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Board Game Challenge: Battleship

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Battleship is a two-player game. Each player is supplied an identical set of game pieces:
Two peg grids, 10×10, coordinated by numbers —10 (columns) and letters A—J (rows).
5 ships of the following lengths (spaces): 5, 4, 3, 3, 2
Plenty of red and white pegs

Most of you know how to play. Each player has two grids. One represents their fleet and the other tracks where they’ve targeted, and the results of their shots.

Players take turns “shooting” at their opponent’s hidden fleet by calling out the coordinates they wish to attack. Hits and misses are announced by the defending player on an honor system.

The game ends when all five of a player’s ships have been hit on all of their spaces.


Battleship is a boring game. There best part of the game is setting up your ships. Beyond that it’s all implementation.


Introduce a small number of house rules or simple components that adds decision-making to the game throughout gameplay, (beyond, of course, the simple decision of where to shoot next).

In other words, what can you do with Battleship to make it interesting to core gamers?

(NOTE: You may not add any custom crafted elements that a normal person wouldn’t have laying around the house. For example, you cannot add new ships, different colored pegs (unless Lite-Brite pegs happen to be the same size), or identical-back cards. You may add things like dice, coins, score cards, and so forth. House rules that rely on NO new components are encouraged.)

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Limit the number of shots to 40 (just under half the board — I picked this number off the top of my head, though, so it may need to be tweaked). Player may use his/her turn for SONAR (doesn’t damage or use shot, but tells if space is occupied) or for shooting (which, obviously, uses a shot). Aggressive players may take their chances by using shots when they aren’t certain of ships’ location, but risk losing the game by running out of ammunition before the enemy fleet is destroyed.

I am unconvinced that that would liven the game up by any discernable degree, but at least no new pieces are required…

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That’s not bad. I like the idea of limited pegs. It opens up a degree of risk-taking.

I was considering if the ships could move. Unfortunately I can’t think of any viable house rule that would use moving ships and actually add to the game. Basically, instead of shooting at a static target, you’re shooting at a moving one. Doesn’t sound that fun.

The balance I would like to explore is one where you potentially provide your opponent with an advantage the more aggressively you play. Playing conservatively yields more safety, but decreases your chance of winning.

Wait, what if the ships could move and potentially ram each other?
Better yet, your ships can move one space (or pivot off their front peg 90°) and only shoot in a straight line. That way when you shoot, you also reveal clues about your own ships’ locations. That might be interesting.

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The balance I would like to explore is one where you potentially provide your opponent with an advantage the more aggressively you play.

This idea is pretty messy, but I think it might open up some thinking for a decent solution.

So on your turn, you may either take a normal shot OR fire with one of your ships that haven’t been sunk yet. When you fire with a specific ship, you get to take as many shots in a row as there are peg spaces in that ship minus one, with each shot having to be adjacent to the previous shot. So for your battleship, you could shoot up A1, A2, B2, C2. However, when you fire with a specific ship, that ship gives off noise and the amount of noise scales with the ship. For a 3 peg ship, you need to give the large quadrant where the front peg of that ship lies (quadrants explained later). For a 4 peg ship, you need to give the medium quadrant, and for the battleship you need to give the small quadrant. The large quadrant is a 5×5 grid, so there are 4 of them on the board. Large quadrant I would be from A1 diagonally to E5 and include the square that creates. Large quadrant II would be from A6 to E10 diagonally, and the same with the bottom of the board. Medium quadrants are 5 tall (with the letters being height) and 2 wide. So Medium Quadrant I would be A1 to E2 and the rectangle that it makes (so there would be 10 total medium quadrants). Small quadrants are a 2×2 square, of which there are 25 total. So Small Quadrant I would be A1 to B2 and the others would follow that logic.

So the obvious negative would be that figuring out the grid system would be a little confusing, but you could easily just have a print off with 3 different boards showing the 3 different grid systems and it’d be fairly simple. It doesn’t add any extra components beyond the grid print offs, so that’s good. It would add the risk/reward that you discussed where you could go guns blazing with your battleship and rip the sea a sunder, but your opponent could kill it in probably 2 turns if you did that. Another side benefit is that it would speed the game up, which is definitely a plus.

Blue = Large Quadrant I
Red = Medium Quadrant V
Green = Small Quadrant IX

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I had briefly toyed with the idea of moving ships (I believe there was an online video game adaptation of Battleship that implemented this idea, from what I can recall), but the logistics are extremely difficult for a board game (the video game allowed screen wrapping movement): the logjam potential is exceedingly high (the board feels claustrophobic as it is), and keeping track of/marking your shots would present difficulties. Being able to ram an opponent’s ship, I don’t know how you would go about implementing that, even if there was enough space and you could ensure that the initial setup of ships didn’t have them overlapping, etc.

Ships only being able to shoot in a straight line is an interesting idea, though it obviously wouldn’t work with stationary ships, which brings us back to the points above. Maybe if players chose three of the five ships (but they’d have to have different abilities, or everyone would just pick the smallest ones — or maybe that would be preferable), that would alleviate some of the space issues (though tracking shots still seems problematic). Would all ships move each turn, or just one (as in chess)? Maybe have different possible targeting areas based on the ship (straight line for the sub, since it has torpedos, all eight adjacent spaces for the patrol boat, etc.)?

There is another potential problem (though it may or may not be important): there is no verification possible. While someone could cheat or accidentally do something outside of the legal parametres of the game in any implementation, moving ships (and different targeting per ship) make it way too easy to do either without anyone being the wiser. The more options one has for movement, the harder finding a cheat or mistake would be to find.

There was a NES version of Battleship that allowed one “special” shot per ship (in addition to the regular one-space shots): each was a different configuration of multiple shots (the battleship’s special was an elongated X shape, IIRC). If the ship sank before the special shot was used, it was lost. The special shots could be applied anywhere on the board (but not rotated or partially off-board).

Applying the NES game’s special shots idea with your potentially-giving-away-location idea would be a decent way to achieve your balance, I think. The battleship could fire four shots in a line alongside its port or starboard side (oriented the same way as the ship, and aligned with it — maybe one or two spaces away?), etc…

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@rawismojo: That seems like a neat idea (although I must confess my eyes started to glass over as I was reading about quadrants). You had posted yours while I was writing my previous post, apparently — yours is more unrestrictive than my adaptation of the NES’s Battleship conceit. Nice job.

Though, once a ship fires, there is no reason to stop firing: it has already given away as much information as it is going to (unless I missed something), therefore it would be silly to fire with a different ship or stop firing until that ship was sunk…

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That’s brilliant, rawismojo. Dragon is right about the quadrants portion; it’s a bit cumbersome…but as a concept it’s strong. (Grace comes through development.)

Here’s another design consideration. Don’t use the peg-board grids and instead play on a 500×500 “poster” grid. Play is all transparent; you can see your opponent’s pieces and they can see yours. (Special visibility rules for the submarine.)

With a direction like this, you open up a whole family of tactical rules. I think to take this much further you’d want to look over some old naval warfar simulation games. (I’m not familiar with those types of games.)

Oh, you’d probably end up not using any of the original Battleship pieces for this. Draw the grid on a big sheet of paper then create your “ships” out of popsicle sticks or coffee stirrers.

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Yeah, it sounds like where you’re going is designing a brand-new nautical wargame as opposed to a variant on Battleship. (Not at all saying that it wouldn’t be a fun game, but it’s a bit extraneous to the design challenge). I think hidden information really defines Battleship so it’d need to be in there somewhere. I wonder if you couldn’t have hidden information go the other way, though. There’s this board game called Confusion where it plays like chess, but each of your 20 pieces all have a unique movement rule (one can only move forward 1-4 spaces, one can move forward and sideways 1-2 spaces, etc). However, you have no idea which piece is where when you start. So you say something like “X forward 3” and then your opponent tells you whether or not X can actually legally make that move, and if it can you take that move. I don’t really know how you’d do it in Battleship, but having some key bit of information about your pieces with held from you while your opponent knows it the whole time could be interesting.

And thanks! I admitted that it was super sloppy, but I figured it was just a starting block and it’d get refined before it was ever played.

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Ok, how about this:

The board is in 4 quadrants(no ship may be in 2 at once):

The player can fire 1 shot anywhere on the board, or use one of their ship’s abilities(n is the number of damaged spaces on the attacking boat):

PT: Fire 2 shots on any quadrant that isn’t theirs.

SS: Fire 3 – (n – 1) shots in the quadrant opposite theirs.

DD: Fire 3 shots in their own quadrant.

BB: Fire 2 – n sets of 2 adjacent shots on any quadrant but the one opposite their own, and 2 additional shots in their own quadrant only if they choose to do so.

CV: Fire 4 shots in any 2 other quadrants(8 in all). Cannot be used twice in a row.

In addition, ships have special guidelines on what sinks them:

Pt: Any hit.

SS: All 3 must be hit.

DD: Same as SS.

BB: Both inner sections and one of the sides.

CV: The control tower(center).

This would speed up gameplay and add more strategy to the mix.

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@clasher235: I’m assuming n is the number of sections of the [firing] ship that are destroyed… Yes?
Edit: If that’s so, then I’m assuming BB’s description should be “Fire 4 shots – n, with no more than 2 in any quadrant, and 2 additional shots in their own quadrant only if they choose to do so; may not target opposite quadrant”, no?
More editing: “Fire 2 – n sets of 2 adjacent shots” implies that one hit would stop one set of two shots from happening — or is that intended? Actually, my description isn’t right, either, since it doesn’t include the “adjacent 2”… Can I fire the two sets in the same quadrant (from your description it appears that I can)?
Additional: Did you ninja your post, or did I just not see where you described n?

Restricting the placement of units further than the already claustrophobic board allows would seem too constrictive to me, but YMMV.

If CV is the only one that can’t be used twice in a row, then I’d obliterate a quadrant with my BB until all 3 sections are covered (or my BB is sunk — and by “covered” I mean to the smallest remaining discoverable section (every other space if the PT is alive, every third space if PT is dead but SS or DD are alive, etc)), then alternate between CV and either SS or DD for whatever remains (use only four shots instead of six to avoid giving its quadrant away, unless the last targeted quadrant is its own). There is little advantage to using a regular shot, since the firepower greatly outweighs the [possible] safety of using it to avoid giving away locations. So, while I like the idea, I don’t see it as the balance that petesahooligan seeks.

Edit: Then again, the CV has double the firepower of the BB (without considering the optional extra shots in BB’s own quadrant), so alternating between CV and BB is probably the better option, by far. I don’t see how any other strategy can hold a candle to this. The vulnerability of the CV doesn’t really mitigate this (actually, it exacerbates it: better to use its heavy firepower before it is gone, since any stray shot can sink it).

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I don’t really understand what you’re describing, Clasher. I’m interested, but I don’t know what PT and SS and DD are. Are those your different ships? And is the board you sketched up a huge nautical map, or several different stages of a single game? (Bear with me. I need things explained to me like I’m 9 years old.)

Rawismojo: You’re right that the concept of laying it all out flat fundamentally changes the character of the game, but that’s okay. I agree, though… it’s too much of a departure for this academic exercise.

I think that Stratego handles hidden information MUCH better than battleship. The difference between Stratego and Battleship is that in Stratego you’re given clues by the opponent’s behavior. I’d like to see that in battleship.

I’m still liking the idea of a ship only being able to fire in a straight line. This reveals to your opponent than wherever you’ve fired, on of your ships (their targets) is on the X or Y coordinate of that shot. It’s not deep enough, though… it’s still just a race of random shots in the dark, hoping to get lucky.

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PT = patrol boat (2 long)
SS = sub (3 long)
DD = destroyer (3 long)
BB = battleship (4 long)
CV = aircraft carrier (5 long – “C” is for “carrier”, I’m sure; I don’t know about the “V” (vehicle?))

His diagramme is five sets of boards (the above part is the opponent), one for each piece type. The beige colour shows available quadrants to target. The brown dots are examples of shots taken in the above set (orange for the optional shots for BB), and an example of what hits would sink ships in the bottom section.

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I carefully reviewed Clasher’s concept and I really like it. I’m still foggy on how the special abilities are triggered.

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I’m not sure what you mean by “triggered”.

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Are special abilities invoked by the active player as a requirement, an option, or the result of some condition?

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Originally posted by petesahooligan:

Are special abilities invoked by the active player as a requirement, an option, or the result of some condition?

You can use them instead of just firing one shot anywhere(as long as the ship is alive). The carrier may need a nerf though.

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To me, the most interesting part of this concept is NOT the special shot arrays but the fact that they can only be targeted in relationship to the ship. To shoot, it reveals a little bit about your own fleet’s position(s). That’s compelling.

The scatter-shots don’t really add anything to the concept, in my opinion.

Perhaps one could implement a move OR a shot, but not both. Movement and shots would be constrained by the type of boat it was. I believe this variation could be played with or without the screens.

Movement is calculated by the front peg space. The ship may orient in any direction after that move, provided the front peg meets movement requirements/constraints.

PT Boat (2-peg):
Moves as a queen (any direction, any distance)
Only fires at the spot immediate in front of them.

Destroyer and Submarine (3-peg):
Moves as a rook (any distance on that column or row)
Only fires along its column or row.

Battleship (4-peg):
Moves as a king (one space, any direction)
Shoots anywhere on the board.

Aircraft Carrier (5-peg):
Moves as a king (one space, any direction)
Shoots all spaces immediately adjacent to itself.

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Originally posted by petesahooligan:

To me, the most interesting part of this concept is NOT the special shot arrays but the fact that they can only be targeted in relationship to the ship. To shoot, it reveals a little bit about your own fleet’s position(s). That’s compelling.

The scatter-shots don’t really add anything to the concept, in my opinion.

The quadrants alone don’t tell you any information, though (until only the last ship is left (depending on the ships left and layout, you may be able to glean a little information earlier)); the number and/or configuration of multiple shots give more and better clues to enemy locations (coupled with the quadrant rules). The multi-shots may need some tweeking/balancing, but I think they are necessary for his idea (I admit bias, though, as I like the multi-shot mechanic).

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Yes, but what if you have to declare which ship you are firing? That would reveal quite a bit of information.

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Battleship’s game mechanic predates the board game by years and years. There’s an old variant where each player shoots three shots per turn. The defending player only announces how many of those shots hit, but not which ones.

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Could you shoot on the same space more than once?

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Originally posted by petesahooligan:

Yes, but what if you have to declare which ship you are firing? That would reveal quite a bit of information.

True, though with this quadrant system, that would make the SS and DD the least valuable ships, since they only have one quadrant they may target. It also means (if all ships only shoot the standard one shot) that there would be no shot not originating from a ship (since there would be no reason to opt for ship-originating shots if there were), which opens up the unwinnable scenario when certain ships are destroyed (which may be mitigated or exacerbated by the layout chosen for the ships’ locations), since you would then get quadrants you could no longer target. Certain layouts would even make untargettable quadrants from the beginning, further reducing available layout options: e.g., CV in the bottom-left, BB in the top-right, DD in any but the bottom-left, SS in any but the top-right, and PT in the bottom-left. While this may be seen by some as a “feature” rather than a “bug”, I venture to guess that the vast majority of players find the laying out of their ships to be the least interesting/fun aspect of the game — though I could certainly be wrong about that.

Addition: I would also venture that the greater the chances of an unwinnable scenario, the less enthusiastic a player will be to play (particularly when much of those chances lie outside of the player’s direct control). This could be OK as a short-circuit to a win by the other side (though I am thoroughly unconvinced winning in such a manner would be seen as a selling point), if it weren’t for the fact that it would be nigh impossible to know if that was the case without giving away vital information to find out (e.g., I can no longer target the top-right, so I say so (giving away information that may not be necessary — we don’t know until the opponent responds whether I’ve lost yet), the opponent then must say whether he has any ships in that quadrant (giving away information that, again, may not be necessary)).

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This doesn’t at all answer your criticisms of the game by any stretch, petesahooligan (apart from the torpedo option), but I just got the following idea:

Two sets of Battleship games, one set would be used solely to track shots, the other to place ships (though we would pretend, for this implementation, that all ships are different-sized subs). The top portion of the board would be the depth, the bottom portion the latitude and longitude. Players would then have to call off 3 coordinates to drop depth charges. The coordinates specified is the center of explosion, the explosion being each adjacent [non-diagonal] point in 3D space (so 7 points in total, unless at an edge of the allocated space). Players would notify if a ship of theirs was hit, but not which coordinates hit.

Maybe have an option to allow instant-kill torpedoes that can be fired directly ahead of a sub (in lieu of a depth carge (i.e., can’t do both on the same turn))?

BTW, I suppose for the sake of a modicum of realism that one shouldn’t be allowed to orient ships facing straight up or down on the depth axis.

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Rawismojo, that would quickly break the game. So… no. There’s an aspect of this variant that reminds me of Mastermind.

The Mastermind game is essentially a solitaire with the second player acting as referee. An array of 4 pegs, each peg in one of 6 colors, is hidden behind a blind. The guessing player has 10 or so guesses to identify the proper colors and sequence. Etc. It’s a brilliant game design. The only feedback provided after each guess is how many pegs are both the right color AND the right position, expressed as a number, and how many pegs are the right color but in the wrong position. Unfortunately, there are algorithms that solve the problem in an expedient way and the game loses it’s mental engagement once players discover the method.

Dragon, I understand the challenge of shots originating from ships only, when ship elimination is part of the game. It would create areas of the board that could no longer be fired into. Not sure how to solve it.

Sounds like we have a couple of places we’re looking to “fix” Battleship:
• New Boards
• Ship Movement
• Shot (i.e., Guess) Arrays
• Shot Limitations (quantity)
• Screened / Open Gameplay

What design aspects are we missing?

Nobody’s talked about dice. Doesn’t sound like dice would help with the fundamental flaws of Battleship.

Playing cards might help. Perhaps each player gets 52 shots. (Their inventory of remaining shots is represented by a pack of ordinary playing cards.) Each suite might represent a certain kind of shot, while face cards might be more powerful somehow.

Another, different option… “Sonar.”

Perhaps the boats had a “sonar” ability. Sonar would allow the guessing player to name a column or row. The defending player indicates if there is any ship (or piece of ship) in that column or row. It is not considered a hit, and the specific space that contains the ship is not revealed; only the presence of a ship (yes/no).

Using sonar might reveal the coordinates of the guessing player’s ship(s). Perhaps sonar can only be used on a column or row containing one of their ships. Using sonar effectively hurts the guessing player more than the defending player, so players are REQUIRED to use sonar after every other turn. (The sonar may originate from any of their undamaged or partially damaged ships.)

Sonar is used in addition to ordinary shots.

The sonar house rule would accelerate the game and add a layer of logical deduction that I think might be interesting.

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I’m not seeing how that would quickly break the game. If one player wants to play it safe and revisit old areas to make sure they are hits, then they lose the potential for searching out new hits.