/Getty Images

A computerized version of the game, Electronic Battleship, was first released in 1977 and was played using the same rules as traditional Battleship -- with one important exception. Instead of saying "hit" or "miss," players entered coordinates into the computerized game board by sliding a number switch and a letter switch into position on a track and pushing a button to save the information in the computer's memory. The computer rewarded them with a flashing red light and the sound of an explosion for a hit or a whistling sound for a miss [source: Board Game Geek].

The first version required players to manually enter the coordinates of each peg space that each of their ships covered, one at a time. Later versions included 100 preprogrammed board setups that players could key in a short code to load [source: Hasbro]. As clunky as it was, at the time of its debut it was something of a technological marvel to many Battleship players. It was released the same year as the Apple II, the Commodore PET and the TRS-80; many consumers were only just beginning to explore, build and program personal computing equipment [source: Computer History Museum].

An electronic "talking" version of Battleship was produced in 1983 that included several advances, including a computerized voice that would announce things like "Battleship hit!" The game also made it possible for one person to play against the computer [source: Board Game Geek].

A 2001 Electronic Battleship Advanced Mission introduced a new arsenal of weapons, including Tomahawk and Apache missiles and torpedoes. And digital versions of Battleship are now available for smartphones, as well as portable gaming systems like the Nintendo DS. In addition, a game called "Battleship: The Tactical Combat Game" was produced by Electronic Arts (makers of Battlefield 3 and Madden NFL 12) for the iPad; this version of the game includes high-quality graphics. Ships rock in a sea made tumultuous by near misses or sink from direct hits. Players can battle in one- or two-person mode and play several variations of the game, including a multishot salvo version [source: Hasbro].

Although Battleship doesn't have a plot, a 2012 movie loosely based on the board game does. Directed by Peter Berg, who also directed "Hancock," the action in "Battleship" centers on an oceanic battle with Transformer-like alien robots. The movie's subplot includes a forbidden love affair between a soldier (Taylor Kitsch) and the daughter (Brooklyn Decker) of his superior (Liam Neeson) [source: Wigler]. A PS3 and Xbox 360 first-person shooter titled "Battleship: The Video Game," published by Activision, will be based on the movie -- and, hence, the board game -- too [source: Raby].

Author's Note

I don't think I ever attended a family reunion that didn't include at least one round of Battleship. Every member of my extended family seemed to have the game, and my cousins were always ready to play. Although the numbers of red and white pegs seemed to dwindle from year to year, we could still count on Battleship to be a tried-and-true form of entertainment.

Researching the strategies -- and math skills -- behind the game, however, has led me to a whole new level of appreciation. It's a wonderfully sneaky way to teach my children, some of whom are just the right age, a bevvy of pre-algebra skills -- all under the guise of game night. Plus, there's an iPad version that my husband I have been known to play long after our babies were tucked into bed. If there was a lifetime achievement award for board games, Battleship should get one. If not for its complexity, at least for its staying power.

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Sources

  • Audet, Marye. "Battleship Game Math." (Feb. 29, 2012) http://boardgames.lovetoknow.com/Battleship_Game_Math
  • Board Game Geek. "Battleship (1931)." (Feb. 29, 2012) http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2425/battleship
  • Board Game Geek. "Electronic Battleship (1977)." (Feb. 29, 2012) http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/4122/electronic-battleship
  • Board Game Geek. "Electronic Battleship Advanced Mission (2001)." (March 3, 2012) http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/6837/electronic-battleship-advanced-mission
  • Board Game Geek. "Electronic Talking Battleship (1983)." (March 3, 2012) http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/4781/electronic-talking-battleship
  • Computer History Museum. "Timeline of Computer History." 2006. (March 4, 2012) http://www.computerhistory.org/timeline/?category=cmptr
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  • Raby, Mark. "Activision to Publish Battleship Video Game Based on Movie." Feb. 8, 2012. (Feb. 29, 2012) Slash Gear. http://www.slashgear.com/activision-to-publish-battleship-video-game-based-on-movie-08212708/
  • Straight Dope. "Any Particular Tactics to the Game 'Battleship'?" (Feb. 29, 2012) http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=267974
  • Wigler, Josh. "Battleship Trailer Fires all of the Weapons." July 27, 2011. (Feb. 29, 2012) MTV. http://moviesblog.mtv.com/2011/07/27/battleship-trailer/