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Battleship: Its Value is in the Playing of the Game

by Michael Barnes (09/12/11).

The 1967 board game edition of Battleship, produced by Milton Bradley. Note that wife and sister are relegated to the galley on dish duty.

“You sank my battleship!” is—without a doubt—one of those iconic catchphrases that kids picked up from commercials shown during Saturday morning cartoons, back when there were Saturday morning cartoons. Of course, this particular juvenile utterance became the tagline for Milton Bradley’s classic guessing game of naval warfare, Battleship. You’d never guess that a board game where calling out coordinates like “B-3” is the central dramatic beat could support a feature film, but coming to theaters in 2012 is exactly that. If that classic line doesn’t make it into the film, I’d be sorely disappointed.

Essentially, Battleship is a simple deduction game wherein players attempt to ascertain the location of hidden enemy ships. By calling out coordinates, the player is trying to land a hit (confirmed by the opponent) to determine what adjacent squares the ship occupies. Each ship is a different size, ranging from a two-square patrol craft up to the five-square aircraft carrier. Ships are stationary, so once found a vessel likely isn’t going to be seaworthy for long.

An old-school Battleship on grid paper. The value is in the playing of the game, and probably not great source material for a screenplay.

I’m still not seeing a feature movie out of this.

Before everything under the sun got optioned for movie rights, Battleship was originally a pen-and-paper parlor game believed to have been invented by one Clifford Von Wickler sometime around 1900—interestingly, the quintessential game of naval warfare in fact predates World War I. The game was never patented and remained in the public domain. In 1941, Milton Bradley published the game under the title Broadsides, but in this early edition it remained a pen-and paper game as in its original incarnation. It was simply played out on grid paper, with players drawing in the location of their vessels and checking off hit locations. The game can still be played in this way; it does not require any electronic bells and whistles or fancy plastic pegboards.

The 1967 Milton Bradley edition is likely much more recognizable and it is this printing of the game that established it as a board game rather than a pen-and-paper one. As in most versions of the game that would follow, the set included two folding plastic cases that contained plastic grids. The players would stick their ship miniatures into the lower grid, with red and white pegs used on the vertical part of the board to indicate their hits and misses (thus aiding in the deduction element). Red pegs were also stuck into a player’s ships to track damage.

Later versions would, of course, completely upend the simplicity of the original game. Travel versions, video game implementations, card games, dice games and other games with the Battleship brand have come and gone and come again. Likely, the most popular Battleship variant (and one I remember very, very fondly from my childhood) was an electronic edition that added sound effects, voices and lights. Despite the quite literal bells and whistles, the game remained more or less the same.

And I still don’t see a feature film in it.

Battleship also spawned some other similar designs at Milton Bradley and elsewhere. Perhaps the most interesting was a 1975 title called Tank Battle that combined the deduction elements of the classic Battleship design with some mechanics from Stratego. Moving targets added quite a bit of interest, and as a whole the game was much more strategically compelling and less about simple guesswork. It also isn’t exactly difficult to detect the influence of Battleship in the classic Windows timewaster Minesweeper.

Battleship: Galaxies aims to interest hobby gamers in the time-honored tradition of battleship-sinking.

More recently Hasbro (the current owners of the property) have gotten more creative with Battleship, introducing new concepts such as hex-based grids, rescuing POWs held on islands, layering the game with a Star Wars or G.I. Joe theme, and other frankly quite necessary details to increase modern interest in the game.

Even more radical is Battleship: Galaxies, a newly released game intended for the hobby market that barely resembles its brand namesake at all. It’s a tactical spaceship combat game wherein players track damage and shield strength with those classic pegs, rolling coordinate dice to determine if attacks with ship weapons systems hit or miss their targets. Ship differentiation is much more than just the number of peg holes—each craft has unique weapons and abilities as well as multiple levels of experience that determine their combat effectiveness. The only hidden information is in the decks of action and event cards each player has to try to tip the odds in their favor. Battleship: Galaxies comes packed with a graphic novel depicting a surprisingly detailed back story for the events the game depicts (the “Saturn Offensive” launched by the evil Wretchedarians against the International Space Navy).

Ironically, when we’re talking about aftermarket values, Battleship Galaxies is likely to be the big winner even over the earliest editions of the game. Not only is it a retail heavyweight at $65, it’s also a hobby market product likely to be produced in limited quantities and highly sought after by game players in years to come. The game isn’t available at mainstream retailers, but if it sells well through hobby channels then additional expansions may be released that could also increase in value over time.

A late-1970s Electronic Battleship version. Later editions would add voice once computer memory could handle it.

The current version of Electronic Battleship adds two squadrons of aircraft with air to surface missiles and submarines with sonar search capabilities.

But classic Battleship in all of its previous incarnations is very much a mass market, widely available product and there really aren’t any particularly rare or valuable editions. Even first edition sets are widely available and aren’t uncommon at thrift shops, yard sales or antiques stores, and it’s the sort of item that you might pay anywhere from 50 cents to $20, depending on condition. Electronic versions might fetch slightly higher prices, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable spending more than $20-$25 for a particularly nice version—with working batteries. Even the popular Star Wars-themed versions rarely top $20 and are easy to come by.

But the good news is that like many mass-market games, the real value of Battleship is in playing it with friends and family—not in auction prices or scarcity.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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One Response to “Battleship: Its Value is in the Playing of the Game”

  1. Jesse Fuchs says:

    The early Battleship is actually quite a cerebral workout, unlike the modern kids’ game. Players were given a “salvo” of shots—either three, or as many types of ships as you still had, depending on the variant—and they were announced all at once. Then, your opponent told you what happened (i.e., “One miss, one hit on a battleship, and a destroyer was sunk”), but NOT which missile did what. It’s actually a game where getting all misses is a good thing, because then you don’t have to have a grid with a bunch of question marks and cryptic notations. It’s no Escape From The Aliens In Outer Space, but it’s far less far off than you’d think.

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