The drinking public has always enjoyed co-opting childhood games and turning them into playful ways to get drunk. That’s how ping-pong became beer pong, and how tiddlywinks became quarters. It’s how, over the past two decades, the beloved board game Battleship has turned into Battleshots.
In 1967 Milton Bradley introduced the strategy game Battleship, in which players discreetly place miniature naval destroyers, cruisers and carriers on their side of a 10-by-10 plastic pegboard. Gamers would take turns guessing where each enemy vessel was placed in order to “sink” them. (A simpler pencil and paper version of the game has existed since at least World War I.)
An immediate hit, by 1977 it had turned into the first board game with an electronic sound chip and would eventually spawn a 1979 computer game, followed by more sophisticated console video games and even a big-budget feature film flop in 2012.
In 2004, however, in the Leverett House dormitories at Harvard University, in the self-dubbed Deerhead Suite, named after the taxidermied deer heads hanging on the walls, sophomore Andrew Kreicher simply wanted a more challenging version of the ubiquitous beer pong.
“I think the objective was to come up with a game that involved some amount of strategic thinking rather than just shooting accuracy,” he told me. He recalled the game Battleship from childhood and realized a similar peg grid could also be represented by a bunch of Solo cups—some filled with water, others with beer. “It was a game that pretty much every kid knew and wouldn’t require a ton of explaining.”
Kreicher’s playing surface configuration (seven-by-seven) and naming conventions (the two-cup vessel was dubbed a lobster boat rather than a destroyer) differed slightly from Milton Bradley’s version, but the undertaking was deliberately modeled after the children’s game. In true Harvard fashion, Kreicher soon codified what he dubbed Beer Battleship in a 1,058-word enumeration of regulations and bylaws, including how to determine rank based on the number of cups that have been “sunk” (a player with zero cups sunk is a private, while anyone sinking 13 cups rises to fleet admiral). He submitted the treatise to College Humor for publication in 2005, the first appearance of the game on the internet. In this pre–social media era—MySpace had just launched, YouTube was still a year away—College Humor was one of the few ways sophomoric shenanigans could quickly reach America’s youth.
“I didn’t think the game was specific enough that no one else could have simultaneously come up with it,” says Kreicher, now in his late 30s and working in the financial industry. “I recall finding out years later that people at other colleges were playing it, but didn’t know if they had independently conceived of it, found the rules somewhere online, or what.”
Indeed, by the end of 2005 Beer Battleship was slowly developing a grassroots following on college campuses across the Northeast. At New York’s Binghamton University, four students dubbed their version Beertleship, with the individual ship classes rechristened as the Budmarine, German Bruboat and Labatt Cablue. By 2007, Johns Hopkins’ student newspaper, News-Letter, was calling Beer Battleship one of the campus’s five best drinking games, alongside Flip Cup and Asshole. “The rules are intricate and everyone winds up just wanting to drink, but while it lasts, its great [sic],” a then-sophomore explained.
As other nascent social media began to emerge, online appearances of Beer Battleship grew in tandem. In early 2010, Sharenator, a rudimentary meme site, posted an article entitled Beer Battleship (or how to always win at battleship). But the game would benefit from a significant leap in public consciousness later that year, when Reddit user j1mtones uploaded an image showing a version of the game he rigged up with assorted shot glasses acting as the ships atop a homemade cardboard grid.
“It required two clean pizza boxes and the consumption of many shots,” the Reddit user told me recently (he preferred to keep his real name under wraps). The two pizza boxes were propped open and became the gaming booths for the players by way of a Sharpie-drawn grid. Unaware of Kreicher’s game, the San Francisco man nevertheless landed on his version in a similar fashion, scrapping the throwing element of beer pong in favor of the Milton Bradley–style guessing of coordinates, although he opted for hard liquor in place of the standard beer due to a surplus of vodka and gin around his apartment.
Amused by the enterprising creation of the two pajama-clad young men, Reddit users offered nearly 400 comments attempting to find the perfect punny name for the game. Bottleship? Battlesips? Posters would eventually agree that Battleshots—what j1mtones had initially captioned his image—was in fact the best name for the game. It quickly become canon, and still reigns.
Several years earlier, in the summer of 2006, two college students in Bochum, Germany, had begun playing a game they called Mische Versenken, which loosely translates to “sinking mixed drinks.” Unaware of what was simultaneously emerging across the Atlantic, they uploaded a video to YouTube in 2009, describing themselves as “Idioten vom Herren mit einer bekloppten Idee” (“idiot gentlemen with a crazy idea”). Their oversize setup consisted of an air mattress placed upright as a vertical divider between two kitchen tables pushed together, with glasses of Brinkhoff’s No.1, a local pilsner, along with assorted cups of liquor acting as the battleships atop a hand-drawn grid.
As the caption with the video explains, “In the beginning we started with 3 players, then we had 10, 21, 26 and finally, we launched a world championship with 20 players from 9 different countries.” At the time of the post, the world champion was someone named Gunnar from Dresden, Germany. (I was unable to make contact with Gunnar or Søren and Christian, the individuals featured in the original video.)
Whether it was invented at Harvard, Binghamton, Bochum, or elsewhere altogether, by the mid-2010s, like cornhole and oversize Jenga, Battleshots had eventually spread to bars and breweries around the world. Dahlia’s Pour House, a celebrated craft beer bar in Jacksonville, Florida, offered what they called “Beertleship,” using IPAs for the ships on their setup. Boom, an “adventure bar” in the United Kingdom, presented a highly polished version of the game alongside ax-throwing and mini-golf, while Rojber Pub in Poland hosted a version with red wine served on homemade wooden boards.
Of course, as with other drinking games like flip cup or beer funneling, dozens of companies have commercialized the homespun pastime, selling products with names like Torpedo Shots and Tipsy Ships; well-crafted vessels and detailed gaming boards, including one that costs $169.99, have replaced the repurposed pizza boxes and mismatched shot glasses of the dorm room originals. There are at least two active Kickstarter projects dedicated to the game.
But full virality was achieved only in 2013, when the game finally appeared in mainstream media. “Johnny [Knoxville] and I are about to play a cool drinking game called Battleshots,” explained host Jimmy Fallon as he introduced the Jackass star and his Tonight Show audience to the game.
Even if seeing it played by two fortysomething millionaires under bright studio lights on NBC signaled a turn toward passé, it also cemented Battleshots in the canon of college drinking games. “[It’s] definitely surreal,” says Kreicher, of seeing the glow up given to the once-humble contest he created in a dorm over a decade ago. “Where are my royalty checks?!”