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Battleships & the Captain’s Boys: How Board Games Can Be a Great Way to Impart Life Lessons

July 19, 2017 | Joy of learning
Garima Midha

By Ragavan Manian

My two little boys Karun (8) and Sunaad (5) play board games whenever they are, well, bored. We have a variety of games for them to choose from, related to their interests in everything from myths and mythology to Mickey Mouse. But one game that has found a lot of favor recently is Battleships.

According to Wikipedia, the Battleships board game has its origins in World War I, starting out as a paper and pencil game.

Picture courtesy Creative Commons/Wikipedia

Picture courtesy Creative Commons/Wikipedia

As for me (and probably a lot of other adults out there who grew up on a steady diet of Herge’s famous characters), I first learned about the game from the Tintin comic Flight 714. If you haven’t read the pages where the sullen, stingy and scruple-free multi-billionaire Carreidas repeatedly flummoxes Capt. Haddock, you’re missing out on some hilarious stuff!

But even as I enjoyed the comic and was intrigued by Battleships, I never got a chance to actually play the game, and it faded from my memory – that is, until it made a grand appearance in our household in the guise of my son’s birthday gift. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly both my little boys picked up the game. They are nearly three years apart, and in the early years, “three” represents a significant cognitive gap, separated by numerous cognitive milestones. Some examples:

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Their board games, therefore, tend to be divided into two neat piles. In line with his age and interests, the younger one prefers the motto of “have dice, will play”. He loves rolling dice, driven by the sincere belief that he’s the luckiest person in the family. His cries of elation when he leads the board on the perennial family favourite Snakes and Ladders, or his shrieks of despair when he falls behind, have earned him the nickname “Mr. Noisy” in our neighbourhood. The older one, on the other hand, prefers intrigue (Scotland Yard, anyone?). He feels let down when “dumb luck” plays a significant part in a game, and he doesn’t get a chance to outsmart his opponent.

Like many great board games, Battleships tends to straddle the space between luck and logic. Yes, there’s a good deal of chance in the game, but it also requires strategic thinking. Children delight in shouting out the words, “a miss!”, “a hit!” and “a sink!”. There is implicit confrontation in those words; of course, no actual violence is inflicted. The vessels on the board don’t even sink when they’re sunk – they just end up looking more dressed up! The power of their thought processes in affecting the opponent’s fleet is a revelation – almost like a spooky action-at-a-distance effect. Abstraction and generalization – computational thinking strategies that even adults sometimes have difficulty with – form part and parcel of this game. The moments of silence and strategic thinking add to its old-world charm.

Open Mic Imagin8ors

Above all, this game demands that the players be principled. The temptation for the children to surreptitiously gain strategic advantage (i.e., through peeking!) was initially so strong that during the first few rounds, I had to step in and act as the captain of the boys, enforcing ground rules and levying stringent penalties for “cheating”. But eventually they understood that it’s a lot more fun and engaging if you follow the rules. A fair game of Battleships seems to teach long-term lessons that stick in more ways than one.

Open Mic-imagin8ors

Carreidas in Flight 714 was driven by the desire to win the game of Battleships at all costs against his opponent, the poor, sincere Captain Haddock. This may have helped the former win the game, but in the end his guile was exposed and the Captain’s Boys won the day!

What board games rule your household? What life lessons have you been able to share through them? We would love to hear from you…


There’s a symphony in everything Ragavan Manian does. A father, musician, writer, and maker with a mind still as curious and adventurous as a child’s, this member of Team Imagin8ors has an infectious enthusiasm and zest for exploring and seeking out new ideas. 

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