How To Play Battleship: Mastering the High Seas

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Battleship is a classic strategy board game for two players that was first published in its modern form in 1967 by the Milton Bradley Company, now owned by Hasbro. We know that the pen-and-paper version of the game existed long before Milton Bradley’s release, but what is subject to debate is how old it really is and from which game it originated. 

It’s believed that it was played around World War I, but some suggest that it’s even older than that. The two games often mentioned as possible origins are Basilinda and L’Attaque (which we know inspired Stratego), but these are just speculations. What we do know is that Milton Bradley’s version was the first to use a plastic board and pegs. As you can see, tracking the origin of a relatively recent board game can be tricky. You can just imagine how hard it’s to find the origin of a truly ancient board game

While the origins of the game are a bit confusing, the basic rules of Battleship are undoubtedly straightforward. Today, we are going to explain how to play Battleship, and don’t worry – prior sea captain experience won’t be required!

Battleship Paper set from 1933
Paper set from 1933

Setting Up the Game

When it comes to the rules, not a lot has changed since the initial release, but the game did get additional mediums. Pen-and-paper and plastic battleship games are still popular, but you can now find online versions of the game and, interestingly enough, a card game version. For now, we’ll focus on the rules for the regular plastic set of the Battleship board game, and later on, we’ll explain how to play the Battleship on paper. 

Modern versions of Battleship games usually come with two separate plastic sets, each containing everything one player requires for their game. Each player takes one of those sets, which come with two grids, ships, and pegs that are required for the game. 

One grid is the ocean grid (lower half of the set), where the player positions their fleet, and the other is a target grid, where the player marks their hits and misses using white and red pegs. Both grids are marked vertically from 1 to 10 and horizontally from A to J. White pegs are used to mark misses, and red pegs are for hits. The same pegs are used to register your opponent’s hits on the ocean grid. Before we get to how hits and misses work, let’s explain how you set up your fleet and what the goal of the game is. 

The goal of the Battleship board game is to sink all of your opponent’s ships before they can do the same to you. Each player’s fleet is composed of five ships: 

  • Aircraft Carrier – five holes 
  • Battleship – four holes 
  • Cruiser – three holes
  • Submarine – three holes
  • Destroyer – two holes 
battleship components
This is a legit way to place your ships, but still, don’t do it.

Each player places all their ships on the ocean grid in secret. It’s best if the players sit across from one another so that they can’t see their opponent’s ocean grid. The ships can be placed horizontally or vertically on the grid. You can place the ships next to each other or at the edge of the grid if you wish to do so, as long as no ship is placed diagonally, on top of another ship, or with parts of it hanging off the grid. Once the ships are set, they can’t be moved until the game ends. 

There will be no dice required for this game! A dream come true for any hardcore eurogamer, but alas, this is a classic board game from a time before euro-styled games were a thing. 

Basic Battleship Rules 

The game begins once the players set up their ships and agree on who’ll go first. The acting player starts by calling the coordinates of the shot. For example: A7. The opponent responds with either: “You hit my ____” or “Miss.” The opponent has to tell you which enemy ships have been hit, and if this was the last remaining space, they need to say: “You sank my ____.” Of course, you don’t have to use these exact sentences, but it’s important to let your opponent know which ship was hit and when the ship was sunk. 

If your shot was a miss, the enemy will register it with a white peg on their ocean grid. If your shot hit any of the five ships, they would take a red peg and mark it. You, as an acting player, will do the same, but on your target grid (upper grid). Whether your shot resulted in a hit or miss, it’s now the opposite player’s turn. The players continue taking turns guessing the locations of the other player’s ships on the grid until one player successfully sinks all of their opponent’s ships.

Advanced Battleship Rules – Salvo

Once you have a couple of naval battles under your belt, you can try the advanced rules for Battleship. The only difference is how many shots you get per turn. You start the game with five shots, and each time your ship sinks, you have one shot less. So when you have four ships, you’ll have four shots. 

Once you fire your salvo of shots, you mark them immediately with the white peg on the target grid. Once you have fired all of your shots, the opponent will check his ocean grid and let you know which of those have been hits and what you have hit. Mark each corresponding coordinate with a red peg.

battleship Display set in Dugdale Museum
Display set in Dugdale Museum, Enfield, North London.

How To Play Battleship on Paper

Maybe you don’t fancy carrying the Battleship case around with you. No problem, just get two pieces of paper (preferably graph paper), two pens, and you are good to go. 

First, you’ll have to mark the borders of your ocean grids, which basically means drawing a 10 x 10 grid. If you don’t have graph paper, you can use plain paper, but you’ll need a ruler as well. Label the horizontal rows from 1 to 10 and the vertical rows from A to J. 

Second, map out your ship’s positions on an ocean grid. Just like in a regular game, you get one 5-slot ship, one 4-slot ship, two 3-slot ships, and one 2-slot ship. The other grid will be used to mark your hits and misses. Instead of using red and white pegs, mark each hit with an X on the grid and each miss with an O. There are no different rules or anything else; you can play both the regular and salvo versions of the game with the pen-and-paper version.


And there you have it, Admiral! You’ve now mastered the art of Battleship and can dominate the high seas with your strategic prowess. Whether you’re outmaneuvering your opponents in the classic plastic version or conquering the paper grid with pen in hand, you’re now a formidable force to be reckoned with.

So, gather your fleet, call out those coordinates, and sink your enemy’s ships with precision and flair. Just remember, in Battleship, it’s not about sheer luck—it’s about cunning and strategy. May your hits be true, and your misses be few!


  1. What are the rules to Battleship?

    The rules of Battleship are simple. You place your battleships in secret, with each ship being wholly within your game grid, and set vertically or horizontally on it. No diagonal placement or on top of another ship. You can’t move your ships once you’ve set them. Each player will try to guess the location of the other player’s ship. For each wrong guess, the player misses, and for each correct guess, the player hits. The game is played until one player sinks all of their opponent’s ships and wins the game.

  2. What is the basic concept of a Battleship board game?

    The concept of a Battleship board game is to sink all of your opponent’s ships before they do the same to you.

  3. What are the 5 ships in Battleship?

    The 5 ships in Battleship are an aircraft carrier, a battleship, a cruiser, a submarine, and a destroyer.

Milos Djurovic

Milos Djurovic

Milos started his RPG journey with live-action role-playing, and his geeky hobbies escalated quickly from there. He’s a grizzled Imperial Guard general and still wages an ongoing war against unpainted grey miniatures. Having an active board gaming crew doesn’t help with finding free time, but he doesn’t mind.