by Bob Richardson
When I first learned about Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr, I immediately thought of To The Moon. Holding On is a cooperative, story-driven game in which players — the doctors — have to maintain Billy Kerr's vitals while learning about his past. You see, Billy recently had a heart attack on an international flight from Sydney to London and is in intensive care at your hospital. Unfortunately, little is known about Billy, and your team desperately wants to find a next-of-kin, lest he die alone.
Kinda sounds like To The Moon, right? Dying man, doctors, memories. Rory O'Connor, one of the two designers and the one primarily responsible for the writing, shared that he received so many inquiries about this that he played To The Moon and found little in common aside from the obvious. We were fortunate enough to take on the first scenario, and, quite honestly, I think there's more of a link than Rory's letting on, even if only incidental.
Holding On takes place over several scenarios as players unravel more and more of Billy's past and get to know what good and bad memories he's willing to share. He seems like a curmudgeonly sort that has little reason to share his personal life with physicians he's just met. In this way, one might immediately ask — so, is this a one-and-done game, similar to T.I.M.E Stories, a phenomenon in board game storytelling that's taken the industry by fire? While it can technically be played over and over, unlike Legacy games that encourage game component destruction, there appears to be little reason to revisit the experience once the story has unfolded. Some might wonder what the point is in buying a game that I can only play once, when so many board games can be enjoyed over and over again. Those who've played Gloomhaven or Pandemic Legacy will tell you that the joy of unfolding a story together with friends is oftentimes more memorable and enriching than playing your 50th game of Settlers of Catan. Based on my experience with Holding On, I anticipate a similar — or better — experience will follow.
Michael Fox is responsible for the bulk of the game design. In short, Holding On takes place over a series of rounds until players can either earn clarity about one memory in each of the five stages of Billy's life, or until his vitals reach zero. So, players are always trying to a) maintain or improve his vitals or b) uncover murky memories and eventually add clarity to those memories. Players accomplish these feats by earning and expending care tokens. Each round of play occurs over three work shifts. When a work shift occurs, players reveal a card with one or two choices. These choices typically involve the aforementioned opportunities. Sometimes Billy's having a really hard time and his vitals are plummeting, while other times he's stable and willing to talk about his memories.
Holding On offers constantly difficult decisions that genuinely made me concerned for Billy while also seeking to complete the objective, which in our scenario was to add clarity to the foggy memories he shares. As this is a cooperative experience, my fellow doctors and I deliberated frequently regarding whether or not we could afford to press our luck and take advantage of Billy's willingness to talk, or risk him dying alone. Since we just played the demo, I won't go into too much detail about the mechanics, but suffice it to say that Holding On is a tight, snappy experience that pressures players to make calculated risks. Mechanics are added with each new scenario, keeping the experience fresh and invigorating, though we didn't get any hands-on time with this aspect. Fox shared with us that the game is not designed to be easy. Billy is meant to die, and without Fox's guidance, Billy certainly would have died in our game.
With art design by Bryn Jones bringing Holding On to life, it's the complete package. Specifically, Bryn's artwork adds a mysterious quality to players' first introduction to Billy's memories. Like a blurry oil painting, my group and I tried to make out exactly what was going on in each silhouetted scene, and it wasn't until we earned a clear memory that we understood what Billy was talking about. I'm not entirely certain how Jones was able to make each image just satisfying enough initially to whet our interest while simultaneously inspiring our imagination. Winnie Shek offered art direction, and that contributed to the functional feel of Holding On, including its iconography.
I can't imagine Holding On being anything but a shining success upon its October release when it will be available in North America and Europe in retail stores. Being an RPG player at heart, I think Hub Games' work is an excellent bridge between video game and tabletop players. If you, my dear RPGFan reader, have been looking for a game to quench your story-driven thirst, but with friends and a tactile experience, look no further than Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr.