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How to play Battleship for beginners

We'll talk you through how to play Battleship and its trickier variant Salvo, and quickly break down the rules to this classic board game.

It’s super easy to learn how to play Battleship. This strategic guessing game takes just minutes to learn and is surprisingly good fun despite such simple rules. Whether you’re coming to this retro board game for the very first time, dusting off an old box for a nostalgic naval battle, or even playing with paper and pen, we’ll teach you the core Battleship rules and have you sinking ships in no time.

Before we get started with the classic board game Battleship, however, we have a couple of quick recommendations for similar titles. If you enjoy the military aesthetic of Battleship, you might also enjoy these war board games. Or, if it’s the secret information and feeling of deception that floats your boat, you’ll probably love social deduction games. Now, let’s get onto those Battleship rules.

Battleship gameplay

What is the aim in Battleship?

Battleship is quite straightforward. Each player has five ships of different sizes, and you’ll take it in turns to call out a grid reference to fire a shot. The aim in Battleship is to sink all your opponents’ ships by landing a hit on each of their segments. If you sink all of your opponent’s battleships before your own are sent to the ocean’s dark depths, you’ve won the game.

How to set up Battleship?

To set up Battleship, you need to sit facing your opponent and place all your ships on your ocean grid. You’ll need to do this in secret, ensuring neither player knows the other’s ship placements.

You have one of each type of ship, and there are five ships in total, each of different size. The Battleship ship types are:

Ship Size
Destroyer 2
Submarine 3
Cruiser 4
Battleship 5
Carrier 6

Your ships must be placed horizontally or vertically, so cannot be diagonal. You can place your ships so that they are touching, but they must not overlap.

While most people encountering Battleship will be playing the Milton Bradley or Hasbro version with pegs to keep their ships in place and a screen to keep them hidden, you don’t actually need a board at all to play Battleship. In fact, before it was first commercialized, Battleship was played with pen and paper.

To set up for pen and paper Battleship, you’ll need two sheets of squared graph paper or normal paper and a very steady hand as you each draw two ten by ten grids. You’ll use one (your ocean grid) to mark the placement of your own ships and your opponent’s shots, and the other (target grid) to mark your own hits and misses. Label the X-axis 1-10 and the Y-axis A-J.

Battleship retro box

How to play Battleship

To play Battleship, the first player must call out a grid coordinate (e.g. A-5). The opposing player must look at the corresponding square on their ocean grid and then announce whether this was a hit or a miss, placing a peg or drawing on their ocean grid to mark the shot. They then get to take a shot at you, picking a coordinate where they think your ships might be hidden.

After you fire a shot, you’ll mark on your target grid whether it was a hit or a miss using different colored pegs. This way, you’ll start to reduce the area where your opponent’s boats could be hiding.

A couple of quick reminders: you can’t move your ships after they are placed. You can’t have overlapping ships.  And you can’t fib and say that a hit was a miss.

When one of your ships is sunk, you must announce this, as well as what ship was taken down (e.g. you sunk my battleship). The official rules state that you must declare the ship type whenever your opponent hits you too, but a popular house rules ignores this restriction, which makes the game a little bit more strategic.

How to play Salvo

To play Salvo, a more advanced Battleship variant, the set up and basic rules are the same as Battleship. The main difference is each player gets to fire five shots at once, and it’s only after you’ve fired all five that you find out from your opponent which were hits and which were misses.

In Salvo, when one of your five ships is sunk, it reduces the number of shots you get accordingly. So once you’re down to three ships, you can only fire a salvo of three.

For this variant, if you want to make it more tactical, Hasbro’s rules explicitly suggest not reporting which ships were hit until they are sunk.

If you’re looking to expand your collection, check out the best board games for some boxes everyone should own. We can also help you with some other old or classic games. For instance, here’s how to play Risk. And here are six (!) different ways of learning how to play Dominoes.