Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a remarkable achievement in board game storytelling from designers Michael Fox and Rory O'Connor. A set of cards and plastic tokens come together to create a story that will stay with you long after the box has been put away.
Your primary objective is to uncover the memories of a man named Billy Kerr and, by playing through the game's 10 scenarios, you will piece together a richly detailed and lovingly rendered impression of a life. Unlike many 'narrative games' whose rules seem to only serve the delivery of story, this examination of memory and non-linear narrative is underpinned by a crisp and challenging co-operative game that is easy-to-learn and hard-to master.
It is easily the most emotionally heavy and somber theme for a game that I have ever played – Billy Kerr is terminally ill and you play the nurses who are looking after both his medical and emotional needs. As the title suggests, Billy Kerr has had a troubled life, filled with many regrets. It is made clear from the start that he wants to unburden himself – to tell his story – but he needs your team of nurses to help him find peace with the memories that haunt him.
Holding On treats its theme, mechanics and story with such thoughtfulness and care that one can have no fear of such a sombre topic being taken too lightly. My whole group had a powerful emotional response to the game by the end of our time with it. While the subject matter may not appeal to everyone, if a serious game with things to say about people and the world they live in piques your interest then I can highly recommend Holding On.
As fascinating as it is to explore Billy Kerr's memories and piece together a picture of a life, Holding on is not just the story of Billy, but also the story of the nurses who care for him in his final weeks. The players act as nurses staffing the three shifts each day – responding to Billy's condition by administering medical care or, where appropriate, providing palliative care. Medical care is all about keeping Billy stable and as healthy as possible, with Billy's health track acting as a sort of timer for each scenario. However, it is made clear in text and through the mechanics that there will be no curing Billy. This is why it may be best to provide palliative care, which will involve building Billy's trust and encouraging him to talk about his life. Players are not just balancing Billy's need for medical care against the stated objective of encouraging him to unburden himself emotionally, but they are also required to balance the stress levels of each nurse. It is very common for a nurse to need to cover multiple shifts per day and too much of this will lead your nurses to need to take the next day off work to recover.
All this adds up to a very tightly balanced and challenging system of resource management that would stand up on its own even if it were not attached to a fascinating and well-written system of memory exploration. Moment-to-moment, it plays like Pandemic, with difficult decisions and push-your-luck choices punctuated by periods of reflection on the story between rounds and scenarios. Our games did involve a fair amount of table discussion, as any good co-operative game should, but 'alpha player' behaviour is significantly mitigated through the daily allocation of a Shift Manager and shift-by-shift decisions being made by the lead nurse assigned to any shift. Discussion wasn't relegated to just what we should be doing but also about what we thought was going on with Billy and how those events connected to the history.
Holding On is not a game with reams and reams of text – a couple of cards' worth of prose for an intro and outro to each scenario – but it has to be emphasised how well written it is. Billy's dialogue is believable and period-accurate. The time we get to spend with this character is concise and emotionally resonant. The memory cards, too, are smartly written and designed – each partial memory has an associated quote on the back and, on the front, artist Bryn Jones' painterly rendering of the moment with only Billy himself in full focus, the background blurring into vague shapes. Only when a clear memory is uncovered does the scene become fully visible. This layered design isn't only a commentary on memory itself, but also serves a gameplay function as later scenarios recontextualise the memory decks to wring further narrative and mechanical variety from the same set of components.
I've tried to avoid spoilers as best I can in this review because the joy of discovery is a big draw to the game but it's far from the only appeal. Unlike many narrative-rich games, like TIME Stories or some Legacy titles, knowledge of the story isn't going to make Holding On unplayable or unstimulating. An inside-out knowledge of each memory card may give you a marginal edge but, on the whole, you'll still find it challenging if you play the game through for a second time.
If I had just one gripe, I would say that, overall, the difficulty is probably set a little high for many groups – you will likely have to replay some scenarios a few times, and often the difference between success and failure can come down to a single card draw. This is thrilling the first few times but, after playing the same scenario for a 3rd or 4th time, you may feel tempted to skip ahead; If only because you'll be keen to progress to learn more about Billy's life. I'd recommend taking a leaf out of most Legacy games and exploring a house rule to make the game a little easier after each scenario failure (for example, starting with more care tokens) just to reduce potential frustration.
Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a smart, tight design that weaves together rules, story and artwork into a unified whole that has weight, meaning and a powerful emotional impact that doesn't feel in the least bit exploitative. If you enjoy co-operative games and story games, and are on the look out for something thematically unique, then Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is definitely for you.
(Review by Edmund Ward)