Back in the Day: Battleship

Justin and his son revisit the 1967 Milton Bradley classic, Battleship! Join us to find out if the game holds up.

My six-year-old son loves war.

He doesn’t love fighting the family, of course. But almost everything he likes to play with, watch, read about, and listen to is about war. The kid loves his military toy tanks. One of his books, 1,001 Things That Go, has plenty of pages about passenger cars, commercial airplanes, and boats from ancient history.

But the pages he wants to focus on? Military vehicles. Every time.

Recently, we had a deep discussion about the meaning of life. “Daddy, what’s the difference between a guided missile and a homing missile?” [Cut to parents everywhere nodding their heads: “Boys!”]

With that as our backdrop, it shouldn’t be a surprise that when my son discovered some of our oldest board games, he was instantly attracted to the 1967 Milton Bradley classic Battleship, itself based on the pencil-and-paper version from the 1930s. (BGG lists the publishing year for Battleship as 1931.)

Here’s what is surprising: over maybe a half-dozen plays with my son, I have to say that Battleship has held up better than I expected it would.

In our new “Back in the Day” series revisiting classic experiences, we won’t discuss how to play these games. We’ll instead focus on what works, and what doesn’t, while making a recommendation on whether you need to dig this one out of your attic or not!

Battleship: What Still Works?

I’m surprised how much I love the moments that Battleship does best.

It’s still great to start guessing locations at where you think your opponent’s ships currently reside. The tension really ramps up when you hear the begrudging moment of truth as your opponent groans: “hit.” That still works, especially as you slowly begin to sink some of the larger ships.

(A note about the ship names, which have changed a few times over the years: the four-square ship is still the Battleship, and the five-square ship is the Carrier. The two-square Destroyer used to be the “baby ship”—the term at our house—but is now officially known as the Patrol Boat. The three-square ships are now known as the Submarine and the Destroyer.)

A game of Battleship is always a blast at the end of play, when the losing player sees the map of where their opponent’s ships really were. This happens often when my son and I play. It’s always a hoot to see how close one of us was to blasting a ship out of the water, with misses tracked on the grid to ensure we each know where previous turns ended.

Battleship: What Doesn’t Work?

Battleship’s biggest weakness now is its biggest weakness from my time playing it as a child: the final third of the game.

At some point, one player is often ahead, and has defeated maybe four opposing ships, while the other player has taken down two or maybe three. Firing blanks all over the map to try and deduce where the final ship is—especially if that final ship is the Patrol Boat—can get pretty monotonous, and that player likely has an insurmountable lead.

This sometimes leads to frustrations in my plays with my son. We sometimes just call the game in favor of the leader rather than combing the ocean for the final boat, especially when the game has dragged into 45-minute territory. Patience wears thin quickly when kids are involved, and getting another adult to play something like Battleship nowadays can be a very tough proposition when you’ve got so many better, modern choices.

Yea or Nay?

To paraphrase another war reference, my son is taking that hill, no matter what I say. Battleship is a lock here at the Bell compound.

But even for other players, I am still comfortable saying that Battleship is worth a look once or twice a year, especially if you have a travel edition of the game.

Battleship might be one of the best portable analog games ever. My brother and I played Battleship all the time on those long car rides from Rochester, New York to Indianapolis to visit family. You don’t notice the time issues when you’ve got nothing else to do. For parents looking for a way to get the kids off those freakin’ tablets for a stretch, Battleship is excellent.

The travel versions, with their sturdy pegs keeping ships, hit tokens and miss markers in place, also make it easy to keep your ship locations a secret from another player while riding in a moving vehicle.

Dig Battleship out of your basement and give this a look! Share a note in the comments if you’ve given the game a spin in recent years.

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About the author

Justin Bell

Love my family, love games, love food, love naps. If you're in Chicago, let's meet up and roll some dice!

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