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Tips to win at Battleship

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This weekend sees the latest board-game-turned-movie, Battleship, steaming into a movie theater near you, but judging by its critical reception, "steaming" seems to be a pretty apt word for what it's doing.

So if the movie is destined to sink without trace, what're you going to do with your afternoon instead? How about sitting down with a friend for a few rounds of the game that inspired the movie? It's likely to be a good deal more fun...but in order to have a good time, you've got to be in with a good chance of winning. Here's how to keep the wind at your back.

Marshal your forces

Just like real-life naval conflicts, many Battleship matches are won or lost before the first shot is fired. Getting your ship arrangement right is crucial, and you can often improve your odds of dodging the incoming fire by following some simple rules of thumb.

First up, don't leave your ships adjacent to each other. Do that, and an opponent who's working his way down one of your vessels can easily run off the end…right onto a new target. You don't want that.

Next, try to resist the urge to be too tidy. Once you've come up with the perfect pattern, you'll be tempted to mirror-image it to the other side. That's far from a winning strategy, for obvious reasons. As soon as your opponent figures it out, they'll be able to flatten your entire fleet in no time flat.

That applies to smaller groupings, too. It's easy to creep into habits -- like, say, always placing a patrol boat just next to your carrier, just because it seems balanced that way. A savvy opponent will soon figure that one out too, and you'll be left at a major disadvantage.

Ready to go? Here's one more tip: putting a ship along the edge of the board is usually a good idea. Your opponent will likely tend to drop most of their shots towards the middle of the board, and a shorter vessel lurking right at one of the edges can be a real beast to track down.

Know when to break the rules

That's the textbook approach. But the best admiral knows there are times when the best thing to do is the exact opposite of all that. Put all your ships together in one tightly packed group, for example. While that's anathema to traditional Battleship tactics, it'll confuse the heck out of your opponent. Or arrange your ships in a pretty, symmetrical pattern. It's a great way to throw experienced opponents off their game...until they figure out what you're doing, of course. Better sink all their ships before that happens.

Take aim

So now the ships are down, and it's time to get shooting. Tactics here are key, and there are a number of schools of thought. Some commanders prefer to methodically dot the seas with equally-spaced shots, hoping to checkerboard their opponents into submission. If that's you, bear in mind no Battleship is smaller than two spaces, and there are only two of those.

Others like to slice the grid into diagonal chunks, pizza-style, then drop shots in each slice to pinpoint larger ships. This has its advantages too -- but again, varying your approach is the key to long-term success. Use the same method in too many games, and your opponent will start to anticipate, placing his or her ships where you're less likely to shoot. So mix it up.

Want to get even more serious in your Battleship strategy?  Check out this article by Aisha Harris at, which explains how a 'probability density function' can be blast opponents most efficiently into smithereens.  Fair warning: it involves a little math.  Just a little.

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