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Aaron Potter
United States
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Game Review: Battleship

The Quick and Dirty:
Pseudo-tense, wearying process-of-elimination game, with neat components it doesn’t deserve.

Players set up their forces, usually consisting of five ships varying in length from two to five squares each, on a 10x10 grid hidden from opponent’s view. Once both players have finished, they take turns declaring target squares on a second grid, eliciting either a “hit” or a “miss” from the opponent. Hits are recorded with red pins, misses with white ones. A ship which has been “hit” on all of its squares is declared “sunk.” Game continues until one player wins by eliminating all of his or her opponents’ ships.
Note: several house-rules variants exist, including those which allot a player a certain number of shots per round determined by the number of ships he or she still has, or by the length of the longest remaining vessel, or which allow players to move their vessels, etc.

Like Stratego, this game is almost entirely strategic, rather than tactical, in nature. Almost everything in this game depends upon the initial placement of the ships, and, to some degree, one’s ability to predict opponent’s placement *and* their search pattern. There are decent arguments to be made both for clustering one’s ships (in order to confuse the opponent for the longest time possible as to the direction they should be moving their targeting shots) and for scattering them (in order to reduce the chance that a stray shot will lead the opponent from destroying one ship to immediately destroying another). The initial targeting pattern for firing is similarly reliant on one’s ability to outguess the opponent’s tendencies, with the added proviso that hitting every-other-square, in a diagonal pattern (like just the black squares on a chess board) is the most efficient use of initial shots, since enemy ships are all at least two squares in length.

In the commonly available Milton Bradley “twin-suitcase” edition, the components far outshine the actual gameplay. Two plastic briefcases, one red and one blue, each about the size of a sheet of paper and perhaps an inch and a half thick, contain plastic grids for both ship placement and targeting, with suitably navy-esque graphics printed underneath the translucent sheets, and separate compartments for ships, white pegs, and red pegs. The ships themselves, approximately 1/2400th scale plastic miniatures, are easily identifiable as different modern warships, including cutters, battleships, aircraft carriers, and submarines, marred only by the large holes drilled in each segment for peg placement. Truly inspiring to the young wargamer, these miniatures cry out for a better set of house rules instead of the bland, traditional game with which they are packaged.

House rules can greatly improve this game, but at some point, don’t you have to wonder why you’re bothering re-inventing an ACTUALLY good game when there are so many available out there? If it weren’t for the engaging parts, and cheap price tag, I suspect this product would have long ago faded back into the home-grown pencil-and-paper woodwork from whence it sprang. Once one has found a ‘hit,’ there is a strictly random decision to pursue the hit vertically or horizontally in the quest to sink all of an opponent’s ships. Less than halfway through any game, one is likely to recognize that the mechanism feels less like a game and more like shoveling dirt: endless, pointless activity. Sadly, even a random arrangement of ships is as effective as a “thought-out” one, and both will require opponents to fire salvos into almost every square on the board to clear out the last enemy. I suspect that few people, even children, make it through a full game.

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