Before we begin: We were asked by Hub Games not to show off very much of the narrative parts of the game so there are fewer photos in this article than I would normally have. I would try and spoil yourself as little as possible if you want to pick up this game.
I didn’t make many appointments at this year’s Games Expo as I wanted to leave myself the opportunity for discovery as much as possible. However I was determined to get to everyone on my list this year and so I booked myself in to one of the limited slots for the new title from Hub Games: Holding On, The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr. This is a game about helping retrieve the memories of man who has recently recovered from a massive heart attack and is currently in your care. Working as the nursing team, you are trying to find out more about Billy, to help come to terms with his past as he runs out of time: a fascinating and difficult subject matter.
Putting on the Scrubs
I was lucky enough to play with some lovely people: Clarissa (didn’t catch the surname, sorry) and Andrea and Owen Duffy. I am a huge fan of Owen’s work and we had tried to meet up the night before but it fell through so it was a lovely coincidence to meet him over such an interesting game.
Being a bit hesitant to play worker placement games, I found the core mechanics had enough bite to hold my attention without being overly worker placementy (yes it’s a thing, shutup). The full game consists of 10 scenarios and we played through the first one were we had to help Billy retrieve a particular number of his memories from different eras of his life. Working as the nursing team each round one person took on the role of the shift manager, removing their meeple from the ones we could place but becoming the person who made the big decisions.
Over the course of a round you have to provide care, the primary player resource of the game, for Billy to keep him alive. You main objective though it to help him talk about his past giving you some rough idea of what his story might be about in the form of hazy memory cards that are beautifully illustrated. You can then retrieve the clear memories that were the focus of our particular objective.
Each round you get 3 cards dealt out which are where you place your nurses and there are very often a lot of difficult choices presented: do we let Billy slip towards his end, but help him retrieve his memories, do we stress out a temp worker or a player knowing they will be unavailable for the next round if we push them too far etc. Every choice is important as you have such a small pool of resources, and every time we let Billy slip away felt significant without shoving your face in it.
On the back of each hazy memory was a short snippet of what Billy has said, giving you an idea of what the picture on the back might be referring to. This was a beautiful piece of narrative design giving you enough to go on to draw a conclusion, but leaving it vague enough to fill the space around the idea with your own imagination. I’ve heard this referred to as ‘The fruitful void’ in RPGs and I am a big fan of games that allow your imagination to flow in this fashion: encouraging the players to come to their own conclusions about the nature of what is going on.
We managed to successfully complete the first scenario with a few minutes to spare on our allotted demo time. I really enjoyed the game and everyone I played with agreed that the theme came through well. It turned out Clarissa worked in healthcare and she thought it was an excellent abstraction of such a difficult situation and that the graphic design really made it feel like you are working in a hospital as part of a team.
We ended our session with the knowledge that Billy wanted to talk to us more, in Scenario 2, but also a rough idea of what his life may have been like, the memories being snapshots into the past of a complicated individual. I will say no more but Michael did hint that over the course of the game you would find out that not everything was as it seemed.
I enjoyed my time with the game and I definitely want to play it more but I have no idea if it will eventually succeed in telling a compelling story. However it gives me great hope for the hobby to see companies tackling themes that speak to us on such a fundamental emotional level and trying to tell more human stories.
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