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HOLDING ON: THE TROUBLED LIFE OF BILLY KERR

Reviewed by Herb Levy

HOLDING ON: THE TROUBLED LIFE OF BILLY KERR (Hub Games/Asmodee, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 45-60 minutes; $39.99)

 

Just when you think you’ve seen every theme that could possibly serve as the basis for a game, along comes something that proves you wrong. So it is with this new offering, designed by Michael Fox and Rory O’Connor, which puts players into a hospital where a critically ill patient is dying. This patient can not be saved but players, as part of the nursing staff, cooperatively attempt to not only provide care for the body but also solace for the soul as you do what you can to uncover and discover the memories that plague that patient so he can die at peace. Such is the premise of Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr.  The life of Billy Kerr is played out over 10 scenarios through the use of Narrative cards. By the time you have finished all 10, you must discover Billy’s hidden memories to win. Should Billy die or be sent to another hospital before this happens, everyone loses! Partial Memory, Clear Memory and Patient cards are shuffled and the Memory cards placed in their respective decks off the board. The Patient deck is placed in their board position. 

A white pawn indicating Billy’s current health status is placed on the specified spot on his track. Players take a colored pawn which represents them as nurses along with a “care token” used to provide medical care. (More of these valuable care tokens can be earned as Billy gets treated and players make it through a full day of patient care.) There are also pawns that represent “assistant” nurses as well as nurses “on call”. The cards of the scenario in play containing an “introduction”, the set up and rules for this particular scenario and an objective to be met (in order to advance to the next scenario) are revealed.

Each round is a day of care consisting of three shifts, indicated by flipping over, one at a time, three Patient Cards. One player (the “Shift Manager”) will, in cooperation with the other players, assign nurses, assistants and, possibly, on call nurses to handle Billy and his condition. Patient cards are often divided into two parts to indicate whether Billy will be given Medical Care (Medical Care will help keep Billy stable and prevent his condition from worsening) or Palliative Care (to help him remember) during that shift. (Some Patient cards are “emergencies” and require lots of Medical care and no Palliative care which means spending a bunch of those care tokens to prevent Billy’s condition from deteriorating. “Untreated” emergency icons drop Billy down one space each on his track.)

 The Shift Manager must assign nurses and/or assistants and/or on call nurses to cover that shift. When the next card of the day is revealed, unused staff may be called upon but, if so desired or necessary, staff used in the previous shift may be used again – but at a cost. Such usage increases “stress” (shown by placing a “stress token” on the particular pawn being used) which results in the loss of a care token or a partial memory card (removed from the display) for the assistant and possibly, a clear memory from a nurse.  Suffer enough stress (3 tokens for a nurse, 2 for an assistant) and that pawn “goes on leave” and will be unavailable the following “day”.  On call nurses do not “stress” but they are removed from play when used. 

Palliative Care allows the players to draw Partial Memories (which, upon further questioning) may result in uncovering Clear Memories. As scenarios are successfully completed, more and more Clear Memories will be unearthed and you will be creating a tableau below the board as  memories are recovered. You win by unearthing five Clear Memories from the five periods of Billy’s life so it it tempting to concentrate on Palliative Care and forego giving Billy the medical treatment he requires. But each day, at least one of the shifts MUST provide Medical Care. Failure to do so results in a “Hospital Warning”. Get two of these and Billy is transferred to a better facility and all players lose!  As he slides downward, Billy is more vulnerable to the effects of events that may be revealed during the game. 

While on it face Holding On appears to be a straightforward medical game, there are really two different types of play circulating around the patient.  You have the challenge of managing your staff of nurses to maximize their productivity while keeping your patient alive. But you are also attempting to uncover and reveal hidden memories under a time constraint as the patient is slowly failing, offering a deduction and puzzle solving aspect. It’s an interesting mix for sure but is the game fun? Well, that is hard to say.

The theme of terminal illness – knowing that, no matter what you do, it is inevitable that the patient will die – can be a bit depressing. But juggling your staff to provide required care is, admittedly, interesting as is the unraveling of Billy’s secrets that keeps you involved and engaged as the scenarios play out. In fact, the game might have worked well or better as a mystery (hardboiled or otherwise) rather than a medical drama. Unlike “legacy” games, this game can be replayed with players attempting to keep the health of the patient from deteriorating as quickly as previous plays but once the secrets are revealed, some of the edge is lost. Still there are 10 scenarios so there is a lot of game here is validate the purchase. 

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a very different take on “resource management” and “mystery solving”. As such, it may not be to everyone’s taste. But gamers looking for something different? This may be the game you will want to grab hold of. – – – – Herb Levy


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