Epic Gumdrop Ep 28: Battleship


This episode of the podcast Jeff and James take a look at the classic popular game Battleship, pausing to consider its history and gameplay before firing blindly at each other.

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(Length: approx 21min)

Here’s our notes from the show:



While some suggest earlier precedent, the earliest commercial version of a battleship format game came out in 1931. Salvo, published by Starex Co. in the US brought us the familiar world of a gridded seascape. It was a pencil and paper version, and one of the main differences was that in Salvo 6 targets were initially selected and attacked all at once. The Salvo Variant in Milton Bradley’s battleship is based on this. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

During the 1930s and 40s there were a variety of paper based versions of the game.

1933 brought us Combat: The Battleship Game. 1943 saw Broadsides: A Game of Naval Strategy (also by Milton Bradley). In the 1940s there was Warfare Naval Combat and Wings.

This leads us to the big one, which didn’t come out until 1967, somewhat later than I expected. Milton Bradley’s Battleship. Wikipedia gives Ed Hutchins credit for the plastic board and peg version. To finish our timeline, 1977 brought us Electronic Battleship. But that wasn’t enough. In 1989 we had Electronic Talking Battleship. And in 2008 they brought us Battleship with hexagonal tiles, Battleship: The Tactical Combat Game. This one introduced a secret unit deployment mechanic. I haven’t played this more recent version, but it sounds intriguing.

Let’s look closer at the Milton Bradley version that most of us know.

Here’s the components, for memories that need dusting off:

  • 4 10×10 grids, 2 for each player. The x and y axes are labelled by letter and number.

  • There are 5 ship types:

    1. Aircraft Carrier: 5 spaces

    2. Battleship: 4 spaces

    3. Submarine: 3 spaces

    4. Destroyer: 3 spaces

    5. Patrol Boat: 2 spaces

While the game itself seems pretty straightforward, my questioning mind immediately ran towards why Battleship in 1967? Considering how early a lot of the other versions were, including Milton Bradley’s why now for this one?

Perhaps war was in the air – there was the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam in 1964, the later involving the president coming on TV and addressing the populace.

And war was already a theme at Milton Bradley if you look at their previous war-themed American Heritage Game series:

  • 1961: Civil War
  • 1961: Battle Cry (Civil War)
  • 1962 Broadside (ships)
  • 1962: Dogfight (WWII air combat)
  • 1965: Hit the Beach (WWII Pacific campaign)
  • 1975: Skirmish

These run nicely up to Battleship in 1967. I believe these other games were commonly 10 and up, whereas Battleship was aged 8+. Was Battleship an attempt to capitalize on their success at war games with a younger audience?

With its bright plastic game cases and its simple guessing game mechanic, Battleship has stayed with us. Part of the beauty of the game might be its simplicity. If we were stranded somewhere and only had a pencil and a piece of paper, we could play. The guessing takes just a small step above Tic-Tac-Toe. Maybe.

One aspect I found interesting about the game is that it has so many variants, many depending on which country you happen to be in. Let’s take a look at a bunch. This is the area I found most interesting, because it’s hard not play Battleship without thinking of how you’d fix it.



From Battleship rules:

The SALVO variation of this game is recommended for more experienced players who have become familiar with the basic game. Use the same rules as in the basic game of battleship except:

  • On your turn, call out 5 different shots and resolve.

  • Whenever one of your ships has been sunk you lose one shot in your next salvo.

  • For a more challenging SALVO game, don’t disclose which of your ships have been hit.

The Wikipedia lists a possible house variant, along with regional variants. These are well worth checking out.

Some of these variations make a game I’ve always seen as kind of boring seem interesting to me! I like adding in these real world mechanics, such as limited ammunition, boat movement, different boat styles depending on time period which would impact firing, range and speed of movement. It wouldn’t take much to make the game a lot more sophisticated and feel more fulfilling than a basic guessing game. It doesn’t have to become a full blown miniatures naval war game to be fun.

I haven’t had a chance to try these variants out, but we have a version of Battleship that I want to crack out and play. It might even be a fun way to get the kids involved in game design, with the challenge being how can many ways can we modify Battleship? New components? New rules? Maybe Battleship is an ideal jumping off point.