Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Friday, 19 October 2018

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr

Game: Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr

Publisher: Hub Games

Designer: Michael Fox & Rory O'Connor

Year: 2018

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr tells the story of Billy Kerr, who was taken ill on a flight from Sydney to London. He is now in hospital, appearing to be in his final few days and your role, as the nurses is to look after him with both medical care and palliative care. Through your time with Billy he will reveal memories about his past and you will try and piece together his history to find out who he is and how to contact his loved ones.Billy has led an interesting life, and throughout ten games, you will talk to Billy to reveal new aspects of his past, learning more about the key dramatic moments in his history.

Each game uses the same basic setup and the same set of memories, depicted through wonderful artwork, but each new game you'll have the opportunity to find out new pieces of the story and also explore new mechanisms and ways to complete varying end game objectives. We've played five out of the ten scenarios and our review will be free from spoilers about the story and different elements you unlock.


Gameplay

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a cooperative game for 1-4 players. It is also a campaign game where players will play through 10 sequential games, each time discovering a little more about Billy's life. Each game will have slightly different win conditions and it would be impossible to mention them without spoilers, but the basic mechanic revolves around giving Billy the right amount of medical, and emotional care.

The game takes place over multiple rounds and each round there will be a shift manager who is in charge of issuing shifts to the other players. You will draw 3 cards each round, one each for the morning, afternoon and night shifts. These cards tell you Billy's state, they vary from healthy and chatty to having a medical crisis. Most cards give you a choice between giving medical care, which either raises Billy's health or at least stops it from reducing, or giving emotional care, listening to his rambling stories and trying to decipher what happened to him in his life. When you give emotional care you draw cards from the partial memory deck, these can then be added to a shared tableau. The tableau is built of numbered timelines - ranging from early childhood through to adulthood and the partial memories fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to tell a story.


However the stories he tells you are unclear, so if you want to find out what actually happened you'll have to speak to him, during a shift where he is feeling up to it, about a specific timeline in his life. Each memory is part of a numbered timeline, so when you speak with Billy you choose a number and keep drawing cards until you find one of that number, or an event that stops you. If, at the end of the round, you don't have the memory that matches with the card you drew then you have to discard the card back into the deck.

The game ends in a win when you complete the objective of that game, allowing you to move onto the next scenario, gaining a bit more story and a new twist on the gameplay. However you lose if Billy's health reaches 0 (the grim reaper pays a visit), you fail to deliver medical care for an entire round twice (medical negligence looks bad on your CV) or you fail to complete the objective before you run out of cards in the draw deck.


Amy’s Final Thoughts

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a fascinating game! As you play you end up coming to know Billy, the struggles he went through and the very real frustrations he's causing you now. I don't think we got through one game without the phrase similar to "damn you Billy" being uttered. But that in itself is magical, you aren't mad at the game, you aren't mad at your luck for drawing a bad card, you are mad at Billy, the fictional character who is hindering you when you desperately are trying to help him.

Holding On is not the most challenging cooperative game around (side note we have played 5 out of 10 of the games, so games 6+ might be right doozies). It requires a fair amount of negligence to allow Billy to die in many of the games. Instead of being a constant threat, Billy's health is more there to check that you aren't being too greedy going for objectives, although when you draw one or more of the medical emergency cards that all changes!

The variety between missions is good, but not quite unique to every mission. This in itself isn't a bad thing, the variety how you play and win most other games is close to zero!

A few of the objectives require you to uncover specific clear memories that relate to certain aspects of his life, but along the way some new mechanics come into play that effect how Billy responds to things. It's hard to say more without spoilers, so suffice to say the variety is good, but could have been slightly better.

The depth of Holding On is certainly on the lighter end of the scale, though probably a bit heavy for non-gamers to pick up alone. Interest in the story is the drive that keeps you going and to this extent I don't think I would replay the game after completion, though I would like to see an expansion seeing you care for a new person with a different story to tell! Overall Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a unique game that's well worth the investment, it does a great job of grabbing you with the story to keep you coming back for more.

Fi’s Final Thoughts

Holding On is two things for me; it’s an interesting, puzzly cooperative game at the same time as being a thought-provoking story driven game. The first part is really appealing to me. The mechanism of the game are not very deep or complex, but they are extremely cooperative and use worker placement which isn’t often seen in co-op games. Players take turns being the shift manager, which means that there shouldn’t be any significant quarterbacking, although often there’s some table discussion about the best course of action. At different points in the game, different players get the chance to ‘be Billy’ – sharing memories and reading the story elements aloud, which creates a great shared experience around the table.

The story of the game was appealing to us, because it was unique (although there’s now a few games with a similar theme). We were interested to see how a board game handled this sensitive topic. Overall, I feel like the game didn’t really address the theme on a very deep level, but what it did do was truly evoke the idea of peeling back the layers of someone’s life. As you begin each scenario it really feels like you’re building trust with Billy and learning more. You grow to be quite involved with him as a character and it’s hard to go a whole game without cursing him for his rambling stories or inconveniently timed seizures!

Each game changed slightly an I enjoy how the objectives change, giving you a new area of focus in Billy’s life and some new puzzly elements to think about in terms of the best way to achieve the specific game objective without too much medical harm to Billy! Through our first five games, we’ve encountered four completely unique ways to approach the game and hopefully we’ll soon discover more.


The gameplay alone in Holding On, wouldn’t make it a must play game for us, but the way that the theme is integrated with the mechanisms and through the very clever artwork really elevates it to an addictive and intriguing campaign.


You Might Like...
  • Holding On is a cooperative game that promotes discussion, not just about the puzzly in-game mechanisms, but also the thought provoking story.
  • The game mechanisms do a fantastic job of immersing you in the situation, particularly capturing the frustration of talking to someone who keeps trying to change the subject!
  • The artwork is really evocative and intertwined as part of the game mechanisms.

You Might Not Like...
  • The gamification of this sensitive theme, may not be to the taste of some people, especially those who have been through similar situations.
  • The mechanisms of the game are quite light, meaning that your interest in the slowly evolving story needs to maintain your interest in the game.

The Verdict
8/10 Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr takes a challenging and unusual theme and uses the gameplay to tell an intriguing and moving story. The game is slow paced and the story slowly unfolds, but the changing puzzly aspects of the game, along with the eagerness to know more will make this 10-game campaign fly by!


Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr was a review copy, kindly provided to us by Hub Games. You can pre-order your copy of Holding On directly for Essen Spiel or BGG Con pick-up, directly from Hub Games.

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