Warning! Something different from our usual designer interview coming your way. A few weeks ago, while perusing social media, I came across some interesting looking pictures of an upcoming game from a new smaller publisher named Catastrophe Games (if you remember, we covered their recent Judean Hammer designed by Robin David that came off a successful Kickstarter). This game is a solitaire game that uses a typically unused in wargame design mechanic called Roll & Write where you roll dice and place them as resources, or actions, or forces, etc. and then fill in bubbles on a page representing various things like damage, completion, control, etc. This game is called the USS Laffey: The Ship That Would Not Die and is designed by a new designer who has won several awards for his innovative designs named Mike Heiman. We reached out to Mike ahead of the upcoming Kickstarter for the game to get some information about the design and how the game plays.

If you are interested in USS Laffey: The Ship That Would Not Die, you can order a copy of the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/367982678/uss-laffey-the-ship-that-would-not-die-game

Grant: First off Mike please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?

Mike: My name is Mike Heiman, but on Board Game Geek I use the pseudonym Mike Heim (not very clever I know). That name comes from the days when usernames couldn’t exceed 8 characters. I am an 8th grade U.S. History teacher in my 20th year of teaching. I love my job. I love the kiddos. And I love the content. I live with my wife and 4 year-old son in Juneau, Alaska.

Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?

Mike: I’ve been tinkering in wargame design for the past 30 years. As a child I enjoyed Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons (and I still run a D&D campaign weekly). When I was a teenager, my best friend and I played a lot of Avalon Hill and other wargames. We made autonoma rules for Fortress America so we could be on the same side trying to take down the U.S. instead of each other. This was my first dip into game design. After that, a group of us that played Star Fleet Battles created an entire ruleset to reduce the play-time at least by half by creating a 16 impulse, 2-phase system. Since then, we have been making our own wargames and testing them out on each other.

Grant: What designers would you say have influenced your style?

Mike: My style is quite eclectic, but there are clear influences of mechanics from other games in my own designs. For instance, fans of Star Fleet Battles will feel a slight connection to the Damage Control portion of that game and USS Laffey. Although I am a fan of certain game designers like Dan Verssen, Steve Jackson, and Richard Berg, I am more attracted to innovative mechanics, beautiful artwork, and an engaging theme.

Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?

Mike: This is such an easy question for me to answer: Rulebooks! 

Writing down the rules in a coherent manner so that somebody can walk in and play the game as I have intended is quite a challenge. Now, every game I create goes through an extensive series of blind playtests and peer proofreadings.

Grant: What is your upcoming game USS Laffey about?

Mike: USS Laffey is a solitaire or cooperative damage control game where you have to predict, prepare, and respond to disasters befalling a World War II naval destroyer in the heat of battle during World War II in the Pacific.

Grant: What does the subtitle “The Ship That Would Not Die” refer to? Historically what happened to the USS Laffey?

Mike: While on radar picket duty in WWII, the Laffey was targeted by 22 Japanese fighter aircraft, bombers, and suicide planes. The Japanese had proven that an American escort carrier could be eliminated by one or two kamikaze aircraft. The small destroyer USS Laffey was the priority target defending the main fleet and landing forces at Okinawa since it was the radar ship responsible for monitoring enemy activity and preventing a surprise attack. In the span of 90 minutes, the Laffey was subject to more kamikaze strikes than any ship had ever seen, and it survived the assault that could’ve sunk a carrier multiple times over.

Grant: What sources did you consult on the capabilities of the USS Laffey and the story of their amazing feat? What one source would you recommend as a must read?

Mike: Julian Becton’s The Ship That Would Not Die is the most extensive account of the Laffey and the battle during April 16, 1945. I’ve heard that Hell From The Heavens by John Wokovits is another great resource that takes a view of the situation through the lens of the enlisted crew. I haven’t read it but I will.

Grant; I see where the game has dice driven chance mechanics. What does this statement refer to?

Mike: In the case of this game USS Laffey, dice mechanics are used to determine what area of the ship an enemy aircraft will target, and what you can do on your turn. One red 10-sided die will let you know which compartment is struck by enemy aircraft.

The six other 10-sided dice are rolled to determine what actions the ship takes. Most actions are beneficial but some actions are very bad. This increases that amount of chance but is mitigated by decisions you make, how you assign your Damage Control Teams, and when you push your luck by rerolling — knowing that you could get a worse result.

Grant: How many dice are used in the game and why did you settle on that number? What are the red d6 and red d10 used for?

Mike: USS Laffey requires 8 dice:

1 six-sided die to track resources

1 red ten-sided die to determine which compartment is targeted by enemy aircraft 

6 ten-sided dice to determine what action you can take on your turn.

Grant: The game is referred to as a Roll & Write. What does this mean? How are the dice used once rolled?

Mike: A traditional Roll & Write is a lighter game of filling in bubbles, boxes, or sketching some thing permanently in order to gain points. These are usually done on a small pad of paper. In this game, your ship and entire play area is made up of two sheets of disposable game paper (from a pad) pushed next to each other. The player marks up these sheets and disposes of them after a game is finished. The mechanic is a lite but interesting way to engage in a game where decisions are made about how your resources are used.

Grant: Why did you feel this mechanic was the best to realize your vision for the game?

Mike: I started designing this game for the 2019 Wargame Design Contest in a more traditional manner. It had cards for the aircraft, cards for the damage control team actions, and chits to record damage. I wanted this to be a game that both hardcore WWII history geeks (like myself) would enjoy as well as an entry level wargame. This meant a massive revision of components, eventually leading to the current R&W design. The evolution of the game can be seen at the USS Laffey’s 2019 Contest WIP (work in progress) page. It ended up doing quite well in the contest, winning multiple awards.

Grant: What tactical choices must players make each turn?

Mike: The game starts with a twist on a typical Euro worker-placement game. You have two Damage Control Teams and 19 compartments to choose from. Each compartment gives a unique action you can take if you have a Team there. However, each compartment has a penalty you must take if an enemy aircraft hits the compartment without your Team there. Meanwhile, other compartments will be demanding your Teams’ attention as they flood or catch fire.  So you have two Teams and 19 compartments to choose from each turn. 

While in the Storage/Supply Compartment (Bosun’s Locker at the fore of the ship) you can gain supplies. Your Teams need these supplies to stop floods and fires. Or you can also station a Team on the bridge to gain Bridge actions like calling in Wildcats to mop up Kates and Vals, or maneuvering towards clear skies to give your crew a moment of respite.

Grant: What role do the different colored cubes play?

Mike: There are four cubes used in the game: 

  • Two Blue Cubes each representing a Damage Control Team (DCT) you send around the ship.
  • One Red Cube representing the compartment targeted by the Japanese aircraft.
  • One Green cube representing a supporting F4U Corsair from the USS Shamrock.

Backers on Kickstarter will also receive miniatures as an upgrade to the cubes; two blue sailors, one red B5N Kate torpedo bomber, and one green F4U Corsair.

Grant: The game also has colored pencils. What are these used for?

Mike: There are three colored pencils needed for the game:

  • Red to mark compartments on fire.
  • Blue to mark compartments flooding.
  • Black to mark debris in compartments (and to mark out other actions available on the sheets)

As you take damage, you will use these pencils to mark bubbles on your ship. You don’t want to mark too many bubbles or you will lose the game.

Grant: What was your inspiration for the graphics and the pulpy feel? How does this style set the proper theme for the game?

Mike: Sgt. Rock was the comic book that got me interested in military history as a child. I wanted something that would rekindle that spark and offer the same sort of interest to casual and seasoned players. I discovered how popular Public Domain art was when I used it to make Guildhaven City for the 2018 Solitaire Game Contest. That game uses Gloomhaven-like mechanics but is set in a 1940’s superhero noir, solitaire adventure in a 72-page comic book. It did quite well in the contest and people wanted me to produce more games set in the golden age of comics. 

Grant: Side note here. I too was enamored with Sgt. Rock during my childhood and used to read every issue that I could get my hands on, even visiting each of the 2 comic shops in my hometown digging into their back issue boxes looking for issues I didn’t have. Having grown up in the 1970’s, World War II was still fresh in the psyche of America and my father for sure as we watched all of the classic war movies. The pad used in the game is made up of two different parts of the USS Laffey, the fore and aft sections. Why is this the layout of the pads?

Mike: As you play the game you will have a cross section of the ship to refer to. I collaborated with the retired crew of the real USS Laffey to get these compartments and their locations correct. I must admit though that I had to move the location of the fuel tanks for game purposes, which bothered me a bit but had to be done. But the pads also direct the player through the various phases in an easy-to-follow comic flow. The game rules and flow are very easy to follow and the pad simply makes this process simpler.

Grant: What are the different areas of the ship shown on the pads? What are the circle bubbles in these areas used for?

Mike: The Pads consist of the ship cross section, the different types of Japanese aircraft that attacked the ship (which is historically accurate), the area where you assign dice to resolve, Tables of various Bridge Actions you mark out after use, and the flow of phases throughout the turn. Here is a graphic from the rule book that shows the various elements described here:

Grant: What are the different Penalty Action icons?

Mike: After damage from the Kamikaze attacks is resolved, the player will have to complete the Penalty Action for that Compartment according to the icon. These icons are designed to make this part of the game quick and easy to reference for the player. Here is a look at these various icons from the rule book:

Grant: What are the different segments of the Turn Order?

Mike: A round happens over 6 phases which you can follow on the game sheet like a comic book.

Phase 1: You assign your Damage Control Teams to two different compartments, gaining their special abilities.

Phase 2: The next enemy aircraft will attack a random compartment, doing damage, starting a fire, or causing a leak (or maybe even all three!).

Phase 3: You roll the six dice and keep as many as you want. You reroll any other dice up to two more times.

Phase 4: You resolve the dice you rolled in Phase 3. Some will help your ship and others will hurt your ship even more.

Phase 5: A Leak in a compartment will spread.

Phase 6: A fire in a compartment will spread.

End of Round. Any Corsair aircraft assigned to a target will destroy that target. Then go back to Phase 1.

Grant: What is the DC team and how does the player assign them?

Mike: At the beginning of each turn, the player will assign Damage Control Teams (DCT’s) to two different compartments and gain those compartments’ actions. Each compartment has a different ability, ala worker placement. However, if your DCT happens to be in a compartment that’s hit by an enemy aircraft, you won’t be able to use it next round as it sits in Sick Bay to recover.

As mentioned earlier, the plan is to offer a miniature during the Kickstarter for these DCT’s. Here is a look at a prototype mini:

Grant: What happens during the Aircraft Attack segment? How can players defend themselves against the Japanese aircraft and Kamikazes?

Mike: The game offers AAA guns (20mm and 40mm) that can target the closest aircraft, 5 inch cannons that can target any aircraft, and supporting Wildcats and Corsairs that will automatically destroy an enemy aircraft. But each round, you’re going to be hit by an aircraft. The goal of the game is to survive through 24 aircraft, but you can reduce that number by shooting them down, or having aircraft from the USS Shamrock help. You’ll still have to take damage from the next available aircraft, but at least you’re closer to reaching that last one and surviving the onslaught. 

Grant: What is unique about the different enemy planes? What does their facing and symbols mean for the player?

Mike: The enemy aircraft reflect the exact four types that attacked the Laffey and are in the order they attacked on April 16, 1945. The aircraft that are facing left will attack a compartment on the left sheet. Aircraft facing right will hit a compartment on the right sheet. 

Grant: How does the Planning Phase work? What do the different icons used in this segment mean? 

Mike: The player will roll six 10-sided dice during the Planning phase, with the option to reroll any dice twice. Generally, the lower the die roll the better. A 6 won’t help or hurt you. But 7-10 are negative effects you’d like to avoid.

Grant: What is the Leak Spreads Phase? What options do players have to repair this damage?

Mike: Your ship will develop Leaks and Fires throughout the game. You choose one Leak on your ship somewhere during this phase and it spreads into an adjacent compartment below it. If there are no compartments below it, the Leak will multiply and spread to the adjacent compartments to the left and right of it instead.

Grant: What happens during the Fire Spreads Phase?

Mike: This is similar to the Leak Spreads Phase. However, a Fire will spread upwards. An Explosion will happen if there are no compartments above the Fire. In this case, the Fire extinguishes itself (replaced by debris) and creates debris in every adjacent compartment.

Grant: What are the Bridge Action Boxes on the pad? What does the table with stars in it represent?

Mike: There are three different Bridge Actions that can help you during the game. You will gain Stars as you resolve 1’s rolled after the Planning phase. The cheapest Bridge Action to purchase (requiring the least amount of stars) is Supply. Instead of having your DCT visit the Forward Bosun’s Locker for supplies, you can gain them here with Bridge Actions. Maneuvering into “Clear Skies” is a bit more expensive but it delays the next Japanese aircraft’s attack. Finally, the most expensive Bridge Action is Wildcats. You use this to call in air support and immediately destroy any one Japanese plane and damage another. 

Grant: What is the ultimate object of the game and how is victory achieved?

Mike: The ultimate objective to the game is to survive all 24 aircraft attacks. Receiving 8 damage to the Bridge will lose you the game. You can also lose the game by receiving 8 damage to any other two compartments.

Grant: What Variant Rules are included? What experience do these variants create?

Mike: There are two types of variants added to the rules; difficulty levels, and the cooperative multiplayer game.

There are four difficulty levels, and the rules are explained for the Level 3 (Commander Level). You can make it easier or more difficult. If you want it to be as historically accurate as possible, choose Level 2 (Lieutenant Level). Or if the game is too easy, ditch one of your DCT’s and try to win at Level 4 (Captain Level). At this level, you do not get any Corsair support from the USS Shamrock.

Grant: You mentioned it, we would like to know how does Cooperative gameplay differ? How many players can this mode accept?

Mike: Multiplayer allows you to work with other players who are skippers of identical Sumner Class Destroyers as you play part of an Anti-Aircraft squadron of destroyers. Game play is simultaneous, except you’ll collaborate with each other, and can target aircraft on other players’ sheets with your 5 inch guns and support aircraft. Similar to most Roll & Write games, there is no limit to the number of players that play the cooperative game, but each player will need their own game to play to use their own Pads, dice, cubes and pencils. The Cooperative experience is really fun and a bit chaotic and gives a slightly unique experience.

Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design and how the playing experience has turned out?

Mike: I feel that the mixture of Roll & Write and wargames is novel and designers are just scratching the surface here. There are potentially lots of opportunities for these type of games to represent unique situations. I am happy with the balance of worker placement mechanics, resource management, and dice placement in this game. But most importantly, I’ve learned so much about the Laffey’s history through this process and I want other people to know this as well. 

By the way, a movie about the USS Laffey is currently in production by Icon Studios. I hope that people who play this game will go see that movie with the historical knowledge and appreciation of the events of 16 April 1945.

Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?

Mike: Playtesting for this game has been a volunteer endeavor. So the people who helped with the game wanted to be a part of this, wanted to make sure it was historically accurate, and wanted to make sure that mechanics worked and the game was engaging. They have been critical to the creation of this game and it likely wouldn’t be published without their efforts. Both positive and negative feedback was used to enhance what has been working and to also change or improve what wasn’t. I couldn’t have finalized the design without their tireless efforts and committment.

Grant: What other games are you currently working on?

Mike: As of a few weeks ago, the contest ended for the most recent game I was working on. PT Commander is a choose-your-own-adventure, coloring book, legacy style Roll & Write wargame. It got first place overall as well as various other awards and honors in the 7th Roll & Write Design Contest on BGG.

I also have two other games on the burner. One is King of Spades: The Hunt for Ali Hassad. It’s a solitaire card-driven resource management game that immerses the player into the role of a Coalition Operator and his team in search for Hassad during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. 

The other is Once Upon A September where I’m experimenting with the combination of COIN games and R&W. It’s a two-player global WWII game ala Axis & Allies or Blitzkrieg! Players will draft dice and place them in European Theatre, Pacific Theatre, and Research faction specific abilities. The players write their battle scores on the board and also will mark up the board with symbols used to harass the other player or bolster their own positions.

Mike I want to thank you for your time and effort in putting together this interview for us on this fascinating looking design. I really like wargames that take on new subjects and situations and also ones that push the envelope of wargame design and mechanics to create a new experience. This one looks to be really interesting and I cannot wait to give my prototype copy a play soon.

If you are interested in USS Laffey: The Ship That Would Not Die, you can order a copy of the Kickstarter page at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/367982678/uss-laffey-the-ship-that-would-not-die-game